Friday, July 31, 2009

Dish on Drinks: Pisco Latin Lounge

Trying to Shake Up the Neighborhood
1817 Market St. (at Pearl), San Francisco
Lower Hayes Valley
PH: 415.874.9951
Open Monday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight (till 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday)
Major credit cards accepted
Web site

My favorite drink right now is the Pisco Sour, the ubiquitous drink of Peru. I read about it a few years ago when I was first introduced to Peruvian cuisine, but it was difficult to find the drink in the United States because pisco (a kind of brandy) wasn’t widely available.

But in the last year, pisco has made a big return to California (it was popular during the Gold Rush) and now there’s even a bar bearing its name.

Pisco Latin Lounge opened last year right next door to the popular nuevo Peruvian restaurant Destino. (It’s no coincidence; they’re both by the same owners.) I dropped in recently to check out if they had the best Pisco Sour in town.

The long, narrow space had a mix vibe of Latin lounge and neighborhood bar. While the sun is still out, the natural light sparkles near the front where people can lounge on comfy sofas. Towards the back, there’s a tiny platform area called the “pagoda” that provides a more intimate gathering. (You can reserve that area if you have a large group.)

From 5 to 7 p.m., Pisco Latin Lounge offers special $6 drinks. The night I was there they had a special cucumber martini and a mulled cherry drink. But I was there for the Pisco Sour ($9), so that’s what I ordered.

I failed to mention that I visited on a Friday night. I remember now because the photo shows my Pisco Sour—which traditionally made with foam of egg whites and topped off with Angostura bitter—came with a happy face that my bartender made using the bitters. He was so happy that it was Friday.

It was a bit weird drinking my Pisco Sour with the happy face because it was like I was kissing the drink every time I took a sip. (The happy face never disappeared because the foam stayed thick till the very end.) The overall drink felt like it had too much foam and too much Pisco because it tasted strong.

The bar menu contains several interesting Peruvian-influenced dishes, so I decided to order the Camarones ($10.50), which was the tiger prawns with goat cheese salsa. The prawns looked like perfect bar bites when they arrived because each prawn sat on a maseca chip. So you could pick them up and pop them in your mouth. But I have to say that the overall look, while convenient for eating, did seem a bit rough around the edges. It didn’t look refined. And the taste was lackluster, partially because the maseca chip became soggy from the shrimp juices and salsa.

As more people started arriving and the music pumped up, I ordered the Pisco Negroni ($11) just to see if I could find another pisco drink to like. Made with pisco, sweet vermouth and Campari, the drink was definitely pretty in color but packing a lot of punch. Not sure if it was the different variety of Pisco used or the combination of vermouth and Campari?

Service at the bar was mixed. A couple of servers were friendly and engaging, while my main bartender was more flirty with the girls down the other end of the bar than attentive to the rest of the guests. It’s rare that I sit at a bar and not have a bartender ask me if I need another drink, but that’s what happened as I often emptied my glass and not have anyone push another one on me.

Pisco Latin Lounge seems like a fun neighborhood hangout, but the food and drinks don’t provide any sparks to heat up a hot night.

Note: I’m not giving a rating since this is not a full restaurant. It’s a nice place to drop in if you’re in the area, but I wouldn’t go out of my way.

I wouldn’t say Pisco Latin Lounge made the best Pisco Sour I’ve ever had. So now I’m in search of the best in town. Where do you think serves the best Pisco Sour?

Pisco Latin Lounge on Urbanspoon

Another round of bar reviews:
Clock Bar: “Time Stands Still at this Hotel Bar”
Kingman’s Lucky Lounge: “A SOMA Lounge in Oakland”
Nihon Whisky Lounge: “Not Really Tokyo But a Whole Lotta Fun”

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Single Guy's Planner

Single Guy has been in a funk. I’ve been eating out so much that I haven’t really had time to check out food events because I mostly just want to stay home and digest. I don’t think I could be a full-time food critic because I would never want to go anywhere other than the restaurant and back home.

Hopefully, some of these upcoming food events might pull me out and get me to do something other than eat. Maybe you’ll be there too? I think I need a food intervention.

August 1-2, Saturday-Sunday. First Vegan & Vegetarian Food Festival in Sonoma. Tofu and bean lovers unite for this food event in the La Plaza Park in downtown Cotati. About 15 restaurants and vendors will showcase vegan and vegetarian fare from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information call 707.591.1786 or check out the Web site.

August 3, Monday. First week of Go Game Street Food Adventure. OK, this is different — a month-long street food scavenger hunt! It’s all part of the San Francisco Street Food Festival, which actually takes place on Aug. 22. But before then, the people behind Go Games will be challenging teams to find the hidden treasures of the city’s street food scene. The team getting the most points wins (not sure what but I’m sure it’ll be tasty)! At work our department used Go Games once for a team-building event and those guys are a lot of fun and creative. So check out their blog to find out more about creating a team and playing. If you’re not into the games, then you can always check out the street food festival, which is part of the Eat Real Festival at the end of August.

August 3, Monday. Mozzarella and Heirloom Tomato Tasting Class at 18 Reasons. This Mission neighborhood community food tank features a demonstration of making fresh mozzarella by cheese buyer Anthea Stolz and tastings for heirloom tomatoes by farm manager Simon Richard, both from Bi-Rite Market. Class runs 7 to 9 p.m. and cost $20. If you can’t make it on Aug. 3, the class is repeated on Aug. 24. Click here to purchase tickets.

August 6-9, Thursday-Sunday. SF Chefs.Food.Wine. An all-star cast of chefs in the city will be featured in this weekend event presented by Visa Signature. There will be special dinners and tasting tents and demonstrations in Union Square but you can expect to pay a pretty penny for admission (tickets range from $90 to $150). Click here for the schedule.

August 15, Saturday. Fig Festival at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. It’s nearing fig season and this fruit is one of my favorites to photograph because it’s so luscious. From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) will be hosting a fig education booth to learn about different farmers and different varieties. Featured food demo that day at 11 a.m. will be Marie Simmons, author of “Fig Heaven.” Event is free except $1 donation suggested if you eat a fig bar. For more information, go to the Ferry Building Web site.

And don’t forget that next week (Aug. 2-8) is National Farmers Market Week, so go out and check out a farmers market near you!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dish on Dining: Artisan Bistro

Rustic Elegance in a Home
1005 Brown Ave., Lafayette
PH: 925.962.0882
Lunch Tue.–Fri., 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; weekend brunch, 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m., dinner, 5:30–9:30 p.m. (until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday), closed Mondays
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Lately I’ve been having a lot of fun venturing outside my typical San Francisco and Oakland jaunts because of some fortuitous access to wheels. One was a trip to Contra Costa County when I got an email awhile back from Foodhoe Foraging who suggested we check out the relatively new Artisan Bistro.

Opened in March, Artisan Bistro has a “stimulus menu” promotion running till the end of August. A lot of restaurants these days are offering up specials because of the economy, and Artisan Bistro’s mini stimulus package is a “Dinner for Two” for $75, available every Tuesday and Wednesday.

So Foodhoe picked me up at the MacArthur BART last Tuesday and we headed through the Caldecott Tunnel for some East Bay dining, guided by her talkative GPS navigator.

Artisan Bistro took over what was previously an Italian restaurant, but it really looks like it’s in someone’s home because the structure was probably a former single-family home. But that’s OK because I often love the charm of dining in a refurbished home—it just adds to the coziness.

But what’s confusing about the home layout is that—to optimize floor space with more tables—the traditional foyer area had been transformed into a seating area. So the front door was closed shut, causing a lot of people to walk up the front steps and realize that they can’t get in. You actually have to enter through the garden. (Foodhoe wanted to sit in the garden for optimal lighting, but it was a bit windy and I don’t like things flying into my food.)

Another reason why I agreed to follow Foodhoe all the way to Lafayette was to check out the chef, John Marquez. Chef Marquez has a very impressive resume, working at such fine dining establishments as the former Elisabeth Daniel, the French Laundry, Per Se, and most recently chef de cuisine at Coi.

The stimulus dinner had changed a bit since Foodhoe first read about it. The dinner for two was now just a prix fixe menu of $30 per person (no wine). Anywho, there were still some very interesting offerings.

Foodhoe started with the Baby Spinach and Bacon Salad, which was a large plate of greens topped with white anchovy, red onions, parmesan and croutons. It looked like any other salad to me, but Foodhoe said she really liked the red wine Caesar dressing.

I got the Steamed PEI Mussels that was a heaping helping of fresh mussels dressed with shallots and sherry vinaigrette. The vinaigrette gave a nice twang to the mussels, but the aroma of bits of fried garlic is what really made this dish stand out. I was really happy with this starter.

For our main courses, Foodhoe was gracious enough to order the Flat Iron Steak Frites because she knows I don’t eat fried foods and the plate came filled with French fries. The steak was topped with caramelized onions and served with some spinach. Foodhoe liked it but the meat was cooked more done than the medium she requested. I took a bite and thought it was good, but nothing special.

I got the Alaskan Halibut served with maitake mushrooms and a black eyed pea ragout. The halibut filet had a nice golden brown sear to it, but I felt it was slightly overcooked. The ragout was nice, but one dimensional in flavor. There wasn’t enough complexity to add to the overall dish.

Our final course was dessert, and Foodhoe got the Cherry Bread Pudding served with whipped cream and a spiced chocolate sauce, and topped off with a chocolate-covered cherry. The presentation was beautiful but the bread pudding, to me, tasted a bit like pie and less like bread pudding.

I got the Tiramisu, which is one of my all-time favorite desserts. At Artisan Bistro, the tiramisu is served with a banana cream and white chocolate-espresso sauce. The banana cream had a nice banana flavor, but I thought it overwhelmed the coffee taste of the traditional tiramisu when blending the two together. Plus, my tiramisu was way soggy from being drowned in espresso. So instead of feeling light and airy, it felt wet and cheap.

The service was very friendly and professional, and Artisan Bistro seems to be garnering attention because of Chef Marquez’s previous employment. But it’s because of his resume that I found this dinner to be lacking. I expected more, and I was surprised that the quality of the dishes lacked finesse. Where was the creativity or imagination?

Artisan Bistro might fit well in the Lafayette dining scene, but you would think this city deserves more than just what might be considered an average dinner in San Francisco. Who knows, maybe Chef Marquez might get more creative or challenge himself more after settling into Lafayette. Let’s hope so.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (Pleasing but no surprises)

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

Artisan Bistro on Urbanspoon

Similar restaurant reviews:
Chez Papa Resto: “From Bistro to Paris Chic”
Bar Tartine: “More Than Baked Goods at this Neighborhood Bistro”
Coi: “The High Price of Eating With All Your Senses”

Monday, July 27, 2009

NFNS: Season 5, Episode 8

The Seoul Train Has Left Miami

Previously: Melissa the Mom is frantic so she develops a strategy to speak slowly. Jeffrey gets bumped on the head with a boom mic but still comes off as vanilla. Jamaican Jamika is pissed and Bobby Flay wants capers. Then it’s goodbye to Jamika and her winning smile, which apparently didn’t work this time.

In this episode all the environmental shots are moving so fast, it’s like the editors are on speed. Jeffrey’s hair is especially bushy this morning as he takes his place on the hotel balcony to look contemplatively out at the beach. Melissa says she’s out-cooked everyone, but she still wonders if she can win. Um, Melissa, if you out-cooked everyone, then there’s no one left.

In reality, we’re at the final three, so it remains to be seen if Melissa can out-cook tall Jeffrey and Seoul2Soul (or is it Soul2Seoul?) Debbie. The three arrive at Emeril’s Miami Beach restaurant and act all surprised that Emeril shows up, which doesn’t really surprise me because, doh, his name is on the restaurant.

Emeril explains the challenge and, let me just say, this is the biggest product placement for the overly hyped “Julie & Julia” movie starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Any one who reads anything related to food has probably seen a mention of this upcoming film or seen the commercial or even maybe already went to one of the screenings. (I’m interested in seeing the film, but geesh, do I have to hear about it every day?)

So Emeril talks about his great friend, Julia Childs, and they show a clip of her on his show. He tells the finalists that the film is about one’s dedication to a dream or passion. With that theme, the challenge is to come up with a three-course dinner that represents their passion. They have $1,000 to shop and will be assigned a sous chef. They also have to present a live demo during dinner.

For inspiration, they go to a private screening of “Julie and Julia.” The three talk about how they can relate to the characters in the movie. Debbie connects with Amy Adams’ character, saying she was also in a dead-end job (aren’t we all?) until she decided to quit and run her own restaurant. Melissa the Mom compares herself to the great Julia Childs, saying they’re two peas in the pod because they both were Americans living in Paris, and they were both underestimated by those around them. Jeffrey relates to the movie because it talks about Julia Childs going to culinary school and Jeffrey loved learning about food at culinary school. He is vanilla, yeah?

They head off to a local market and start buying ingredients to craft their passionate dinners. Melissa is doing a French-inspired dinner with a lot of puff pastry while Debbie is going Seoul2Soul with braised Korean-style short ribs.

Jeffrey doesn’t really have a theme to his dinner, but it’s mostly seafood with some Mexican flavorings. He goes to the checkout worried he might be over his $1,000 budget and the total comes to $317. What’s sad is even after he realizes this, he’s not allowed to go shopping for more. I guess time ran out, or I guess once you check out you can’t go back in. So now he’s worried that his food might not be elegant or sophisticated enough because it’s cheap. BTW, Jeffrey’s hair always looks wet in this episode. It must be hot in Miami.

Commercials. Wii Sports. Why can’t you just go to the playground?

The finalists arrive at this beautiful private beach home. Looks like someplace P.Diddy once used as a changing room before heading to one of his famous South Beach parties. In the center of the huge empty room is a minimally dressed table, and the three go snooping to see who’s coming to dinner. There are many recognizable names like Chefs John Besh and Rick Bayless, and a plethora of B-list Food Network Stars like the Neelys, Sunny Anderson, and that spiky hair blond woman who’s always trying to teach you the secrets of a chef. The Food Network wattage gets amped up a bit with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto (you know he’s only going to say one word) and Ty-Flo.

The three head to the kitchen and standing there are the three latest rejects, aka their sous chefs. They’re each holding up the name of who they’ll be working for so Michael a Go-Go™ is there for Debbie, Health Nut Katie is there for Jeffrey and Jamaican Jamika is back for Melissa the Mom. There’s a lot of hugging and screaming, and mostly coming from Debbie.

Everyone starts getting down to prepping and Melissa gets busy making pastry dough for two of her courses. Then she channels Julia Childs again.

Katie asks Jeffrey how much he spent and after he tells her that he only spent $317 of his $1,000 budget, she tells him that maybe he can give them tips on throwing frugal dinner parties. Debbie is making her short ribs and Michael is worried it won’t be tender, but Debbie says to the camera that Koreans like to gnaw on their meat. And I have to say, this is why I’m not a fan of the kal bi because of the tough meat and the bones.

Debbie also focuses on Jeffrey’s risotto, saying it’s a risk because that’s the kind of dish that needs to be served up immediately. There’s a chance it’ll sit for awhile, but Jeffrey says he wants to go out of his comfort zone.

On Melissa’s side, it looks like she has a few mini crises to deal with as her orzo is super salty (and it looks like it was Jamika who salted it) and her potato tortes aren’t really golden brown so they could be undercooked. Hmm, wonder what Julia Childs would do now?

Commercials. Bush’s Baked Beans has that creepy commercial with the talking dog. Is this 1959?

Back in the kitchen, Melissa’s orzo is still salty but luckily she has two other pots of orzo that hasn’t been salted yet so she combines the two to try to dilute the salt. Then she does a smart quick change in her menu and move the pastries from the appetizer to the entrée, to give it more time to cook.

The chefs and guests arrive and that Francois Payard looks really angry. Don’t they know they’re being filmed? Melissa is up first to present her dishes and do her demo. I have to say, Melissa looks really good with makeup and her hair looks fantastic for TV. She looks very sophisticated, matching the settings and elegance of the dinner.

She starts telling a story about cooking with her mom and her culinary dream, and she’s very composed and the story is well thought out. Then she drops in that her mom committed suicide and I’m like, woah, and she just goes on like she just mentioned that she got carded at a bar when she was only 16. Everyone is captivated by her story and a couple of them are dabbing away tears. This is such an Oprah moment.

Bobby Flay is impressed and says she’s like a different person, almost poetic. Then she talks about her first course, which is a ratatouille. One of the Neelys liked the texture and the vegetables were nicely seasoned.

For the main course, she serves her brick chicken with potato torte. This is the course she does her demo and she starts cooking her chicken using the bottom of a skillet to weigh it down instead of a brick. Rick Bayless thought she did a fabulous job with the demo, but the angry-looking Chef Payard says his chicken didn’t have the crispy skin and it was still overcooked. Sunny Anderson also held her hand up and said her chicken was dry too. Everyone loved the potato torte though.

For dessert, Melissa serves up what she says is her mandatory dessert at home: cheese with a green salad. This sounds really simple and not very creative, but she saved herself by adding an orange-cream porchette, which is like a pastry roll, and even Payard liked it. Sunny called it “banging” and John Besh calls her an artisan, which is high praise. Maybe she is Julia Childs reincarnated?

Commercials. Fruit 2 Day says it’s the new way of eating fruit. Yeah, if you like pulverizing it and shoving it into a weird hourglass-looking plastic jar. Me, I like my fruit straight from the farmers’ market!

We’re in the kitchen and Jeffrey is searing his scallops, and the sear looks really brown to me. Debbie is plating up her dishes and her catering experience is showing because everything looks perfectly uniformed. It’s her turn to present and for some reason she decides to come running out of the kitchen doing her two-hand wave.

Debbie launches into her story about parents immigrating to the South and learning to make Southern food and then how she learned Korean cooking from her grandmother. She’s always personable and gets a laugh from the crowd. Then she serves her first course, which is a chili-rub shrimp over a savory Southern corn salad. Rick Bayless wonders how the Korean side of things was blended into the dish, and Ty-Flo felt like it was something he’s had before. I guess it wasn’t the ultimate shrimp and corn salad dish.

For her second dish, Debbie serves up her Korean braised ribs over grits. Gina Neely says it tastes bland while some complain that the ribs are not tender. Chef Bayless says he doesn’t mind that it wasn’t fall-off-the-bone tender, and that saves Debbie for now.

She decides to demo her dessert, which is a deep-fried Asian pear egg roll. She demonstrates how to fold the egg roll and then fries it up, finishing it off with powdered sugar. People felt she rocked the demo but Chef Marcus Samuelsson points out that the dough in his egg roll was raw, which must have been so gross to eat. (I’m not a fan of raw dough, which is why I never grew up eating cookie dough.)

It’s Jeffrey’s turn to present and he looks really tall and handsome. I think he’s lost some weight while on the show. He talks about his passion and tries to talk about eating raw scallops for the first time. Then he demos the first course of seared scallop and to me it seems so elementary. I would be embarrassed to teach this crowd how to properly sear a scallop. But they’re all very attentive and give him good grades for making the demo simple and energetic.

Then Jeffrey serves up his risotto, and John Besh is already making a funny face when the plate is placed in front of him. Jeffrey talks about traveling to Italy with his wife, trying to make a personal story out of risotto, and all the guests are making weird faces. Ty-Flo takes one bite and has a shocked look on his face. Then the comments. Angry Francois Payard must be more angry after eating the risotto because he called it the worst he’s had, and that it was like soup. To him, he said it was like killing Italian cooking. But the worst comment comes from Chef Samuelsson who says it was like disrespecting Italy. He’s talking the entire nation of Italians coming after Jeffrey for making such a failure of a risotto dish.

To add fuel to the flame, Bobby Flay asks Jeffrey how much he spent out of his $1,000 budget and Jeffrey tells him $320 (he rounded up from $317 to make it sound more) and Bobby shakes his head in disappointment.

His final dish is his chocolate mousse dessert. Chef Alex with the long last name (starts with G) says it was delicious and in the end Tyler Florence says Jeffrey is easy to watch and he’d like to watch him cook.

The other guests give more feedback, with a lot of people feeling like Melissa served up the best food. Chef Morimoto, like I said, adds just one comment and that was that he liked Debbie. John Besh also likes Debbie’s personality.

Backstage, Jeffrey is squirming already because he’s still feeling the anger over his risotto. Too bad. I love risotto.

Commercials. Brooke Shields says she’s growing lashes but it totally looks like false eye lashes. If she’s really growing her lashes, she should show them without mascara so we can see for ourselves. But I have a feeling her lashes are always long.

It looks like the next morning and the three finalists are all dressed up waiting to go to judgment. When they walk in, there’s more talk about the “Julie and Julia” product placement. Then the critique:

Melissa: Her pastries were the best thing they ate all night, but Bobby wanted to see more in her demo. She admits that she gets intimidated and that frustrates Bobby even more because he thinks she has so much to offer but she holds back.

Jeffrey: He did a great job with his presentation but the seafood risotto just didn’t work. Susie asks why he didn’t spend all his money, and really, Jeffrey has no answer. His predictability may be his downfall.

Debbie: She comes off comfortable and energetic, but her food had issues (ugh, uncooked dough) and not much flavor. Bobby wants to taste more Seoul2Soul than just hearing about it.

Commercials. The Food Network just showed a promo on “Julie and Julia” and then it was followed by a commercial of the same movie! Now I may not watch it out of protest over this over-saturation!

Back in the judgment room, Bob Tuschman asks each finalist to say something about themselves that the judges might not know but might help them in sending them to the finals. Melissa says she gives instant credibility to the working mom market (she already said that), Debbie says she’s human and she understands the entire population of America (then she should run for president) and Jeffrey says he’ll always deliver on good food.

The three are excused and the judges talk. And of course, since we’re one week from the finale, they’re all talking about how difficult a decision this is. And I guess it is a tight race, and maybe they should just leave it up to America like American Idol. But now, they talk some more about Debbie and Jeffrey starting out strong and staying strong, but Melissa the Mom has shown the most improvement over the course of the series.

Then they bring the three back, and without much fanfare or back story, Bobby Flay sends Melissa the Mom into the finals, and of course she’s excited and grateful.

So it’s either Debbie or Jeffrey, either a girl-girl finale or a boy-girl finale. Susie sends Jeffrey to the finale and Debbie is out, and you can tell on her face that she felt cheated even though she thanks the judges.

Debbie packs up and then hugs the two finalists who stole her spot, and she says that she showed the real Debbie. And as she turns to leave and partially cries at the same time, she waves with just one hand this time because the other one is holding her broken heart.

Next time: They’re back in New York for the finale and they each have to produce their own pilot. Melissa gets confused about which camera to look in and Alton Brown gets snippy when Jeffrey calls a tomato an onion. Who do you think will BE the next Food Network star? Here's a promo of the finale episode:

The Next Food Network Star airs 9 p.m. Sundays (and repeats at the same time Thursdays) on the Food Network. Check your local listing. Photos courtesy of the Food Network Web site.

Previous recaps:
Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3
Episode 4
Episode 5
Episode 6
Episode 7

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pigging Out in Berkeley

Yesterday afternoon I went to the Fourth Street shopping area in Berkeley to look for some dishware at the Crate & Barrel Outlet Store. When I arrived, I literally landed in hog heaven.

The Pasta Shop was hosting its Hog Heaven II event inside and out the store. There were grills (working with Café Rouge next door) fired up with sausages for sale and tables setup inside with tastings of local and Italian cured pork products.

There were thinly sliced salumi from Fra’Mani, salame from Creminelli, nduja and more from Boccalone, and a range of prosciutto, coppa and speck from La Quercia. My cholesterol never took as big a hit in one afternoon as it did yesterday.

And these days, you can’t have a pig event without an appearance from Ryan Farr of 4505 Chicharrones. Here’s a blurry shot of him as he passes out samples of his popular chicharrones, or pork rinds. I typically don’t eat fried fat, but I tried just one to see what all the fuss was. It did melt in my mouth, but it wasn’t as crisp as I thought it would be.

So to demonstrate how I’m so easily influenced by the grill, I had just come from eating lunch (a large bowl of ramen plus a rice ball) but still got tempted by these sausages.

I ended up getting one of the freshly made chicken sausages from the Pasta Shop’s Chef Scott Miller. I really loved how the meat was nice and succulent and not densely packed. It tasted fresh and delicious, but it was a bit difficult to eat with all the grilled peppers and tomatoes on top. But when in Hog Heaven, sloppy is the norm of the day.

Other posts of interest:
More Elbow Room at the Pasta Shop
Charcuterie at Cafe Rouge
Jumping for Jamon

Friday, July 24, 2009

Dish on Dining: Asian Pearl Seafood Restaurant

Dim Sum that Offers Few Jewels
3288 Pierce St., Richmond
Inside Pacific East Mall
PH: 510.526.6800
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Major credit cards accepted, reservations for large parties

My friend Vera has been wanting to try the dim sum at Asian Pearl Seafood Restaurant for awhile. Inside the popular Asian mall known as Pacific East Mall off I-80 (where there’s a Ranch 99 market), this dim sum place attracts regular crowds and on weekends get so packed they literally set up tables outside the restaurant in the hallway of the mall. (They do put up wall dividers for some privacy.)

So when she asked if I wanted to tag along with her husband, Ray, I said sure and off we went to Richmond.

We arrived fairly early on a Saturday, so our wait was a matter of minutes. The restaurant actually didn’t seem that big. It was nearly full, but not overflowing, so no tables were set up outside yet.

Like several dim sum restaurants, Asian Pearl specializes in seafood at night. So when you walk in, you almost feel like you’re at an aquarium or fish store with all the tanks of seafood. Want a crab for a pet?

The dim sum comes out via carts. Asian Pearl’s dim sum may be popular because it’s among the cheapest in the Bay Area, with prices ranging from $2.60 for a small plate to $3.80 for large plates. (There are also special plates for about $5.50 or $6.50 but we didn’t order any of the specials.)

The first cart that arrived had the cheong fun, or flat rice noodles rolls usually stuffed with chicken beef, shrimp or BBQ pork. Vera ordered one of the shrimp and pork. The noodles seemed fresh and the filling was just the right amount, but the tastes of the filling didn’t stand out.

Then we got a bunch of steamed items, including a tofu skin roll and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves. The tofu skin roll is filled with vegetarian ingredients like bamboo shoots and mushroom. My mom loves to order this because she thinks she’s off-setting all the other fat she eats in other dishes, but I’ve generally avoided this. But I have to say Asian Pearl’s version was quite delicious because the tofu skin was tasty and the ingredients inside were finely chopped.

The sticky rice in lotus leaves, however, wasn’t as successful. This is one of my favorite dim sum dish, with sticky rice filled with an assortment of meats, usually Chinese sausage and chicken. But Asian Pearl’s version seemed lackluster, with minimal ingredients. It also seemed like the tastes didn’t blend well together, and the shape of the sticky ball could be called rustic when it plunked out of the lotus wraps in a deformed ball.

We also tried some of the often-ordered dim sum dishes to see how Asian Pearl lived up to the standards that we have for dim sum. So classics likes siu mai (the ground pork dumplings with shrimp), wu gok (deep-fried stuffed taro) and low bok gou (pan-fried turnip cake).

The siu mai was crudely made, almost too much of the ground pork and packed so dense that it didn’t feel like a dumpling and more like a hockey puck. The wu gok had just come out of the kitchen so it was hot and had a beautiful flakey skin from the deep-frying (yes, this is one of the few deep-fried things I eat, but I rarely go for dim sum so don’t call me out). But it had very little taste and I suspect the taro batter was more potato than taro.

The low bok gou had nice crispy edges from the pan-frying, but it was just average. The ingredients didn’t taste necessarily fresh.

We also tried the Shanghai dumplings, which is the popular soup dumplings where a tiny bit of broth is inside the dumpling and bursts into your mouth as you bite in. At Asian Pearl, they decorated it with some kind of orange thing, my guess is shrimp roe. It tasted fine but it didn’t have any soup inside, so it didn’t seem authentic.

Much of the dim sum coming out in the carts seemed pretty average, and there weren’t anything surprising or different that caught my eye. The only thing that was unusual was Asian Pearl’s steamed custard buns. This comes either steamed or baked (I liked the baked better) and the filling is a sweet custard, which makes this so heavenly. (Koi Palace in Daly City makes the best I’ve had.)

The server at Asian Pearl says their version is slightly different. Vera asked how but we couldn’t really understand what she was saying. When we tried it, we all recognized immediately that there was a salty-sweet thing happening in the custard. My guess is they mixed in bits of salty duck eggs, which is a popular but expensive filling for Chinese desserts just because of the labor of preserving the duck eggs.

Ray liked the salty-sweet combo, but I wasn’t blown away. Plus, I felt the texture of the custard has some crystallization of the sugar, so it wasn’t as creamy as I would have liked.

Asian Pearl doesn’t really have a whole lot of dessert-type dim sum either, so we ended up just getting the classic custard tarts, or dahn tats. These were also piping hot from the kitchen, but the crust wasn’t flakey enough and was a bit too thick to really enjoy the custard filling. And one of the last dishes we grabbed was another one of my favorites, the char siu (BBQ pork) baked rolls. These were fresh and good, but we were stuffed by now.

Even before we finished everything on our table, Vera was already planning our next dim sum adventure, going over other possibilities in the Bay Area. So that wasn’t a good sign for Asian Pearl because if it were really amazing, she would have been talking about our next trip back.

Overall, Asian Pearl offers up decent dim sum but doesn’t really stray far from the classic offerings like siu mai and har gow. I can see why it’s popular because there’s no other decent dim sum tea house in the near vicinity (the closest would be the pricey East Ocean Hong Kong in Emeryville) but I don’t know if I’d be all too happy to wait for an average 40 minutes on a busy weekend. Go early or don’t go at all.

Single guy rating: 2.25 stars (Reliable but Basic)

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

Asian Pearl on Urbanspoon

Other dim sum jaunts:
Koi Palace: “Dim Sum Gem Still Going Strong”
King of King: “The Working Man (or Woman’s) Dim Sum Joint
Dim Sum Primer

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Farmers’ Market Summer Cobb Salad

Summer is the best time for salads because the warm weather makes it perfect for a light meal. But it’s also because this time of year there’s a variety of ingredients that you can use to build your salad with.

One of my favorite salads (although I don’t eat it that often because of the bacon) is a Cobb Salad. I love it because of the presentation, with all the chunks of ingredients before you like a rainbow. And it’s a very hearty salad that can really feel like a meal worth biting into.

I decided I was going to build a Cobb Salad with ingredients that I find at my local farmers’ market. Right now, we’re seeing an abundance of produce at the markets so you can get really creative building a salad from what’s fresh and in season.

This past Sunday I went to my local farmers’ market in the Temescal neighborhood. This is one of the smaller markets in my area (but most convenient because I can walk to it) so it was a challenge trying to get ingredients close to a traditional Cobb salad. But I think I did pretty well. Here’s a look at what I bought to make my salad:

A. Prather Ranch’s Whiskey Maple Sage Sausages, $7
B. Flame and Black Prince varieties of heirloom tomatoes, Lucero Farms (Lodi, Calif.), $2.99/lb.
C. Avocado from a farm in Temecula, Calif., $1.50 each
D. Cowgirl Creamery Herb Fromage Blanc cheese, $6
E. Red Leafy Lettuce and a red bell pepper, Pinnacle/Phil Foster Ranch (San Juan Bautista, Calif.), $3.50
F. Honey Wheat Bread from Feel Good Bakery (Alameda, Calif.), $5
G. Organic feta cheese from Spring Hill Jersey Cheese, $4.94
H. Golden beets from VB Farms (Watsonville, Calif.), $1.75
I. Lemon cucumbers and chives from Happy Boy Farms, $2.50
J. Half a dozen large brown eggs, Glaum’s Organic (Aptos, Calif.), $2.25

Putting together the salad was pretty simple, although my version took some time because I had to prep some ingredients. I had a craving for the beets, so I had to spend some time roasting them in the oven and then peeling them. I also hard-boiled one egg ahead of time and sautéed chunks of one sausage to render off some of the fat and to make sure it was cooked before adding it to the salad.

Once I got those ingredients out of the way, everything else was simply just washing, rinsing and cutting into chunks. (If you’re keeping track, the rest included lemon cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes, red bell pepper, avocado, the leafy lettuce and feta cheese. A traditional Cobb Salad would have roquefort cheese, but none of the cheese mongers had that.)

For the dressing, I did have to go to Safeway to buy some low-fat buttermilk to make a Ranch-style dressing. So I started with ½ cup of buttermilk and whipped in the amazing Herb Fromage Blanc I got from the Cowgirl Creamery booth (this is optional but I took a bite and couldn’t resist buying it) and a tablespoon of finely chopped chives. I tossed in a pinch of salt and that was it. If you like, you can thicken the dressing more with either some mayonnaise or sour cream. Add a little at a time until you get the consistency you want.

I assembled my Farmers’ Market Summer Cobb Salad and then served it up with some slices of the wheat bread. It was quite a filling lunch.

So this weekend, go visit your farmers’ market and get creative in making up your own Cobb Salad! Enjoy!

Monday, July 20, 2009

NFNS: Season 5, Episode 7

Jamaking-me-Crazy in Miami

Previously: The grill’s fired up in Miami and Bobby Flay wants the food out. Jeffrey says Debbie said “whatevs” about helping, but she says she was just being selfless. Michael has a lot of personality but not for the Food Network, so he and his Lorax hair are gone.

Opening scene of Jeffrey on the balcony looking out contemplatively. Debbie thought she was going home, so now it’s her turn to prove herself. The final four walk out to the hotel pool, which looks amazing, and they’re greeted by a very serious Chef Michael Symon of Iron Chef America. He’s wearing a white jacket ala Miami Vice and Debbie calls him a “culinary monster,” which sounds a bit scary.

Symon tells them that they have to demo a recipe live on a local morning show. Then he sends them on their way. Again, why so serious? Where’s his trademark hyena laugh? I notice Food Network stars aren’t as personable when they appear on this show as guest judges. Weird.

The contestants arrive at the South Florida live studio and the host tells the TV audience that they’re going to play tricks on the contestants when they come out. This host totally looks like he’s on some Web TV show selling household goods. Is this all South Florida has to offer?

Debbie is up first and she’s making catfish with edamame succotash. Chef Symon is watching with his serious face in the back with the other judges Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson. Symon tells them that they’re going to swap out the catfish with chicken and hide cooking utensils to try to trick Debbie up. But really, she doesn’t get fazed at all, moving along smoothly by using her hands to beat the eggs (gross) and saying you can use the recipe for chicken as well as catfish (that was smooth). Overall she kept her composure and the judges love it.

Next is Melissa the Mom and the host pretends to forget her name and keeps calling her Debbie. Then he tries to help Melissa to cook by adding a whole bunch of hot sauce to the dish, pretty much ruining the tapenade that she was making. Melissa keeps looking at the guy and saying “is this a joke?” and she also talks really fast, which seems to annoy Tuschman, who calls her frantic. Debbie is watching in the back and basically laughing at her. When Melissa comes off stage, she knows something was up and that this was the twist to the challenge.

Jeffrey goes in to do his demo, and boy is he tall standing next to the host. He’s making a gorgonzola and pear grilled cheese sandwich, and the camera guy says there are problems with his mic so they bring in the big boom microphone and then later hands him a hand-held microphone. Jeffrey keeps on talking, although I thought it would have been smart to playfully ask the host to hold the microphone for him while he continued cooking. I mean, at one point he was literally holding a knife to the host as he juggled the microphone and knife in one hand.

Jamaican Jamika is the last one, doing an herb-roasted chicken breast. Bob Tuschman in the back is rooting for her to smile because she’s a bit serious-looking. Then the cameraman plays a trick on her by coming up super close, which I personally don’t like when people do that to me. I’m all into my personal space. Sometimes as I’m waiting for the bus, this same woman walks by every day and she literally is within six inches of my face as she walks by when the entire sidewalk is open. She’s one of those people that have to walk close to a wall of a building so she’s always walking up next to me as I stand by the wall waiting for the bus. Ugh, I hate it. Anywho, Jamika doesn’t like it too and at one point she hits the cameraman accidentally as she tries to bring out her chicken from the oven. In her mind she’s thinking “what kind of low-budget operation do they run here in South Florida?” When she joins the rest of the gang, they tell her she’s been Punk’d like the rest of them.

Afterwards, Symon lets them know that it was all a trick, like they couldn’t have guessed it by now. Then the judges give little tidbits about their performances before announcing Debbie as the winner of this challenge. She’s all excited because it’s her first challenge win, and then I notice for the first time that Debbie likes to wave “hi” and “bye” with two hands. I always get nervous when people do that because they’re like “wash-on, wash-off.” Why can’t you just wave with one hand like normal people?

Back at the hotel, Jamaican Jamika is sad about her performance and she’s standing outside the balcony looking contemplatively. They really like to get the contestants out there posing like they’re looking into their future. Must be some magical balcony.

Commercials. That dog in the Brawny commercial looks like a big skunk from behind.

The contestants wake up and now it’s Melissa the Mom’s turn to stand by the balcony and look contemplatively. I think the only one who has not stood by the balcony is Debbie, but we have half an hour to go so you never know.

The four arrive at the pool and Chef Symon is there, and there are four massive grills and work stations set up outside. Symon introduces Michael LaDuke, who’s the senior executive chef of Red Lobster (which is a major advertiser given the commercials we see at every break). The chef says the winner of this challenge will get their dish on the menu, and again I don’t get how this is a great prize since they don’t get any residuals from people ordering their dish.

They have 45 minutes to make a dish featuring a fish with some kind of shellfish. Debbie gets to pick first since she won the challenge, and she goes for tilapia, which is a popular white fish in Asian dishes but also one of the cheapest.

Melissa grabs the artic char, which looks like salmon, and Jamika goes for mahi mahi (Hawaii’s own). I didn’t hear what Jeffrey chose because all that’s stuck in my mind is that he just said he’s going to use lots of chilies so he can “blow Bobby (Flay’s) mouth.”

Speaking of Bobby Flay, he arrives looking all Desi Arnaz with his hat, and then he tells Chef Symon to stop everyone. Then Symon goes around and asks each contestant what they’re making, and as they’re talking, Bobby tells Symon to take away the ingredients they planned to use to spice up their dishes.

So for Jeffrey, they take all his heat and replace them with an Asian pantry, which I think is actually an advantage because I think Asian sauces are easy to cook with. Jamika has her pineapple taken away from her and she almost throws a fit, while Melissa gets a whole dozen of habaneroes to cook with and Debbie gets some Mediterranean ingredients: olives, capers and anchovies.

Commercials. Citi says not to use your pet name as a password (but your porn name will do). I wouldn’t be caught dead in those college dorm rooms decorated by Wal-Mart.

All four look really confused about their new ingredients, especially Jeffrey and Jamaican Jamika. For awhile Bobby goes around checking up on the four with Symon, and then later on the judges start peppering each with questions about what they’re doing.

At one point, Melissa the Mom is going over her steps and she’s talking to the camera about what she’s doing. And then Susie asks her who she’s talking to and she says herself, and everyone laughs. I actually sometimes do that too when I’m cooking, but I use my inside voice.

Bob Tuschman asks Jamika way she looks so focused. She tells her that she’s pissed because she’s so stressed. I guess Jamika won’t be wearing the T-shirt with the words “Never let them see you sweat” on it.

Speaking of sweating, who’s bright idea was it to cook outside in the Miami heat? I would hate to do that.

Finally, Jamika grills her celeriac, which Bobby replaced the pineapple with, and she likes the flavor and then decides to cut them up and throw them into her “Jamika-me-crazy rice.”

Commercials. This is one thing I thought I’d never see … Crisco extra virgin olive oil. What the …?

Everyone’s still cooking, and Melissa sure is smiling a lot. You know, I think it’s great when people can put on a happy face. But sometimes I get suspicious of TV people smiling non-stop. Don’t their jaws hurt? Maybe that’s why Symon is so serious when he’s on this show because he’s probably too tired from smiling on his own.

They present their dishes to the judges. Debbie’s up first and she made a rub for her tilapia. Bobby asks where’s the capers? And she says it’s in the sauce, but then she remembers she didn’t put them in the sauce, so then she pretends that there weren’t any capers. Bobby goes, um, yeah, there were capers, olives and anchovies. Debbie says it’s her bad for forgetting to include them. (I didn’t realize they had to use all the ingredients Bobby gave them either. He wasn’t necessarily very clear with his instructions.)

Melissa the Mom made a habanero-marinated fish and scallop and Bobby liked the balanced flavor of the habanero, which can be super hot. Tuschman, of course, comments on how she was calm and positive and “a joy to watch.”

Jeffrey is nervous about his dish, but everyone seems to be really happy with the Asian spin. Bobby comments about how Jeffrey is always making Mexican flavors and that it was nice to see him break out of his comfort zone. Jeffrey looks like he’s about to cry.

Finally, Jamaican Jamika presents her citrus grilled mahi mahi with Jamika-me Crazy rice, whatever the hell that is. Symon says he was disappointed about the way she didn’t really embrace the challenge, and Tuschman says it was painful to watch her as she muddled through what she was going to make.

Back at the hotel, Jamika is sad and starts crying because she knows she sucked. Maybe she needs to stand on the magic balcony again and then she’ll feel better?

Commercials. Yoplait frozen yogurt? Can you imagine? One day a worker at Yoplait accidentally puts his yogurt cup in the freezer and then (light bulb) decides to call it frozen yogurt. Oh. My. Gawd.

It’s judgment time, with Chef Symon joining in the deliberations. Since we’re nearing the end, you can bet we’ll constantly be hearing comments about “you’re all stars, but are you a star for today or tomorrow?”

Here are how the critiques when down:

Jeffrey: They liked what he did this week, but Bobby asks about his cooking show and Jeffrey talks about “Cooking Without Borders,” which, come on, is a stupid name because people will think of Doctors Without Borders and automatically think the show is about cooking in Cambodia or something. The judges say he hasn’t really shown many borders, and just one—south of the border. And then Tuschman calls him vanilla.

Jamaican Jamika: Bobby says she wasn’t Jamaican enough and Symon says she shutdown in her two challenges. Jamika says if you want attitude, you’re going to get it, but Susie says not for our network. In fact, Susie says “coo-coo” for the second week in a row, saying how Jamika is coo-coo for not smiling more because that’s her winning asset.

Melissa the Mom: Everyone liked the use of habanero and when they ask her why she should stay, she says she’ll be an expert among all the stay-at-home moms. And her attitude scares Bobby for a bit.

Debbie: Symon liked how she handled herself, but Bobby brings up the whole Capergate again, and then Susie starts to question how Debbie’s always stretching the truth a bit to “cover” herself, recalling last week’s “selfless” moment. Then Debbie breaks down because she says Susie called her untruthful and how that’s so hurtful.

Commercials. That BMW driving machine commercial is so weird because it shows the car driving on a big canvas with paint on the wheel but then they don’t show the finished piece. What? Is it too ugly to show? Kind of defeats the purpose of the ad, don’tcha think?

When we come back, Jeffrey is named the winner of the Red Lobster challenge, and now you can dine on Jeffrey’s dish both at Red Lobster and the Jet Blue terminal in New York. Woo-hoo! Next: The cafeteria at your child’s school.

So that just leaves the three girls left, and Bob asks them to each say something to convince them why they should keep them. Debbie says she likes to teach people and she has a unique culinary point of view, Jamika says she’ll be a star forever and “love me or hate me you’re not going to forget me” and Melissa plays the home cook card again.

Then they’re excused while the judges deliberate. Symon feels Jamika performed the worst this week, while Susie is totally loving Melissa the Mom. Symon likes Debbie, but Bobby doesn’t think she’s giving 100 percent.

The three return for judgment and Bob sends Jamika packing. “Oh well,” she says, like it’s “no biggie.” Jamika says she has no regrets, and then Debbie is talking about how she’s in the final three and she can just taste victory. Or maybe that’s just the capers.

Next time: Melissa dose her Julia Childs imitation, looks like they’re cooking for some major chefs in a beautiful dining room, and Bobby Flay is frustrated.

After the show, there’s a Red Lobster commercial with Jeffrey and that Red Lobster executive chef, but what’s interesting is that they got rid of the fancy French name for Jeffrey’s dish (some kind of ala nage or whatever) and the fancy fish Jeffrey used has been replaced with tilapia. Told you they were cheap.

The Next Food Network Star airs 9 p.m. Sundays (and repeats at the same time Thursdays) on the Food Network. Check your local listing. Photos courtesy of the Food Network Web site.

Previous recaps:
Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3
Episode 4
Episode 5
Episode 6