Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas with Barbie

Our gifts were never wrapped. We’d run out in flannel pajamas to an always somewhat tilted Christmas tree – gifts on the left were mine, the right my sister’s. A lineup of Barbies always headed the front row with uniform boxes of flaxen blonds and brunettes, their plastic frames our crack addiction at the time. We needed them all -Day to Night Barbie, the Rockers (Barbie’s band mates) and the coveted international Barbies (looking back, Oriental Barbie probably wasn’t Matel’s most politically correct model.) We were like kids in a toy store (who needs candy stores!) and it never crossed my mind that “Santa” didn’t have money for wrapping paper.

It’s funny the perceptions you have as a kid. For some reason I thought we had a real tree, even though I saw it put down in the basement every year and it had a thick, green, metallic pole running through the center. I guess I was a little dense, but there was magic at Christmas. Who was I to judge if this tree could live in pieces, in a box, in the basement?…alright, I was dense.

But it was one of my favorite times of year. I thrived on the fact that my family was different. We didn’t have turkey like everyone else. We made homemade raviolis through a family assembly line in my grandparents’ basement, where even I was given simple jobs like forking the corners shut or scooping filling, but it made me feel important.

My grandfather, Pop, was from the same school of thinking as “The Little Red Hen.” If you wanted to enjoy the spoils, you better join in on the work. The first time my aunt went to my grandparents' house when she was dating my uncle, they finished dinner and Pop asked, “Did you eat here?” She nodded. “Then you can help clean up.” It sounds gruff, but in actuality it was an invitation to be part of the group. And for some reason, it was always fun washing the dishes and making raviolis, but mostly because we were all doing it together.

This year I’d be trying out my family’s pasta recipe for the first time, since my husband and I were celebrating Christmas at our home in San Diego instead of heading back east. The plan was to make manicotti (like an Italian burrito stuffed with ricotta), along with meatballs, sausage and garlic bread. I wasn’t sure if I was up to making the braciole (pounded flank steak, rolled up with garlic, parsley and parmesan) and was definitely going to save the cannolis for next year (without a Fry Daddy, making the shells is a torturous process.) One recipe at a time I guess, and this year pasta and sauce would be the focus. But even as I tried to master these lessons, I was already missing the teachers who taught me their tricks.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Boston (bactracking) - La Morra

La Morra memories
My first visit to Boston had us celebrating Christmas Eve at La Morra over five courses, family style in preparation, with the air of an Italian matriarch insisting, “MANGE, MANGE!” Exposed brick glowed with mortared teeth above our table, upstairs in a dining room that had the discreet elegance of a fine garment- never ostentatious, but with subtle detailing that silently spoke volumes of its quality.

We selected from the bounty that was to be our feast. Our indecisive clamoring was silenced by the arrival of delicate greens in citrus vinaigrette that immediately lulled us into appreciation of what was about to ensue, decisions became easy and everything faded to black (truffles.)

Appetizer Course: Truffle oil glossed my lips and I felt the sun on my tongue. Mushroom bruschetta gave the billowy fluff of bread while retaining its crunch under a layer of sautéed mushrooms so rich, they made my eyes heavy. Fresh mussels popped with tender bursts of flesh and sea, but floated in a bland, white wine broth that suffered from an acute case of seasoning sickness.

Pasta course: The pasta course lived out the lesson of a favorite fairytale. The artichoke risotto with shrimp was too hard. The gnocchi with bolognese was too soft. But, the squash ravioli finished with cream, sage and pine nuts, was just right (more than just right- perfect). This “goldy” was a lock and a tale that would need no exaggeration in future folklore.

Third Course: A crunchy saltlick of skin surrounded the roast duck and tender apples added to its holiday decadence. Not to be shown up by another fowl, Tom Turkey made his entrance, but without much impact. Sliced turkey with sausage stuffing was moist, but lost among its flashier co-stars, namely the sliced sirloin with gorgonzola butter, cooked perfectly pink and heightened by its pungent lacquer.

Side dishes: The sautéed spinach and sage roasted potatoes were satisfactory, but ho-hum. Brussels sprouts were tender, but all of the alcohol hadn’t been cooked out, while the yams won by simply working well with other autumnal offerings (duck and turkey).

I felt like a Roman as I clenched a duck thigh one hand and stabbed a slice of steak with the other. The extravagance was a bit overwhelming and I could have been happy with just a fraction of the items (bruschetta, ravioli, steak.) But, then again, odds pay off. We had gotten a taste of everything and my belly felt as round as Santa’s.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Castaway- Maui, Kaanapali

Here on Gilligan’s Isle
The Castaway was only a short walk from our beach cabana. Sun-soaked and still a little damp from the salty waves, we seated ourselves outside for a few Kona Ales and a fresh fish sandwich. Today it was mahi - straight out of the ocean and onto your plate. The filet was thin, but its tenderness made up for its lack of physical presence.

Though it came with onion, tomato and lettuce, none were necessary and I even thought about getting rid of the bun - this fish could stand on its own. And who doesn’t love a good french fry to round out the meal? Ahhh, it was pure contentment just to sit here and gaze out at the water before we took our next swim.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

El Dorado condo - Maui, Kaanapali

We got Maui'd
If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Maui is the Disneyland that never closes. Tourists are woven into every inch of the island’s fiber, visible as a loud Hawaiian shirt in this seemingly foreign land, where native languages still write the road signs and shake each town’s hand. Waves of island music blur the lines of reggae while reciting a rendition of “Islands in the stream” by Dolly and Kenny, followed by a new hit song from the #1 singing sensation that’s never been heard of on the mainland. This is where wide-eyed youth gamble their faith on tropical paradise, but rarely win, and where honeymooners come to celebrate. After nine years, Bubba and I had bitten the bullet and gotten married...we were here to honeymoon.

El Dorado
We decided to rent a condo in Kaanapali since we were going to be there for a full week and couldn’t afford that many meals out. Who wants to pay $50 for bacon and eggs every morning? Plus, the luxury of waking up and having breakfast in your pajamas or happy hour on the lanai was enough to make the decision for us.

We were upgraded to a suite- sweet! It was really just their one bedroom instead of a studio, but the granite countertops, plasma TVs and Ipod hookup (yes, Bubba was forced into “Dance Party USA”) made us pleased as (Hawaiian) punch. And for nights when we spilled some “punch”, we had a washer and dryer, while our bathing suits could air dry on our lanai equipped with a dining table, two lounge chairs and drop shades for privacy.

Grocery shopping was done at Safeway in Lahaina (10 minutes away) and the Star Market was right around the corner (a little pricier), making the $200 we dropped for a week’s supply of food well worth it.

El Dorado’s beach cabana quickly became our “Copa” and was ranked our favorite, daytime party spot (key the music… “They fell in love.”) A quick walk from the condo (or a swift ride in the chauffeured golf cart when we felt lazy), Copa was fully equipped with refrigerator, chaises, beach loungers and even books in case you forgot to bring one.

Black Rock (prime snorkeling) was right around the bend and we ventured out one morning to find ourselves swimming with a sea turtle! It was pretty hard to resist taking a ride on his shell, but the experience of floating next to him was more than enough. With my ears full of underwater silence and steady sounds of snorkeled breath, a bottle of euphoria was dumped over my head. Maui peaked the senses on a primal level that found divinity in the everyday. It was the best type of intoxication and now I knew why the tourists didn’t leave...they were addicts.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Butter - NYC, East Village

Like Butter
Our first dinner as husband and wife deserved to be memorable, so after months of research, Butter, in the East Village, won our vote for a few reasons:
1. Executive chef/owner, Alex Gurnashelli - a laid back brunette that wasn’t afraid to use fat, but still balanced her indulgence with subtlety.
2. The Birch Room - the lower floor of the restaurant, Lincoln-logged with birch trees across ceiling and walls, brought the ultimate “Brear Rabbit rose-patch” vibe - secretive, dark and romantic.
3. The name said it all…my most favorite ingredient.

I had mentioned we were newlyweds when I made the reservation, so even though the Birch Room was closed that night (boo hiss) we were lavished with a spacious, corner booth beneath glowing branches of birch trees, whose movie-screen size pricked the same senses as a stained glass depiction in a cathedral.

Cocktails: My hubby (Bubba) went for a high-end Scotch (Macallan 15 yr), while I sipped a specialty, the Grape Crush (vodka, simple syrup, seltzer, muddled grapes.) But my crush soon turned to regret after the first super, sugary sip. The syrup overwhelmed every swallow and I think the grapes could have brought enough sweetness on their own.

Five course tasting menu ($90) - paired with wine ($130.)

How could we resist? We wanted to milk Butter for all it was worth and though most restaurants set a separate tasting menu for the evening or season, here they asked which items we didn’t want off the regular menu and went from there. Though it was billed as five courses, every interval presented each of us with a different dish, so we were actually able to nibble on 10 tastings.

Bread: Peppercorn scones – a course in themselves.

Amuse bouche:
Crispy risotto balls with grated parmesan - petite bites of deep-fried, carb-loaded heaven.

First course:
Brown sugar glazed pork belly – tales of the underbelly were true…and delicious. This was tastiest tummy I’d ever eaten (most times extremely fatty), for this little piggy was thick with meat, its bottom layer of fat never interfering with the integrity of the pork’s tender morsels, except to flavor. Grilled zucchini was delicate and sautéed just long enough to form a captain-sized, caramelized crunch (favorite dish #1.)

Seared foie gras over watermelon – the seared indulgence of liver was only matched by the clean wash of melon. Balsamic reduction wrapped the two in a syrupy ribbon that tied it all together.

Second course:
Pasta with lamb sausage – cavatappi (extra twisty elbow macaroni) was inspired with its potent, yellow tomato sauce- thin and garlicy. My only complaint was the lack of sausage and the pieces I did manage to dig out were overcooked. This sheepish star was muted enough for me to miss and there was an undeniable silence of the lamb (sausage.)

Pizza with heirloom and sundried tomatoes – what a concept…pizza made from pie crust! I don’t know if that’s exactly what Gurnashelli had done, but there was a flakiness and crumble that reminded me of dessert, in the best possible way. Heirloom and sundried tomatoes made for a superior “filling” and the oozing mozzarella acted as a snowy blanket to tuck it all in.

Third course:
Halibut with bacon and diced Yukon potatoes - was topped with champagne grape vinaigrette, but even with the extra “juice” it was dry and a bit overdone. This didn’t excite me the same as the others and though I wouldn’t call this fish a flop, it didn’t hook me either.

Skate stuffed with fontina, spinach and mushrooms - this skate started on thin ice and was almost 86ed from our menu (Bubba not being a big fish fan), but its flawless success was no fluke. With texture mimicking a crab-cake, it shredded in thick clumps for balanced bites of fish and filling.

Fourth course:
Lamb chop with eggplant puree - I don’t know what they put in that eggplant puree, but it was all I could do to not lick my plate. The meat formed a crisp crust of seasonings with savory depth that came in like a lamb and went out like a lion –ferociously flavorful. The garnish of fried squash blossom was the final accessory, propped as a playful feather in its cap (favorite #2.)

Sliced duck breast with cherry compote - over escarole was just ducky! The cherry compote added its tangy zing without overpowering the tender fowl and escarole added an earthy element that kept this bird grounded.

Fifth course:
Baked blueberries - with cinnamon, pastry wedge and buttermilk ice cream was like a deconstructed pie. Each component blended into one bite of 4th of July.

Raspberry jelly beignets – these really should have been called doughnuts, because they would have dwarfed any other beignet, but we weren’t complaining. The dipping well of crème anglaise was like liquid crème brulee - who knew beignets liked to swim? Everyone in the pool!

Amuse bouche fin: Dark chocolate truffle – the best ending to any story

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Blue Water Grill- Manhattan, Union Square

My Blue Heaven
The passion fruit cosmopolitan made me passionate…about drinking more of them. This cocky cocktail had been on my mind since I had first laid hands on it's orange-you-glad-to-see-me hue three years before. Never had I seen it replicated and it didn’t hesitate to win me over upon my return.

But Blue Water’s polished interior with dazzling, red-shaded chandeliers and pristine tabletops was nothing compared to the people-watching haven taking place outside. This thin stretch of space was elevated enough for a bird’s eye view, while still connecting to the man on the streets, making for my favorite pastime - watching the world go by.

We decided to go with sushi, though I was sad to leave behind my old standby, the shrimp/Maine lobster "BLT" with lime vinagriette, but just as their cocktail had kept me awestruck, their Monster roll left its Sasquatch-sized imprint on my mind (and palate.)

Best sushi roll I ever tasted - the Monster roll
Not being the most adventurous sushi sampler, I wanted something along the lines of a spicy tuna roll, but instead found a hybrid that exceeded my expectations. The entire roll of seaweed, rice and finely sliced ahi was mummified in a tempura shell with its spicy mayo demurely swirled on the side. The fish was untouched by the batter and remained delicate, but the crunch of tempura added that final element like lightning to Frankenstein's monster (roll.) It’s alive!

My hungry hubby went for the Phad Thai roll with shrimp, ahi, spicy mayo, peanuts…it was a bit of a mish-mash and a little too much sauce atop. Good in theory, but in the end, it was bye-bye phad thai.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Casablanca Hotel- Manhattan, Times Square

Mrs. Manhattan
We cheated and got 2 honeymoons! Since both our broods were back east, Bubba (my fiance) and I ended up getting hitched in Jersey, where I grew up. But now that we were “Ron Burgandys”(aka San Diegans) and had been away for a week, it wasn’t feasible to take our honeymoon directly afterwards. Though being in Jersey meant that the city was just a train ride away, so we decided to splurge on a “mini-moon” in Manhattan.

Play it again Sam- Casablanca Hotel

My new father-in-law found this hotel for us, and its Moroccan theme couldn’t have been mo’ rockin’. Rick’s Café on the 4th floor offered happy hour with cheese and wine (also continental breakfast), and though we didn’t take advantage, it was comforting to know we had the option. But not as comfy as our cozy room (petite, but perfect for our needs), and the fact we could see Times Square from our window made it bigger than life. The old school elevator and plush robes added to the charm...I had a feeling this was going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

*photos courtesy of Casablanca

Monday, November 16, 2009

Chef Sean’s gastronomic gala

The big dinner before the big day - September 17, 2009
I’d known Sean Kennedy since my high school days back in Jersey and we’d never grown tired of each other’s love for storytelling, food and booze…in fact, that’s probably what kept us so close over the years. He ended up as an executive chef in Tucson, followed by a few kitchen stints in the British Virgin Islands and Philadelphia, but even after he’d taken up boat-making in South Jersey, I always counted on him for a gourmet meal whenever I ventured back east. It had become tradition.

And just when I thought my multiple course meals were safe…he moved to Florida. So the only way I could lure him back to NJ with good reason was when I got married, especially since he’d promised my fiancé (Bubba) and me a seven course menu as part of our wedding gift.

Guest list
Chef Sean’s sister, Mary (aka Bones), would be assisting as sous chef yet again (she was also part of the ritual, as was my mother whose house we always used for the feast.) We had also included Bubba’s father (Larry), step-mother (Marcia) and our friend Jeannie, who was making her way as a singer in Nashville.

But by the end, we would all be singing (praises) for the flawless work and edible levity that emerged from the Kennedy kitchen. Time to eat:

Chef Sean’s lucky seven (courses)

First course: Tortilla soup- consisted of a thin, traditional broth made mostly from chili powder and chicken stock. Even our guests who weren’t fans of “spicy food” drank it down greedily. There was more of a refreshing burn than the feeling that your lips were about to fall off. Further cooling was brought on by several accoutrements topping the dish: queso fresco, sliced avocado, fried tortilla strips, sour cream, cilantro and a lime on the side. Besides the intricate array of accessories, the vapors from this liquid alone could cure “what ails ya.”

Second course: Duck spring rolls- Sometimes Chef Sean couldn’t find all of his desired ingredients at the supermarket (ie. the great basil fiasco of 2004) and this time, duck was the missing component. But there was no worry from the Kennedy crew. Bones just sauntered into the nearest Chinese restaurant and bought a whole duck for $15- now that’s initiative. And I’m so glad she did because there is no substitute for that beloved bird. Its meat shredded succulently beneath a crisp blanket of wonton and the hoisin/ soy dipping sauce softened a bed of sprouts beneath. Lucky duck!

Third course: Goat cheese soufflé – arrived with a salad of mixed greens, heirloom tomatoes, tangerines and chili/ honey dressing, only to be topped by homemade candied pecans. They were still warm with the soft crunch of sugar and the buttery intensity nuts exhibit when heated, but even though the pecans pleased, the souffle took the cake.

Fourth course: Shrimp and green bean tempura with carrot/ ginger buerre blanc- had always been my favorite of the Chef's creations and one I insisted be included. I could eat an entire plate of just the green beans, but I guess veggies aren’t considered healthy if you dip them in batter and fry them. But who cares when they taste this good?! As for the buerre blanc, I wanted to bathe in it. I wanted to put it on top of fish, pizza, a shoe…anything. It’s velvety, orange hue could sweep you off your feet with one glance, but the sassy bite of ginger mixed with subtle sweetness from the carrot made it a real Casanova. It continues to steal my heart.

…At this point of the night it was around 10pm, which is usually Larry’s bedtime. I told him, “Don’t feel bad if you’re too tired to stay.” I knew we were going to still be here for a while.

He said, “For this food, I’d stay up ‘til 2am.” My kind of guy- on with the meat course!

Fifth course: Sliced NY strip - appeared with caramelized onions and a beet demi-glaze that had been simmering for about 10 hours. Beef bones were sapped of their essential juices and red beets were added to give the sauce a strong, rosy color, which was a bit muted, but outstanding nonetheless. There was a complexity here that couldn’t be faked and a genuine sense of comfort from flavors that had steeped on the stove all day. The caramelized onions were soft enough to spread, almost like a savory jam, over the perfectly pink strips of beef. Onion jam?! Well, then just call me Lady Marmalade.

Sixth course: Goat cheese and crab ravioli with white wine/tomato broth - was indulgent, yet light. The liquid brought a perfect contrast to the rich ravioli and a hint of lemon perked the taste-buds to the tartness of the goat cheese. I was glad Chef Sean left off the grated lemon rind he’d originally intended on using because it ended up with the ideal amount of acidity (Marcia’s favorite.)

Final course: Mango mousse- originally the Chef was going to make a chocolate soufflé, but this would press him for time and he also wanted something a bit more cleansing for the palate. The mango mousse was the way to go. It set up perfectly in the refrigerator, having enough body to hold the spoon, but still bringing simple refreshment similar to Italian ice. This final bite was the equivalent of swirling that last piece of bread around the plate until you had to finally admit the meal was truly finished.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Alchemy- San Diego Restaurant

Turning greens to gold
“I don’t even like vegetables and I come here for the vegetables.” My friend had said it best. Never had I been so enamored with Brussels sprouts, chard or beets. Their small portions were surprisingly filling and the price was right (entrees around $10-15.) Menu items changed seasonally, which could cause trouble for an, “I’ll have the usual” customer like me, but this time the seasonal switch-a-roo worked in my favor.

Spring Menu
Beet it: My friend and I decided to try the goat cheese ravioli, but I was skeptical of its beet reduction. Beet’s earthy nature had never been my favorite and now I was worried they’d ruin my starchy pockets of goodness, but they only enhanced the creaminess of the goat cheese. The reduction was mixed with a bit of balsamic and added just enough sweetness to balance the dish. Who knew? I like beets!

Sprout-prise: The menu selection was rather limited and more on the healthy side, but my friend insisted I have the halibut. Perfect…until I saw it rested on a bed of Brussels sprouts- eww. But again, my judgmental mind gave way to an appeased palate. The halibut was flaky, moist and married seamlessly with the sautéed sprouts and caramelized walnuts. The buttery depth of the nut brought out a silky, sweetness in the sprout that I never thought possible. Who knew? I like Brussels sprouts!

Summer Menu
Veggie Voyeur: I would never have ordered this lasagna if it had been preceded by the word, “vegetable”, but disguised under the pseudonym, “market fresh”, I was lured towards a dish I wouldn’t normally order. Intrigued with its five layers (sautéed spinach, roasted cremini mushrooms, grilled eggplant, basil, ricotta and fresh mozzarella) along with the promise of fresh pasta, I was ready for the show. Each ingredient retained its own character, but came together like a Broadway production on my tongue- every bite was savored (bright lights, big finish.) Who knew? I like veggie lasagna!

Chard Card: I’ve never been a big fan of tuna steak and that’s why when my companion offered me a taste, I begrudgingly accepted. The problem was that after she offered me one bite, I kept asking for more. This plump piece of fish rested on a peppery chard that brought out the fruity appeal from small chunks of cantaloupe. Tossed lightly in sumac vinaigrette and crowned with crispy leeks, it was something I would have ordered myself. Who knew? I like chard (and tuna)!

Alchemy chose its name wisely- turning the ordinary into something valuable. I will promise to eat all my veggies, as long as they're serving.*

*Sunday brunch (10am-2pm) some items that sound yummy:
Bacon bloody Mary, shrimp and white cheddar grits and snap peas, Alchemy Poutine (shoestring fries / sausage gravy / mahon cheese / mushrooms / sunny side egg

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cafe Chloe- San Diego

Frenching for Brunch
Café Chloe (721 9th Ave) was the perfect place to meet the girls for Saturday brunch - classy and sassy. Its 1940’s Parisian flare gave off a whiff of contemporary nostalgia, as if we’d been placed in a scratchy black and white film with modern day conveniences. Aretha Franklin’s, “Baby, baby sweet baby” wafted over Chloe's marble-topped tables and sleek, silver stools surrounding the counter where a waitress mixed champagne with exotic elixirs like lavender and pomegranate.

Real cane cola and root beer came in glass bottles, but I chose the latte served in a small bowl without a handle- I liked doing the two handed lift to sip my froth. Their lavender lemonade was phenomenal and pretty in pink with a garnish of purple. Our waitress said lavender tea was the secret to its strong, floral flavor- ideal for summer sipping. Salt and pepper came in petite, ceramic dishes and sugar was served in raw, lump form- attention to details like these is noticeable (and noteworthy.)

On my last visit, I had gone for the heavy comfort of macaroni and cheese with crispy chunks of pancetta (good, though extremely filling), but today…was a day for flambé. I loved how they baked crème fraiche right on top of the flatbread and then paved the surface with small rectangles of bacon, chopped and crunchy like a hundred savory Scrabble tiles- it scored major points. Caramelized onions tied it all together with a subtle sweetness that quickly inducted me into the clean plate club.

Even when I brought my meat n’ potatoes man here, he loved his poached eggs served over toast with a mushroom/sage buerre blanc. He was surprised that this petite plate filled him up by layering complimentary ingredients. And that is all part of Chloe's charm. They perfect the European philosophy of satisfying the appetite by depth, not width.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Anthology- San Deigo music/dining

Greatest Hits
I wouldn’t recommend coming to Anthology (1337 India St.) for dinner since it's impossible to have a conversation over the music, but if you’re going for a show, this venue is spot-on.

Cobalt blue neon buzzed in loopy cursive above a well-lit entrance like a stop on the red carpet. We were seated in the lounge behind the bar, facing the stage and multi-leveled booths built into the right wall. It was remenisent of a futuristic diorama from Epcot with its silver railings and low hanging lamps. Flatscreen TVs were stategically spaced so the band could be seen from every angle.

I would have been pissed if I had paid to sit front row in the dining area and had a bunch of moving bodies in my face, but since I had the cheap seats, I reveled in the spontaneous dance floor created when the lead singer called up the crowd.

He forgot the words to multiple songs, which was a sin since he was singing Bruce Springsteen (cover band, Thunder Road), but the rest of the musicians made up for his lack of dedication - sax and keyboards especially rocked it out.

We decided to nosh, settling on parmesan pomme frites with truffle aioli and goat cheese stuffed dates wrapped in bacon. Both were tasty, but not memorable. The highly anticipated chicken lollipops with sweet chile glaze arrived deep fried and had more of a buffalo sauce. Advertise what you’re really selling- a glorified chicken wing with the meat pushed to one end.

Another disappointment was the asparagus bisque, and I use that term begrudgingly. Lacking all the characteristics of a true bisque (heavy cream for one), this soup was like asparagus broth. I felt like Oliver Twist in the orphanage sipping this fern colored swill, but I would not be asking for, “More, sir.”

The poor waitress was swamped, mostly because of her bartenders’ snail-like saunter. I felt frustrated for her and was grateful when I finally got my goose n’ grape (her name for my Grey Goose and grapefruit- I’ll use that.) Tickets were $22 with a $15 drink/food minimum, which we would have spent on cocktails anyway. We left the dance floor sweaty and feeling like 15 again - always a sign of a good show.

My advice: come for the beats, not for the eats.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Prado restaurant- San Diego

Prado a No-Go
The ROY G. BIV of blown glass billowed like clouds beyond the doorway and into a swanky lounge. I was surprised I hadn’t made it here before, since Balboa Park’s ornate, Spanish architecture loomed only moments from my house, but then again, this was the type of fancy-schmancy joint that was only fit for special occasions where the wallet had to be ready and willing. My best friend’s mom was in town, so this was one of those nights.

Entry gave way to plush upholstery and dizzying hues of amber that were so rich, I felt full before I sat down. The hostess led us to a table directly in front of the kitchen door...hmmm. With over a week’s reservations and most of the restaurant empty? Not acceptable. They “found” us an open table in the adjoining room that was so lovely, it made me feel as if I could drawl, “The rain in Spain falls gently on the plain, doesn’t it dahhhling?,” and the grand theatrics would be perfectly acceptable amongst this Gasby-esque aura.

But then the food arrived and the mystique lifted. First came a small nosh of tasty flatbreads (asiago, seasame seed, “everything” version), but they were served with a thimbleful of white bean hummus that had the four of us staring greedily at each other, too polite to take the last scoop (at these prices? Cough up some more hummus, stingy.)

So instead, we set our minds on the menu, where my girlfriend and I decided to split the goat cheese/mushroom risotto and the short rib angelotti (a stuffed tube of pasta). But she started hording the angelotti as soon as I murmured the word, “rich” about the risotto, which was the understatement of the year. It was gluey and not a clean grain could be picked without the overwhelming abundance of mushrooms.

I understand its mushroom risotto, but enough already- know when to say when. There was a generous scoop of goat cheese on top, but instead of adding its usual airy tartness, it just created a dense, pasty blob of goo. Two bites into it, I was done (but still hungry.)And then there was my buddy, gorging on most of the short rib angelotti, but I didn’t have a smidge of food envy because the bite I had was dry, watery and under-seasoned.

The best dish of the night was the black bean soup, which was flawless (and can also be ordered during happy hour where you don’t have to empty your wallet.) Like a pretty girl with no personality, the Prado would be great to impress at parties, but you wouldn’t want to hang out otherwise.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

San Diego- Tractor Room

The Tractor’s Pull
Apperantly 10pm on a Sunday night isn’t an opportune time to go to dinner in San Diego…unless you’re headed to the Tractor Room. They’re serving food until midnight with an authentic lodge aesthetic, sealed by their deer horn chandelier and smoky lighting over dark woods.

Drinks: After eyeing quite the exotic cocktail menu (fig and thyme cocktail, mint juleps and peach bellinis to name a few), my cousin landed on the English breakfast martini for a twist of Sapphire gin, fresh lemon juice and orange marmalade. Mini toasts sat on the side- the point of these? I don’t know, just for fun, but he munched on them like a substitute for breadsticks…until the black skillet cornbread came.

Food: When this square, cast iron of edible gold arrived, glazed with honey and scallion confetti, my joy was comparable to receiving a birthday cake out of the blue. My “b-day candles”? A knob of butter protruding from the center. Happy day to me!

Since it was a little late, we didn’t want to go crazy with the eats, but almost changed our minds when we saw the likes of elk sausage ravioli and lamb burgers with caramelized onions and goat cheese. But we stuck to apps and my cuz enjoyed his chicken wings- perfectly seasoned, not too hot- and matched well with their horseradish/ sour cream sauce vs. your run of the mill blue cheese.

Again it was Christmas morning for me as my personal pot of duck and white bean soup was laid before me. Earthy, creamy and hearty, I was enjoying each layer of depth when I uncovered a secret. There was one lump, then two. Like an archeologist discovering a lost village, I started unearthing hunks of cooked bacon for a bounty as valuable as King Tut’s tomb (to my stomach anyway.)

Service was impeccable and the offerings were intriguing. I’d love to go back for brunch and check out some of their creations like wild boar hash and the buffalo quesadilla. That’s when I know I like a place…when I’m already planning my return. The Tractor Room’s definitely got game, and I’m not just talking about the elk.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

San Diego bar- El Dorado Cocktail Lounge

Best in the West
Now I’m no lily-livered son-of-a-gun, but I was worried about deciding on a final destination for my girlfriend’s bachelorette party. Downtown clubs with $20 covers and “beautiful people” staring at one another over watered-down drinks wasn’t our idea of a good time. We needed a place to kick up our heels and word ‘round the campfire was that El Dorado’s recently revamped, Wild West persona would do the trick.

Before: I emailed El Dorado about a week before our party and one of the owners, Nate Stanton, got back to me right away. There were only five of us, but he acted like we were some celebrity entourage by immediately reserving a booth and getting our names on the RSVP list (He also let me stash some cupcakes there earlier, so we could surprise my friend later.) The price for all this great service: FREE and done with an appreciative air.

During: Wooden floors clicked beneath our heels and a white buffalo head fixed us with his steadfast stare above a quiet jukebox. DJ Ratty was just getting started with his evening’s selection of old school hip hop, while bartenders slung drinks in garb that reeked of dusty saloons from yesteryear. It was like a page ripped from Disney’s Frontierland, but equipped with a multitude of unsavory characters that made it hard to imagine them behind the Magic Kindgom’s pristine gates. We were greeted by low amber lighting, vinyl booths and our attentive waitress, who got us started on drinks:

The Mule – blended ginger beer, vodka and limes in a large mason jar and in my opinion, it's the best, new drink on the cocktail scene (I’ve had it before in a copper mug and there’s no topping that, but this one was stiff enough to make up for it.)

Chile Mojito- an inventive twist on an already refreshing libation, this added just a little heat to prick the taste-buds into party mode.

Drinks were priced around $10-12, which for their size and potency was a square deal in my book. I was also impressed when Nate took the time to come over to our booth and introduce himself, even though he was busy bartending. Now that’s a class act.

After: The evening turned out far better than OK at this corral and was nothing short of a leg-slapping success for my comely brood. Great drinks, great theme, STELLAR service…It looks to me like there’s a new sheriff in town.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Yogurt Cup- San Diego dessert

May your cup runneth over…but you'll have to pay extra
For some reason, I lose total control over my motor skills whenever I enter the Yogurt Cup (440 W. Washington St.) It’s self-serve and I guess the last time I had that advantage was at Morrison’s Buffet (big chain in FL) when I was a kid. So my technique was the same, filling as much as I could into the cup – Belgian chocolate, pistachio and coffee- big loopy swirls of all three. I was clearly blinded by my power as I manhandled each shiny lever and ended up with about 7lbs. of yogurt.

But you must have toppings! So I hit one of two topping stations. The lengthy island counter in the center was lined with shiny plastic vehicles containing treats. I also had trouble working these modern mechanisms (as if I had just been reintroduced into society after a lifetime of living in the woods), but finally managed to get a few crushed almonds on top. Besides a variety of nuts, they offered multiple delights from chocolate bits to Captain Crunch. The second station was adjacent to the register and contained fresh fruit (not mutilated bits from the can, but the real deal) with blueberries, blackberries and strawberries.

When I got to the cashier, I saw the folly of my ways - they charged by weight. My gargantuan yogurt towered over me (and my wallet) as a pricey lesson to learn, but a necessary one in self-control. The next visit I took it easy with wisps of raspberry, Georgia peach and Belgian chocolate (so good and non-fat!) This was a more realistic portion size and I guess the whole point of “fro-yo” is to enjoy a somewhat healthy snack. So, thank you Yogurt Cup for teaching me that*:

When the weight is light in the cup
The weight stays light in the rump

(*I also learned that I shouldn’t operate any types of heavy or not-so-heavy machinery.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Buon Appetito- San Diego Restaurant

Ciao Boun Chow
Hey-a, do ya want a spicy meat-a-ball-a? Buon Appetito (1609 India St) is by far my favorite Italian restaurant in San Diego with its authentic staff and ability to transform simple ingredients into a Rubik’s cube for the palate.
A cup of crushed tomatoes, basil and garlic arrive with a basket of bread and I think they must put heroin in this mixture- a clean and strong finish that coaxes me back again and again like a struggling addict (a minimum of two cups necessary.)

Duck salad: MUST ORDER!! I’m not usually someone that remembers salad as a favorite entrée, but this one has me thinking green. Their stand-out, balsamic vinaigrette sinks its kung-fu grip into the leaves with distinct thickness from the syrupy, aged vinegar. Sliced duck, lumps of goat cheese (in no way do they scrimp) and roasted pine nuts only up the ante to make it an official winner.

Homemade cheese ravioli: MUST ORDER!! The difference between homemade vs. storebought pasta is like fishsticks vs. fresh sushi. There's no contest and these raviolis exemplify what pasta should be - filling warmth that remains light. It amazes me every time how something so simple can make my mind do cartwheels. Memories of their pink sauce won’t be forgotten.

Meat lasagna: an edible high-rise arrived front and center with layers of ground beef, pasta and cheese. Though delicious, my scorecard still rated the salad and ravioli as the heavy hitters.

Things can get a little pricey here with pasta dishes around $20 and wine about $10 a glass, but well worth it when in need of a true Italian fix. Sidewalk seating, window tables beneath the wine case and expressive Italian dialogue amongst the wait staff instill a feeling of dining abroad while only minutes from home.*

*They also have a market next door that sells the pink sauce, "tomato heroin" and even the duck salad to-go.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Update- San Diego worthwhile deals

In reference to the "Brother, can you spare a dime?" post

Unfortunately, some of the deals I mentioned in my 2/4/09 post have now changed. I guess everyone is starting to have faith in the economy again? I don't know, but either way, The Wine Vault and Bistro have raised their Saturday 5-course tasting menu from $25 to $30.

The Better Half has also bumped up the price on their Blue Plate Economy Special from $15 to $20. For the extra fee they've added an amuse bouche and a mid-course palate cleansing of lemon sorbet (served in mini-cones,) but I don't know if it was worth $5. The worst part of all is that they finally changed their ridiculously low corking fee from $5 to $15.

Guess I'm back to searching the city for the next best deal.

Friday, February 20, 2009

San Diego restaurant- Avenue 5

It was enough to throw you off the trail. Avenue 5 blended seamlessly with the surrounding office buildings, enough for me to ask, “Is this it?” Clientele was clearly scooped from the business set, out for their designated eating hour, and I was pleased to have discovered this secret suit society of Banker’s Hill.

The interior had the newness and simple detail of an Ethan Allen showroom, but warmth surfaced through its elegance. High ceilings and hardwood floors brought stylish depth, and the brick-backed wall in the rear attracted the eye. Our busboy saw us admiring it and told us that they weren’t real bricks, but a design trick. His spontaneous and honest conversation was refreshing, as was our waitress, whose genuine friendliness didn’t go overboard. Time to eat-

Butternut squash soup: Their somewhat untraditional, thinner broth layered rutabagas and apple along with the squash for a light, but complex finish. It was topped off with crème fraiche, which melted into creamy swirls. I was won over by its taste and individuality.

Pulled barbeque pork sandwich: This alone was worthy of a return trip. Pickled onions gave perfect vinegar tang to the barbeque sauce and the pork’s tender shreds soaked into the toasty bread. I wanted seconds.

Knuckle sandwich: Lump crab (knuckle) meat arrived piled on a roll with avocado, mango and Asian slaw (hints of ginger and jimica.) I made the mistake of trying this after the barbeque pork. The crab was so much lighter and it had to vie for my taste-buds’ attention…it lost. My mouth could only sense the ghostly presence of crab and it was clear I had been swayed by the swine. The Knuckle deserved a second crack, but realistically I would probably go straight for the pork when I returned.

Future visits: Their dinner menu also caught my attention with phrases like, “pecan crusted lamb loin” and “bacon/herb gnocchi with braised short rib,” but it’s a little pricey (high $20s) for everyday, so I would probably stick with lunch or happy hour (ie. Camembert en croute or duck confit with port drizzle) when needing to satisfy my jaw’s daily grind.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Wothwhile deals around San Diego

While the economic, money crunch has turned dining out into a luxury, San Diego restaraunteurs are finding unique ways for patrons to enjoy a night on the town without breaking the bank.

4)Avenue 5 (2760 5th Ave) regularly offers a three course prix-fix dinner for only $30 every evening of the week*. Their happy hour also includes filling treats like Camembert en croute (walnut toast, spiced honey), duck confit (blue cheese, port drizzle) and the 5th Ave burger (pickled onions, aged cheddar) for well under $10 - definitely worth checking out.

*They also design specialty dinners that are a little more pricey, but still give you a bang for your buck. Scotch lovers will appreciate the value of the Macallan Dinner ($75 on Feb 19), which includes four courses matched with different varieties of Macallan single malt whiskey. Colin MacLaggan of Avenue 5 and Victor Jimenez of Cowboy Star will be preparing the feast.

3)Wine Vault (3731-A India St)offers a five course tasting menu every Saturday for $25 (changes weekly.) For an additional $16 they will pair wines with the meal. It's a good idea to get on their mailing list because they are always actively creating weekly inspirations (osso bucco for two at $25 and this week, Pinot Noir battle- OR vs.CA [4 glasses], served with wild mushroom risotto- $26.)

2)Bite (1417 University Ave) is an affair to remember. Clearly one of the best San Diego venues, Chef Chris Walsh is offering a four course prix-fix for $20.09 (Tues- Thurs.)They've included a multitude of tapas from their regular menu, enough to make it hard to choose (onion tart, rock shrimp pizza, pork belly, mussels, lamb meatballs, blueberry cobbler, Grand Marnier gelato, etc.) They've even made a point to specify that they don't mind if customers share this 4 course delight - unheard of! Happy hour (5-7pm) brings wine and an interesting array of bubbly drinks for $4.50 (the elderberry and champagne is divine.)

1) The Better Half's (127 University Ave) $15 Blue Plate Economy Special is definitely the best deal in town. This includes three courses of fine dining with a continuously fresh menu from Chef John Kennedy, who can often be seen roaming the dining room enthusiastically explaining his creations. The ever changing soup is always served table-side and always exquisite (usually a prize at the bottom of the bowl like herb speitzel or julianne carrots.) They only offer half bottles of wine, but have a corking fee of $5 for any size bottle. Not to be missed!