Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Crest Cafe

Sunday morning, I met up with K. and M. for breakfast at Crest Cafe in Hillcrest. Good food, but the service was pretty mediocre. Our server was pretty nice, but somewhat inattentive and, with the busy morning they were having, a little overwhelmed.

I ordered a pot of Ceylon tea. Along with that, I had the creme brulee French toast. Yum. The french toast was pretty good, with melted sugar dribbled over the whipped cream. However, I think mine was a little over-buttered, which made it a tad greasy. Regardless, it was excellent.

Girls' Night

Our Southern-themed dinner! I was really excited to see everyone last Sunday night for dinner and gab. Let's start with K.'s part of the meal. Her sweet potato casserole was awesome. I must have the recipe so I can sit on the couch and eat the entire dish alone. The casserole had sweet potatoes, evaporated milk, sugar, egg, and marshmallows (K.? Am I missing anything?). I'd have to say that it's the most fabulous combination ever.

Here's her yummy cornbread. I liked how it was more moist than the typical crumbly cornbread.

D.M. took charge of the frying. He wanted to stay for Girls' Night, so he did the fried stuff. The chicken was a repeat of Ina Garten's recipe, only we did buttermilk overnight instead of a brined buttermilk for a few hours.

D.H. brought frozen okra, so K. sliced it and D.M. fried it up. Quite yummy. I've never had okra before. It's dredged in cornmeal, salt, and pepper. The okra itself is pretty sticky, so no extra wet ingredients are needed to make the dredging stick.

J. brought corn, which was winding down a fabulous summer. She said the farmer's market didn't have much this past weekend and it looks like they're transitioning between the summer produce and fall stuff.

As for me, I had an off day. Nothing turned out quite right. I tried that honey wheat bread that was an Outback copycat. I don't have a bread machine, but that was the only difference I did from the recipe. The bread turned out fine, texture-wise, but it tasted like burnt coffee. Yuck. I was not a fan. I found another recipe with the same ingredients, but different proportions... guess what? Less coffee. Bah.

Collard greens were from Paula Deen. I used my crockpot instead of boiling them in a pot. They were fine, but a tad bland.

I seriously could kick myself for this peach crisp. It's Ina's recipe and the only alteration I made was pretty "fatal". I used canned peaches instead of fresh ones. Canned peaches are already soaked in their own syrup, but I went ahead and macerated them with the sugar. What resulted was a soupy, buttery mess. I also don't think the topping should be made in the mixer. I should have used the food processor instead. The mixer didn't break down the butter enough, so there were big chunks.

I also tried to make lemon martinis, only to create a mixture that should probably be used to clean deep-tissue wounds. Sigh. I really should leave that to G.

Anyway, it was great to see everyone. I hope we can do this again soon. Maybe we should make it a sweet potato casserole party? YUM. Casserole and a handful of forks. Maybe a chocolatey dessert? Kick D.M. out of the house and make it an indulgent girls' night in. Ooooh... perhaps make the next evening marshmallow-themed. S'mores, anyone?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

When it comes to gardening, I'm not my mother's daughter. My thumb's been a little greener lately, but I still have a lot to learn. For instance, my mint's a mess because I haven't pruned it, so it's dried out and the leaves are falling off. I need to cut everything off and let it grow out again.

My mother, on the other hand, has literally brought plants back from the dead. If there's one iota of hope that the plant will live, she'll make it live. She has a fruit-bearing succulent in her backyard. I've killed succulents before (how the hell do you kill a plant that doesn't require constant watering?), but she brought this out of hers:

Awesome, huh? I'll upload some pictures of the herbs later. The basil's doing excellently and I'm going to finally plant that lettuce and arugula.

888 Seafood Restaurant

It's not a visit to LA without dim sum, so here's another entry about it. The dim sum's pretty good here, but the best part about it is that my mother has connections, so we rarely have to wait for a table. We've waded through a 2-hour-wait crowd to a table, so it's pretty cool. Anyhoo, some dishes (see previous entries for Wikipedia links to more information):

Shiu mai and har gow. Shiu mai is a pork/shrimp dumpling and har gow is shrimp only. The wrappers are different with the yellow wrapper being wheat based and the translucent wrapper being rice based.

Cherng fun, which are rice noodle rolls. These are filled with shrimp.

Chinese style meatballs. Tenderized ground beef rolled with onions and spinach. Served with Worcestershire sauce.

Ah, the buns. Custard on the left, BBQ pork on the right. My father also likes the chicken ones.

Picture of a cart. It's a pretty cart, so I included the picture. We didn't order any of these dishes, but some of them are quite good. The buns are BBQ pork (baked, not steamed like the ones above) and pineapple. Not in the same bun. The fried dumplings (top, second plate from left) are good. The dough is rice based and quite sticky. So it's crisp on the outside, but chewy/sticky on the inside and filled with meat.

The stainless-steel carts, which are less pretty and more typical:

Good dim sum and we'll always come back.

Green Field Churrascaria

Great company, as I went with K. and T. and we closed the place down. However, the restaurant itself left a bad taste in my mouth. I mean that almost literally. It's located on Azusa Ave. in West Covina and three years ago, it was quite good. Brazilian barbeque The meat selection was big, the roasting done well, and the side dishes quite tasty. Unfortunately, they must have new management, because the meats were either incredibly overcooked (dry, chalky) or so undercooked that the meat was raw, not rare. Sirloins were extremely raw whereas lamb was cooked to hell. It wasn't pleasant. The choices were basic beef cuts, chicken, sausage, lamb, duck, pork ribs, and bacon.

The buffet was weird. It was mostly salad and horrific attempts at Italian food. They called basmati rice, "risotto". There were no sauce names, so there were dishes like "Salmon in pink sauce" and "spaghetti in red sauce". Wha...?! This was my plate from the buffet with some meat added to it:

The cheese rolls (top left) were really good. We'll work clockwise... the chicken is next to it, which was fine. Next to that was tabbouleh. It was ok... tabbouleh's major ingredient is parsley, so the taste is pungent and distinctive. It's also Middle Eastern and the last time I checked, Brazil wasn't in the Middle East. Nor is it anywhere near Italy, although I can understand the Italian influence more. I believe Brazil has a large Italian immigrant population.

Next up was the rice, which they called "risotto". It was basmati and quite flavorless basmati, at that. After that was collard greens and according to Wikipedia, they're typically present at churrascarias. However, collard greens should never be served lightly cooked. It's a vegetable that needs to be cooked down to wilting. Otherwise, the taste is incredibly bitter and reminiscent of dirt. The salmon tasted fine, but was on the dry side. The tri-tip, on the first pass, was cooked past well-done. Ew.

The most puzzling thing was the fried banana. It's above the tri-tip in the photo. Now, my experience with "fried banana" in Latin America involved plantain slices that have been caramelized on a hot pan. These fried bananas were literally battered bananas that were fried. I felt like I was at the frickin' county fair.

It was a mediocre, but edible, meal. Expensive and certainly not worth the money. However, I was ok with all of it until I received the check. The service was adaquate, but not outrageously fantastic or anything. Keep in mind that this is a buffet, so there isn't a ton of table service. There are the guys who bring the meat around, but they're quick and brusque. They also don't take orders or requests, so it's not like they have to deal with annoying customers. Still, with the amount of servers involved, I figured 15% tip was called for.

Then the bill arrived...

It was a typical bill, but at the bottom was:


Suggested tip (15%): $13.00 (highlighted by hand)

Thank you very much! (highlighted by hand)

I was appalled. Regardless of all views on tipping, it should never, ever be requested, suggested, demanded, whatever. That's as tacky as tipping poorly for good service. Considering the whole experience was horrifically mediocre, including the service, it was insulting to have it pointed out to me that I should tip them 15%. I was going to, anyway, but this really made me want to stiff them. However, since tips are probably pooled and one person decided to be a tacky fool, I wasn't going to be an ass to the rest of the staff. So yeah, I tipped them 15%.

Needless to say, there will be no future trips to this place.

Tasty Garden

This is my latest favorite LA restaurant. It's only a couple of blocks from home, so that makes even more fabulous. Tasty Garden is located at 1212 Baldwin Ave. in Arcadia. Arcadia's Asian population has exploded in the last decade or so, resulting in excellent Asian eateries. There wouldn't be a community here if the food was crap. It's a Hong Kong-style cafe, serving up Cantonese entrees and Western-influenced dishes (one good example is baked pasta, which is omnipresent in this type of cafe).

One of the things they're known for here are rice cooked in clay pots. It's rice, a clay pot, and a bunch of types of meat and/or veggies, then cooked in the pot. The rice crusts along the pot, forming a crunchy layer, and the additions flavor the rice. It's quite excellent, but we didn't order it this time. It's a bit much for lunch. We did order the shredded brined chicken. Cooked dark meat is shredded and marinaded in oil, white pepper, and salt. It's served cold and it's fantastic. Lots of flavor. White pepper is much more subtle and has none of the spicy bite of regular pepper.

Another specialty is the wonton noodle soup, which I wanted to try this time around. Holy cow, it was fantastic. The noodles were a little overdone, but the wontons... wow. They were huge, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Filled with shrimp, pork, and spices, it was a little bite of happy. The flavors melded together perfectly and pretty much "popped" as you bit into it. The soup was fantastic and there was crunchy bok choy with it.

We had to order my favorite Peking-style pork spareribs. I've been having them really frequently lately, but it was a multi-year drought before that. Thank goodness China Max does them well or else I'd never eat anything else in LA.

Mom and Dad seem to know every restaurateur in the area. Dad, having been in the industry for decades, likes to chat with the owners and see what they're doing with their restaurants. They've known the owner of Tasty Garden since he was a partner in another Hong Kong-style cafe in the Monterey Park area. So, he comped us a Hong Kong-style "waffle".

It's made the exact same way as a waffle, with the batter being poured between two hot iron plates. However, that's where the similarities end. The plates on this waffle maker have big bubbles in them, which results in the bubbles being cakey and the pastry in-between being crunchy. The batter is much sweeter and cake-esque than a waffle. An American (or Belgian) waffle is pretty bland and the toppings make the dish. This waffle, however, is eaten alone. It's quite good, although Mom and Dad said there's a place in Monterey Park that does it better. If that's so, then I definitely have to meander out there to try it out.

Tasty Garden is absolutely fabulous and there will be plenty of visits in the future.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Cheesecake Factory

This place kind of speaks for itself. It's a somewhat-upscale chain that does defy the tendency of chains to veer towards mass-produced and mediocre food. The food is still mass-produced and not especially noteworthy in terms of ingenuity, but the quality and quantity are above-average.

I tend to be a one-note customer and always order the same thing here. The menu is actually full of dishes worth trying, but I stick to my Thai chicken pasta. Sub the linguine with angel hair (capellini). The only issue I have with this dish is the chicken itself, which is chunks breast meat and tends to be overly dry. Depending on the line cook who makes it, it can be fairly moist and tasty or chalky and dry. The sauce, which has a peanut/soy sauce base, is awesome. It's paired with julienned carrots and fresh bean sprouts, which compliment it well.

However, I'd say that the best thing Cheesecake Factory has to offer is its house bread. Fresh sourdough and an amazing honey wheat bread that I'm still trying to figure out how to make. I found a recipe for Outback's honey wheat bread (which is very, very similar) that I'm definitely trying next weekend.

The second best would be the desserts. Their cheesecakes are drier, but I don't mind it at all. It's not terribly dry, just not incredibly creamy, which isn't something that everyone likes anyway. They have a new cake called the Lemoncello Cream Torte.

First... it's LImoncello. Oy vay. The cake is:

Layers of Vanilla Cake and Lemon Mascarpone Cream Topped with Streusel and Served with Strawberries and Whipped Cream

(Picture and description from the Cheesecake Factory website)

It equals YUM. The cake is very light, almost like an angel food cake. The cream isn't too heavy and it's both sweet and tart. The streusel is dry and crumbly and contrasts beautifully with the fluffy cake and filling. I can't express enough my love for it.

My favorite cheesecake is Adam's Peanut Butter Fudge Ripple. The description: Creamy Cheesecake Swirled with Caramel, Peanut Butter, Butterfingers® and Reeses Peanut Butter Cups®. I have no words. Crunchy butterscotch mixed with peanut butter. I couldn't love it more.

Here's the menu. Other cheesecakes I enjoy are the original with strawberries, dulce de leche, and Godiva chocolate (it's insane... the ultimate chocolate fix).

Chain, yes, but this place is leaps and bounds over crap like Applebee's.

Red Robin

It's a little hard to review chains, but I do have a few things to say about both Red Robin and Cheesecake Factory, so here goes another two entries.

I have a bizarre quirk about food... I tend to avoid messy food. I actually love the way all of these foods taste. However, I don't particularly like eating them often because it involves some amount of messiness. Things on the list include burritos, ribs, and chicken wings. Note that these foods are to be eaten with the hands and involve sauce and/or things falling out of a wrapper.

I committed a rather egregious error of being the closed-minded newbie when I asked for a fork at an Ethiopian restaurant. The server gave me a look that can only be described as an amused glare. I love Ethiopian food, but it involves unleavened flatbread (
injera) used to scoop up stewed entrees. While I definitely try to subscribe to the "when in Rome" attitude, I didn't like eating with my hands when it involved "soupy" food.

Neurotic? Yes. I'd have to say this is probably the only major food hangup I have. When I do eat them, I wipe my hands often. Yes, I know it's weird. Very Monk-esque OCD, no?

Thus, gourmet burgers fall on that list. Red Robin, which specializes in burgers, isn't exactly a place I prefer to visit often. Don't get me wrong, I like their burgers. The fish burger and the 'Shroom burger are especially good.

We do go because it's one of D.'s favorite restaurants. I love their milkshakes, so I brave the lactose intolerance and the gads of calories and order a strawberry shake. I usually follow that with something light, like a bowl of soup or a salad. Hey, that's a 1000 calorie shake, easy, so I go the "girly" route and eat light. I usually don't do a burger unless I'm really in the mood.

This past Saturday, I had the chicken tortilla soup, which was pretty good. It's a little expensive ($4.99) for a rather small bowl. Other dishes I like are the BLTA croissant sandwich (not as messy as a burger... hehe), the soup/salad combo (French onion soup is good there), or the soup/sandwich combo. Their fish tacos are decent, but expensive.

Overall, a good chain, but a tad overpriced for the quality of food served.

Monday, September 10, 2007

China Max

Ah, my Cantonese food haven in San Diego. I have to say that of all the types of Chinese food out there, this stuff reminds me of home. Cantonese food tends to be comforting to me, rather than being comfort food in general.

I had a major craving for Peking-style pork spareribs. Naturally, since I preferred them made in the Hong Kong style with the thick sauce, we headed to China Max, purveyor of good dim sum and Cantonese fare. I left the camera at home, so there are no pictures from this trip. Too bad, as their dim sum is as easy on the eyes as it is on the belly.

We ordered the spareribs with the following dim sum dishes:

  • BBQ pork buns
  • BBQ pork rice noodle rolls
  • Egg tarts
  • Custard buns (same as BBQ pork, but filled with an eggy custard)
  • Potstickers (it's clear at this point that D. was in charge of the ordering... scroll down on the Wikipedia article to see the comment on potstickers)
  • Har gao (shrimp dumplings... my choosing, of course)
The food was amazing. The dim sum dishes are a lot like tapas and can be a little pricey (rice noodles rolls and har gao were $4 each), but China Max does an excellent job. The Peking-style pork spareribs really hit the spot. I liked doing this mix of entree and dim sum, so we'll have to do it again.

Friday, September 7, 2007

It's a travesty that I didn't take any pictures of this, but hopefully D. will make it again soon. Wednesday night, he surprised me with a gorgeous dinner of:

  • filet mignon with red wine caramelized onions
  • grilled corn on the cob
  • grilled potato (like a baked potato, but cooked on the grill)
  • sugar snap peas
The filet mignon with onions was genius. The beef was really moist and tender and D. grilled it to medium rare, which is midway between our preferences. The red wine gave the onions a tangy sweetness that made me think, "This is different, but how?" The corn on the cob, wrapped in foil, was crunchy and sweet. Since the foil kept the moisture in the kernels, each bite had a little burst of sweet liquid.

I ate my potato plain and grilling it made it firm and crumbly. It also brought out a slightly smoky flavor that's probably attributed to the skin being grilled and caramelizing. D. put the snow peas in a foil packet, seasoned with salt and pepper, and put it on the grill. They were steamed until soft, although I do like a little more a bite to my snap peas. Still fabulous, though.

Yup, he'll definitely have to do it again.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

2223 and Patxi's (Sunday)

You know a place is trendy when it doesn't have a name and decides to go by its address. That's what 2223 is. I do love the decor of this place, which is done in dark woods and has a rustic, but classy, look. The dark, warm tones of the overall decor make the restaurant seem very cozy. I made a reservation, but when we showed up, the guy had a hard time finding my name. I don't know if he actually found it or huffily gave up (he seemed a little huffy for some reason), but he did offer us a window table, which was perfect.

I was stuck between a cinnamon bun with a biscuit/gravy on the side and the lemon buttermilk pancakes with organic seasonal fruit, fruit syrup (raspberry, I think), and chantilly cream. The website's menu has it slightly differently. It was certainly a work of art, but I can't say I was overwhelmed by it. Not necessarily underwhelmed, either... just whelmed. The pancakes were really dense and, quite literally, cakey. G. likes her pancakes that way, but I prefer mine fluffier. I can become easily bogged down by the richness of too many pancakes, so the lighter, the better. I also didn't taste too much lemon... they were just buttermilk pancakes. The fruit was beautiful and went with the chantilly cream well.

It's a shame I didn't get a picture of the cinnamon bun, which K. ordered, because it was arguably the best cinnamon bun I have ever had. The outside was crusty, but it was super-soft and fluffy on the inside. The filling was incredible and it was topped with gooey pecans. It was gigantic (about 8 inches across) and couldn't be finished by one person. My mocha was fine, but the milk was steamed so hot that I had to let it cool for a long time before drinking it. Here's K.'s South Beach Eggs Benedict. It's poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, and seasonal veggies. K. wanted bacon on top. The veggies were incredible. I stole a few spoonfuls of corn and the kernels were fresh and sweet.

Service was fine at 2223. I thought our waiter was Home was a lot more fun. For some reason, they couldn't dice up bacon to put into G.'s omelette. Our waiter insisted that they had to serve the bacon in strips on top. Weird.

For dinner, we walked from G.'s apartment to Hayes Valley for Patxi's Chicago Pizza.

K. ordered the Californian, which was brilliant. It's a whole wheat crust, low-fat mozzarella, spinach, red onions, and fresh marinara pooled over the top. The crust held up beautifully under all of the moist and heavy ingredients. I was expecting it to be soggy, but even the bottom crunched when you bit into it. Very nice. I didn't get a picture until I'd taken a couple of bites, so here it is:

It's filling, so 4 of us split a 14-inch pizza (which is 8 slices). Two slices was very filling, so it was more than enough for me.

Unfortunately, the management has a few things to work out. The first is the surly guy who we were forced to deal with most of the time. The entire staff was generally friendly and helpful except for this guy. He was one of those people who acted like you were bothering him every time you spoke to him. Hey, that's fine, but why work in food service? The second is their turnaround time. They do warn you that 30-40 minutes is needed for deep-dish pizzas, but geez, it took the full 40 minutes and they waited to serve everything at once, so the smaller pizza G. ordered came out after 40 minutes as well. I understand that quality suffers if you pre-make stuff, but they do need to mitigate the wait time. One way is to keep the drinks flowing and serve something like bread. For that to work, a friendly and helpful staff is needed. Yeah...

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Cafe du Soleil and Home (Saturday)

Started Saturday morning with a sunny Muni ride out to Lower Haight. Went to one of G. and K.'s favorite cafes, Cafe du Soleil, for coffee and people-watching. I absolutely love this place. It's a little slice of Paris in the middle of San Francisco. I started with a mocha (which comes in a bowl) and an open-faced sandwich. I think these are tartines. I ordered the smoked salmon one, which was served with creme fraiche. I think of creme fraiche as a civilized man's sour cream. Here it is with my mocha in a bowl:

Even though it was breakfast, I had to have a slice of lemon tart. They use the fabulous rectangular tart pans (I must get one!) and serve it in slices. This tart is perfect. The filling was tart and sweet without being too much of either, there was a good lemon glaze on top, and the crust was light, crunchy, and buttery.

The tartine was a bit pricey ($10), but I thought the splurge was worth it.

We didn't really eat for the rest of the day, so we had an early dinner at Home in the Castro. I linked to name to and I'm a little shocked at some of the less-flattering reviews. I'll have to keep them in mind and not go back when it's super-crowded.

We arrived at 6pm and it wasn't crowded at all. In fact, they had a happy hour going, so we had $3 drinks. I had an appletini, which was ok, and decided on tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich and mac 'n' cheese. Those dishes are classics, but I'd have to say that Home's made the best versions of them I've ever had. The soup was a fresh tomato puree that somehow didn't manage to seem or taste like tomato sauce. It tasted creamy and sweet, although there wasn't any cream in it. There might have been a small amount, but unlike typical tomato soup, cream is not a significant player.

The grilled cheese was amazing. The bread was thick and moist and while there was a crust on it, it wasn't grilled to the point where the bread was hard. It was a fresh sourdough and filled with a good quality cheddar, so it was cheesy, not greasy. In fact, the absence of greasiness was what put this grilled cheese above the rest. It was, however, a tad too small.

I can write sonnets about the mac 'n' cheese. The chef must totally understand that rich is good, greasy is not. The dish manages to balance the rich creaminess of mac 'n' cheese without the overwhelming heaviness that comes with certain versions of it. It also uses white cheddar, which I like better than regular cheddar. It's also nice and sharp, so the flavors were great. The macaroni was not baked to mush, but probably cooked to pre-al dente and baked so the pasta held its shape and texture.

After dinner, we went to G. and K.'s favorite bar, Mr. Smith's, for fabulous martinis and a ridiculously hot bartender. Sorry, D., I had to say it. We followed that up with a visit to Etiquette, which was pretentious and vaguely ridiculous, although the bartender was a very nice guy. We sat in one of the corner booths that was covered in vinyl. Yes, vinyl. I'm obviously not trendy or bougie enough for this place. The Jessica Rabbit martini is totally fabulous... I don't remember what was in it, except it was a good strawberry martini and it had blue Pop Rocks in it. Hey, when it's your fourth drink of the night, the details get a little foggy.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

San Francisco: San Tung (Friday night)

Well, it was a fabulous weekend! A ton of thanks go to G. and K. for taking the entire weekend to take me around San Francisco. I arrived Friday night and we kicked things off with a great meal at San Tung Chinese Restaurant. The place is packed, but with a reservation and G.'s arsenal of imposing glares, we were seated quickly. San Tung is in the Sunset District, near the intersection of 11th and Irving.

The potstickers were ok. They were lightly fried all over (instead of darkly browned on the bottom) and they were a little loosely wrapped, but the filling was fresh. The filling was pork and, I think, leek. I'd say the ones from Dumpling Inn or Luscious Dumpling in L.A. totally stomp over these ones.

K. ordered the spinach and bean curd soup, which looked really good. Simple and delicious.

We also ordered the noodles in black bean sauce, which was my favorite dish. Homemade noodles drenched in a thick sauce. The sauce is pretty pungent and it's nicely contrasted by fresh cucumber strips. It also contained shrimp, squid, and chunks of cooked daikon. The daikon was cooked until mushy, so it had the consistency of cooked carrots and the taste of potato. The noodles were a little overcooked, but I liked that they were homemade and they went well with the overall consistency of the dish.

San Tung's signature dish is the dry-fried chicken. I'd have to agree with some of the critics on Yelp and say that it's a tad overrated. Mind you, it was good, especially with rice, but it was not to-die-for. It's diced chicken fried crisply (likely dredged in flour beforehand) and tossed in a sticky sauce comprised of white pepper and honey. There was no excess sauce. Hence, "dry"-fried. The flavors meld clumsily, as if the cook didn't take care to mix the sauce thoroughly. One moment you're hit with the mild peppery bite of white pepper and the next is a sweet shot from the honey.

All in all a good meal. I would definitely go back and try some of their other dishes, but would I wait 1+ hours? No.