Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bloem 'n Sugar in San Francisco--CLOSED

UPDATE (11/30/11): Noticed this place has closed up after a short run. Not sure what happened. Too bad.

Since I rely on BART to get me into the city, I'm quite familiar with the Powell Street station. Recently when I was in San Francisco, I got off at the station and noticed a waffle shop in a tiny corner shop at the entrance of the Westfield San Francisco Centre.

The spot used to be a magazine shop, so it's not a very big space. But when making waffles, all you need is room for the waffle irons and the topping station. This new waffle store is called Bloem 'n Sugar, and it touts that it's the only people selling Brussels and Liege waffles. I can't tell you what's the difference between these two types of Belgian waffles, but I can tell you Bloem has a lot of waffle dishes to choose from (think of them as sundaes).

It was a bit overwhelming trying to decide which waffle dish to choose, so I just went with the "classic," which was described on the menu as waffles topped with strawberries, bananas, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and Belgian-style chocolate sauce ($7).

This isn't the kind of treat that I typically have (I'm not a big sundae person), so you know I'm doing this just for the blog. I was a bit scared when I got my waffles, because anything with all that whipped cream looked larger than it was. But I can't lie, I totally scarfed this baby down. The waffles were freshly made and warm, and tasted light and airy. The whipped cream was just as light, so I didn't feel like I was eating a lot of calories. And the strawberries and bananas were fresh, not like strawberries that's soaking in sugar sauce like some yogurt shops.

I got the Brussels waffles on this first visit, so now I'm tempted to go back to see what the Liege waffles are like. And to maybe try the "Bananutella" (bananas with Nutella). I just have to wait till I've jogged a few more miles.

Bloem 'n Sugar, Westfield San Francisco Centre (Concourse Level near Abercrombie & Fitch), 865 Market St., San Francisco. PH: 415.615.0064. Open daily.

Friday, July 29, 2011

If You're in Virginia, Say Hi to Cafe Stella

One of my best friends in the world is Stella, who used to live in the Bay Area and we'd bake together sometimes. But when she moved a few years ago to Virginia, it was a sad, sad day.

But she and her husband, Mariusz, had a dream, and that was to own their own place. And when they landed in Norfolk, Virginia, they knew right away they had to bring a little bit of California to the area. And that has now percolated into their own cafe, where Mariusz roasts fresh coffee beans every morning and Stella wakes up early to make her baked goods.

Cafe Stella just opened in a neighborhood called Ghent Norfolk. So if you're reading this and live nearby, you should drop by. Stella has amazing taste (it's kind of shabby chic) so you'll probably find a comfortable spot that's bohemian and fun. I still have to plan my trip to check it out myself, but until then, drop on in and tell them The Single Guy sent you. (Who knows? Maybe you'll get a free scone. :)

Cafe Stella, 1907 Colonial Ave., Norfolk, Virginia. Open weekdays, 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. PH: 757.625.0461. Visit them on Facebook.

Photos courtesy of Cafe Stella

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Casserole House in Oakland

Korean Soup for a Chilly Night
4301 Telegraph Ave. (at 43rd), Oakland
Temescal neighborhood
PH: 510.601.6001
Open Mon.-–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sun., 4–10 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

So I’ve mentioned how I live near a lot of Korean restaurants, and I’ve been slowly educating myself about Korean cuisine.

One restaurant in my neighborhood is simply called Casserole House, which doesn’t really sound Korean but I’m sure the Korean characters in the sign probably calls it something else. And Casserole House is on the same block as the popular Sahn Maru, which I reviewed earlier this year.

I remember walking past Casserole House on my way to Sahn Maru and noticing how it was more busy. But when I visited Casserole House, I realized it was because it’s half the size of Sahn Maru. Still, it has a cozier feel with décor that’s more homey and stylish than the open utilitarian feel of Sahn Maru.

Casserole House also seems like it’s run by only two women because they’re the only two I see when I’ve dined there. I mention it only because that means the service can sometimes feel lacking when the restaurant fills up. The women aren’t as engaging because they’re just busy bussing the tables.

As for the menu, you definitely find more casseroles than any other place, along with a nice variety of hot and cold dishes, noodles dishes, and Korean BBQ. Because this is called the Casserole House, I wanted to order a casserole. But my waitress wouldn’t let me, discouraging me from ordering from the dozen of choices because she said they’re designed for two. Drats! Discrimination against the Single Guy once again.

The waitress recommended I try the tofu soups, or soon, which she says is the same as the casseroles except more suitable for one. So basically the “casseroles” are just the Korean soups.

Disappointed, I defaulted to my typical Korean food choice, which is BBQ. So I ordered the daeji bulgogi ($14.95), which is thinly sliced pork but it’s actually broiled instead of barbequed.

Before my bulgogi arrived, the parade of panchan of Korean side dishes started to arrive. What I find unique about Casserole House is they start with an egg pancake that totally blew my mind. It was the texture of this simple pancake that I totally enjoyed, a crispy edge that made me ignore the slight shimmer of oil. I think the ingredients included potatoes and scallions, but I can’t say for sure. Anyone know what it’s called? Because this is my favorite Korean food to eat.

Then came other small dishes, but I felt the other panchan at Casserole House was pretty pedestrian. They were the typical bean sprouts, kim chee, steamed broccoli, marinated potatoes, and dried tiny fish. There were a lot of plates, just nothing exciting like the pancake.

When my daeji bulgogi arrived, it was a large platter of thinly sliced pork, but the texture looked weird, like it was covered with powder. But it was just the house spicy sauce. The flavor was just OK, nothing spectacular, but I appreciated how the pork was so thinly sliced. I just wish the sauce was more juicy than fuzzy. (Hey, that’s a new word for dining reviews, fuzzy food!)

Because this is called Casserole House, I still felt like I needed to try the casseroles, even if they’re just like soon soup. So I recruited my friends Vera and Ray to come with me for dinner, especially since they also live in the neighborhood.

We arrived for dinner and ended up ordering the black goat casserole ($29). They had a lot of other interesting casseroles, like octopus and beef, and pig’s feet. There’s even a vegetarian options. All casseroles, however, do start with the base of a lot of vegetables that’s stewed together with the other specialty items.

(Note: We got the same type of panchan that I got when I came on my own, and the Korean pancake was still amazing even though the shape wasn’t as pretty as my first time. I guess things can never live up to your first love.)

Our waitress set up the tableside hot plate, which will keep our casserole hot as we eat. Then a few minutes later she brought out the huge casserole (I can see why you can’t eat it by yourself) in a large metal casserole pan. The soup was still bubbling.

The casserole also came with this sauce, but the waitress didn’t say how we were supposed to use it. It looked like a mixture of hot mustard and ketchup with some kind of black sauce that had a lot of grain. I just mixed them all up and poured a little into my individual bowl of black goat stew.

The sauce was actually light and slightly sweet and tart, not spicy at all. In a way, it helped cut into the richness of the goat meat.

I had black goat meat at Sahn Maru and didn’t enjoy it, but Casserole House’s version was way better because of the tenderness of the strips of goat meat. The soup flavor was also nice and full-bodied, and all the other ingredients were nicely cooked, not overcooked at all. Eating the casserole with a side of rice was a very complete and satisfying dinner.

Korean casseroles are really just huge soups with lots of ingredients in them to add depth of flavor. With the chilly summer we’ve been having in the Bay Area, I’m sure I’ll be back to try them again at Casserole House.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (enjoy the pancake)

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

Casserole House on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 25, 2011

Porchetta Sandwich Taste Off

Awhile back I started seeing restaurants offering porchetta sandwiches as a lunch option, so I thought it would be a good time to do a taste comparison to see who offered the best porky goodness on a roll.

Porchetta (I only recently learned that it’s pronounced por-KET-ta) is an Italian delicacy, often found sold from food carts on the streets of Italy. It’s made from a whole pig that’s been deboned and then stuffed with offal parts and herbs and then slowly roasted, traditionally over a wood oven. It’s then sliced up and served as is or as a sandwich.

I feel the signs of good porchetta (and granted, I’m not a porchetta expert) are moist, tender meat with a bit of fat and crispy, crackling skin. The flavor also should have a nice saltiness and flavor of herbs.

When I started looking for porchetta sandwiches, I was surprised to find many of them right around my Oakland neighborhood. And places that I would expect to find a porchetta sandwich, such as Il Cane Russo at the San Francisco Ferry Building, actually stopped offering porchetta. So it turned out harder to find this fatty pork sandwich than I thought. (If you know of a place I missed, be sure to let me know in the comments section.)

So here’s the results of my recent tour of porchetta sandwiches in San Francisco and Oakland. I start with the bottom and end with my favorite.

Plum Restaurant’s Porky Food Cart, Oakland

The sandwich: Porchetta with arugula and shaved fennel, pickled radish, and garlic aioli. ($9)

How to get it: Sold outside the Plum restaurant at 2214 Broadway (near Grand) for weekday lunch. Also available: lemonade and cookies

The popular Plum Restaurant, opened by Oakland resident and Chef Daniel Patterson, who also owns San Francisco’s COI restaurant, started selling porchetta sandwiches from a cart outside the restaurant. Since I work in the area, it was easy for me to pick up sandwich and bring it back to my office.

Because it’s pre-made, the sandwich suffers from the fact that it’s served cold (or at least room temperature). The meat looked almost shredded, and looked primarily white with not much fat. I wasn’t a fan of the bun (maybe ciabatta?) because it was chewy and difficult to eat. The sandwich was filled with baby arugula and thinly sliced fennel (which seems to be the classic accompaniment for porchetta sandwiches) and some pickled radish. I didn’t taste much of the garlic aioli until maybe near the end of the sandwich. It’s a fancier sandwich than what I’d typically get at other nearby sandwich shops, but it didn’t make me crave to go back to get one. It was good but not spectacular.

Barbacco Eno Trattoria, San Francisco

The sandwich: Slow-roasted shoulder porchetta with roasted peach rucola and red onion alla piastra, served with arugula and fennel salad and pickled vegetables. ($11)

How to get it: Served for lunch at the San Francisco restaurant at 220 California St. You can order it online so it’s ready for pick up as early as 11:30 a.m.

Barbacco is the wine bar next door to Perbacco, and it has this convenient service where you can order food online for pick up. That worked out for me because I wanted to try its porchetta sandwich but it’s only offered during weekday lunch. Since I work in Oakland, I had to catch BART to pick up the sandwich and bring it back to work within my lunch hour. So having the ability to pre-order online helped a lot because my sandwich was waiting for me when I arrived at 11:30 a.m. to pick it up.

The sandwich is the most expensive one around, and the fanciest, definitely a sign of a restaurant sandwich. Along with the tender shoulder pork, there was the red onion alla piastra, which is basically caramelized onions. The peach rucola offers bits of sweetness to counter the savory pork. It was like an accent to the eating experience. But the peach and onion seemed to be the only thing offering moisture in the sandwich because there wasn’t any type of aioli or spread. The bread was also a bit chewy to eat (starting to think Italian bread is always chewy) and because it sat in the container on the BART ride back, it was a bit wet around the edges, probably from the red onion alla piastra. The huge side salad filled out the lunch, and I’m always a fan of Barbacco’s pickled vegetables, which helps to cut into the richness of the porchetta. I liked the added ingredients to the classic porchetta sandwich, but the high price doesn’t make it much of a value.

Adesso, Oakland

The sandwich: Porchetta served up in a toasted baguette with wilted arugula. ($9)

How to get it: Served at the butcher counter for lunch at Adesso, the wine bar at 4395 Piedmont Ave. (at Pleasant Valley).

I literally can walk down the street to Adesso, and while this is often a place to hang out for happy hour, it also serves up a porchetta sandwich for lunch. Living so close, I can pick up a sandwich and bring it back home and still eat it warm.

While the earlier sandwiches I tried were served cold or room temperature, Adesso’s porchetta sandwich has the advantage of being made-to-order on toasted bread. I love any sandwich that’s grilled or toasted, so that gave the edge to Adesso’s porchetta sandwich even though the porchetta meat, while tender, seemed a bit shredded instead of being thick. There was a bit of oil from the fat, which helped moisten the meat and the arugula. I don’t think there were any additional sauce, so it was mostly just the natural flavors of the porchetta. It was simple but satisfying.

Marin Sun Farms Butcher Shop, Rockridge Market Hall, Oakland

The sandwich: Thinly sliced porchetta served with arugula and fennel and crispy skin bits. ($9.50)

How to get it: Served for lunch, typically on Saturdays in front of the butcher counter in Rockridge’s Market Hall in Oakland.

Marin Sun sets up a table on Saturdays to sell its porchetta sandwiches. I can’t say for sure if it’s sold any other time because I once dropped by on a Sunday and I didn’t see any porchetta sandwiches. The sandwich itself is huge. When I bought mine, I had to take it back home so I could get a knife to cut it in half.

The thin slices of the porchetta makes me feel like I’m eating a roast beef sandwich, and because the sandwiches are pre-made, it also is served cold or room temperature. The bun was the typical chewy Italian bread that I’m not a fan of, and the sandwich tastes a bit dry at times because there doesn’t seem to be any type of spread to moisten it. But what makes this sandwich a winner in my eyes, along with the huge size of it all, are all the crispy skin bits mixed in to give you a surprising crunch now and then when eating. A lot of other porchetta sandwiches shy on giving the crispy skin, but not Marin Sun’s version, which definitely has a lot of it for an amazing crunch.

Roli Roti Gourmet Rotisserie, San Francisco

The sandwich: Thick slices of porchetta with caramelized onions, fresh arugula and relish. ($8.50)

How to get it: Served up from the food stand parked every Saturday for lunch at the farmers market in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

There’s a reason why there’s always a line forming from the Roli Roti truck at the Ferry Plaza farmers market. The porchetta sandwich is legendary here, and it’s no surprise that it’s my No. 1 pick.

I’ve eaten the sandwich several times before, and it definitely benefits from the fact that it’s made-to-order, so the porchetta is nice and warm. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also tasty, and comes with tender caramelized onions and some kind of relish that adds a nice contrasting flavor to cut into the richness of the porchetta. Again, not a big fan of the Italian bread, but the shape makes it easier to eat than other porchetta sandwiches I ate elsewhere. Along with the bits of salt that you sometimes bite into when eating the pork, you also get some bits of the crispy skin (not as much as Marin Sun’s but still definitely present). The only hassle about Roli Roti’s prochetta sandwich is the sometimes long wait, but I typically go early and my wait sometimes is only 15 minutes. Either way, this sandwich is definitely worth the wait and is the standard I compare all porchetta sandwiches to.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Food Paparazzi

It was a beautiful day to be out in San Francisco, so I went to a baseball game with a friend. But before the game, I picked up some bombolonis for a gametime snack at the Ferry Building. While I was there I noticed a familiar face also out enjoying the good weather.

Richard Blais is a chef that competed on Top Chef, and recently won the Top Chef All-Stars special. It's typically quiet at the Ferry Building and surrounding areas on a Sunday (not as crazy packed as Saturdays), so Blais could walk around freely with his family. But I wasn't the only one taking a double take because I saw a few other people turned their heads and thinking, "Is that ....?"
My Twitter friends reminded me that Blais was in town for a special dinner put on by the Frog Hollow Farm people on Saturday night. So I guess Sunday was his chance to enjoy the city. I wonder if his daughter is going to grow up to be a little Top Chef as well? :-)

Blais lucked out on the weather, but what's the deal with the scarf Blais? Yeah, this is San Francisco but we get sun sometimes too.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Peppers at the Farmers Market

I was at the Grand Lake Farmers Market this morning in Oakland, and one of the farmers' stand had a table filled with these peppers. One side of the table were padron peppers and the other side were shishito peppers.

I fell in love with both varieties last year. They're best when just simply blistered in a pan with some oil and then just eaten warm. The Spanish Padron peppers are famous for being mildly sweet and then you get hit by a f-bomb when you bite into one that's super spicy.

Shishito peppers are the Japanese cousins of the Padron peppers, and I find them fairly similar in taste, except I feel their skins are a bit more waxy. I love them both so I would buy one basket of each one, mix them up in the pan as I blister them and just munch away.

Now, can you tell which ones are the Padron and which ones are the Shishito? Top or bottom? Find the answer in the comments section.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Underground Eats at the San Francisco Giants Ballpark

So earlier this week I talked about eating around AT&T Park, the home of the 2010 World Series Champions Giants. But today I go back into the ballpark to give you guys another look at more eats found in tucked away places.

I’m not talking about secret food menus. That’s not what I mean about underground. I literally mean you find these food on the lower levels of the ballpark.

I start with the Field Clubhouse, which is limited to ticketholders who sit on the field level behind home plate. I kind of hate how certain areas of the ballpark are off limits to everyone, like the Giants are creating its on little caste system. (Another area that’s off limits only to particular ticketholders is the “club level” that’s above “field” but below “view reserve.”)

But one game this summer I ended up spending the bucks to buy a field clubhouse seat because it was the only one available. (Thank you Visa.) So during the fourth inning, I went behind home plate, walking through the same corridors the players go through to get to the locker rooms, and made a left into the Clubhouse.

The Field Clubhouse definitely has a restaurant feel because of its ambient lighting and baseball mural on a giant wall. Looking around, there was the basic ballpark fare like hot dogs and hamburgers, but there were also stations for roast beef sandwiches, one station selling Mexican food, and a few beer stations.

They also have a sweet section selling these cute Giants themed cupcakes.

The Field Clubhouse is also where the Edsel Fong’s Chinese food station can be found. They used to have a stand up on the promenade level but I haven’t seen it there lately. I noticed they had a pad thai dish, so I ordered it. It actually wasn’t that bad, and a lot of noodles for $8.50. It might not have that authentic pad thai flavors, but at least the ingredients seemed fresh.

Another time I went to check out what was a new food stand this season, and it was the BBQ counter under the bleachers. It’s so new they don’t even have the permanent sign up yet. (I guess the former BBQ vendor lost his lease.)

The offerings seemed pretty typical of BBQ items, such as pulled pork sandwiches and tri-tip. But it also had a BBQ turkey sandwich, which I’ve never heard of so I thought I’d try that just because turkey also sounded healthier being a lean meat. I also got a side of potato salad.

The sandwich looked so sad when it arrived. It was basically turkey slices on a roll with BBQ sauce poured on top. And the BBQ sauce wasn’t even any more distinctive than store-bought BBQ sauce. The turkey was what you’d expect from a deli, and the bun wasn’t anything spectacular. I felt kind of cheated. (The potato salad was OK, not a lot of mayonnaise but it had bits of raw red onion, which I’m not a fan of.)

I still have a few more games to go to now that we’re in the second half. (In fact, I’ll be at the Sunday game.) I can’t say I’ve found anything exciting this season at the ballpark in terms of food, so I’ll probably just stick with my Hebrew National dogs.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Marlowe in San Francisco

Clever California Bistro
330 Townsend St., San Francisco
SOMA/China Basin
PH: 415.974.5599
Lunch, weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday to Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday)
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

When I head to a Giants baseball game at AT&T Park, I typically eat at the stadium since I like to go to day games. But occasionally I hit a night game, and that means dinner.

So awhile back when I went to a night game with my friend David, we decided to get dinner first at a nearby restaurant. I couldn’t think of a place near the stadium that I’ve been dying to try, and that’s when David suggested the restaurant Marlowe.

Marlowe, formerly known as South Food and Bar, is the bistro by restaurateur Anna Weinberg. I never realized that it was so close to the stadium, about three blocks away close to the Caltrain station. When approaching the restaurant, the quotes painted on the window reminded me of another more famous bistro in New York.

Another thing that struck me about Marlowe is that it’s a pretty tiny space, although with a sophisticated décor with rich dark wood furnishings. The space felt even more tight when David and I were squeeze along the wall with other diners when the rest of the room was open.

The menu by Chef Jennifer Puccio is a mix of French bistro with California seasonal ingredients. David started with the baby beets and burrata salad ($9), which was a beautiful array of colorful beets and bits of burrata dressed with dill, basil, mint and Aleppo chili oil.

I ordered one of the “potted” starters, which are dishes served in little jars. The one I got was the warm marinated mussels and Monterey calamari ($12). The minced mussels and calamari were served with grilled bread and green garlic aioli. I would put a little of the mussels and calamari mixture on the bread, almost like making my own croistini. While the seafood tasted good, it lacked any real punch in flavor.

For the entrees, both David and I went for Marlowe’s famous burger ($13), touted as the city’s best by a few local reviewers. The burger looked beautiful when it arrived, and quite tall in its bun. It’s typically served with horseradish aioli and fries, but I got a green salad instead. David got the fries, but he’s not a fan of aioli since it’s just a fancy name for mayonnaise.

My burger was cooked perfectly medium like I requested, tasting cooked but still a bit juicy. I like the sprinkle of salt that I could taste as I ate the burger, which is also topped with caramelized onions, cheddar, and shredded greens. It was a satisfying burger, but I have to admit that I don’t eat enough burgers to declare this the best in town.

Side note: There are a few daily specials, and David and I kept eyeing the table next to us who ordered the lamb special. We promised ourselves we would come back for that, but I’m not sure if it’s still on the menu.

We didn’t stay for dessert since we had to run over to the stadium for first pitch, but Marlowe is a nice option for a pre-baseball game dinner, and it wasn’t packed like other bars across the street from the ballpark. Marlowe is a sophisticated but quaint restaurant that’s great for a meal, whether there’s a baseball game or not.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Cozy and Creative)

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

Marlowe on Urbanspoon