Thursday, May 31, 2007

Dish on Dining: Xyclo Restaurant and Lounge

Peddling a Modern Take on Saigon Flavors
4218 Piedmont Ave., Oakland
Piedmont Avenue neighborhood
PH: 510.654.2681
Hours: Daily lunch, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; daily dinner, 5–10 p.m.
Reservations accepted (restrictions on weekends only to parties of 6 or more; requires deposit)
MasterCard, VISA accepted

The two potted bamboo plants flanking the entrance to Xyclo Restaurant and Lounge set the mood as you enter this sleek Vietnamese restaurant. The contemporary interiors of light wood and white paper shades cement the ambiance of modern cool. For a moment, I thought I was trying out another new addition to the modern restaurant scene in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.

But this is Oakland. And it’s just a 10-minute walk from my apartment.

Xyclo is a Slanted Door wannabe. With the success of SD, more and more upscale Vietnamese restaurants have been opening their doors—not just in San Francisco but in Albany, Walnut Creek and Oakland. Xyclo opened late last year on Piedmont Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the wildly popular Dopo.

I had lunch with a friend soon after Xyclo opened, enjoying the calm cool setting and its crispy rolls. I returned again recently for dinner.

The restaurant was packed, as usual, but my friend Roger was able to secure a table for us after spending some time in the lounge area, which oddly enough is hidden in the back of the L shaped space. (This means you often have to stroll past the tables of happy eaters as you head to the lounge to wait for a table.) But for us, we were seated and ready to dine.
Xyclo’s executive chef Vy Lieou, who worked at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio, has created a menu that honors the traditional dishes of Vietnam but adds a California flair. Several of the dishes are served almost tapas-style, so there’s a small- and large-plate sections on the menu.

When I had lunch at Xyclo, my friend and I ordered the sampler plate of crispy rolls. This was a lot of rolls for two people, and while they were all perfectly fried, the taste between each one was very subtle. So I suggested to Roger that we skip gorging on the sampler and instead ordered just one order of the Crispy Shrimp Rolls. I also ordered the Sweet and Sour Soup to start because I enjoyed discovering this soup on my Saigon trip earlier this year (it’s not the Chinese version of hot and sour soup).

The crispy shrimp rolls were perfectly fried, like how I remembered. But the filling seemed a bit more dense than before, almost like it was filled with shrimp paste instead of grounded shrimp and taro. Still, it was a light start to dinner.

Here is where I’m going to talk about the service. Yes, it was packed and busy. But the restaurant has been open for almost a year, so you’d think they’d have a better handle of its front room operations. While the waitress who took our order was very pleasant, calm and professional, the kitchen seemed a bit overwhelmed and our orders came in an odd procession, in my opinion. (Roger was too nice to really care, or maybe he was too sippy on sake. ;-)

So after the crispy shrimp rolls, a woman from the kitchen brought out one of our entrees, the Xyclo Chili Ribs (that actually looked like huge blocks of sesame-covered bricks). Then that was followed by a side dish of spicy green beans. (And remember the sweet and sour soup I wanted to start with? You weren’t the only one. The kitchen didn’t remember it either.)

The ribs were crispy and tasty, but it looked so blackened that it bordered on unappetizing. Also a bit blackened was the Flaming Quail (although looking back, the word “flaming” should have been a giveaway). Just like the ribs, the quail was a bit difficult to eat and unattractive on the plate, but the taste was acceptable.

The highlight of the dinner was the Claypot Rice Medley, a pure comfort food dish filled with vegetables, chicken and prawns melding altogether with the rice. I would come again by myself just to order the claypot for dinner, and that would be all I need to feel full.

Of course, after all these dishes were brought out, that’s when the kitchen sent out my starter, the Sweet and Sour Dill Soup. I wished I noticed the word dill in the name because it was true to its name. The bowl was swimming in dill and that was the prominent taste with just a bit of sourness from the two chunks of pineapple floating amidst the greenery. The soup countered the old saying “they saved the best for last.”

Soon after the soup came out, so followed our bill—without us even asking for it. (And it wasn’t like the place was getting more crowded as the night went on, but apparently they felt the need to get us moving without even offering us a look at the dessert menu.)

Overall, Xyclo is a handsome room and a nice addition to the primarily Italian-influenced restaurants on Piedmont Avenue. But as a Slanted Door-wannabe, it lacks in sophistication and taste. Like I said, I’ll probably come back for the claypot medley and crispy rolls, but not much more.

Single guy rating: 2 stars (perfect for new diners moving beyond pho)

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

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Countdown Begins for The Next Food Network Star

This coming Sunday is — finally— the premiere of “The Next Food Network Star,” or what I like to call at my home: “The Show That Won’t Let The Single Guy Chef Hang Out With Dave Lieberman.” (2 hours starting at 9 p.m.) As some of you know, this whole blog wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for that tiny speck of a dream I had last year that I, indeed, could be the next Food Network star.

So I convinced my breeder friends, Denise and Roger, to film my 3-minute audition tape. Then I started this blog to create “my food vision” so I’d have something to talk about when I made it to the final interviews. Then I waited. And waited. Made some brownies. And waited. Then nada. No phone calls. No “thank you for applying but here’s your Bobby Flay grilling cookbook instead.”

I decided that if I can’t be the next Food Network star, then I’d live vicariously through the 11 lucky souls (or who I refer to as “the suckers who stole my spot” or “SWSMS” for short) who did get the call. Every Monday night, I’ll be posting a recap of the show, and whenever possible, I’ll follow up with a blog about that week’s challenge and what I would have done.

To get you all primed for the show, here’s a preview of the contestants based on their clips on the Food Network site: (BTW, the site had a short promo for the show, talking about all the applications they received around the country and for a brief moment I was nervous that there would be a clip from my embarrassing audition tape. In all honesty, I can see why I wasn’t selected.)

SWSMS #1—Vivien. Chef and caterer from Brazil. She looks like a swimsuit model, and she says she actually did that for many years. She’s cooking in the kitchen with these big loopy earrings. She says her style is “ethnic with a Brazilian twist.” Um, so if the Brazilian twist isn’t the ethnic part, then what ethnicity is she referring to? I’m already confused. But Vivien has lots of big hair, and you know she’s going to break out into uncomfortable sexy dancing among the contestants whenever she can. Oh, there she goes. Cha cha cha.

SWSMS #2—Amy. Homemaker from San Diego. (I don’t know why the Food Network uses the label “homemaker” for Amy, it’s sooo Betty Crocker. I rather like Amy’s label of “stay at-home mom.”) Amy has been to some la-di-da French cooking school so she’s classic French for the suburbs. She talks about a city with glamour and chi-chi style, and I know she’s not talking about San Diego. In her audition tape, she talks about planning a “movie night” outside in her yard showing a French film. I’m already tired of Paris.

SWSMS #3—Josh. Chef de Cuisine from North Carolina. He’s a former military guy and his catch word is, wait for it, “JAG.” As in “Let’s JAG up this chicken.” He wants to make Latin cuisine sexy and fantasy-like. Oh-KAY. And he’s pegging himself as the poor kid from the ‘hood who’s going to make it big in the Big Apple. This kid’s got personality. You know? The kind you roll up and pop into the oven for oven-fresh-baked rolls.

SWSMS #4—Tommy. Financial planner from Massachusetts. Married with two kids and no cooking training. Tommy is the big boy or what Emeril or Mario would look like if they were one person. In his clip, he’s grilling big Fred Flintstone-size beef. It looks like he’s the guy that’s going to miss his family and have difficulty being apart and questioning whether he should be on the show in the first place. (Memo to Food Network producers: Single people, i.e., the Single Guy Chef, does not have family to leave behind and miss.)

SWSMS #5—Colombe. Yoga/fitness instructor in New York City. She’s been a private chef and small-time caterer. As a yoga instructor, you know she’s all about the organic and vegan meals. Sorry, but yuck. Colombe (pronounced like you think it’s pronounced, who knows) says she doesn’t want to be all “health nutty” but definitely wants to cook organic, fresh food. OK, I can get into that. Colombe is so Berkeley. (And her photo on the Food Network site reminds me of a young Helen Hunt. Go check it out and see for yourself.)

SWSMS #6—Paul. Caterer from Los Angeles. Paul looks like he could be the next Dave Lieberman. But wait! We still love our Dave Lieberman, why would the Food Network need two? Paul is all LA-buff with his tight shirts and jeans. He has the widest grin I’ve seen on a chef outside of Giada DeLaurentiis. (Hey, did you know DeLaurentiis had the double “i”? Weird.) Paul says if he had his own show, it’d be called “Chef Paul’s Simply Fabulous Party.” Thank you. Next stop West Hollywood. His mantra is “keep it simple but make it fabulous.” He says he has the total “package.” I think so too. ;-)

SWSMS #7—Patrick. Sous chef. (Excuse me, “senior” sous chef.) He’s married and is expecting his first baby in May. (Ooops, is he a new dad already? No time for diapers and a new Food Network show, right Patrick?) He’s into seasonal ingredients and what’s fresh. Yeah, another Alice Waters’ disciple. Working at a restaurant, he’s into the fancy restaurant-style food and it’s making me hungry. Do I have to tip him?

SWSMS #8—Michael. Food service manager from New York City. Michael’s photo on the Food Network site scares me. He looks like he’s brewing some kind of potion. But he says he’s trained at the Culinary Institute of America and runs a sit-down restaurant and food market, overseeing 150 employees and chefs. Dude, you can just produce your own show. Forget the Food Network. Go on You Tube. But lose the sorcerer’s look. He says he got into food because of his grandmother, who used to stuff food into his mouth and gave him a kiss to stop him from crying. He says food is about love and passion, and grandmothers who force-feed babies like they’re producing foie gras.

SWSMS #9—Rory. Restaurateur from Texas. She's building a restaurant called Boot Hill right now and she’s dating a cowboy. How more Texas can one blond get? She doesn’t follow recipes; she follows her heart. In a clip from the show she’s burning stuff and overcooking chicken. And she’s making a chocolate mousse that looks like lumpy oatmeal. She says she likes to make that dessert because it’s like her, messy. Hmm, that’s not what I think of when I think of dessert—or eating, for that matter. But Rory, good job on going with your strengths.

SWSMS #10—Adrien. Uniform delivery man from Jackson, Michigan. Another pretty white boy. (Hey, where’s the token Asian in this season’s Next Food Network Star? See producers, missed another opportunity with moi.) BTW, what’s a “uniform delivery man”? Does he deliver uniforms or does he wear a uniform when he makes a delivery? I am so confused. I can see Adrien hooking up with Paul, except for the fact that Adrien says he’s married and apparently has a whole gaggle of girls back home. (I’m talking about his little daughters, not a side dish of booty.) He’s self taught and looks like a young Tyler Florence. He already does is own show in Michigan called “Home For Dinner.” He wants to create a show that combines music and food together. Just don’t drop your iPod in the batter Adrien and you’ll go far.

SWSMS #11—Nikki. Caterer from Oakland, Calif. Hey, a girl from my neck of the woods! You go girl! Oh, her food looks like banquet food. I wouldn’t really cook that at home. Ouch, she just dropped a tray of glasses near some guests. I hope she doesn’t work as a server during her catered events. She says she puts a pinch of brown sugar in everything. She’s not kidding. She actually has a pinch of brown sugar behind her ears right now.

And finally, the pseudo contestant this season:

#12—Ben. Marketing copywriter from Oakland and food blog extraordinaire. Ben is single and likes to cook quick-and-easy dishes for the working person. His recipes reflect his Chinese background and growing up in Hawaii, but touches on the many flavors from his travels and his California home. Ben’s philosophy on food is “make it fun and tasty, even when it’s just for yourself because you deserve it.” (Can I room with Paul?)

Check back on Monday for my first recap of The Next Food Network Star.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Thank God for Mini Cupcakes

Everything’s mini these days. The mini iPod. The MINI Cooper. The mini paycheck. (OK, that last one is just me, it seems.) But of all things mini, I have to say the best has got to be the mini cupcakes.

It’s odd because I’ve seen them before, but not in its wildly diverse form as displayed at DeLessio Bakery—that bold red-and-gold San Francisco bake shop that always makes me thing “Mad Hatter” when I walk by.

I used to live just a few yards from DeLessio Bakery on Market Street, in an area that I dubbed “lower Hayes Valley” for lack of a better label. DeLessio was a welcome addition to the 'hood, but I was never a big fan for the prepared food and I felt the baked goods were always a bit home-made.

That said, how cute are these?

Last weekend, I was in my old neighborhood and went to DeLessio for a cup of afternoon tea. (Self-admission: I’m such a Londonphile.) And right at the counter was a tray of mini cupcakes.

Of course, my practical mind went into first gear. No, I didn’t think about the many flavors or tastes. I just thought: Wow, I don’t have to buy a whole cupcake and weigh myself down for the rest of the day. But then, another gear came into play and then I thought: Wow, I could try more than one flavor.

So I left with a plate of two mini cupcakes in hand and a cup of Earl Grey tea. I ended up going with the Brownie Cupcake with Fresh Mint (that’s the one on top in the picture) and the Lemon Cake with Lemon Curd.

The brownie was what you’d expect. Thick. Rich. Almost like chocolate batter. I found this hard to eat but it was saved by the touch of fresh mint cream. The Lemon Cake was more of a winner with its fresh ooze of lemony goodness inside. (I could have gone without the coconut flakes on top.)

The mini cupcakes cost $1.50 for each. Warning: You’d think they’re so small that you could pop one into your mouth and eat it in one bite. Yeah, you’d think that. (Cough, choke, cough. Ah-hem. Sorry, you were saying?)

DeLessio Bakery, 1695 Market St. at Gough, (second newer location at 302 Broderick St.) San Francisco. Check its Web site for hours for each location.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Put The Shrimp on The Barbie

Happy Memorial Day! This is one of those days I look forward to all year (and of course it undoubtedly always sneaks up on me) because it's the "unofficial start" of summer. (You know, it's so close to the start of summer, why don't they just make it the "official" start of summer. We're so controlled by tradition, eh?)

I like grilling so summer is one of my favorite time of year. But since I don't have an outdoor grill or a patio, I keep my grilling pretty simple, and you don't get any more simpler than shrimp. Shrimp is so easy to prepare and fast to cook, so you can get the taste of summer in seconds. My basic preparation of shrimp and vegetables for the grill is some olive oil and herbs de Provence. Herbs de Provence is a mix of dried herbs from the famous French culinary region, and it contains one of my favorite herbs (10 points to someone who names it quickly!) -- lavender. You can find Herbs de Provence at most of your gourmet grocery stores like Williams Sonoma or Dean and Deluca. So grab some herbs, olive oil and salt and get grillin'. Enjoy the summer!

Grilled Shrimp and Vegetable Kabobs

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

6 oz. large raw shrimp (about 10 to 12 pieces)
1 zucchini
1 yellow squash
6 button mushrooms
1 red bellpepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 T sea salt
2 T herbs de Provence

Soak about 6 bamboo sticks in water beforehand.

Prepare your shrimp and vegetables by deveining the shrimp and cutting your vegetables into chunks or large slices that you can pierce with your bamboo sticks. Place all your ingredients into a large bowl and then drizzle with olive oil to coat well. Season with salt and herbs de Provence. Mix all the ingredients together to make sure they’re all coated with the oil and seasoning.

Arrange the ingredients onto your bamboo sticks. Then place on a grill with medium heat. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes on each side, depending on your heat. You’ll see the shrimp turn into an opaque white color.

Makes 6 servings. Serve with mango salsa or grilled corn on the cobbs.

TIP: With your shrimp, you can leave the shell on or not, depending on your preference. Leaving the shell on will make sure that the shrimp keeps more of its moisture and not burn on the grill. But it does mean it’s a lot more work for your guests when eating. I personally like to take off the shell and just watch the shrimp carefully on the grill to make sure it doesn’t burn. I do leave the tail part so that it looks more like a shrimp.

The herbs of Provence: Herbs de Provence is one of my favorite herbs to use. It’s a mixture of different herbs (with lavender being one of the prominent flavors). It has a light taste that I think goes will with fish and other seafood and grilled vegetables. But you can also use it to make a Herbs de Provence roasted chicken or grilled lamb. It’s basically just great with anything grilled! Experiment!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Life is a Bowl of Cherries ... From Linden

Shopping at the markets today, I saw cherries everywhere. And I love it because this was one of my favorite fruits growing up, especially the Bing cherries with its dark ruby color and crunchy texture. The cherries above, of course, are Rainier cherries and they're from the fruit stand of James Paoletti Farms, a farmer from Linden, Calif. It was his first week at the Ferry Building Farmers' Market in San Francisco and he'll be there for the next few weeks during the cherry season, which last less than a month. He was selling his cherries for $5.50 for a small basket (a little more than a pound) and a big basket for $11. I thought he had the nicest display of all the farmers selling cherries today. (The other farmers were selling their cherries by the pound for $6 to $7. At my local Safeway, cherries were going for $8.99 a pound. So it pays off to support the small farmers at the farmers market instead.) I got a basket of the bing cherries. They were sweet but not as crunchy. I'm hoping it gets crunchier in a couple of weeks.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Corn On The Side

A sure sign of the coming summer is seeing corn at the market! I love corn growing up, but I always ate them from the can. Now, I can't wait for the summer so I can buy fresh corn. With the long Memorial Day weekend coming up, I'm sure a lot of you are grilling or planning picnics. I'm sure corn will be on your list of items to eat. The recipe below is a simple and different way to prepare fresh corn, and it was inspired by a dish I had at the Slanted Door. Who knew fish sauce could change the flavor of corn in such an interesting way? (Well, I guess Charles Phan knew.) This is pretty much how I eat my corn now. It's simple and tasty. Enjoy!

White Corn and Leeks

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

3 ears of fresh white corn
1 leek
1 T fish sauce
1 T sugar
1 or 2 T extra virgin olive oil

With a chef’s knife, cut straight down along the sides of your corn to remove the kernels. Set aside in bowl.

For the leek, use only the white part. Dice into small pieces. Warm a large saute pan or skillet and then add olive oil. Toss in your leek and saute for about 2 minutes. Then add the corn, followed by the fish sauce and sugar. Blend all the ingredients together for another minute and then remove from heat.

Plate up and serve as a side dish with virtually any kind of meat dish.

Makes 2 to 3 servings.

TIP: When cutting off the corn from the cobb, use a big bowl or pot and slice off the kernels in the bowl so you’ll catch all the falling kernels.

SUMMER FLAVOR: To add more of the summer feel, you can grill your corn before hand, which will give a smokey flavor to your corn. Brush olive oil on the corn (still on the cobb) and then quickly grill to get the nice grill mark. Then remove from grill and slice off the kernels and then prepare with leeks and fish sauce.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mini Dish on Dining: Tacubaya

This Is Some Fancy Taco Shop
1788 4th St., Berkeley
Hours: Mon., Wed.–Fri., 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Tues., 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., 9 a.m.–9 p.m.
PH: 510.525.5160

When in the Fourth Street shopping district in Berkeley, I mostly find myself at the Pasta Shop or getting a lemon bar at Bette’s Diner. And on hot days, I’ll even go for the homemade ice cream at Sketch. But I’ve never stepped foot into Tacubaya, which apparently has been in the Fourth Street neighborhood since 2003.

Tacubaya is the taqueria or taco shop from the people behind Dona Tomas of Oakland. I haven’t even been to Dona Tomas, even though it’s just a few blocks down the street from where I live. I’m basically not a big fan of Mexican cuisine. I don’t have anything against Mexican food. I just haven’t gotten too excited about it’s basic ingredients—tortilla, beans, rice, meat.
But when I was in a need of a quick bite recently, and I didn’t feel like waiting for a table at Café Rouge or O Chame, I found myself in the colorful corner of Tacubaya, right next to the Pasta Shop. It’s an order-at-the-counter-and-get-a-number kind of place, which is what I wanted because I didn’t want to deal with servers. On one side of the taqueria was a wall of Dona Tomas branded products, from cookbooks to T-shirts and lots of hot sauce.

The menu, of course, included a whole bunch of tacos. But they also offer a few soups and salads, and had a new item, ceviche. (I love ceviche, the raw seafood made in various Latin cuisine, but that day’s ceviche was just scallops and I prefer the tender meat of fish over scallops. So I passed on the ceviche.) You’d think that I would order a taco, but being the non-fan of Mexican cuisine, I felt like trying something different so I ordered the Mexican sandwich or Torta al Pastor.
I went over and sat at the counter and watched one of the sous chefs making soft tacos as I waited for my torta. When it arrived, it looked a bit like a flattened hamburger to me. It was made of barbeque pork with avocado chunks on a grilled bolillo. Funny, the menu also said there would be grilled onions and pinto beans, but I didn’t notice any of these unless they were just blended into the sauce.
Overall, I liked the sandwich. But then again, I’m a sucker for slow-roasted pork. It was tasty and filling and just what I needed for a quiet quick bite. Ironically, I was all excited to share my experience of Tacubaya with you all until I started reading a lively discussion on a food discussion board about whether Tacubaya is really an authentic taqueria. Many people criticized the lack of authenticity in flavor and the high prices. (I paid $6.95 for my torta.)

Like I said, I’m no expert on a real taco since I’m not a regular diner of Mexican cuisine. But I thought the quality of the ingredients were good and I enjoyed the festive environment. And it seemed like the people around me were also enjoying themselves. Given the high-priced nature of Fourth Street, I don’t think Tacubaya is out of step with the other eating establishments. It’s a pleasant place to get a casual bite to eat.

Note that I’m not giving out a rating on these mini reviews but I would recommend you trying Tacubaya out if you’re in the area.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What Pie Would You Invent?

And now a break from regular programming: Last weekend I went to see the movie, "Waitress," starring Keri Russell (Ms. Felicity). It's a charming independent movie by the late director Adrienne Shelly (she was killed by a contractor in her New York building). You know how some movies are known for featuring food ("Eat. Man. Drink. Woman." and "Under The Tuscan Sun" come to mind)? Well, I think "Waitress" should be among these films. I've never seen a film that so seductively shows the creation of oddly interesting pies. The slow pour of chocolate or the rising puff of a meringue all shines in this wonderful movie about a waitress (Russell) in a pie diner (do these actually exists where people only serve pies all day?) who's stuck in an abusive marriage and pregnant.

Russell's character dreams of breaking the cycle of her dreary existence by coming up with the daily pie special. And it's not your ordinary apple or key lime pies. Her pies have names like "I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie" (Earl is her abusive husband, played convincingly by Jeremy Sisto) or "I Can't Have An Affair Because It's Wrong and I Don't Want Earl To Kill Me Pie."

I like to support independent films, especially when it has a creative message. So check your local listings (it was showing at the Sony Metreon in San Francisco) and go to see "Waitress" with its fantastic ensemble cast this weekend before it gets squeeze off the screen by the summer blockbusters.

For fun, here are some of the pies I'd create:

"I'm Bored At Work and Wish I Could Blog About Food Pie" made with vanilla cream cheese mixed with espresso to keep you awake.
"I Hate Dating Pie" made with bittersweet chocolate topped with strawberries and flambe with Grand Marnier.
"I Live In A Small Studio And Need A Garden Pie" a savory kitsch made with prosciutto, potatoes, lavender, rosemary, and topped with roasted tomatoes.

OK, what pies would you make to reflect your life today?

To support women in films, I encourage you to visit a foundation set up in memory of director and actress Adrienne Shelly. Go to

Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Business Lunch: Sooo Ready For Somen

It is hot 'n herre. (Did I get that right? I'm so down with that.) Summer is coming early before Memorial Day around the Bay Area. And when it's hot, it's time for cold noodles. Somen salad is a popular dish growing up in Hawaii, where it's hot all the time. These thin Japanese rice noodles (just like angel hair pasta) make the dish feel light, and the crunchiness added with the Asian dressing makes this a tasty salad. It's also very simple to make for a work lunch, which is what I sometimes do. (I put the dressing in a separate tiny plastic container and mix it in before I chow down.) In Hawaii, somen salad is a popular pot luck item to bring to a picnic because it's refreshing and easy to make. So whether for work or a picnic, it's time for somen. So. Men. Get some. :)

Somen Salad

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

8 oz. somen noodles (Japanese rice noodles)
half an English cucumber or hothouse cucumber, julienned
2 medium carrots, julienned
4 oz. ham, cut into thin strips
green onion for garnish

2 T soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
2 T Canola oil
1 T rice vinegar
1 T sugar
1 t grated ginger
1 t toasted sesame seeds

Boil a pot of water and cook somen for about 4 minutes. Set aside.

Thinly slice cucumber, carrots and ham into strips. Toss with somen noodles. Whisk all ingredients for dressing until blended well. Add dressing to somen salad before serving. Garnish with spring onion.

Makes 3 to 4 servings. Serve with cold sake or beer. (If you’re at work, stick with iced tea.)

TIP: To avoid having your somen noodles stick together before you toss it with the rest of your ingredients, drizzle a bit of sesame oil and blend it into the somen noodles.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Culture of Tea at Teance

I spent Friday night at Teance, the fancy tea store in the Fourth Street shopping district in Berkeley. I've walked into the store in the past, but always felt like a kid in a museum store. Everything is so perfectly lit and the room is so quiet like a museum, that I felt very intimidated shopping there. Not to mention that they charge premium prices for their premium tea.

So to conquer my fear of shopping at Teance, I signed up for one of its weekly Friday night tea classes. I figured the more I knew about their tea, the more comfortable I'll feel asking questions while shopping. Their classes start at 7 p.m. and typically lasts an hour. (For some reason, my class, which was smaller than usual, lasted 1 hour and 45 minutes. Friday night PAR-tee!)
The centerpiece of Teance has got to be the tea bar, beautifully designed by one of the owners. Teance used to have a tea room in Albany and moved into their current Fourth Street location earlier this year. This is the view of the tea bar from the second floor, which is used for special events and for the weekly class.
The class is mostly a lecture by two of Teance's employees. On this Friday night, the topic was Oolong (pronounced "ooh lung" in Cantonese and "wu lung" in Mandarin). I always thought Oolong was a Chinese black tea, because it was always so dark when my mom drank it at Chinese restaurants. But I learned that Oolong is neither green or black tea, but is a category all its own because of its many varieties. Oolong is primarily produced in China and Taiwan. In Chinese, it means "black dragon."

BTW, the class is primarily attended by women. And even though it skews toward older women, it's a nice place for guys to meet women. (Our lecturers were young, friendly and pretty. I'm just saying.)
After learning all about Oolong upstairs in the class, we went downstairs to the tea bar to finally taste some varieties of Oolong. I have to say this is the highlight of the class. Above is the Monkey Picked Tikuanyin Medium Roast. (Tikuanyin is another tea my mom loved. It's named after a female buddha known as the Iron goddess.)
Drinking tea is such a show. It's a real ceremony in many cultures, especially in Japan. Above, our tea preparer sets up porcelain tasting glasses. Having smaller glasses allowed us to try different infusions of the tea. (Premium tea can be used to make several pots of tea, and each put, or infusion, are slightly different from the other as the tea opens up in flavor.) What was interesting was the tall glass in the back. It's actually a sniffer and is used to capture the essence of the tea so you can smell it before tasting. Cool, just like wine.
This is how the sniffer worked. The tea preparer poured the tea into the sniffer, covered it with the small tea cup, and then flipped it over and presented it to us. We twisted it to release the tea, which fell into the tea cup below. Then we could sniff the tea in the sniffer.
Here's the tea after being released from the sniffer. I'm glad I didn't make a mess.
Quality tea leaves are full, and you can tell how fancy your tea leaves are by watching it unfurl after you've used them. Above, they showed us our tea to see how it unfurled after being used.
The tea preparer uses a tiny gourd with a small net circle on the bottom, using it as a screen to pour the tea into the decanter without getting any leaves into our drinks. The gourd is made by Buddhist monks. (Because, you know, they have lots of time on their hands.)
Here are more varieties of Oolong tea. The one of the left is called "Baochong" which is very much like green tea and very light. I forgot what the one on the right is. I'm a bad student.

The class was fun, and Teance has an extensive menu of weekly topics. The class costs $12 and you get a 10 percent discount on products that you buy after the class. (Yes, I left with a bag of stuff, spending $60.)

One note about signing up for the class, it's easier to sign up at the store or by calling on the phone. Don't bother sending an email because they don't seem to respond as quickly, and they end up telling you to call to reserve a space with a credit card anyway.

After the class, I have a new-found interest in Oolong tea. Teance is also a little less intimidating to me, although it's still pricey. Teance specializes in tea from China and Taiwan, and have a wide assortment of beautiful tea paraphernalia.

So sign up for a tea class. It's a soothing way to spend a Friday night.

Teance, 1780 Fourth St., Berkeley. Open Monday-Thursday, Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Call 510.524.2832 to sign up for classes.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

More Claypot Cooking--Chinese Style

I'm busting out my claypot again to make another dish, this time echoing my Chinese heritage. This particular meal was created by simply just deciding what ingredients I think will blend nicely together and then just arranging them in my claypot, turning up the heat, and letting all the juices meld together. In some Chinese restaurants, claypots are listed as "casseroles" because I think it acts the same way as when you're baking a casserole in the oven: just get your favorite ingredients together, put it in a casserole dish and then let it cook. Same concept with this claypot dish. It's my lazy way of cooking. I love lazy cooking because there's minimal work and then you get something in the end that makes you feel like a genius! Enjoy!

Oyster Tofu Claypot

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

3 medium-size raw oysters
6 oz. tofu, silken or soft, quartered
3 to 4 slices of ham (about 3 oz.)
2 baby bok choy, coarsely chopped
3 shiitake mushrooms, quartered
1/2 T fresh ginger, julienned
1/2 T soy sauce
1/2 T sesame oil
1 T oyster sauce
1 T cornstarch
3 T chicken broth
green onion for garnish

Arrange main ingredients in your claypot: start with tofu, then oysters, then tuck in ham and mushrooms throughout. Drizzle in soy sauce and sesame oil. Then finally top with ginger and bok choy. Cover claypot and slowly bring to a rolling simmer. (This is when the liquid in the pot makes a bubbling noise but not major boiling.) Cook for about 15 minutes to let all the ingredients’ juices blend together.

In small bowl, mix cornstarch with chicken broth and oyster sauce to create a slurry. Gently mix this into your claypot to create a thick sauce. Garnish claypot with thin strips of green onions.

Makes 2 servings. Serve with steamed rice.

Pair with a glass of Riesling.

TIP: I recommend you place the vegetables on the top to avoid overcooking them. But right before you’re ready to serve, mix your vegetables into the rest of the claypot or tuck in between other ingredients.

CLAYPOT REMINDER: I’ve said this before about using the sensitive claypot, be sure never to place it on very high heat. And never create a sudden change in temperature, such as keeping the claypot in the refrigerator and then suddenly placing it on really hot heat. If you haven’t used your claypot for a long time or it’s the first time you’re using, soak it in water for a few hours, preferrably overnight. Another tip to avoid cracking is to gradually warm your claypot in the oven before you use it on your stovetop.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Podcast: Listen to Me Food Shop

I mentioned earlier this week that I spent this past weekend shopping with fellow blogger Emily of Eating Around SF Podcasts. We shopped at the Richmond New May Wah Supermarket and discovered all sorts of goodies. In the photo on her site, you can see a variety of "fish balls" in the refrigerated section. Great for easy soups! Click here to go to Emily's site and download her podcast that features an interview of me. You can listen to me on your iPod while you're commuting or from your computer after you're done catching up on my blog archives. ;-) Thanks again Emily for featuring me. It was fun!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dish on Dining: Sino

Stylish Shanghai Chic in San Jose
377 Santana Row, San Jose
PH: 408.247.8880
Dim sum daily, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner, Sun.–Tues., 4–10 p.m., and Wed.–Sat., 4 p.m.–midnight
Reservations, credit cards accepted
Web site

Because I don’t own a car, my restaurant reviews are limited primarily to San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland—where mass transit allows me to dine at the countless choices of fine eateries in this part of the Bay. But last weekend, I made a special trip to San Jose’s Rodeo-Drive-wannabe Santana Row for an especially good reason—a birthday dinner for my friend Jessie.

Jessie’s partner, John, planned a surprise dinner party for about 20-plus guests at the lush Sino Restaurant and Lounge, the beautifully designed room of Chris Yeo, who created Straits Café in San Francisco (and later, Palo Alto). Sino is Yeo’s attempt to bring a high-end and hip (translation: pricey) Chinese restaurant to the South Bay. It was the perfect setting for a birthday party. (BTW, I’m not disclosing which birthday this was for Jessie, but let’s just say that we were celebrating the golden era of his life.)

When eating dinner at Sino, or any of the fine restaurants in tony Santana Row, be prepared to deal with suburban traffic on the weekends. See, this is what happens when a city lacks a night life—half the region arrives at Santana Row for drinks and dinner. After my friend and I left her car with the valet at Hotel Valencia a few doors away ($5 for valet parking), we strolled to Sino for our surprise dinner.

Sino would fit easily among any of the new fancy restaurants changing the landscape of Shanghai, making it one of the hot destination cities of Asia. But we’re talking San Jose here. So we have to let Sino’s dark wood with bamboo highlights and lush velvet curtains and screens transport us instead.

We sat at a long dinner table in the back of the dining room, just past the pulsating club music from the lounge area. Dinner began with a dim sum sampler, which included such items as char siu bao (roasted pork buns), har gow (steamed shrimp dumpling), siu mai (pork and shrimp dumpling), and vegetarian spring rolls. (FYI, Sino serves dim sum during the day, but I can’t imagine it being loud and raucous like your typical dim sum house.)

The dim sum that I tried was tasty, although I felt the ingredients in the seafood spinach dumpling in particular were coarsely chopped. They were so chunky they literally fell out of my mouth as I tried to bite into the dumpling. The size of some of the dumplings was also huge, which defeated the idea of it being a sampler.

Next came Yeo’s Asian Chicken Salad. It was your typical Chinese chicken salad, except Yeo dressed it up by adding slices of pears and using a hoisin-base for his vinaigrette. The chicken was nicely tender and not overcooked but the greens were already wilting from either over-dressing or sitting a tad too long before coming to the party.

Then came a variety of dishes served family style. Sino’s menu is an attempt to offer traditional Chinese dishes with a twist. For Jessie’s birthday, we feasted on Spicy Garlic Eggplant, Szechwan Dry Green Beans, Ginger Chicken and Black Bean with Asparagus, Wok-Tossed Filet Mignon, Fried Tofu with Green Beans, and Vegetarian Ma Po Tofu. Jasmine rice served on the side.

The winners were the chicken and filet mignon. Both meat were perfectly cooked and offered a nice yin-yang balance in taste. The green beans were a bit too spicy and the ma po tofu was tasty but visually unappealing with its cubed tofu and vegetable chunks. I generally like my ma po tofu to be finely diced so that you have the urge to just slather it over a bowl of rice. This vegetarian ma po tofu looked like something a cook thought up at the last minute because he forgot some guests don’t eat meat.

Disclaimer: I don’t like egg plant so I didn’t try that course.

While all the meat were prepared nicely, Sino’s dishes suffer from one of the common problems of Chinese dishes made for an American audience—a slight tinge of sugar in every bite. Sometimes to create a nice glaze on dishes such as the chicken, sugar is added. But at times, it seemed like the Sino chefs went a bit too heavy on the sugar. The dishes, while satisfying, also lacked the fine preparations of five-star Hong Kong-style restaurants, as demonstrated by the sometimes chunky and coarsely chopped ingredients.

Side note: No discussion on Sino’s dessert menu because, of course, we had birthday cake for dessert.

Sino’s real star is the sexy environment that echoes a Hollywood glamour, which turned out to be the perfect setting for this birthday dinner. Of course, the company (and several bottles of wine) also helped to make this a fabulous celebration. Happy birthday Jessie!

Single guy rating: 2.5 stars

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

Sino Restaurant and Lounge in San Jose

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

What's in my frig?

Lately a lot of my recipes keep saying to garnish with a sprig of cilantro. I actually love cilantro, but I have some friends who can't stand it. Cilantro is one of those food items (like onions, mayonnaise, and eggplant) that has two polarizing camps, for and against. I happen to be in the "for" camp when it comes to cilantro, known as Chinese parsley in Hawaii because it's used so often in Chinese cooking. But you can't eat it all at once, no matter how much you love it. So I keep it in my refrigerator, and some of you probably already know this trick: Keep your cilantro in a cup of water and then cover it with a plastic bag (not pictured). This way your bunch of cilantro will last a few weeks. You might want to trim the ends every few days and replace the water to keep it fresh.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Happy as a Clam

When I want to whip up a quick dinner, nothing's easier than clams. Today, I'm blending my Chinese culture with my love for Italian meals to come up with this black bean clam pasta dish. It's not like I'm the first one to combine these two cultures (and you've probably heard over and over about some guy named Marco Polo and something about who invented pasta). But this is something that I call uniquely my own. Especially since I just invented it. I combined my favorite way of preparing clams with angel hair pasta, which is also very fast to make because it's so thin. Enjoy!

Black Bean Clams Pasta

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1 dozen medium-sized clams
½ sweet onion, diced
1 green bellpepper, chopped
6 to 8 oz. angel hair or capellini pasta
2 T black bean sauce
1/4 cup white wine
3 T heavy cream (optional)
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
2 T Canola oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t chili pepper flakes
1 T cornstarch
cilantro or flat leaf parsley for garnish

In boiling pot, cook pasta for about 4 minutes in salted water. Set aside.

In hot wok or skillet, warm oil over medium high heat and add garlic and onion. Saute for about one minute and then add bellpepper. Add black bean sauce and quickly blend with all the ingredients in the wok. Toss in fresh clams and add white wine and pepper flakes. Cover for about 3 minutes, letting the wine/black bean sauce steam the clams to open.

Add heavy cream and cheese to your wok and blend with your sauce that’s developing. Then in small bowl, mix cornstarch with water to create a slurry to thicken the sauce. Once all your clams have opened, stir in the cornstarch mixture. When your sauce thickens to the way you like it, toss in your pasta and mix well. Plate the dish top with chopped cilantro or flat leaf parsley.

Makes 2 servings.

Pair with glass of Riesling.

TIPS: The rule with any shellfish like clams or mussels is that you don’t want to force one open. If it doesn’t open during cooking, then you’ve got a bad apple in the bunch. (That’s why some good fishmongers would throw in one or two extras when you’re ordering your clams.) Once the clams begin to open, I’ve found that a trick to get others that might be slower is to give it a tap. (It’s like you’re waking it up; not that the firey heat isn’t a hint.)

ASIAN OR ITALIAN?: As you can tell, this dish is a cross between Asian tastes and an Italian meal. To give it more of an Asian taste, you can drizzle a tablespoon of sesame oil over your plate of pasta right before you serve to give it that extra aromatic. Or you can go with a nice Italian extra virgin olive oil.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Seen At The Market: Purple Basil and Papaya

Today I was strolling on Clement Street in San Francisco. One of the hidden stores to visit in this bustling neighborhood is the Sloat Garden Center on 3rd Avenue. So what am I doing talking about gardening in a food blog? Well, as I walked by the plants, I noticed these purple basil plants for sale. It's so hard to find purple basil to plant that I thought I'd blog about it.

Purple basil offers a different visual element to cooking and is very popular in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. I think the taste is more subtle than regular basil in Italian cooking, but I always have a hard time finding it. So if you also have a hard time finding purple basil, why not plant some in your herb garden? (For me, I don't have a windowsill or garden, so I don't get the full sun needed for basil to thrive. I'm just sharing this discovery for your benefit!)

I was on Clement Street because I met up with a fellow blogger, Emily, who just recently started these food-related podcasts on her new site, Eating Around SF. Emily thought it'd be fun to feature moi! So I thought we'd go grocery shopping at one of the main Asian grocery stores in San Francisco, the Richmond New Mei Wah Store on Clement Street. It was there that I first saw these huuuge ruby papayas. I was telling Emily how these papayas are different than what I saw growing up in Hawaii, where papayas where small enough to fit on your plate for breakfast. These were the size of melons. I'm sure they're a bit unusual because I've seen them a bit smaller, though they're still bigger than what I saw in Hawaii. These particular papayas are sweet and have a nice red color. In Hawaii there's a smaller version of this called strawberry papayas. I had to catch the BART home so I skipped buying one, although it was so tempting. Talking with Emily about food was a lot of fun and I realized I can go on and on when talking about food. Emily, hope you're able to edit it down to something interesting!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Cooperating on Bread and Pizza

Awhile back during a pot luck at work, someone brought in these great loaves of bread and I asked where they were from. She said Arizmendi Bakery. I never heard of Arizmendi, but was told later that there was one at Oakland's Lakeshore area and another in San Francisco's Inner Sunset. Last weekend I spent the day at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and afterwards I visited the Arizmendi Bakery on 9th Avenue. (There is a total of three Arizmendi Bakeries, but they're all independently owned cooperatives so they may not always sell the same things. The third is in Emeryville on San Pablo Avenue.) I found that Arizmendi is pretty popular, especially when the weather is nice and people grab the outdoor seating.
You can see at the very top of this sign that Arizmendi is a "worker-owned cooperative." In fact, it was inspired by the success of the Cheeseboard cooperative in Berkeley. (Some of the workers at the Cheeseboard helped launch Arizmendi, first in Oakland in 1997 and then this San Francisco co-op in 2000.) But I bet you were more focused on the triple mushroom pizza, right? Arizmendi specializes in thin, sourdough pizzas. I went in for a quick snack, so didn't get the pizza. But I saw some other people enjoying them. They looked great and I will definitely go back for the pizza another time.
Here a worker brings out fresh foccacias and other baked goods.
Their sourdough baguettes. Hmmm, looks so good. But I ended up instead getting their popular chocolate bread. Initially I thought this was a bread that's all chocolate flavored. But instead, it's a small little bread with chocolate chips. The bread is denser, almost like a pastry. It wasn't super sweet, just touches of chocolate here and there. It was great.
This sign above the kitchen is so appropriate for the Golden Gate Park area, which was home of the whole free love movement. Message is so appropriate right now.
OK, remember how I sometimes say I have a bad memory. (If you forgot I mentioned that, then your memory is worst than mines.) Anyway, I took this picture and thought I'd remember what these items were so I didn't write it down because I was busy juggling my camera equipment and my chocolate bread. So now I don't know what they are. I think they were coffee cakes?
Here are their foccacias and individual mini pizzas. I wanted to get the artichoke on the left, but ended up getting the gooey, cheese tomato foccacia in the middle. It was yummy and I scarfed it down in just a few minutes after leaving. The only complaint I have is that it had a bit too much olive oil, but I think you can't get away from olive oil with foccacia.
This is not an advertisement for a backpack; it's just a photo of the line at Arizmendi. The San Francisco location is pretty tiny and there were maybe four or five small tables. When I was there, the line was out the door but went by pretty fast. Arizmendi looks like a great place for a quick lunch or taking some warm bread home.

Arizmendi Bakery, San Francisco. 1331 9th Ave. at Irving. Open Tuesday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Monday.