May 31, 2012
We recently took a long Memorial Day weekend trip to San Diego. (Is it still a weekend trip if it’s 6 days? Probably not.) As per usual for our vacations, dining was quite a large feature of the trip. Pictures of the dining however, were not. So I’ll mention some of the highlights of our dining, interspersed with completely un-food-related photos of the San Diego area.
Over the years it became apparent that we had a bit of a problem with our pre-vacation research on breakfast restaurants. We would barely get up in time to make it before the changeover to lunch, be too tired and hungry to find a place in time, and end up having to eat lunch instead. So on this trip, I really outdid myself, and found at least 10 restaurants serving breakfast to put on the spreadsheet I made before we left. (Yes, I’m an engineer. Yes, I’m one of those geeks who researches and takes documentation on vacation). Needless to say, we had some of the best breakfasts we’ve ever had on vacation, since we actually planned ahead!
Our first breakfast was at Cafe 222, downtown. I have a thing for pumpkin waffles, so it went without saying that we would get the Pumpkin Waffle for one dish. Spiced like pumpkin pie, it was quite tasty, but not quite as crisp as it could have been. The other item we got was the Eggs Italia Scramble, with tomatoes, goat cheese and pesto, also quite yummy. The space was small, but bright, and our waiter was wonderful. A nice start to the vacation!
Our second breakfast was cafe chloe, in the East Village. This was a really cute place, but the service was rather slow. It wasn’t clear if this was because we were stuck up in the tiny two-table ‘Loft’, or just because the kitchen wasn’t able to keep up. Our first item, the whole wheat pancakes with tart cherry syrup & applewood smoked bacon was excellent. The tart cherry went perfectly with the more robust taste of the whole wheat pancakes. The eggs & piperade – peppers, onions & prosciutto was a bit less spectacular, seemingly missing some essential ingredient to make it more special. To be fair, this was Memorial Day weekend, so they may have been busier than normal.
We did a few quick coffee and granola, yogurt, fruit, or pastry breakfast stops, which while yummy, weren’t really blog-worthy. Our last proper breakfast meal was at The Mission in East Village. We at lunch at The Mission in Pacific Beach earlier in the week, and both locations had a great, funky urban vibe, with local art on the walls. The breakfast plates were huge! We got a gigantic stack (not labelled as such, or we would have opted for a slightly lesser stack) of Strawberry Granola Pancakes. They were perfectly cooked, and wonderful when lovingly drowned in syrup. (Clearly I have a pancake/waffle thing. I never have them at home, so I tend to overindulge in them when we go on vacation). We also got the Soy Chorizo & Eggs, which was another large plate of deliciousness. The soy chorizo was nice and spicy, scrambled with eggs, and included black beans, cheese, flour tortillas and chipotle crema.
Lunch at the Mission Beach location was just as wonderful. We ordered the Tamales Verde, which was fresh and filling, with slightly citrusy tasting tamales, black beans, rice, and roasted salsa verde. We also had the Grilled Chicken Soft Tacos, also very fresh and featuring ginger sesame chicken, black beans, cheese, rice, avocado and sour cream. We loved both meals at the Mission, and I highly recommend it.
We also had some great dinners in San Diego, but my notetaking on this trip was sadly lacking, and after returning home it became apparent that half of what we ordered was nightly specials, which are not on the online menus. So I’ll only mention specifics for one place — but it was my favorite dinner by far. It was at Cucina Urbana in Bankers Hill, which is another very funkily decorated place – sort of ‘new modern’, with lots of dark woods, but the space didn’t feel dark because of all the great lighting. We had a completely divine foraged-mushroom pizza with taleggio cheese, braised leeks and truffle oil. I really didn’t want to share that one, it was so delicious. We also had a very lovely spicy shrimp puttanesca angel hair with olive, caper and tomato. I would definitely recommend Cucina Urbana. Other places where we had great dinners were Jsix in the Hotel Solamar in the Gaslamp District, Bankers Hill in, non-surprisingly, Bankers Hill, and Top of the Market, which is downtown.
December 5, 2011
My husband and I recently returned from vacation on Oahu. We normally go to Kauai, as we prefer the more relaxed, less crowded feel there, but we decided to try Oahu again to take advantage of the larger number of restaurant selections in Honolulu. Our compromise was a few nights there, and then several nights on the quieter North Shore. Unfortunately the North Shore is not only less crowded with people, it’s also less crowded with good dining options. But, let me state up front – mediocre food in Hawaii on vacation still feels more enchanting than good food at home with the knowledge that you have to get up and go to work the next day! And we did experience quite a few winners both in Honolulu and on the North Shore.
Our first dinner in Honolulu was at Hiroshi Eurasian Tapas, which I thought was outstanding. Highlights of the meal included sous vide Kona lobster tail with squid ink pasta, tobiko (flying fish roe), shiso (an Asian herb), long beans and red jalapeño, as well as Big Island baby abalone with roasted garlic aioli, shiso, tobiko, parmesan cheese and white truffle oil. I don’t believe that I had tried abalone prior to this, and really enjoyed the meaty, mushroomy taste. Dessert was a macadamia POG (papaya, orange, and guava) cheesecake, which was wonderful. Service at the restaurant wasn’t the warmest – we’re pretty sure we weren’t asked once how we liked the food, but it was definitely tasty, and I’m glad we went.
For our second dinner we went to Roy’s, which is a destination for us no matter which island we go to. We are both huge seafood fans, and love Asian Fusion, so Roy’s is a no-brainer since the fish is extremely fresh, and the sauces so divine. We are always keen to get entrees with native Hawaiian fish when we visit Roy’s – ahi, opah, opakapaka, or whatever else is featured. And no trip can be made to Roy’s (at least in my mind), without the finishing touch of the Melting Hot Chocolate Soufflé. There are no words to describe it, as they are all inadequate. Let’s just say there is molten chocolate in a soufflé, it’s the best chocolate dessert you will ever eat, and leave it at that.
Our final dinner in Honolulu was at town, which features locally sourced food. The salad with MA’O Organic Farms’ lettuces, pancetta, Manchego, cherry tomatoes, and walnuts was the best salad I had on the entire vacation. The lettuce leaves (which I’m guessing were Mesclun – lots of mizuna-shaped leaves, but red as well as green) were incredibly fresh and tasty. We had a fish dish and a gnocchi with pork ragù that were quite good as well.
I should also mention a terrific breakfast place we went to one morning, Café Kaila. It was a bit difficult to find, but well worth it. We had the Belgian malted waffle, and the Italian omelette with eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, mozzarella and marinara. Both were great – the waffle had just the right amount of crispiness, and the omelette’s Italian flavors were a nice counterpoint to the sweet waffle.
For the North Shore portion of our vacation, we stayed at a guest cottage in Waialua, and ate most of our meals a few miles away in Haleiwa. After a fairly good dinner at Luibueno’s, where we had the vera cruz catch of the day and a veggie burrito, we had several mediocre dinners the rest of our stay. The pizza at Pizza Bob’s was merely there, not very enticing. The Thai food at Haleiwa Eats Thai tasted fairly good, but was about as spicy as a glass of milk to anyone who is used to some degree of spice. (And this is the ‘fiery’ red curry I’m talking about). The ahi plate and shrimp scampi at the Grass Skirt Grill were alright, but not anything I felt I had to repeat. And the Chinese steamed fish and fresh grilled fish at Haleiwa Joe’s was not bad, but again, not outstanding.
We fared slightly better at lunch. The best single menu item that we had during our stay on the North Shore was the Portabella Stache’wich at The Beet Box Cafe in Haleiwa. Consisting of marinated portabella mushrooms and zucchini on a toasted whole wheat bun with garlic aioli, feta cheese, red onion, red pepper and sunflower sprouts, it was completely divine. (I think the aioli played a key part here). The Beet Box is a tiny five-table area in the back of the Celestial Natural Foods store. (The tables in the picture are the smallest – there are three four-tops on the side of the cafe the picture is taken from). The food is all made to order, so you’ll wait a little bit for your food, but it is definitely worth it.
We went to Banzai Sushi for one lunch, and overall had some great items. The yellowfin and marlin nigiri sushi were nice and fresh, and the ceviche was also very tasty. And, although decidedly non-sushi, I really enjoyed the house salad with fresh greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, won ton strips and papaya seed dressing. The red dragon roll (spicy tuna and cucumber roll topped with avocado, jalepeño and sashimi grade ahi) was a bit of a letdown as the jalepeño’s heat merely overpowered the flavors of the other items, rather than adding to it as wasabi does.
As it turns out, sometimes the simplest things can be the tastiest. Breakfast was consistently pleasing, as it consisted of sitting on the patio listening to the ocean and eating Vanilla Almond Special-K with sliced apple bananas and drinking 100% Kona coffee. (I’m not intentionally doing a Kellogg’s advertisement here – that just happened to be the cereal we bought at the grocery store, and it was great with the bananas). Apple bananas are a tropical variety, which are shorter and fatter than the ubiquitous Cavendish variety that is everywhere in mainland grocery stores. Apple bananas have a hint of both apple and strawberry and my husband and I both prefer them over Cavendish bananas. As for the coffee – we’ve tried many different brands of Kona coffee on our trips to the islands, but the Lion Brand 24-Karat 100% Kona we picked this time seemed particularly smooth. As we were eating one morning, I looked down into my cereal bowl, and there was a happy slice of apple banana with a little Special-K hat perched jauntily atop its head.
Another culinary treasure we discovered was a dessert bar from Coffee Gallery which consistent of a layer of purple sweet potato (wonderfully sweet and creamy), a layer of haupia (a coconut milk-based custardy dessert), on a cookie-like macadamia nut crust. Um, yum. We went back two days later to pick up another one we enjoyed the first so much.
September 14, 2011
This post is part 2 of our dining experience in Seattle – dinners! The first dinner we ate in Seattle was at Poppy, in Capitol Hill. I think this was my favorite meal of the entire trip. Poppy features ‘Seattle Thalis’. (Thali means ‘tray’, and thalis are a prominent feature of many Indian restaurants). The thalis at Poppy are not really Indian in most respects, but they are incredibly creative and tasty. Before we went, my husband happened upon a Yelp comment which commanded ‘get the eggplant fries’ (a starter on the menu). Fortunately, we followed that advice, and we were completely delighted. We usually try to avoid fried foods in anything but small quantities, but these were absolutely divine, and worth the splurge. Spears of eggplant lightly breaded and fried, and then sprinkled with sea salt and drizzled with honey appeared at our table, and then quickly disappeared. Eggplant+frying+salt+honey=bliss.
We also got the 10-item vegetarian thali and the 7-item salmon thali, both of which featured an array of wonderful things. The vegetarian thali’s main dishes were the cauliflower agnolotti (a type of ravioli) with chanterelles, and the goat cheese-filled zucchini blossoms with a quinoa cake and tomato salad. The cauliflower agnolotti was wonderfully warm and rich tasting, and I was reluctant to part with it once my half was gone. I always enjoy zucchini blossoms, especially given their fleeting nature (I’ve been afraid to buy any myself at the markets for fear they would wilt before I could figure out what to do with them!). Also featured on this thali was a radish, purslane and grilled spring onion salad, golden beets with spice bread and mint, and sprouting broccoli with oregano. All of these salad-type dishes were outstanding, and the golden beets and spice bread were a particularly nice combination.
Both thalis featured a nice, sweet corn soup with lemon basil. They also had some common salad elements including a watermelon, cucumber, cinnamon basil and almond salad, a zucchini and basil gratin, cherry orange-thyme pickles, and a piece of nigella-poppy naan. (Nigella is also known as onion seed or black cumin). All of the salads were a nice refreshing contrast to the richer, saltier tastes of the ‘entree’ parts of the thalis. And most of them were very unique tastes, which made them a delight to sample. The zucchini basil gratin seemed the most familiar, but was great nonetheless. We particularly liked the cherry orange-thyme pickles, which had a nice sweet, sour and spicy taste.
The dishes which appeared only on the 7 item salmon thali were slow roasted salmon with chanterelles, bacon, and lemon-thyme sorrel sauce (how could that not be great tasting?), as well as local carrots with fennel blossom. It was quite fun looking at each other’s thalis to see what we had in common, and passing the unique items across the table so we could try half of everything. I would highly recommend Poppy to anyone – it was really enjoyable.
The next night we went to Wild Ginger in Downtown Seattle, which we visited on a previous trip. We ordered the Sichuan green beans, the prawns garam assam, and a nightly special with clams, tomatoes, onion, pepper, and sambal (a chili based sauce). [As an aside, we have a habit of ordering Sichuan green beans whenever we see them on a menu in an attempt to recapture the taste of a dish we got in San Francisco some years ago. We’re nearly certain the restaurant was called Betelgeuse, but it appears to have disappeared. I can’t even find any traces on the internet. (We’re pretty sure it existed, though). We have had several decent approximations, but nothing has ever achieved the wonderful spicy-sweet taste of the original. Oh well, we’ll keep trying.] The clam special at Wild Ginger however, was phenomenal. We got clams a few times while in Seattle, and I have to say they were probably my favorite of all the seafood we had during our vacation. Not a touch of the fishy taste that you get from seafood that is perhaps a bit ‘mature’, just fresh and flavorful. This special had outstanding dimension and just the right bite of heat. The garam assam prawns were more subtly spiced, but very good as well.
For our third dinner, we were hoping to get into Chez Shea in the Pike Place Market neighborhood, but waited too long to make a reservation, so we opted for Place Pigalle Restaurant & Bar, also in Pike Place Market. While the dinner was still fairly solid, this was probably the least stellar of the trip. The dining room had a nice feel to it, but the seafood didn’t seem quite as fresh or tasty as at other restaurants we visited. We opted for a roasted beet salad with arugula, walnuts, chevre, shallots and lemon-dijon vinaigrette and the warm bitter greens with white beans, garlic, chili flakes, lemon and grana padano to start. Both were pretty good. For our entree we got bouillabaisse Provencale and the BC savory clams with lavender-fennel sausage, potato, sweet onion, arugula and garlic broth. The dishes turned out to be too similar tasting, and both seemed a little muted compared to the flavor we normally encounter in bouillabaisse or other seafood stews. I expected more dimension in the lavender-fennel sausage, but it seemed a bit plain in actuality. For desert we got a pecan cherry torte, which was pecans and dried cherries in a thick crust.
For our last evening in Seattle, we had every intention of heading to Monsoon, a Vietnamese restaurant in Capitol Hill with a spectacular looking menu. But after several days of walking, as dinner time grew nearer we decided that we were just too tired and lazy to go that far (even in a cab – yes, really lazy). Earlier in the week we had walked past Cuoco, an Italian restaurant in South Lake Union, and just a few blocks from our hotel. We knew it was another of Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas’s restaurants, and we loved Serious Pie, so we made a last minute switch and went there instead. It was quite dark in the restaurant, so my pictures are not quite as enticing as I would have liked.
We started with a wonderful romaine salad with nectarines, huckleberries, pecans and huckleberry vinaigrette – very fresh with a nice fruity element. The braised fennel with pickled cherries seemed a bit too soft to me, but the taste was great even if the texture wasn’t quite ideal.
For our first main dish, we got the gnocchi with house-made goat cheese dumpling, sweet and sour eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, and pinenuts. We both found it had a very unique taste, but it wasn’t our favorite entree of the trip. I think the sweet and sour eggplant contrasted with the gnocchi and goat cheese was just a bit too odd for us. The Quinault coho salmon with chanterelles, summer corn, crispy chickpeas, and pickled peppers was absolutely outstanding. I’ve had crispy chickpeas in other dishes, and love the texture and taste. Everything in this dish of rather eclectic combinations worked perfectly together.
For dessert we had a chocolate semifreddo with huckleberries and crushed hazelnuts (at least I believe that was the kind of nut – I seem to have neglected to write that detail down). Semifreddo is Italian and means ‘half cold’. It’s sort of a hybrid of mousse and ice cream (or gelato, rather). This one was quite tasty.
September 10, 2011
Earlier in the week I posted about our visits to Pike Place Market and Uwajimaya during our Labor Day vacation in Seattle. We also ate at some great restaurants while we were there (dining being our main activity when travelling, it seems). Our first day we fell into the all-too-common vacation circumstance of sleeping too late for breakfast. (Actually we could have gone to a couple of places we discovered later on, but it really was lunch time by then, so lunchward we went). We had our first lunch at Le Pichet in the Pike Place Market neighborhood. Le Pichet offers an array of charcuterie, cheese, olives, bread and salads. For our healthier option, we ordered escarole with green lentils, beets, caramelized grapefruit, pistachios, mint and sherry vinaigrette. We also ordered les tartines with jambon cru Serrano (an open-faced sandwich on country bread with air cured ham from the Spanish Pyrenees), and an ounce of brie. The salad was fairly good, but the les tartines was slathered with entirely too much dijon, and unfortunately it completely overpowered the ham. The brie however, was wonderful.
Our second day, we managed to get up in time for breakfast, so we headed to Portage Bay Cafe, at the South Lake Union location. (To be honest, on the weekend they serve breakfast until 2:30, so we’re not talking about a huge accomplishment here). Portage Bay Cafe is a wonderful breakfast and lunch place, with a great menu that includes some rather unique omelets, scrambles, hashes, pancakes, and French toast. Unfortunately, one of their locations was closed due to a water main leak, so this location had a much larger crowd than they were used to handling. We had quite a wait to get in, but the food was awfully good, so it seemed worth it. We got the house-smoked Cap’n Charlie’s wild salmon hash and the organic apple and whole wheat pancakes. The restaurant features a ‘topping bar’ with syrup, whipped cream, and an array of fresh berries for their pancake and French toast items, but the apple and whole wheat pancakes were so good I ended up eating my half without even bothering with syrup. The menu indicates these pancakes are filled with candied apples, raisins, pecans, nutmeg and cinnamon, which probably explains why they were so delicious. We returned for a second meal later in the week, and got the organic pancakes and sauteed organic mushroom hash. These selections didn’t quite live up to what we got the first time, but I would definitely go back, and would try the bananas foster French toast and one of the scrambles.
My husband had read about Top Pot Doughnuts, which has multiple locations around Seattle, and it sounded like they were quite good. We stopped by the Belltown location too late the first day, but made a point of getting there early enough the second day, post-lunch. We like to kid ourselves that we have a modicum of control with our daytime pastry intake, so we got one chocolate sandcastle doughnut to split (chocolate with a coating of granulated sugar). It was so good, my husband went back up a couple minutes later to acquire a thickly maple frosted old-fashioned doughnut. Unfortunately we felt we really had to cut ourselves off after that, so we worked up our resolve, and went out to do some more walking.
My favorite lunch was at the Westlake location of Serious Pie. Owned by Tom Douglas, a very prolific Seattle chef and restaurateur (Wikipedia indicates he currently owns about 10 well-known restaurants), this is a great little pizza place which features a wood-fired oven. Serious Pie is co-located with the Dahlia Workshop and Soul Wine, also Douglas establishments. It’s in a nice loft area upstairs, which features long rustic wooden tables in front of the kitchen area, giving it a homey yet hip feel. (I don’t know if that even makes sense, but I’m going with it). We started with a daily special salad with arugula, some great yellow heirloom tomatoes, strips of chili pepper, and shaved cheese, followed by a pizza with Penn Cove clams, house pancetta and lemon thyme. The salad was incredibly fresh and flavorful, and the pizza was divine. The crust was just the right combination of warm/soft/chewy/salty (I wish I could do it justice, but can’t), the clams incredibly fresh tasting, and the pancetta and lemon thyme were a nice subtle addition.
On our final full day in Seattle, we took the ferry out to Bainbridge Island, and spent a few hours walking around the Winslow area. We ate lunch at Cafe Nola, and had a very pleasant meal on the patio. The food was solid, but not wholly astounding. We got the halibut tacos, and a dungeness crab cobb salad. I don’t have a lot of comments on the meal, but I’ve included our stop here, because the food was actually quite pretty, and I wanted to share the pictures.