State Bird Provisions may have been the ultimate best dining out experience. Ever. There, I’ve said it.
Dear State Bird Provisions – I want to be you. I want to be the unique combination of quirky and adventurous; the just-right blend of form and function, aesthetics and taste; the no-comparison daring innovation and creativity that leaves the diner stunned, paralysed even.
But I digress. Taking it from the top …
My friend picked State Bird Provisions for my birthday treat. It all happened very last minute, and when she tried to get reservations, she faced a few weeks worth of a wait. Yikes. Neither of us plan that ahead of time to comfortably commit to reservations (I’m breaking into hives just typing out the word commit).
I’d be up for pretty much anything, I told her, but she seemed pretty set on this idea. We called them anyway, disregarding their online reservation cautionary notes. Turns out they do have a handful of seats at the bar/counter that are first-come first-served and are not under the control of the reservations gnomes. Show up and wait, and the seat’s yours when it’s free, they told us.
We had to hatch a plan. Maybe we could get there an hour before the establishment opened and trip everyone who walked by. Not our brightest idea, admittedly. We mulled, we scribbled, and mired in the sea of crumpled paper and flipchart paper … In the end, our conniving settled down to a rather innocuous plan of getting there right at opening to try our luck. We identified a backup eatery in case we weren’t up for a two hour wait at the doors, and satisfied with our game plan, we dispersed.
Right at opening meant we were there about a half hour into dinner time. I had gotten there earlier, and I watched as throngs of twos and fours made their way through a rather nondescript door, merrily chatting amongst themselves and eagerly looking forward to their reservations.
When my friend did come, we hustled inside, eagerly waiting to hear how long of a wait we are facing.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
Pei 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Jardin was unplanned. A delight nonetheless, and complemented the evening just perfectly, helping us cap off a relaxing and low-key night just so.
This one time, I was on airport duty, a daytime pickup. I had woken up early, snoozed a half dozen times and then finally tumbled out of the house, pleased that despite the lazing around, I was more likely to be a few minutes early than otherwise.
Traffic was also on my side, and I sauntered with ease into the park & call lot at the airport, swung elegantly into a 30-min waiting spot and sent my friend a text that I was parked and comfy, see you when you land…
Turns out, the plane had not even boarded yet. I had mistaken the take-off time for the arrival time. I have this remarkable knack of surprising even myself at my gaffes sometimes. A little entertaining, in fact. Thankfully, it was only an hour flight, so I was only about an hour and a half early – at least I hadn’t arrived in the morning for an evening arrival.
I’m always thrilled at the unexpected gift of downtime! I decided to explore and kill the extra time at a nearby cafe. I turned to my trusty smart phone and Yelp, and serendipitously found a place within about 5 miles with complimentary wifi and great reviews for both coffee and cuteness factor! I zipped off – successfully avoiding getting lost on my way out of the airport.
Who knew that a stone’s throw away from the airport was an amazing swerving drive through some wetlands and waterways and regional parks? Before you had the chance to say “wow”, you were driving over a narrow draw bridge, straight into a charming and quaint residential neighborhood. The houses here were mostly single storied, with a Spanish hacienda style look and feel about them. Interestingly enough, the neighborhood looked neat and well put together, but not necessarily affluent. I turned into the main street equivalent of this cute little neighborhood and kept an eye out for Julie’s.
Julie’s must look pretty amazing after dark, with the spotlight facing its front awning. I was tempted to sit outdoors, but the overcast skies and gloomy weather drove me inside.
The overcast skies and the doom and gloom all cowered at the door to the cafe, and inside was a burst of joie de vivre. As you walk in, the air is palpably warmer (but of course, you say) and scented with an inviting aroma of home (that’s caffeine fumes, you say). You had to be there, is all I will say. There are three two-seaters along the left wall, and a few more two seaters and one four-seater table along the perimeter on the right, along the front glass wall. The center space is occupied by a few odds and ends of couches – all overstuffed and inviting. If you can resist the urge to plonk down and never leave, you will then glance up to look at the narrow end of the restaurant, where seemingly everyone is ordering the grilled cheese sandwich, despite the extensive array of available options posted on the many chalkboards along the far wall.
But more on the grilled cheese in a bit – for now, suffice it to say that I smartly walked up to the counter and ordered one too. But first, check out the nondescript green door to the right of the counter … that leads to the garden patio.
Order number in hand, I stood in front of that green door for a few seconds, wondering whether to stay in the bright warmth of the inside, or venture out back. Worth at least a trip, I thought, and carefully peered around the doorjamb, trying to see beyond, almost Alice-in-Wonderland style. A very narrow and vividly green-walled (painted, not planted) alleyway led away towards the back, without so much as affording a hint as to the nature of what waited beyond. I stepped back, looked around at the empty tables and shrugged to myself and stepped beyond the door frame.
What greets you after a mere 3 steps is a very elegant little urban garden. I’m thinking of a cross between a german beer garden Astoria style, with Hansel and Gretel styled cottage vibe (if you can mentally extrapolate to the garden equivalent).
There are some aromatic herb plants available for sale, displayed along the garden walls. Pretty charming. And of course, all along the walls are scrap metal inspired artwork.
Tour over, I headed back indoors. The spot I wanted – along the left wall at the very entrance of the cafe, had already been filled, so I picked out my second choice – a table right by the counter. As I settled in and unpacked my laptop and latched onto the wifi, I noticed a whole wall of tea and mugs on the right hand side wall – I had completely missed it on the way in, by then distracted by thoughts of the grilled cheese sandwich. Wow, what a wide variety of tea choices!
I sat down and made myself comfortable, looking around to see what else I had missed. Sure enough, I had completely missed how much iron/metal there is in the cafe, casually adorning walls, forming unique light fixtures and complementing the colorful paint on the cafe walls. I mulled over the sad lack of my observational skills, and then decided to let it go when my grilled cheese arrived.
Have you ever really tried very very hard to like something? The cafe was so cute, the ambiance so inviting and homely, and the patronage so comfortingly local and casual, that I had convinced myself that this grilled cheese sandwich was going to be a gourmet experience. As soon as the dish was brought out, with some amazingly friendly service, may I add, I knew we were in culinary fiasco land.
Oh and I so wanted to love the food at Julie’s! My platter of grilled cheese came with a side salad, and when it arrived, it looked just fine. The red flag went fluttering when I lifted up one half of the grilled cheese sandwich.
How was I going to bite into it without metal grinders for teeth? Fried to a crisp taken way too literally! As I put down the sandwich, wondering whether to ask for a knife or a hammer … I absentmindedly reached for the napkin, to brush off crumbs. That’s when I realized the crumbs were clinging for dear life, stuck in a bog of grease that had seeped off the sandwich and onto my fingers.
I suppressed a shudder and decided to at least break the sandwich into two, and bite into the softer inside part, avoiding the crust and the whole inch or so of border along with it, to prevent myself from ripping apart the inside of my mouth. Not at all a bad idea – the inside core was not quite as razor edged and dangerous.
But the cheese. Oh what sadness. Whatever happened to the ooey gooey cheesy innards of a comforting grilled cheese sandwich? Whatever happened to stringy cheese strands with each bite? Whatever happened to being able to taste the cheese? Replaced by plastic salinity and a rubbery slap in the face.
I gave up. I wasn’t going to risk my gum health and brave the spiky fried bread spears for a slithery plastic mouthfeel that I couldn’t wash away with even a full glass of water. I dug into the salad instead. The greens looked fresh – how wrong can you go with fresh greens?
Apparently wrong enough. Coated with pepper grenades and encased in an unidentifiable greasy dressing-wannabe, the leafy greens had been transformed into yet another angry fight with the bite. Disappointed, and unwilling, nay unable, to swallow the attack on my taste buds (literally), I toyed with the salad, briefly contemplated braving a carrot slice, and then chickened out. I glanced at my phone for the time, decided enough was enough, and scurried out of the cafe and into daylight.
Oh wow – Julie’s was such a great impression from an experience standpoint, so on point with the ambiance and “feel”, that the disappointing experience with the food was heartbreaking. Maybe it was a one time grilled cheese gone wild, but I’ll probably never find out.