Update

You know that brilliant lunch plan idea I had? Well, it has lasted me two days so far. TWO days! (Or two DAYS!, depending on how you think about it – the point being, WOW – that’s awesome, Simika! Kudos are in order!) I feel healthier already. Self love has never tasted better. 

Feast your eyes on this:

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I did not make this particular pie but I’m lazy, and didn’t take a picture of the one I did make. But this one looked the closest, and the recipe is very similar (I don’t put peas in mine, instead I use frozen corn). 

 

Brownbagging it to school

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I have never been one for brown bagging lunches from home. Growing up, I’d usually buy my lunches at school. Or take chips, crackers and juice boxes for lunch. Once I moved off to campus, I started eating in the cafeterias, and then by the time I graduated and started work, I mostly ate out for lunches. I love hot meals, and it’s nicer to be served something – so eating out is my go-to option.

Until I started school last semester. Chalk it up to old age. Or a faux-nostalgic desire for things I never had in my childhood, but I’m more and more enticed by the idea of taking my lunch to school. I told myself it’s to save money – and that’s true too. But the truth is, somehow I’m seduced by the idea of taking my lunch. Maybe it’s all the korean dramas I’ve been watching, where a packed lunch = emotional happiness.

Or maybe I’m just curious.

Either way, I’ve been good (by my standards) in taking my lunch to school often the first semester. But I’ll admit, I fell back onto pre-made options, packaged foods (hello, Ramen bowls!) and Campbell’s soups. A cop-out if you will. And one that tempts me to just chuck it, and buy myself a warm, toasted chicken wrap from the cafeteria. If I’m going to be brown-bagging it, then I want to do it right. I want actual home-made food.

The problem of course is that home-made food requires planning and effort. Ideally I’d have a magic genie in my kitchen who would pack my lunches every day, something different each day, always delicious. But since that genie is essentially me, I figured with school starting next week, I’ll give this planning and putting in effort thing a try.

So behold my plan!

First I shall invest in some cute but practical containers.

A divided container so I can take a variety of stuff in one container

Second I shall create a meal plan for 3 lunches a week – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I have classes until 10 pm on Wednesdays, so technically I should also think about a dinner option but I figure I’ll leave some room to satisfy my habit of buying a hot meal, or going for a quick bite with friends before class.

Something like this to make feel all efficient and smug

Third, I shall get myself a cute lunch bag kind of like this one:

And lastly…

Oh there is no fourth point…so I guess that’s the end of this post?

Ok, hiatus over!

Maybe?

Who knows? Today is January 1, 2013 – the first day of the new year. So much hope, promise and potential. Anything can happen! Well, almost anything … Right?

A lot has happened since this endless hiatus started in early October. Drafts of posts have accidentally appeared, and have been yanked back. The target of 101 new restaurants have been reached amid much fanfare on both the east and west coasts – both in Toronto and in San Francisco. I’ve moved, with a new job, from San Francisco to New York! New job, new apartment, much chaos, and a LOT of new restaurants.

Yet not a single new post transpired. First it was the 2 week long vacation and the drive across the country from SF to NY, leading to countless excuses of needing to settle down or catch up or what-have-you … November came and went, and the holidays hit. More new restaurants and oh-so-many memorable experiences to write about – and the excuses kept piling up.

So 2012 ended. We both met our targets, and had an amazing time doing it – and have been pleasantly empowered through the process of challenging ourselves outside our comfort zones. Even our failed experiments have had entertainment value! We just never got our act together to write about it all :)

So 2013 will be a year of catch up. We’ll look back through our list, keep writing when we can, and maybe even branch forth a little. I know I want to add a whole section on my experiments in the kitchen, so it’s both eating out and dining in. We’ll just continue to write, and reminisce about that year of the 101 new restaurants.

So what one thing will I remember the most about the 101 challenge of 2012? Hands down, it has to be the excitement and participation of my close friends, who researched new eateries to help me reach my target, who kept count with me, and cheered me on, encouraged me to write (even though I didn’t), and laughed with me about the fact that I wasn’t writing. Amazing gems you are – and you know who you are.

Pass me that gavel please. Consider this blog resuscitated. Maybe fleetingly, maybe more lastingly – who knows? Find out with us?

 

 

Bit of a hiatus

Just in case no one noticed …

We’ll be back in a couple of weeks! Unavoidable, what with life happening and all.

Please bear with us, and we’ll be back to writing up the amazing culinary experiences that we’re still amassing, by now, both of us reaching beyond our target 101 :)

Until later!

La Bodeguita Del Medio, Palo Alto

I’ve been meaning to try this local Cuban restaurant for quite some time now, and every time something or the other gets in the way. Mostly it’s been a case of “let’s go explore what San Francisco has to offer” – the side by-product of which is that local (or almost local) establishments with some amazing culinary offerings go unnoticed, unexplored, unsampled.

One of these days, I put my foot down, found a friend willing to forego the allure of San Francisco, and we headed to Palo Alto during lunch time. La Bodeguita Del Medio is comfortably ensconced among quite a few other culinary delights along California Avenue in Palo Alto, a stone’s throw away from downtown Palo Alto, and a hop-skip-and-jump away from Stanford University. There are some outdoor seating options, but faced with a day with high 80s to low 90s weather, we decided to sit inside.

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The menu claims that this restaurant is a copy of the original version in Havana, where it is a popular hangout for cigars, food and cocktails. Ernest Hemingway was apparently a frequent patron – hm. In an attempt to recreate that environment, this restaurant opened its doors to its California patrons in 1997, offering a cigar lounge, authentic Cuban flavors and rum cocktails. You pick up your drink at the bar in the front of the store, and can amble onwards to the “Cigar Divan” – the separate lounge, where you can help yourself to their well stocked humidor.

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I arrived on time, and while waiting for my friend, I picked out the corner table – the better to get a good look at the rest of the restaurant as I waited. The decor is cheerful, with artwork lining the playful yellow walls. Ceiling fans whirr with a barely perceptible pleasant hum. The bar seemed well visited, even during lunch hour. I did like they have high chairs with backs at the bar instead of the standard stools – makes for a more inviting and stay-longer vibe.

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The light fixtures looked pretty stunning. Beyond the main dining area, beyond heavy curtains that coordinated with their ceiling color, there seems to be more dining space. A fairly spacious venue – with potential for private events for much larger groups. Note to self!

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Interestingly enough, I really liked their table settings. Simple elegance seemed to be the central theme, while the choice of colors helped inject a burst of playful energy to buoy up that elegant vibe. You never really think of playful and elegant together, until you see it so well executed and well presented!

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I always think that I will like Cuban cuisine. I am not sure I really understand what is typically Cuban, but I do have some mental images of tomato based curries and strong flavors, yet mild on the heat. I think of plantains, beans, sweet and smokey. I think mainly of a confluence of several influences – Spanish and African, with some Carribean thrown in for kicks.

We started off with shrimp ceviche. It came out adorned in a glass, heaped high with lemony shrimp and plantain chips. Not your ordinary ceviche at all! This one has black beans in it, for that Cuban flair. In addition, there’s coconut milk and cilantro. And then, if that was not confusing/thrilling enough for your palate, there’s habanero layered throughout the dish. Oh yes: spicy! The tang from the key lime and the warmth of the chile settling down at the back of your tongue and throat all combine into a firework of an experience. That’s when you crunch onto that plantain slice! Lip smacking good.

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I had ordered the arroz con pollo – chicken rice. It might sound a tad humdrum, but hello, have some faith! This was no ordinary chicken rice. The menu reads it as “Cuban braised chicken” with plantains and yellow rice. A deceptively simple description.

You had me at “Cuban braised”. I imagined all sorts of fall off the bone tender meat, marinated masterfully in amazing spices that combine together in a cacophonous melody of sheer perfection of flavors. My choice was pretty clear.

And I wasn’t far off. Cuban cuisine boasts a pheasant-style: a lot of slow-cooked items, less of a focus on technique and more on the freshness of ingredients, and a clever combination of spices, flavors and textures. Conceptually similar to Bangladeshi cuisine, in my opinion, though the flavor profiles are actually quite distinct. Culinary philosophical cousins of sorts, if you will. I am a HUGE fan of the slow-cooked tenderness in meats. From a technique standpoint, the braising, when done right, can bring out these hidden flavor profiles from the meat and bones that will transform the experience. But I digress. Back to the arroz con pollo.

The chicken came slow-simmered in spices in a thick tomato based curry sauce. I could barely touch with the top of my fork before it disintegrated off the bones. Not in strands of over-cooked dried out sadness, but rather in clumps of moist and flavorful chicken chunks. I dug in, marveling at the infusion of flavors into the meat – masterfully marinated, as I had anticipated. Would the dish have been closer to perfection if there wasn’t a pool of oil lying at the bottom of the plate as I worked my way through? Probably :) I stopped eating 75% way into the plate, so there was a protective layer of the arroz between the grease and my fork: I was pleased.

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My friend ordered the Fideos con camarones: thin pasta with shrimp. Again, innocuous, bordering on the humdrum, you say? Oh not at all. This was a creamy pasta dish with sauteed shrimp, with asparagus and avocado. The pasta was generously coated with manchego that imparted both a nutty flavor and a dense creamy texture. The asparagus was crisp tender and tasted fresh. The avocado helped with the overall creamy texture of the dish, lending both a vibrant touch of green to complement the asparagus, as well as a subtle variation on the creamy texture of the cheese.

Yet the show-stealer was the jalapeno-conch butter sauce. Layered with the mild heat and flavor of jalapeno, and heavily infused with the seafood depth of flavor from the conch, this butter sauce opened my eyes (and taste buds) to a brand new flavor profile. Oh. So. Yum.

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La Bodeguita Del Medio – I’m still debating whether it was an “authentic” experience or an exceptionally well executed fusion experience based on Cuban influences. I may need to mull that over a bit – but it does not take away from the remarkably tasty culinary foray into a tastes of Cuba.

Pei Wei, SNA airport

Enough has been said already about some disappointing experiences i have had with airport eateries. Stale sandwiches, unexciting options, gritty drinks – and yet I cling to hope.

Pei Wei’s helps. It reaffirms my faltering faith in the ability of convenience and culinary acceptability to mesh in harmony at airport eateries.

They call themselves an Asian Diner. They offer fairly standard options – but they do it right. The taste is average – nothing to really write home about but also nothing you will gag on and perish. The meal is freshly prepared after you order (or at least freshly tossed up together and packaged as you wait), and you get a piping hot meal. It’s a pretty decent deal if you consider the context of zipping off a flight and on your way to a meeting, and being able to grab a hot meal instead of that stale sandwich on your way to or from that flight.

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After I’ve ordered and been handed my ticket, I usually like stepping away, finding a table, and then turning back to gaze at the collection of their woks and massive strainers hanging from behind the flattops and the counters. Its mesmerizing. Even more so when you’ve just come off a mind-numbingly unexciting one hour flight. And they have suspended flat panel tvs with pictures of their dishes and descriptions circulating. Trust me, its hypnotic.

20120619-224754.jpgPei Wei’s makes me happy. Most weeks, I try not to experiment around, and make a beeline to Pei Wei’s, assured that whatever I will get will be ok enough to get me through until I get home later on in the day! I’m not a big fan of air travel (specially for work), but something about the familiar comfort of Pei Wei’s has made my frequent trips to the Santa Ana airport a wee bit less traumatic. Good job!

 

Zazie’s, Cole Valley, San Francisco

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Being so incurably behind in writing up our culinary experiences brings up a novel experience when we finally do get around to writing up our adventures: you stumble upon a restaurant that needs to be written up and you think, “Oh wow, blast from the past … “. It’s usually not a problem recalling the context or the actual experience – most of these dining out stints are memorable enough for a quick retrieval from the deep, dark recesses of the memory archives. Doesn’t even need extensive dusting off, since most are at the most a few months old at this point. However, it definitely underscores the value of this repository – months and years from now, as we read over each other’s entries, there will be many a content smiles of reliving, recollecting and re-experience :)

Let me see – Zazie’s! *rubbing palms in glee at the exercise in dusting off the memory-entree*

Zazie’s is one of the famous brunch spots in SF, with a lovingly ill-famed no-reservations policy, a pretty small capacity considering its amazing reputation for brunch (I’d say they can seat 20 or so at any given point in time) and the famous two hour waits on weekend mornings. Luckily enough, a good friend of mine lives around the corner from this popular brunch spot, and we’ve been talking about taking advantage of a comfortable waiting spot while we try our luck getting into Zazie.

Somehow, we always ended up going to other brunch places, and Zazie just kept getting pushed off, pushed behind, and just never happening, despite it being literally twenty steps away. We talked about it. A lot. We made plans, and overslept. We made plans, and then went somewhere else. We made more plans, and then realized our group was too bit to deal well with the two hour wait, so we moved across the street.

Then one day, we made no plans. We woke up and were going out for a weekend trip and we took a game-time decision to stop for brunch first, and step downstairs and check out Zazie’s. And check out we did – waltzing in just as a corner table for 3 opened up. We barely even broke our stride for any wait – unimaginable luck! We attributed to the good luck charm our out of town friend had brought with her from the east coast, and settled in with our drinks of a tea and a latte. Did I mention that the latte came in a bucket you could swim in? Well, almost. Ah caffeinated bliss: and so much entertainment for those around me.

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Zazie’s does not have the world’s most innovative brunch menu. Their menu is fairly standard – eggs, benedicts, griddle delights and other fairly standard brunch fare. They just execute remarkably well on their standard brunch fare. And when I say remarkably well, I am criminally understating. They just have the brunch flavors and textures down pat.

Take their crab benedict for example. The very first thing you will notice is how dense and cream-like their hollandaise is. This is beyond creamy, almost with a body and texture of its very own. At first sight, you think you can cut into it with a knife, and it will hold its own. The surface sheen, the defined and firm drizzle lines and the visual texture of the pool at the edge – you know what to expect. You are smug. You go in.

At the very first touch though, the illusion evaporates and you sink into the decadent silken smoothness, miring, with a look of surprise. You retract. You mull, an eyebrow raised. Of course, you collect yourself, with a discrete cough or clearing of the throat, putting down those utensils with hearts of deception, and looking around to see if anyone noticed the falter in your dig-scoop maneuver.

No one notices, since everyone is in their very own miring. So you attempt again, this time, prepared for the hollandaise’s assault on your visual-tactile sensory expectations.

The egg below offers just a tiny bit of resistance and gives way to the toasty crunch of the bread base underneath. The shredded crab scatters and you scoop and ladle, and prepare an artful forkful. You almost close your eyes as you let the forkful descend on your taste buds, but not really, because who knows what other surprise the innocuous forkful has in reserve.

I am a huge fan of benedicts. I think they are an amazing contrast of textures – the crunch, the creamy, the silken yolk and the tang from the hollandaise. Zazie’s has taken all those elements of a perfect benedict, and consistently served up perfection. The crab was fresh and light – with just the right flavor that complements the egg and hollandaise perfectly instead of overpowering. The most memorable part of the whole ensemble must have been the tang of the hollandaise – done just right, without feeling like a lemon meringue pie juice. I know, that’s just disgusting.

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Take their omelettes for example. The one pictured below was the special for the day – chicken apple sausages, bell peppers, onions, maybe spinach (and this is where my memory is failing me) and topped with avocado slices. The dish came with their house greens (very fresh and perfectly dressed), and your choice of toast with a cute ball of butter. Again, nothing that would win the award for innovativeness, but just perfectly executed – the right balance of melding the flavors of the stuffed ingredients, and enveloped carefully in the perfect egg case: neither underdone and runny, nor overdone and plasticky.

20120619-225511.jpgSo, Zazies – it finally happened!

Jardin, Santana Row, San Jose

Our experience at Jardin is actually a part 2 of the evening spent at Picasso’s Tapas and Restaurant in San Jose. Originally, our game-plan had been to set off to find some amazing tapas, explore San Jose while on our quest for spanish flavors and then trek to Santana Row to catch a movie.

Our evening at Picasso’s had turned out to be such a hit, and we took so much time to savor the flavors and tastes, that by the time we headed to Santana Row, we knew we were barely going to make the movie on time. We discussed tactical ploys – I’d park the car while my friend would run inside to grab tickets and secure our spot in the queue …

Something about the post-tapas satiation invites this unexpected contentment and relaxed mood that gets in the way of said tactics. So we rolled in, laughed at the lack of parking spots on a weekend evening, forgot our plans to divide and conquer and just ambled about until we actually found pretty amazing parking.

In fact, we decided we actually could use the 10minutes we had before the movie to stroll around at the shops instead of fighting for the best seats at the theatre. That should have been our first inkling that the movie was not going to happen!

Of course, we had no idea we were about to enter a jewelry store. We did. And we were stuck. Its something about the glitter and sparkle of gems that just transfixes and binds, paralyzing. In 10minutes, we looked at each other, admitted that the movie was not happening, and relaxed at the sale counter.

But this is not a story of our indulgence at the sparkling counter, neither is it a sob story of our bleeding bank balances. So we’ll fast-forward to the next chapter, post-jewelry purchase, as we sat outside next to the life-size chess board at the open air promenade, hurriedly trying on our new acquisitions in glee.

Santana Row is rather amazing. Imagine a restaurant and shop lined street, mostly dedicated to pedestrian traffic, with the center island a large floating paradise with mini gardens, deck furniture, life-size chess boards, normal sized chess tables, frozen yogurt stands, and so much more. The street remains alive late into the night, with plenty of options for all types of late-night hangout options – tea shops and lounges, restaurants and dessert options and just tons of people watching potential.

Jardin is the restaurant at the furthest end of the strip. It’s a rather unique concept of open air dining: outdoor sofas, dining tables, and then bar stools against higher round tables at the far end near the bar. We have to come back for dinner, we thought, and walked past clumps of happy and relaxed diners, reveling more in the open-air vibe and ambiance rather than from the dining experience.

By the time we entered, the restaurant had maybe another half hour before closing, so we were rushed to an open spot by the bar and gently nudged to make up our minds before the kitchen closes. We quit gazing around for a little bit, focused on the fairly extensive fusion-esque menu and tried to decide what we wanted to indulge in, still fairly full and content from our tapas dinner earlier.

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Difficult decision made, we relaxed and hung out, catching up. Soon it became evident that it was way more fun to people-watch and make up stories about the diners around us. A small brawl seemed to break out not too far from where we were sitting, and we gazed on, intrigued about whether the brawl would spread enough to bring any of the heat lamps into jeopardy. Turned out to be a very civil brawl with a few mumbled raised voices and glares, but little less. Disappointing.

One of the diners seemed to effortless blend in with the service staff … did she work here, or was she a guest, or maybe both? The fluid transformation had us intrigued for a little bit – turned out she was just a very very friendly waitstaff.

For a while, I tried to capture the fake bowls of fire that adorned the back bar wall. Smart phone cameras have come a really long way, for sure, but I am not sure they are ready to handle shots of fake fire at night yet.

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Our drinks and dessert arrived pretty quickly. I am recalling a brief confusion – our drinks made it out, but our dessert had gotten lost. A couple of nods and questioning looks later, the churros made its way to our table. Thankfully, since it turned out to be pretty good – a crusty sweet exterior encasing an ooey gooey creamy center. The pool of spicy chocolate sauce complemented the sweet fried-dough texture of the churros just perfectly. What better dessert to share than sweet, crispy, creamy, chocolate-y dippity delights?

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They even made me this yummy virgin pineapple drink in a tall glass. A lovely tropical touch, perfect with the heat-lamp-y, outdoor-dining ambiance.

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Jardin was unplanned. A delight nonetheless, and complemented the evening just perfectly, helping us cap off a relaxing and low-key night just so.

“You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood.” What mood is that? “Last-minute panic.” ~ Bill Watterson

I only have to discover seven more new restaurants for me to reach my goal of 101.

If my goal is to only try out new restaurants, that is.

If my goal is to write about each and every one of them, then I’m woefully behind. I suck. I need to go sit in a corner by myself and cry.

Last night my sister was joking about always aiming for the moon, and landing among the stars. Which would be awesome because that would mean I’d exceed my expectations. However, let’s just say, at this point, I’ll be happy if I write about at least 20 more experiences. It’ll be more of a “Reach for the stars, and you may land on the moon.” Which kind of sounds pretty awesome too. For an underachiever.

(Just nod and agree, to make me feel better!) 

I’m procrastinating on the writing front because I am inherently lazy. My solution so far as been to periodically write a pesudo apology post. Must rectify this. No. Will rectify this.

Promise.

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