Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fast and Furious Fried Rice

It might seem that I haven’t been cooking lately, but I have. It’s just that I’ve been making the same things lately, not feeling very creative.

But one thing that I made awhile ago that I’ve been meaning to post is this recipe for fried rice. Fried rice makes a great lunch to take to work or for the weekend because it’s easy and fast. There are all kinds of fried rice, and one of the versions I ate growing up is this fried rice made with ground meat and lettuce. The freshness of the lettuce gives this a nice crunch blending with the savory flavor of the beef. (I used ground turkey to be healthy, and you can too. BTW, I also used brown rice because that’s what I eat 99 percent of the time.)

What I also like about this recipe is the minimum number of main ingredients. It’s really just rice, ground meat, lettuce and an egg to bind everything together. Enjoy!

Beef and Lettuce Fried Rice

Copyright 2008 by Cooking With The Single Guy

6 oz. ground beef or turkey
½ a head of lettuce, shredded (about 2 cups)
3-4 cups cooked rice (leftover works best)
1 egg
1 T green onion, chopped
1 t white pepper
2 T soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
1 t grated fresh ginger
1 T Xiao Hsing wine (or sherry wine)
2 T Canola oil
salt for seasoning

In a small bowl, marinate the ground meat with pepper, 1 T soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and Xiao Hsing wine. Let sit for at least 10 minutes.

In a large wok, warm Canola oil (or other light-tasting vegetable oil) over high heat. Then add the ground meat (don’t throw in all the marinade with it, reserve some for later). Break into pieces and cook until nearly done (about 2 minutes) then add rice, mixing thoroughly warming the rice through. Add shredded lettuce and green onions and cook for another minute before adding the egg (whisk in a small bowl before adding to wok).

If you cook the egg fast, you’ll have a nice glistening sheen on your rice. If you don’t want the egg partly raw, then cook it a bit longer, constantly tossing your rice so it doesn’t stick until egg is done. At the same time, season with salt and additional tablespoon of soy sauce per your taste. (If you have leftover marinade, you can also add some of that.)

Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Pair with glass of Pinot Noir.

TIP: Making fried rice really involves a high heat and lots of tossing of the rice so it doesn’t clump up or stick to the pan. So have all your ingredients ready because it should all move pretty fast and furious. The positive side is your fried rice is a quick meal to fix! (Another reason not to cook things to long is the lettuce lets out moisture when cooked too long. That’s why you add it at the end.)

WHY LEFTOVERS: Using rice that’s been in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours helps in making fried rice because the rice won’t cook up as mushy. The time in the frig actually helps harden it to be able to sustain the stir-frying in the wok. So never use freshly cooked rice because it’ll tend to clump and stick together more.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Pretty in Pinkberry

I’ve been Pinkberried. I am no longer a Pinkberry virgin. Does that now make me a Pinkhead?

After first reading about the long lines and parking violations circling the original Pinkberry frozen yogurt shop in West Hollywood, I’ve been dying to see for myself what the big fuss was all about.

Since then, the store—opened in 2005 by two Korean-Americans—has become a swirly movement. It has spawned nearly 60 locations in Southern California and New York. Its owners have starred in their very own American Express commercial.

But it has yet to open in the San Francisco Bay Area. So despite all the various Pinkberry copycats that have popped up in the last year, I couldn’t really relate when people would say “it’s not the same like Pinkberry.”

Last week when I had to fly down to Pasadena for work, I made it my mission to find a Pinkberry. Luckily, one was just a few blocks from my hotel. After our meeting ended one day, I went with my colleague Tammy for some fro-yo before we had to head off for dinner with the rest of our colleagues. Yes, I was determined to try the fro-yo even if it turned out to be a pre-dinner snack.

The Pinkberry store in Pasadena is on the small side, with only a couple of tables. Already wary of the copycats and media frenzy swirling around them, Pinkberry has banned cameras at their stores as noted by the big red circle and slash sign at the door. (Still, that didn’t stop me from sneaking in shots of my actual purchase.)

The store has the bright contemporary design that has set the mold for fro-yo shops since. What was interesting was that on the right wall before you hit the counter you see a rack of little knick-nacks for purchase that I don’t normally see at fro-yo shops. (They’re cute little animal figurines and neon-glowing items.)

Pinkberry started with just two flavors: original (which is on the tart side like the ones in Korea) and green tea. It has now added a third flavor: coffee. (It also sells smoothies and shaved ice.)

I got myself a small cup of the original. I could have topped it with a variety of fruits (mango or lychee?) and crunch (granola or coco pebbles?), but I wanted to keep it simple so I just topped it with fresh strawberries.

The fro-yo was definitely creamy and cooling, with no hint of the iciness that I’ve come to hate in my fro-yo. Its taste was tart, but in a good way. When mixed with the fresh strawberries, it was a satisfying cup of goodness. The taste and consistency was very similar to Red Mango, which I consider one of the better fro-yos out there. Pinkberry and Red Mango are creamy but there’s a difference that I couldn’t put my finger on. The only way I can describe it is Red Mango seems to have more body in the yogurt while Pinkberry might be a tad lighter.

Since I didn’t know when I would try Pinkberry again and wasn’t sure when it would open in the Bay Area, I decided to go for another cup. This time the green tea.

I got a small cup of the green tea (which I’m not sure why it needs to be more expensive than the original but it is) without any toppings because I just wanted to taste the complex flavors of green tea. The Pinkberry version, or at least the one I had that day, was a bit odd. It had a strong tart flavor at first bite, but then a calming robust green tea flavor when it’s in your mouth, and finally an odd aftertaste that wasn’t necessarily tart or green tea. I’m not sure if I’m a fan of the green tea as I am of the original, but I can see how it can grow on you.

Because Pinkberry has become so big, it’s also been the target of criticism. Often nicknamed “Crackberry” for its long lines, it was also a target of a lawsuit questioning its healthy claims. For me, I’m not concerned about watching my waistline, so I’m not particular about the ingredients as long as they’re fresh and not artificial. In the end, I just want a creamy fro-yo with a nice twang to it.

Pinkberry does it and many others follow suit. I can see why Pinkberry was so popular when it was the only player in town, but now with all the copycats the options for consumers are plentiful and varied. And that’s a good thing. I can’t say Pinkberry is the king of all things fro-yo, but it definitely has set the standard.

Single Guy's Fro-yo Rankings:

1. Red Mango, Palo Alto
2. Pinkberry, Southern California
3. Fraiche, Palo Alto
4. Icebee, San Francisco
5. Jubili, San Francisco
6. Yogurt Harmony, Berkeley
7. Yogen Früz, San Francisco

Pinkberry. 19 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena. PH: 626.744.0505. Additional locations throughout Southern California and New York. Check its Web site for locations and hours of operation.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Next Food Network Star: Season 4, Finale (Spoiler Alert)

Go Big or Go Home

So it’s finally here. Whew, I’m so tired of recapping this show so I’m so glad it’s ending. But to torture me some more, the Food Network starts off the final episode not with the typical “previously” but with a three-minute summary of the entire season thus far. Argh! Oh, there’s Kevin, who was eliminated early on and my favorite. He would have totally made this season more fun if he stuck around. We see the train challenge, Spice Queen Nipa bossing people around, the famous fall by Lisa on the Coast Guard ship, and Jennifer breaking glass on the stove top. (I bet she cringes every time they air that clip.)

In case you’ve already forgotten, last week in Vegas we saw the judges wimp out and send all three into the finals back in New York without an elimination. I guess since America’s not voting, the judges didn’t care whether it’s a head-to-head battle or a three-way tie? Anywho, the show starts off with mini bios of the three finalists.

Lisa is a mother, wife, restaurant owner and designer. Hey, her husband is an executive chef already? And she designs stylish aprons? What does she need with her own Food Network show?

Adam is the guy who opened a restaurant with his brother and it failed and he’s now waiting tables. His could be a real rags-to-riches story if he wins. Why is he kissing his grill at home? Hey, his small kitchen reminds me of mines. We’re like two peas in a pod, Adam and me.

Aaron has really tiny kids. That’s what I noticed about him because really the mini bio doesn’t say much about Aaron. He says he believes in himself, which is all well and good. I think he needs to improve his fashion because he always looks like he just came back from a pool party.

Finally they start the intro music. Why even bother? Let’s get on with it already.

Opening scenes of New York taxi cabs racing by, then the three arrive all dressed up (except for Aaron) at the Food Network studios at the Chelsea Market. They’re greeted by judges Bob Tuschman and Susie Folgelson of the Food Network, who tell them that this is their final challenge. Doh. Susie looks mad as usual when she’s not talking.

The contestants learn that they have to produce a pilot of their very own show. Lisa says ohmigod in a whisper to Aaron like she’s so surprised. They will perform on Rachel Ray’s set, which initially I thought would be fancy when I imagined Rachel Ray’s talk show kitchen but turns out it’s her rinky-dink 30 Minute Meals studio. To help them produce their show, they get the help of longtime Food Network producer Gordon Elliott (whom I always get confused as that guy who hosted the "Lives of the Rich and Famous").

Elliott gives the three finalists time to think about their pitches, and they go off into their little corners and start scribbling notes, except for Lisa who is busy putting a lot of scraps and magazine tear sheets together like some design board presentation.

So she’s up first and she comes rolling into the room with a cart full of junk. She starts setting up her things and you can tell Elliott’s getting a bit inpatient. When she finally starts, she has created three concepts for her show and for each concept she’s put together a box of props, almost like a lunch box they would serve at your bed. It’s all very cute and interesting, but we’re not giving out A’s for crafts, Lisa, so get on with it. (BTW, if you haven’t noticed, cranky pants recapper is back for the finale. Ha!)

Her first pitch is for “Beautiful Basics,” which she’s been pushing all along with the combination of food knowledge and artistic flair. Second idea is called “Pure and Simple” and focuses on green living and organics, and third is “Fashion Feast.” (That’s probably pretty much self-explanatory.) Elliott likes “Beautiful Basics” and tells her to not be a smarty pants and pick basic ingredients so that the show is approachable to home viewers.

Aaron comes in next, and he’s all “hey bro” with Elliott. Aaron is all about the bold flavors and using herbs and spices. The name of his show is “Bold and Flavorful” or another weird idea “Leftovers Not Forgotten.” Elliott’s not feeling the vibe for either names, so he asks if he had a nickname on the show and Aaron says the other contestants called him “Big Daddy” (which I don’t remember hearing anyone call him that, but whatevs). Of course, Elliott loves this and calls Aaron’s show “Big Daddy’s Kitchen.” He should have a tiny assistant named Annie and then he’ll be all set.

Finally it’s Adam who comes up with “I’m Always Hungry in Philadelphia” (not to be confused with that basic cable show called “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”). Adam’s show involves viewer emails asking him questions on cooking, and Elliott proposes a live chat on the Internet during the show. Adam’s excited because he thinks his show can appeal to all the cool You Tube/Myspace/Facebook crowd who’s totally socializing online but not eating.

The three go into makeup to prep for the pilot, and Lisa is wearing a really bright fuscia dress. She arrives and Elliott kisses her hand (never trust a very tall, hand-kissing man with an accent) and the blond producer gives Lisa a run-through of her show. I don’t know how the contestants remember all these things. I can barely remember where to catch the bus each morning.

Lisa starts filming and it’s all very kinetic and I’m all agitated just watching her. She’s demonstrating a black cod dish with sabayon, which she explains is an Italian custard. (BTW, I make sabayon whenever I make tiramisu and it’s hard to tell when it gets to the right thickening point, but it’s all so good and pretty.)

It looks like she doesn’t really finish on time, and Elliott makes her do it again and she hardly looks at the camera. The next take Elliott tells her to go crazy like she’s talking to her girlfriends. I still think she looks rushed, but Elliott seems happy and gives her a high-five. (BTW, her sabayon looked unusually bright yellow.)

Commercials. The Food Network is doing a Hell’s Kitchen-like reality show called Chef Jeff Project. It’s supposed to be a culinary boot camp so be prepared for a lot of screaming, but this time without an accent.

It’s Adam’s turn to film his pilot and he’s dressed in a simple brown shirt and jeans. His set has the added flat-screen monitor because he’s going to be talking with a viewer named McCall(sp?). (They made it seem like she’s a viewer, but she could totally be a production assistant for the Food Network pretending to be a viewer.) Anywho, “McCall” supposedly has the roast chicken blues and is bored making the same old roast chicken recipe (I love roast chicken and never get bored making it) so Adam is coming to the rescue with his spice-rubbed beer roast chicken.

Adam gets a bit nervous (and neurotic actually) about all that he has to do for the show and wonders if he’s bitten off more than he can chew. He starts talking and gets a bit freaked out by all the questions that McCall is shooting at him. (See, she’s a ringer, I say.) At one point, Elliott yells at Adam to wash his hands with soap after he touched the chicken because he just washed his hands with water. They do a few more takes and it looks like Adam is getting calmer and he lets some of his humor flow in. I actually like how he’s interacting with the “viewer” so it’s not just him talking and it seems kind of new age with the technology. When he’s done, Elliott tries to give him a high-five but Adam still has chicken hands so he does a little “bump” instead.

Last is Aaron who comes in all loud and jovial, but once he has time to think about what he needs to say before the camera starts running, he looks like a deer in a headlight (Elliott’s words). Aaron actually looks like a zombie. Oh my, this can’t be good.

Aaron is making jerk rib eye with honey plantains, and his voice sounds odd as he’s talking, almost like he needs to clear his throat. Elliott tells him to slow down but then he keeps flubbing his lines. It sounds like he’s done more takes than the other two and he always looks scared right before filming. In the end, Aaron feels like something’s missing from his shoot but Elliott tells him he did great.

Now’s it the finale in front of a studio audience. Lisa is wearing a really gold shiny dress and Adam looks nice in a blue, long-sleeve shirt. Aaron is Aaron. Bobby Flay is there as the host and he’s holding these note cards, which is really odd because I never see him look down at them. So the note cards make him seem more like a host of a game show or dating show as he introduces the three finalists.

The judges Bob and Susie are also there, and Bob doesn’t look very dressed up. They show the finalists’ friends and family and then Bobby asks Gordon Elliott how the contestants did. Of course, he says all three did great and it will be a “hard decision” for the judges to make.

Bobby introduces the past contestants and the parade of rejects begin with Kevin running in like some mad man, Corey, Jeffrey (who gets a lot of cheer for some reason from the three finalists), Nipa, Jennifer, Shane (who also gets a lot of laughs from the finalists) and Kelsey, who throws kisses at the three.

Bobby introduces the pilot, starting with Lisa. And you know, after editing, her show is really good. She doesn’t seem as frenetic as during filming, and I like what she’s cooking. Plus, she tells these interesting stories about fishing with her dad or making sabayon as a 13-year old. Lisa is smiling really big as she watches herself, and the audience laughs a few times. When it’s over, the crowd cheers and Adam and Aaron look screwed.

Bob Tuschman says Lisa was confident and showed a depth and range of culinary knowledge. Susie says she was multifaceted and that there’s so much to market with Lisa. (Susie’s always thinking of ways to whore people out, huh? Dang marketers.) Bobby says Lisa is unpredictable but in a good way.

Commercials. You know what? 409 isn’t that strong that you can shoot through a wall. I can barely get it to rub off the mold stains in my shower. (What? Like you don’t have the same problem.)

Next up is Adam, and Bobby asks about the name of his show. Adam says it’s his online user name, and that he wants to talk to people around the country. He makes a joke at Elliott’s expense and gets a nice laugh before his pilot begins.

In the pilot he’s really relaxed and he seems to have a nice interaction with “McCall.” People laugh at his jokes and his odd chicken humor, even though that chicken looks burnt because of the spice rub. It’s all fun and entertaining but I have to say it seems to lack much content.

Bob says it was a joy to watch, and Susie says she was blown away and that she learned so much. Really? Is sticking a beer can up the butt of a chicken some new technique? Bobby says everyone probably wanted to taste that chicken.

Commercials. That Sears Kenmore Elite commercial with the little boy and his knit cap is soooo cute. I’m getting hooked on this Kenmore Elite line.

Bobby asks Aaron about filming his pilot and he says it was challenging. Then they show “Big Daddy’s Kitchen” and Aaron comes in with a big HEY, almost booming to me. He seems kind of pushy with his script, telling people that they will love doing something. I don’t like it when people say I will love something so much. What if I don’t? Then who’s accountable, Aaron? He goes through the demo of his meat dish, and it’s OK but he doesn’t mix in any personal stories like Lisa did. Plus, I’m starting to realize it’s hard to understand Aaron because he almost has a lisp or something.

In the end, Bobby asks if he would have done his pilot differently, and he says he would have ate more. I admit, that is witty.

People are really loving Aaron’s pilot and they really laughed a lot during the showing, which surprised me because it wasn’t that funny. I just think people were laughing because they love Aaron like a big old simple guy, like a buddy. Anywho, Bob says he was funny and generous, big and bold. Susie says he owned it.

Now deliberations. Bobby says the judges are going to go off and decide in a couple of minutes the next Food Network star. WTF? They’re going to decide someone’s future in two minutes? You know that’s just TV speak, because I bet those audience members sat for hours waiting for the judges to come back with their decision.

Commercials. I don’t understand that awkward Comcast Digital voice commercial with the guy who can’t really talk to his brother. Weird.

The three judges are sitting around going over each person, and of course they have good things to say about all three. Bobby says he’s rooting for Aaron but he also would watch Lisa’s show. Bob says all three could have their own show, but who can start tomorrow? So based on that, who do you think they picked? (I guessed Lisa, but I was really rooting for Adam.)

Bobby’s about to announce the decision, and the three finalists look weird, especially Adam who looks like he has dry mouth. Bob Tuschman introduces Brooke Johnson, the president of the network who comes out every year in the finale but I always think she’s a scary-looking lady. (I’m just shooting my future chances at a Food Network show left and right, huh?)

Brooke Johnson says the winner will have one last challenge, which is to start filming his or her own Food Network show the next day so it can air in exactly one week. (Again, this is like the whole two-minute thing. Who believes this was actually filmed last week? This was probably filmed months ago, so the winner actually has had months to come up with the first episode. I can see through the curtains, lady. You’re not fooling cranky pants here.)

Bobby asks the three to comment one last time and we get the typical (start the violins) comments about experiencing an incredible once-in-a-lifetime event (Lisa), learning more about oneself (Aaron) or confirming one’s life passion (Adam).

Then Bobby, still holding those damn note cards that he never looked down at, announces that the winner is Aaron. Wow, I am totally blown away. Aaron? I totally figured Lisa would be the one to win. But I guess Aaron is probably the better cook because the judges all seemed to love his food early on.

I don’t know if Aaron really has the TV personality to sustain his own show. Of course, his family is totally jumping like crazy and he’s totally happy with hugs going all around. There’s a weird blip in the tape and I bet that was one of the Food Network editors stressing out that he inserted the wrong episode where Aaron was named the winner just to throw off the scent, but now he can’t take it back. Ah, that explains it.

Aaron talks about doubting himself but keeping it real and the typical “follow your dream” comment. What’s funny in the closing minutes is that these machines are blasting out gold confetti and it makes this loud sound that makes Shane jump like he was spooked. He’s so sweet. I would have watched his show.

Aaron’s new show, “Big Daddy’s House,” (I guess he was too big for just the kitchen) airs this coming Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on the Food Network. Like they say, check your local listings. Photos courtesy of the Food Network Web site.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Pot Pies at Bakesale Betty

This afternoon I returned from my business trip to Pasadena in Southern California. So of course I was too tired to think about making dinner. Instead, I walked down the street to the popular corner bakery, Bakesale Betty in the Temescal neighborhood in Oakland.

I've mentioned in the past how I enjoy this bakery's humongous scones. But lately they've been more popular for their fried chicken sandwiches, which of course I haven't tried because I don't eat fried foods. They're also known for their seasonal strawberry shortcakes ($4.50), which you can still get right now.

Despite the temptation, I didn't get a strawberry shortcake for dinner. Instead, I decided to try Bakesale Betty's new chicken pot pies. They sell a large regular-sized pie for $25, but being the Single Guy, I opted for the individual-sized portion sold for $6.

The pies are sold uncooked, and you have to take them home and bake them to get fresh, piping hot pot pies for dinner (or lunch, I guess).

Here's my little chicken pot pie after I brought it back home. I know I said I didn't want to cook dinner, but how easy is it to just preheat the oven to 350 degrees and then stick this pie in the oven? The pot pie actually came wrapped in plastic wrap, which I removed. The instructions said to bake it for 40 minutes (55 minutes if you ended up freezing it) on a cookie sheet.

The pie, actually, looked kind of small when I bought it. So when I walked home, I stopped by Safeway to get some mixed spring greens to make a salad with homemade pear vinaigrette. (I am so tired of all the overly dressed salads that I had at the hotel and restaurant in Pasadena. What's up with drowning your salads, SoCal people?!)

Here's my chicken pot pie after 40 minutes. Now, before baking I contemplated brushing an egg wash (egg yolk or whites with water) on the crust and sprinkle some sea salt on top. But because Bakesale Betty didn't specifically recommend those instructions, I wanted to bake it exactly like how most consumers would probably do it. (I don't think most people would think to bother adding an egg wash and sea salt on top.) What happens is that the crust didn't really bake to a nice golden brown color, which I'm sure the egg wash would have totally helped achieve that. Instead, it looked a bit pale, and the extra salt sprinkled on top would have helped because ...

... when I ate the filling, it tasted slightly on the bland side. The filling definitely had big chunks of chicken, and you can tell it's fresh chicken meat. There weren't much other ingredients other than some carrots and probably celery. I was expecting some bright green peas, but I guess since Bakesale Betty uses only fresh ingredients, they probably didn't want to spend the time shucking fresh peas. (I would have used frozen, but I know most fresh food people don't like that.) If I had sprinkled the salt on the crust, it would have definitely help enhance the flavor of the filling. Instead it was OK, nothing amazing but not awful. Having the light salad help make this a proper dinner for me.

Would I make it a regular trip to buy the chicken pot pies? Probably not. If I'm in the area, and out of ideas for lunch or dinner, I make do it again (the next time definitely doing the egg wash and salt). But I wouldn't make a special trip just for them like what I do for their scones.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Not Really Oh La La at this Marché (CLOSED)

UPDATE (01/09/09): Marche on the Square closed in early January 2009 after months of trying to get the necessary construction permits to take full advantage of the space.

A few weeks ago I went to a preview of the new Ghirardelli Square near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. One tenant I was really looking forward to checking out was Marché on the Square, a French-inspired gourmet market. But it wasn’t open at the time.

This past weekend, I returned to check it out after it opened its doors a couple of weeks ago. Marché on the Square is a 3-in-1 project: a gourmet grocery store, a wine bar and an upstairs bistro. (The upstairs bistro still wasn’t opened this past weekend because it’s waiting for a license for its elevator—a rule relating to the Americans with Disabilities Act. So instead the full bistro menu and tables were brought down to the wine bar.)

When I walked in, I was surprised at how small the interior is. The main space looked tiny—and the store was virtually empty so you’d think it would look bigger. There weren’t that many shelves of products and the people behind the deli counter looked like they didn’t know how to keep themselves entertained all day.

The chef/owner of Marché on the Square, Brian Crawford, was once the executive chef of Dean & DeLuca, so he has a good pedigree when it comes to gourmet specialty shops. Prior to the opening, Crawford promoted his Marché as something you’d likely see in Paris. This is not Paris, people.

In Paris, the stores are immaculate and stylishly decorated with colorful banners and trimmings. Products are beautifully displayed, almost like artwork. Marché on the Square is clean-looking, but the walls seemed naked and the products were uninspiring. Other than a few bottles of sauces and balsamic vinegars, I didn’t really notice anything that I really wanted to buy. And it seemed like there was more a prominent display of beer than anything else.

For the food, there are three counters. Off to the right is a sushi section, and front and center were two side-by-side counters. One side sold a variety of cheese and the other side had lunch items like prepared salads and sandwiches.

The overall vibe was of a store that was hastily put together, and that seemed to be the same vibe in the wine bar off to the side. I walked over for a drink and some snacks because it was near the end of the day and I was tired and hungry.

There were a few people already eating at the tables set up along the window. But the first thing I noticed was that the wooden chairs at the bar seemed cheap, like it would get nicked very easily and the place would look tired in just a few months.

Still, I saddled up to the bar and looked over the Bar Marché menu by Crawford and his chef de cuisine Jacques Rosseau. The wine list has a variety of wine from all around the world, and I settled for a 2003 Merlot from the St. George winery in the Russian River area. It was an excellent medium-body wine.

The full bistro menu offered some interesting bites, including oysters, scallops, halibut, French onion soup and a fancy beef dish to share for two. I decided to order the diver scallops ($16), which came with some sautéed greens, citrus and light broth topped with Tennessee Paddlefish caviar.

The scallops came out with a slight fishy smell preceding it. Some of you know I’m very sensitive to this smell, which I learned comes from overcooking the fish. The scallops themselves tasted fine and had a nice brown coloring to it, so I wouldn’t say it was overcooked. Overall it was OK.

Then I tried the assorted charcuterie plate ($12) to snack on as I sipped my wine and enjoyed the foggy view of Aquatic Park. The servers are still learning the menu so my server had to check his notes when explaining what was on the plate. They included: duck rillette croistini, copa, prosciutto, salumi, mortabella and brie cheese. There was one additional meat that I didn’t hear, but I think it was like pastrami.

I thought everything was nice, although the meat weren’t sliced as thin as I liked (making the prosciutto, for example, chewy to eat). But I loved the duck rillette, which was a bit chunky but flavorful, and the brie was perfectly smooth and served at the right temperature.

Even though I had planned to just have a couple of snacks and drinks at the bar, I ended up being tempted by dessert. More specifically the chocolate mousse with raspberry coulis ($7). When it arrived, it actually looked like a slice of chocolate cake, but when you scooped it up, it was like whipped chocolate cream and tasted so rich and light at the same time. This dessert, made from Ghirardelli chocolate of course, was so good that I had to share it with the bartender and the couple sitting next to me so that they wouldn’t think I was making those weird “mmmm” noises for no good reason. They all agreed that it was perfection.

The overall Marché on the Square leaves a lot to be desired, and maybe it’s just a reflection of the rush to open. Hopefully over time Crawford will focus on the specialty items on the shelves and bring more products for sale to create more interest in the market instead of just the restaurant and bar.

As for the restaurant and bar, the food is acceptable and it’s a nice option for a drink if you’re in the area. I would definitely go in the afternoon for some of that chocolate mousse and a glass of Merlot and that would be a good day.

Marché on the Square, at Ghirardelli Square, 900 North Point, San Francisco. Market open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., wine bar open 11 a.m. to midnight, Bar Marché open for lunch (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and dinner (5 p.m. to midnight). PH: 415.359.0365. Web site:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dish on Dining: Binh Minh Quan

Discovering the Many Tastes of South Vietnam
338 12th St. (near Webster), Oakland
North of Chinatown
PH: 510.893.8136
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

I feel lucky that there are a number of options for a bowl of Vietnamese pho in Oakland’s Chinatown. But if you’re interested in finding out how Vietnamese food goes beyond the ubiquitous soup noodles, then you have to head to Binh Minh Quan.

Binh Minh Quan is a tiny restaurant that’s away from the pack. In fact, it’s north of Oakland’s Chinatown a few doors down from the corner of 12th and Webster Streets. (It sometimes gets eclipsed by another large Vietnamese pho shop right at the corner.) Looking from the outside, you might think it’s another dive, but walk in and you discover this nicely decorated Vietnamese oasis.

The restaurant went through renovations more than two years ago when owner Jenny Tang took over operations from her mother. Tang gave the place a classier vibe, with its brightly colored walls, ambient lighting and Vietnamese artifacts hanging on the walls.

The clientele is a mix of races and ages who come for the wide selection of Southern Vietnamese dishes on the menu. More than 130 items are listed, ranging from rice plates, pho, salads, noodles, porridge, fire pots (just like hot pots cooked at your table) and seafood. Binh Minh Quan is not your standard pho noodle joint. (There are only about a dozen soup noodles listed, and not all are pho.) Still, it attracts a steady crowd during the weekday lunch.

That’s when I visited the first few times, on my search for something to eat down in Chinatown during my lunch hour. I made the detour to Binh Minh Quan (which saves me about four blocks of walking to the heart of Chinatown) and tried these dishes:

Còm Tay Câm Thâp Câm (Combination in Clay Pot), $6.98. This is one of the nine lunch specials, served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays only. I’m a fan of clay pot rice dishes, so I tried this version that came with a mix of pork slices, chicken, shrimp, squid and broccoli. When it arrived, I was disappointed because just looking at it I could tell that it was a pedestrian effort. None of the ingredients looked necessarily unusual and it basically looked like a stir-fry dish over rice served in a clay pot. (I have yet to find a clay pot that matches the one made at Xyclo on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.) I also didn’t feel the ingredients were anything special, so that’s when I learned not to order any of the lunch specials and stuck with the regular menu.

Bún Gà (Vermicelli with Grilled Chicken), $5.98. Another standard lunch dish I typically order at Vietnamese restaurants is the bún, or cold vermicelli rice noodles served with some protein and a mix of vegetables and herbs. I ordered the grilled chicken bún and it was a nice medium-sized bowl (slightly smaller than what’s served at other spots). Still, the chicken was freshly grilled and tender, and I enjoyed the mix of carrot strips, daikon shreds, cucumber, mint and bean sprouts. The combined taste was good and satisfying.

Side note: I really love all the dinnerware used by Binh Minh Quan. It really adds a nice touch to the overall eating experience.

Hú Tién/Mì Thâp Câm (Combination Noodle Soup), $6.98. On a third visit for lunch, I decided to order a pho dish and got the combination special that includes shrimp balls, shrimp, squid and pork slices. (Other selections include the standard beef pho or one with snails.) Surprisingly, the pho at Binh Minh Quan is served with all the ingredients already in the bowl. I’m used to pho served with an accompanying plate of fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeno and limes that you add right before you eat. They do that for you at Binh Minh Quan, except the jalapeno and lime pieces are served separately for you to add. The overall dish was nice, with an excellent sweet broth and nicely cooked pho noodles. Instead of basil, the bowl came with bean sprouts, lettuce and chives already added in. I liked the fresh pieces of squid, but the thinly sliced pork was a bit chewy.

Because there’s only so much you can eat for lunch, I decided to visit Binh Minh Quan for dinner. The dinner crowd can be a bit quiet since the restaurant is away from the Chinatown scene, so I had no problems getting a table.

I contemplated getting the lâu, what they call a fire pot (just like a hot pot) where you cook your meal yourself at the table. The menu offers shrimp, catfish, goat and a mixture of everything in between. The prices range from $18.98 to $24.98 for the small pot and $23.98 to $29.98 for the large. I ended up not getting the fire pot, even though it sounded exciting (who doesn’t like playing with fire?), basically because I’m a lazy diner and I hate cooking and eating. I rather just eat.

So instead I ordered the Cá Kho Tô (Catfish Stewed in Clay Pot), $8.98. Despite my earlier poor experience with the clay pot for lunch, I wanted to try this dish which is a specialty of the Mekong Delta. One of my favorites I ate was at a restaurant in one of the towns along the delta. Binh Minh Quan’s version had a dark caramel sauce over the catfish steaks in the pot, so it was actually hard to see them. But when you bit into the white flesh, it was so light and fluffy. This was a great dish mixed with a bowl of rice.

Also for dinner I got one of the more exotic items on the menu, Éch Xào Xã Ot (Frog with Lemongrass), $14.98. Another Mekong specialty, I’m always up for a plate of pan-fried frog legs (sometimes they can taste like baby chicken wings and other times they’re slightly elastic like fish). The dish came piled with peanuts and parsley that it was hard to really see the frog legs, which were chopped into pieces. (My guess is there were four frogs chopped into pieces.) I also didn’t get a sense of the lemongrass because the legs were overpowered by fish sauce.

One common element in many of the dishes I had at Binh Minh Quan was that they were all slightly salty from a tad too much fish sauce. That was especially true in the clay pot dishes (both the one I had for lunch and the catfish). Still, the memories of the refreshing bun bowl and the tasty broth of the pho are enticing me to come back.

The dishes are all a bit smaller than what you might find elsewhere, but I don’t think you’ll find as much variety as you’ll get at Binh Minh Quan. If you’re ever hankering for authentic South Vietnamese dishes of snails, goat, frog legs, deer or boar, then you’ll probably find them here.

Single guy rating: 2.75 stars (Slightly Salty but Diverse)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Binh Minh Quan on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Next Food Network Star: Season 4, Episode 8

Vegas Odds: 1,000-to-1 on Whether This Episode Makes You Care

Previously: The final three are in Vegas for a throwdown, Paula Deen calls Lisa intense, Susie is still struggling over Aaron, Adam isn’t funny, but it’s Kelsey who is out. (And she agreed with the judges panel.) Tonight: Guy Fieri puts on a monster buffet, Adam is going down smoking, Lisa sings, and I think I just saw Diana Ross. Adam says “what?”

Opening scenes of clouds moving really fast against a Vegas skyscraper, and Adam is in his hotel bathrobe trying to wake up like an old man. Lisa is also in her robe blow-drying her hair while Aaron is already dressed and ready to go. They head to the Venetian hotel and they’re standing around waiting when a gondola comes floating under the bridge and just by the neon-white hair you know that’s Guy Fieri sitting up front. Oh, and Bobby Flay too. Lisa reminds us that Fieri is the winner from two seasons ago, but she says it like she was forced to say it, like she actually really didn’t know or care but someone had to vouch for Fieri’s star status.

Guy (you know, most people who’s first name is spelled G-U-Y pronounces it “Gee” like the French so not sure what’s up with Guy who pronounces it the way it looks) says the finalists have to do a 30-second promo written for them to promote their shows. They have to go to three different locations, and already Aaron is worrying about his camera presence.

Lisa looks all Hollywood in her sunglasses sitting in that white limo. She arrives at Aureole, the Charlie Palmer restaurant at the Mandalay Bay Hotel. (I always loved the name of the Mandalay. I would tell my friends that I would name my dog Mandalay if I got one.)

She’s greeted by Guy (or Gee) standing in front of this huge wine tower, which Guy says the “wine angels” go up and down every night to retrieve bottles for guests. So Lisa has to do her promo attached to cables going up the glass wine tower. I guess she’s afraid of heights, but it sounds like she gets a free ride without having to go to Disney World so I really don’t know what she’s complaining about.

She actually looks like she’s doing a Mission Impossible-kind of promo, with her all-black outfit. What’s throwing me off is she’s talking like she’s flirting with the camera, which I think makes her come off kind of slutty. She flubs a few lines and gets frustrated, and Guy calls time and says they have to make the best of it and let the judges decide how the promo came out.

Now we’re at Planet Hollywood with Aaron and Bobby Flay, and Bobby says they’re filming the promo right on the casino floor. Bobby does a quick demo of the script and he’s as smooth as butter, as usual. I mean, he’s a pro already. Then Aaron does the same, but he comes off a bit awkward, plus he has to talk and walk at the same time which is hard, I guess? But on his second try, he actually nails it and comes off really relaxed and friendly. Nice job.

They switch to the crap table (or is it craps? I know it’s not a crappy table) and Bobby gives directions again. Bobby is actually much more helpful in these promos than Guy, who comes off a bit unhelpful and borderline critical. Aaron, with Bobby’s help, nails this portion too after a few takes (even though it really looks like a cheesy commercial for Cache Creek or some other casino). Aaron’s so happy that he raises his arms in celebration, and oops, someone forgot to wear deodorant. Good thing they already stopped filming.

The last promo to be filmed is Adam at Bally’s Hotel. He’s going to work with two show girls from the Jubilee Theater, which Guy tells us is the longest-running show on the Vegas strip. Adam changes into a tuxedo, and he really looks like he should do a tap dance. A choreographer gives him a quick lesson on the steps (which is really just walking down the line with his legs matching the girls, duh). You’d think Adam would be smooth, but he comes off a bit forced and awkward. And again, after a few takes, Guy gives up and says they have to edit the promo the best they can.

The three contestants arrive at the Wynn Hotel, which looks amazing. It’s really magical with all the Christmas lights and everything. Guy’s there to greet them. What’s up with his white framed sunglasses behind his head? Does he have eyes back there? It’s kind of annoying me. But it may be because I’m tired from the weekend. (I later caught a glimpse of Guy’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show and he had the same look with the white sunglasses behind the back of his head. Ugh, no wonder I don’t watch that show.)

Guy tells the three that they will have to make an over-the-top monster buffet to impress Wynn’s finest chefs and some Vegas entertainers. Plus, they also have to entertain the entertainers. (I’m really getting tired of how there’s equal emphasis on food and presentation. I mean, they’re already stressed trying to put together the food, what’s up with the personality tests? You don’t see this on Top Chef. I feel really cranky pants this week.)

The three have six hours to plan, prep and cook their monster buffet and a budget of $1,000—the most they’ve spent on any challenge. They run off to Whole Foods, and you know, I don’t know how many people they’re supposed to cook for. But everyone’s buying cartloads of food, especially Aaron who has two carts (much of it filled with cans).

Lisa buys a bunch of monk fish for a picatta dish, and as she’s organizing her cart, a package falls off as she rolls away. The cameraman takes a moment to zero in on the lonely package sitting on the floor of the Whole Foods. (BTW, you’d think Lisa would stop and wonder why the cameraman is no longer following her and why he’s focusing on a big brown package on the floor. … I hope someone found it soon because that fish isn’t going to smell pretty after awhile.)

They’re at the Tryst Hotel where they’re going to cook and serve their food. Guy introduces their sous chefs, which of course are the recently rejected Kelsey, Shane and Jennifer. The other three cheer when seeing their long-lost friends. They drew numbers to see who gets to pick first, and Lisa goes first by picking Kelsey. Adam chooses Shane and Aaron gets Jennifer.

Everyone starts cooking in the kitchen, and now I find out that they’ll be serving 50 guests. That’s a lot of people. Adam is making a lot of his own specialty food with a barbeque-smoke theme, so lots of chicken wings, pork chops and fritters.

Aaron is going with simple family-style food like sirloin bruschetta, orzo salad, chicken bow tie pasta. Lisa is going for her pretty foods of monkfish piccata, pork rack and twice-baked potatoes.

Adam is busy building a smoker with some chips he bought at Whole Foods and a couple of woks. He says that if he goes down, he’ll go down smoking.

Lisa realizes that she’s missing her fish, so now she’s in panic mode trying to come up with smaller portions of her fish dish.

Guy comes in for his kitchen visit (and he’s wearing his sunglasses which is weird because he’s indoors, but I guess it’s better than flipped behind his head) and he chats up Aaron. They talk about some boring thing about having too many pasta dishes. I’m really not impressed by Guy’s appearance on this episode. He doesn’t even talk to the other two finalists, although that could have been edited out because it was so boring. I’d go with that.

The contestants start plating, and they really didn’t show much of Shane and Jennifer at work. It’s mostly Kelsey and Lisa, and with good reason because it looks like Lisa’s pork rack is totally charred. Lisa gets busy by scraping the black bits off the pork and quickly dresses it up with some cherry tomatoes and bowl of marmalade. She’s a quick decorator. Must be the caterer in her.

The three stand behind the buffet stations waiting for the guests, and in comes a wedding couple, the cast of Spam-a-Lot, some pirates, some gondoliers, Joan River, Cher, Diana Ross (all impersonators, BTW), and supposedly a well-known entertainer named Danny Gans? (Never heard of him.) Also coming for the monster meal are the judges: Bob Tuschman, Susie Folgelson, Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri. Picking up the tail is a bunch of men in white coats. I’m assuming these are the Vegas chefs.

Lisa does her presentation first and she starts singing “welcome my friends to my beautiful buffet.” She has a really nice, deep voice with a bit of a country twang. I mean, she’s no Carrie Underwood, but could be a good Shania Twain impersonator. The crowd is impressed. And so is Bob Tuschman, who gives off a “wow” after Lisa’s done singing.

Then Aaron comes up and initially I thought he was cute trying to play this extremely shy and awkward, almost-Dustin-Hoffman-in-“Rain Man”-kind of character. But then it gets really strange and borderline psychotic when he starts calling people crazy and acts almost like a used car salesman. It’s not pretty, and Adam points out how not pretty this all is.

So you’d think after that Adam could just recite the alphabets and he’ll come off looking good after Aaron’s debacle. Instead, he just plays it straight and after a loud “hello VEGAS” he just starts describing his food. It’s all bland and boring.

The Vegas people start eating. One guy tells Aaron that he’ll give his food an eight, which Aaron replies “ouch” because he needs a 10. The Spam-a-lot knights seem to love Lisa’s singing, while Danny Gans says he felt uncomfortable listening to Aaron’s presentation.

The judges try Lisa’s burnt pork, and Guy says the pork is dry while Bob Tuschman says his is really moist. A bunch of the other guests are raving about Adam’s food, especially the Banana Foster dessert. You know, not to take anything away from Adam, but I wonder how much Shane had to do with the quality of the food coming out? I think Shane is always an expert chef, so I wonder if he really helped make sure Adam’s menu was executed well? Hmmmm.

The three are now at Caesar’s Palace (how many hotels do we have to visit in one episode?) and it looks like it’s the next day because they look like they’re just waking up. They arrive at the elimination room to meet the panel of judges, which includes Guy Fieri this week.

The judges watch their promo and do a critique of the buffet menu and here’s how it went down:

Aaron: His promo was surprisingly polished and engaging, and Bob Tuschman says he had “winner’s energy.” But he took a big risk in his performance for the buffet and he bombed. Bob was also bored with the level of food that Aaron turned out although he liked the crab cakes.

Lisa: The promo looked better than when she was taping it but it still seemed a bit awkward. Bob gets all “Dr. Phil” on her and says her biggest competition is herself. Susie compliments her on her voice and Bobby thought her food was incredibly elegant, although Guy reminded everyone that he got a dried piece of pork.

Adam: Susie says his promo balanced his sense of humor but Guy thought he didn’t seem prepared during the buffet presentation. Bobby tells him that his bone-in pork was declared the winning dish by the Vegas guests, which gets Adam a bit ferklempt because he feels vindicated that real chefs (including Bobby Flay) like his cooking. Bob says Adam this week settled all questions about whether he could cook or not and Adam feels awesome.

The three are excused while the judges deliberate and you can tell that everyone has their favorites. Bobby likes Lisa as the total package, and Tuschman likes Adam while I bet Susie likes Aaron. Guy doesn’t really count since he hasn’t been judging from the beginning, so I actually thought it was unfair for him to comment on the fact that Adam is inconsistent when he’s never seen Adam when his cooking was bad.

The judges do that stupid thing where they say they want to take a piece of all three and mold it into the perfect Food Network star, but you know that’s not going to happen. At this point as they go into commercials with previews of what’s coming up and Bob says something about doing something “we’ve never done in the history of this show,” that’s when I knew it. They’re going to wimp out and send all three to the finals.

So basically, when we come back from commercial, that’s what Susie tells all three, and of course all three are excited because they rather compete against two other people than risk the chance that one of them has to be sacrificed to get to the final elimination.

That means all three goes back to New York for the final episode. And if you feel cheated that no one has been eliminated, leaving no one for Adam Roberts to interview for his exit show, then wait to you hear about next week.

Next: Gordon Elliot is working with the three finalists, and you know what? We find out who wins on Sunday. But I’m so confused because the last few years America voted for the winner. So if there’s no balloting on the Food Network site, then how are we supposed to choose? How can they announce the winner next Sunday? Shouldn’t there be another week of voting? And don’t give me any crap about this being a “live” show. WTF?! This is cranky pants, signing off.

Here's a preview video to see what I mean:

The Next Food Network Star airs at 10 p.m. Sundays and repeats at 9 p.m. Thursdays, but the last episode is this Sunday and then I will have my Sunday nights back for some peaceful watching of THE BEST SHOW IN AMERICA, “Mad Men” on AMC. Photos courtesy of the Food Network Web site.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Guess Where I Ate This?

It's going to be a busy week for me because I have to travel for work in the middle of the week, which I hate because my work travel is always just down to Pasadena in Southern California and it's always for a really short time like a day or two, so I never get time to explore. But let's see if I can squeeze a food visit in. Also this week:

1) My regular recap of The Next Food Network Star comes Monday night. Just two more episodes before the winner is announced!

2) I review the Binh Minh Quan Restaurant in Oakland, which has a lot of Vietnamese dishes to choose from.

3) Discover my latest tea find, and I blog about my visit to a new food spot where I ate the chocolate dish above. Mmmmm. Want a hint where? All I can say is that the chocolate dessert is made with Ghiradelli chocolate. ;-)

Friday, July 18, 2008

What's In My Frig?

Occasionally you might see me blog a recipe that calls for just half a sweet onion. I’m the Single Guy, so that means my recipes don’t call for a lot of any one ingredient.

With half an onion bulb in my frig, I often end up having to make another dish that might require onions. Let’s say, a risotto perhaps. Or maybe the base for a tomato sauce, maybe? But this week, after using half a red onion for a small pot of chili, I decided to turn the remaining half into pickled onions.

I made this the first time when I was competing in last year’s Turkey Cook-Off at the San Francisco Chronicle. It was pretty easy, and a nice complement to any rich-tasting food. (In the Chronicle competition, the pickled onions topped off a plate of green beans cooked into bacon fat.) This time I did it from memory and you know I don’t have a good memory so I’m sure I missed a few steps. It still turned out fine.

The trick is having a mandolin so you can thinly slice the onion. Then I just placed the slices in a jar with 2/3 cup red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoon of sugar, a pinch of kosher salt and a ¼ cup of water. (You have to use red wine vinegar to give it that nice pink color, or else it’ll just look sad.) Then I just let it marinade in the refrigerator, and now I use it as a garnish for other dishes or for my pulled pork sandwiches. It’s also very pretty to look at when I open my frig.