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Archive for September, 2007

Fish taco at Pancho Villa, San Francisco

Next to seeing so many close friends and family in the Bay Area, I was very excited to stuff my face with as much Cal-Mex as humanly possible over 72 hours. Jon and I were lucky to have so many local experts in the area to indulge us, so though we had to move around a lot during our trip, we managed to eat Cal-Mex in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland.

In San Francisco (the city proper), we ate at Pancho Villa Taqueria and Puerto Allegre. Pancho Villa started in the Mission district, which, you might already be aware, is ground zero for taquerias. But the location we tried is across the street from the posh gourmet Ferry Building, and you know, even at the fancier location, Pancho Villa feels like a dive where it’s all about the fresh, corn tortillas (that smell and taste like corn – a crazy concept if you think about the dominance of El Paso-brand, floppy yellow grossness in London groceries).

Because we went to Pancho Villa within an hour of leaving San Francisco Airport (i.e., we had been stuffed silly by the plane food you eat solely out of boredom), Jon and I were only able to scarf down one cheese-and-mushroom quesadilla and a fish taco. But wow, what a difference a quality tortilla makes – flour in the quesdadilla and corn in the fish taco. Salsas were fresh, spicy and varied. My kindgom for tomatillo salsa! Overall, I was happy with my sampling of Pancho’s offerings.

Generally, the Cal-Mex we ate tasted good, but my photos of the food didn’t come out looking so fantastic (see, for example, the photo at the top of this post. It’s of my fish taco at Pancho Villa). So there aren’t any entertaining snaps for this post, I’m afraid.

Puerto Allegre is in the Mission district, and when we dropped by on a Thursday night, our travel-exhausted selves were not amused by the 40-minute wait to get in to the restaurant. The decor is modest (think bowling-alley booths and tables), but the vibe is energetic and chatty. Margaritas are strong, and the nachos were outstanding – piled so high with spicy meat, cheese, and salsa that the server left us an extra bowl of plain nachos to get the right ratio of topping to cripsy, corn-tasting nachos.

My carnitas burrito was a little disappointing. It was enormous and slathered in a green sauce, necessitating fork and knife usage, which was too bad since I’m a big believer in foil-wrapped burrito as portable meal. I also thought the rice in the burrito was kind of damp and overly dense, but this could be my Asian bias for fluffy, dry-textured rice coming through. In any case, I’d go back to Puerto Allegre for the nachos and drinks, but I’d skip the burrito.

In Oakland, even though I wasn’t at a taqueria, I couldn’t resist ordering the huevos rancheros at the friendly, casual Somerset restaurant. My friend Margaret tells me Somerset is the place she goes for brunch, and I can see why. Our party of eight had servers who were happy to customize orders (just try asking for a customization in London!), and the menu included creative twists on brunch classics (e.g., lemon-ricotta pancakes). I was happy but not surprised that my eggs arrived fluffy and hot, spiced up with salsa and cheese, and accompanied by rich, black beans. The eggs sat on a thick corn pancake, which soaked up a tad too much oil, but no big complaints as everything tasted fresh. After ordering a separate side of avocado to complete my idea of perfect huevos rancheros, my state of well-being was complete.

In Berkeley, I went with another party of eight to Cancun Taqueria, a super-lively place near the Cal campus. The place is large and the seating is canteen style. When we arrived, a Cal football game had just ended, so the place was packed with crowds of students and Cal fans wearing college paraphernalia. The noise and cheery enthusiasm were a little too much for boring, old me, but we managed to snag eight seats at a long table, and then I happily guzzled down several flavors of agua fresca, which never ceases to amaze me with its “essence of fruit” tastiness. The nachos were good, though not as yummy as the ones at Pancho Villa, and my shrimp taco cost a rather pricey $5 for a single taco housing four overcooked shrimp. I was also thrown off by the black beans in the taco. I won’t pretend to be a Cal-Mex expert, but I’ve never had a taco that included black beans. If I go back to Cancun, I’ll just focus on drinking all the agua fresca flavors and maybe try a burrito.

It’s amazing how quickly I get spoiled. Any one of my Cal-Mex meals in the Bay Area would have kicked ass in London, but of course, being in the land of taquerias meant that I got pretty picky. I’m most likely to return to Pancho Villa before visiting Puerto Allegre and Cancun again, but they were all pretty good.

Despite the fact that I ate Cal-Mex for four out of six restaurant meals during my weekend in the Bay Area, I’m still craving more. I saw an article in the Times recently about the revamped test for naturalization, and there was, of course, some analysis of what it means to be an American. Given how my mild, occasional homesickness takes the form of craving Mexican food, it seems obvious to me that the test should include a question or two about tacos and burritos.

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Sweet Corn soup and shrimp tempura at Redd

I’m just back from the Bay Area! Jon and I were there for a long weekend for our friend Maura’s wedding, and after spending an excruciatingly-boring 12 hours on a BA flight from LHR (the on-demand system broke down – tragedy!), we arrived to bright sunshine and mild, breezy weather in San Francisco.

On Friday, we drove with our friends Margaret and Dan to Napa, which was rather ambitious considering we had to be back in San Fran by sundown for Yom Kippur services.

Nonetheless, we managed to visit an excellent wine cooperative in Napa (the Ancien and Destino wines were especially tasty and the snob in me loves that only miniscule numbers of cases are available) as well as enjoy lunch at Redd Restaurant in Yountville, just down the street from You Know What.

Yountville is a small town, and best I can tell, it consists of a main street lined with Thomas Keller-owned restaurant (Bouchon, Ad Hoc, French Laundry), but mixing it up is Redd.

The restaurant serves fresh, high-quality ingredients in attractive presentations. It’s all so no-fuss and casual that I took the food for granted, and it wasn’t until after the meal that I really appreciated how delicious our meal was.

My pork belly starter was tender and meaty, and at first I loved the sweet-and-salty teriyaki-ish sauce, but after a few bites, not even the crunchy frisee greens could soften the overwhelming richness. I ended up eating greedy spoonfuls of Jon’s cool, refreshing sweet corn soup, served with shrimp tempura for crunch (see photo at top of post).

Scallops at Redd

I loved my main course. I normally like scallops pretty raw, but even though these were cooked through so as not to be pink in the middle, they were still sweet, plump, and far from overcooked. The cauliflower-raisin-and-sliced almond “hash” served on the side, while not pretty, added texture and a nice variety of sweetnesses. Delish and worth every penny. (I tried hard not to think this way, but even at $25 a dish, that’s less in dollars than a main course at the gastropub across the street. Eating in USD was like – you know – Christmas came early!)

My one complaint about Redd (this one’s for my vegetarian friend, Margaret) is that it was too bad the lunch menu we had lacked vegetarian options. C’est bizarre for California foodie country, no? But the server was gracious and flexible about accommodating requests for customizations.

I’d certainly go back to Redd the next time I’m in Napa. The food is what I think of as California style . . . fresh and creative and served in a casual-luxe way.

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Ping Pong Restaurant, James Street

My friend Val organized an outing for dim sum last weekend, and when she told me that we were headed to a restaurant called Ping Pong, I had to admit that I had doubts. It’s the name. Ping Pong. Not even table tennis players like it when you refer to their sport that way, so why would I want to try a dim sum restaurant that decided the most Chinese-sounding thing they could name themselves was a term that has no meaning whatsoever in Chinese!?!

Well, attempting to act like a normal person sans weird hangups, I agreed to Ping Pong, and our group of three met at 12 noon at the James Street location (ack! a chain, no less), near Bond Street tube.

When I reached James Street, I saw that the restaurant doors were open, but Val was standing on the street corner. Why? Because even though the restaurant opens at 12, you can’t set foot inside until the staff says you can. So we stood outside for 15-20 minutes, staring inside through the wide-open doors and waiting for a signal that we could step over the threshold.

At last we were admitted and then told that the three of us couldn’t sit near the French doors that opened out to the lovely sunny day. Apparently, those tables were “just for groups of two.” In the otherwise empty restaurant, the three of us had to sit in a four-top near the restaurant bar in the back.

Things could only improve from there, no?

The dim sum menu offerings, while limited, are just £3 a dish, and they’re actually not bad. The shao mai is passable (hot and meaty with a firm bite), and the chive dumplings aren’t bad once you get past the green-colored skin.

My favorite part of the meal was the Jasmine tea. Though it’s £2 per order, you’re served your own “ball” of tea, which opens up into a flower once you pour hot water in. Hot water is repeatedly offered as a top up, so cheers to the attentive service.

The decor is best described as Hakkasan-lite, with dark woods in a vaguely Chinese motif pattern.

And the best part is that when you’re done with dim sum, Selfridge’s is just around the corner. Which makes Ping Pong a nice, inexpensive choice for a meal when you’re shopping.
Ping Pong on Urbanspoon

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Royal Pavillion, Brighton

Before going to Brighton this past weekend, I knew only that (1) it’s a seaside resort popular with London daytrippers since the 1800s, and (2) these days, Brighton is known for a happening nightlife and cool gay scene. For some reason, I thought the happening nightlife/gay scene rep would mean the city was super-cool and chic-looking, but actually, the parts I saw just seemed kind of shabby and sad.

Brighton Beach and Pier in the distance

The good news is that going to Brighton takes only an hour by train, and from the Brighton train station, it’s a quick walk to the boardwalk and beach. The bad news is that the boardwalk and beach are kind of depressing and not worth visiting. Don’t go to Brighton thinking you’re going to find a gorgeous crescent of sand or a well-maintained, pretty boardwalk (like the one in, say, San Sebastian). Oh no. Think hard pebble beaches, “beach pubs” that reek of day-old beer spilled on the floor, and a pier packed with seedy arcade games and community-fair-calibre rides that cost £8 a pop. (more…)

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The Eagle gastropub

When my stateside friends visit London, I usually assume that as much as I love Huong Viet, my friends have not come to Blighty to say they ate Vietnamese food. Instead, I end up suggesting we eat gastropub food and Indian food, which are two types of eating that I think are uniquely plentiful in London. [Well, OK, maybe uniquely isn't quite right re: Indian food . . . I mean, you could go to India, but you hopefully see what I'm saying . . . .]

The Eagle gastropub opened in 1991, and if you’ve ever read about the history of gastropubs (such a popular reading topic, no?), the Eagle is invariably mentioned as the first one, because the Eagle’s owners geniusly invented the word.

Although the Eagle, located near Exmouth Market, is just a 20 minute-walk from our flat, I’d never been there until yesterday. With so many gastropubs opening up all the time (and my belief in evolution, I suppose), how could the 16-year-old Eagle still be going strong?

Hey, well, everyone makes mistakes. Because a fellow London blogger visited the Eagle a few weeks ago and raved about it, Jon and I decided to check it out yesterday night. The Mediterranean-influenced food, while no-frills compared to what’s served now in most gastropubs, was pretty good.

We dropped by at around 9:30 pm, and although the Eagle was packed and has a no-reservations policy, we didn’t have to wait too long for a table. The room is high-ceilinged and dark, and compared to most gastropubs these days, it has a slightly grungy feel. I imagine old French bistros used to feel this way: loud, convivial and with rickety tables and chairs.

Snagging a table near the bar, we looked at the chalkboard menus and were sad to see the grilled lambchops-and-rice dish had been crossed out. Suddenly we felt the urgent need to order, lest the kitchen run out of other yummy-sounding dishes! So we bellied up to the bar and ordered two glasses of rioja, a veggie bruschetta, skate and runner beans, and Napoli sausages with figs and cannelloni beans. (These days, gastropubs are a lot more like restaurants, and servers come to your table to take your oder, but not so at the Eagle. They’re the original and sticking to it . . . ).

The portions were enormous, which made me feel better about having spent £10 on grilled sausages and beans, basically.

Napoli sausages and figs at the Eagle gastropub

Presentation (as you can see from my photo of said sausages) was not a priority, but I did love how charred and smoky the sausages were from the grill, and the figs added a nice, tangy sweetness. If you’ve ever tried to find sausages in London with a spicy kick, then you’ll enjoy these as much as I did. The beans were just filler, and I think a better carb of choice would have been a good hunk of fresh bread. Believer in self help that I am, I just raided the bread basket.

The bruschetta was toweringly huge and could easily have been a main course, which explained the £7.50 price tag. It’s a grilled, thick slice of bread piled high with roasted vegetables and topped with a honkin’ large ball of surprisingly un-tasty buffalo mozzarella. It wasn’t awful, but having grilled a lot of veggies lately, I’ve done a lot better at home.

Overall, a good experience, and I appreciate all that the Eagle has done for the London mid-priced dining scene. That said, with all the excellent gastropubs closer to my flat, I’m not sure I’ll head out to the Eagle again soon.

If you don’t feel like cooking on a weeknight and crave simple, well-prepared food, the Eagle’s a perfect choice. And if you go, go with a group so you have a fighting chance to finish the large portions.

The Eagle on Urbanspoon

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Paul A. Young Chocolates Caramel Chocolate Spread

Somehow I managed to live in Islington for several months before I realized that hidden away just off of busy, somewhat chain-fied Upper Street is Camden Passage, a series of pretty, pedestrianized walkways lined with small (read: non-chain), charming shops.

Paul A. Young Fine Chocolates is one of these shops.

London being a great world city, there’s no shortage of high-end, artisanal chocolateries in town. There’s L’Artisan du Chocolat, purveyors of chocolates to restos as revered as the Fat Duck and located just east of uber-posh Sloane Square. (Though it feels disloyal to my ‘hood to say so, the jasmine tea chocolates and the chocolate-covered almonds at L’Artisan are pretty damn delish).

Maison du Chocolat has a London outpost near Green Park, and the Chocolate Society promotes its fresh and varied goodies in Belgravia.

But in the end, there’s no place like [the] home [neighborhood], and I like that when I walk into Paul Young, the service is friendly, casual, but knowledgeable. Paul Young himself (he of the flaming red hair) is often working in the shop, and the chocolate flavors offered, just like good restaurant menus, always change. Admittedly, some of the flavors, like marmite-and-Ingredient du Jour, are so “creative” as to not appeal to me and my relatively boring chocolate tastes.

Paul A. Young Truffles

Last weekend, I brought our visiting-from-NY-and-DC friends, Laura and Julie, to Paul Young, and while Laura picked out two boxes of chocolates (they’re so fresh and delicate that the shop insists you eat them within five days of purchase – a challenge we can all rise to, no?), Jon and I pigged out on free samples of brownies so rich that you begin to think you’d gladly pay the £2.75 for one, except then you consider the size of those things and you wonder how one person could possibly finish something that dense and intense?

Paul Young Brownies

So we kept things “light” and opted instead for the ice cream covered in hot chocolate. One scoop of chocolate brownie-and-pecan ice cream, and another of rose petal-masala ice cream. Both flavors tasty on their own, but even more fun when the molten chocolate poured on top immediately turned into a rich, bittersweet shell as it hit the ice cream. Like a high-end Magic Shell.

Definitely make Paul Young a destination if you even sort of like chocolate. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, then read the New York Times article about it.

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Mucho Mas Burritos, Islington

Last night, Jon and I were on our way to grab some Turkish food on Upper Street, the main street in our neighborhood. Just the usual weeknight laziness about cooking.

We stopped dead in our tracks when we spotted Mucho Mas. A burrito/taco joint. In our ‘hood. Holy cow.

It seems at least two other bloggers have already posted about this place (amazing because the owner of Mucho Mas told us he’d just opened last Friday), so I’ll keep it quick with following comments:

1. If you miss Chipotle, you’ll love Mucho Mas. While there’s no Niman This and Niman That going on here, the shredded beef and the shredded pork (carnitas) burritos at Mucho Mas were fresh-tasting and delicious. I was surprised to give shredded beef the slight edge over the carnitas, given my undying love of carnitas, but the beef had stronger seasoning yesterday.  Carnitas was a little undersalted and not as spicy as I would have liked.

2. The guac at Mucho Mas deserves special mention. I don’t know why it’s so hard for restaurants to serve good guac, but the extra dollop at Mucho Mas is well worth 75p. It’s salty, creamy and limey-tangy.

3. Last night, the owner assembled the burritos himself, and we couldn’t imagine a more gracious, friendly bit of service.

The burritos are priced at £5.15-5.95, which means you get a meal in a wrap for about half what a takeaway lunch costs at Itsu. I’ll be eating there mucho mas in the future.

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Tintern Abbey, Chepstow, Wales

On our last day in Wales, Jon and I debated whether to stay in Cardiff and check out the Cardiff Castle or drive about 20 miles east to see Tintern Abbey.

Jon settled the matter when he said: “If it’s good enough for Wordsworth, it’s good enough for us.” For those of you wondering what Jon meant, you’ve clearly forgotten all the useful knowledge gleaned in high school English class!

In the late 1700s, William Wordsworth wrote “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” because he was inspired by the beauty of the Abbey ruins. So off we went to be similarly inspired.

Our first impression was not promising. Less than 50 feet away from the Abbey ruins are a parking lot, souvenir vendors, and a forgettable pub. The aggravation of trying to snag one of the parking spots was something like circling the mall garage on Black Friday.

Finally, we broke down and parked in the pub’s parking lot, agreeing to buy a few watery pints to make it convincing that we were pub patrons entitled to use the parking lot. I was tempted to just turn around and go home, but it seemed a waste of a 30-minute drive to do that, so we paid our £3.50 admission fee and our £1 for audioguide and hoped for the best.

In hindsight, it makes sense that if the Abbey ruins were a major tourist attraction in Wordsworth’s day, it’d be seriously tourist-fied in the 21st century.

Once you enter the Abbey grounds, it’s surprisingly easy to forget all the souvenir-and-tarmac tackiness. The audioguide was the best £1 we’ve ever spent, and we learned a lot about the original use of the Abbey by the Cistercian monks in the 1100s. Apparently these guys sought to be very practical and useful, so manual labor in the fields was a major activity at the Abbey. None of that sissy illuminated manuscript business for them!

We spent a relaxing and fascinating hour there, and we snapped a lot of photos. I’ll leave you with one of my faves, taken of what used to be the Abbey church’s east nave:

East Nave of Tintern Abbey, Wales

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Worm’s Head, Gower, Wales

As the U.S. celebrates Labor Day this weekend, I think about the summer getaways to cool, crisp New England beaches that I miss very much. But then I think about how much our trip to Wales’s Gower Peninsula last weekend felt like a trip to Maine or Cape Cod. And finally the light has come on: England came before New England, and there might be a reason the latter was named just so.

Gower Peninsula juts into the Atlantic just an hour west of Cardiff, which means that like the Brecon Beacons, it’s an easy day trip from Cardiff.

As we made our way past the industrial-looking shores of Swansea, Jon and I were thrilled to see sandy beaches when we rounded the Swansea Bay to Mumbles, which is the first big beach town on the peninsula.

Determined to reach the peninsula’s most western point, Rhossili, we snaked our way through small, picturesque beach towns for over an hour and a half. While the distance across the peninsula is not much in miles (i.e., 19 miles from east to west), the roads are small and windy, and they don’t accommodate a lot of traffic. We encountered much of the sharp-bends-in-a- one-lane-road situation but miraculously managed to avoid head-on collisions.

I took in the scenery of tidy cottages, blooming flower trellises and hilly, green terrain, which was great for the first half hour on the peninsula, but because Jon and I hadn’t planned for slow going and thought we’d reach Rhossili in time for lunch, we were starving during our drive. So we tried a cafe at Beynon’s Farm, a pick-your-own in the town of Nicholaston, and the cheese-and-onion pasties were amazingly good and just £1.20 each. Flaky, buttery pastry shell and a savoury filing that only hot cheese, potato and onion can create (a la the best knish you’ve ever had in your life). Cornwall Pasty Company, eat your heart out.

Rhossili Beach, Gower, Wales

Rhossili Beach (pictured above) was beautiful. We hiked up a steep ridge that follows the curve of the beach, called the Rhossili Downs, and from the Downs, we had views of the slithery rock formation called Worm’s Head (photo at top of post) as well as of farmland and beaches for miles around. I did wonder why a steep hill would be called a Down, and of course Wikpedia came to the rescue.

Beautiful as it is, Rhossili Beach seems not the right place for a swim. I thought the water was kind of chilly, but Jon jumped in and had a fab time, and he wasn’t the only one. So maybe you just need to be a polar bear kind of guy.

Even though I didn’t enjoy the water, I look forward to going back to Rhossili (or the Gower peninsula, generally) for the hikes, views, and the chance to park myself on the sand and read a book to the soundtrack of crashing waves.

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