Tuesday, April 29, 2008

SPQR ***

There are some people with whom it is difficult to have a bad meal. My friends J & A are one such couple, which is why I happily agreed to meet them at SPQR. The term SPQR is the abbreviation for the 'Senate and the People of Rome' (Senātus Populusque Rōmānus) and serves as the emblem for the City of Rome. The atmosphere is warm, but a little crowded like a busy Roman trattoria. As we waited for a table, folks were eating at the bar and enjoying wine while watching the chefs work their stations in the open kitchen. The menu consists of a long list of antipasti and a shorter list of entrees. Together we sampled eight antipasti and one entree.

From the cold side we started with the Sunchoke, radicchio, almond, parsley and tangerine salad. The sunchoke was decent, but the rest of the salad was deliciously bright with the citrus vinaigrette and the crunch of parsley. Something I would definitely order on a summer evening.

The Fennel Salad with tuna conserva, chiles and anchovy was my favorite, just the sort of salty sea flavored crunchy fennel with a slight bite from the chillis. I would like to figure out how to make this myself.

The Lobster brodo with shrimp had a very rich broth which was a little too salty for me, but still good with good quality shrimp and rapini. A liked this a lot with bread.

The brussel sprouts with garlic capers, lemon and parsley was crispy and the charred flavor went nicely with the fried capers. I like the crispy brussel sprout leaves and I loved the fried capers, good if a bit on the heavy side. Another one that I would order again.

The fried sweetbreads were smallish pieces of lightly breaded and fried sweetbread. The breading had a very delicate crunch and some nice seasoning. The celery garlic, lemon and oregano were hardly detectable, so the dish lacked some balance. Very strong sweetbread flavor, good for those that like offal.

The Mozzarella bocconcini with spicy tomato sauce was o.k. The bocconcini tasted of good quality, though the temperature of the cheese could've been a bit hotter. Perhaps not brought down to room temperature before frying for fear that they would ooze out of the fried shell. The tomato sauce was rather ordinary and not spicy at all.

One of the last antipasti was the house-made pork sausage with braised fennel. The braised fennel was fine. Braised in a tomato base, it was slightly sweet and looked like kimche (not a bad thing). The pork sausage was just o.k.,
it was rather one note and salty. Decent but not as good as the sausage I've been getting from Lucca lately.

The only miss of the evening (or perhaps just a little odd) was the grilled pecorino with endive, radicchio and capers. The grilled pecorino came crisped like a crepe, and tasted just like the cheese that oozes onto the grill out of your grilled cheese sandwich. I like the concept, but it was a bit too rich and oily without any starch to balance the strong flavor of the cheese. At least there was some endive and capers to cut the richness.

Our entree was the grilled sardines over a ceci puree. The sardines were about the size of a large finger, filleted and well cooked. Tender and had a subtle fish flavor, the texture of the fish worked well with the smooth chickpea puree and a bit of acid flavor to bring it all together.

We were enjoying ourselves so we stayed for a few desserts -- rice pudding and a duet of sorbets. The sorbets were caramel and I forget the other flavor. They were good. The rice pudding with dates was our favorite of the two. The rice pudding was a little on the sweet side for me, but I enjoyed the dates.

SPQR is located in the space that once housed Chez Nous. Not a huge space, just the right size for a neighborhood restaurant. Having heard about the crowds, we decided to head over early on a weekday. They arrived at a little after six p.m. and we were seated within fourty five minutes, which is not bad for the number of tables in the house. The service was excellent, the servers were knowledgeable friendly and genuinely seemed interested in making sure we had a good meal.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Spices! Szechuan Trenz has two restaurants in SF a third in Oakland, and I hear there is a fourth on the way. We enjoyed lunch at Spices!3 in Oakland on a weekday when the restaurant was not too busy. Dishes are rated on spiciness from zero to three stars.

I am a lover of spicy foods, so I was delighted by the sound of items like "mind numbing spicy beef tendon" and "fish with explosive chili pepper." My lunch partner suggested we go easy, so I settled for the twice cooked crispy fish fillet -- a two star punch. We started with the plain stinky tofu because it had been a long while since I'd had the dish and I could not remember if I liked it or not. He ordered the dry braised pork intestines and the house brought us two bowls of hot and sour soup.

A good bowl of hot and sour soup is something that I like, and rarely come across. This was no exception. The complimentary soup had no flavor. No hot, just sour and thick with too much corn starch.

The stinky tofu was crispy on the outside and had good texture. I'm sure this was a good representation of this Taiwanese dish. After eating about four pieces, I confirmed that I do not like stinky tofu.

The meal was not off to a very good start, luckily the conversation and both of the entrees were good. The twice cooked crispy fish was a lightly breaded and fried fish fillets with a spicy sauce coating everything. The sauce was spicy, but still allowed the flavor of the moist fish to come through. I'd definitely order this again.

The Dry Braised Pork Intestines were spicier than the fish, slightly crispy from frying and accompanied by celery and jalapenos. The heat from the jalapenos somewhat overpowered the dish, but the pork was satisfyingly salty and spicy.

The spice level was extremely high by local standards. Even with the two star spiciness, I felt that any additional heat factor would cover up the other elements of the dish. Overall, I enjoyed the food, though it lacked the depth of spiciness that I'd tasted in Szechuan where the spiciness was high, but came in layers and waves of smoke, pepper, salt, and heat. Still, the menu at Spices! is so extensive and humorous ("Gangsta casserole murder style") that I'll have to return to try at least one of the "numbing spicy" dishes.

12th and Webster, Oakland

Monday, April 21, 2008

Delessio's Tres Leches Cake

Having enjoyed the tres leches cake from Delessio's several times at parties, I was surprised to learn that they served pieces of the cake at their bakery. When I arrived I noticed that the mini cupcakes were somewhat pricier than I remembered. A mini cupcake, which is equivalent to one bite of cake, costs almost two dollars.

The individually portioned tres leches were cut from a sheet cake, each rectangular piece topped with a swirl of the sweet whipped meringue-like icing and surrounded by a combination of strawberries and bananas. The taste of the cake was similar to the one's I'd had before, but the texture and proportions were off. This individual portion was thinner and thus the whole piece was completely drenched and soggy with sweet milk to the point of mushiness. My friend compared it to mushy oatmeal.

The full tres leches cake has various layers of soaking, the top layer being moist cake, the middle having more leches and the bottom being soggy sweet, the whole cake is surrounded and topped by the fluffy whipped topping, so each bite has a bit of icing and cake. All in all, I was disappointed by the individual serving of tres leches at Delessio. Next time, I will skip it and order a whole cake from them.

Market at Gough

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


One of my usual stops whenever I'm back in NYC, is Katz's Deli. I like the atmosphere and the pastrami is great. I used to frequent Second Ave Deli because it was closer to me and was more of a sit down place. Times have changed, there are modern lofts right near Katz's and Second Ave Deli is gone.

It was nice to have an early dinner at Miller's East Coast Deli because it gave me a chance to remember those places. The menu is authentic, monte cristos, pastrami on rye, brisket, matzo ball soup, knishes, they even have Dr. Brown's Black Cherry. The pastrami was served with the pastrami stacked high, potato salad and a good crunchy pickle. The rye was right and the pastrami was o.k. I little too thinly cut for my taste. That's the beauty of Katz, you can tell the guys to cut it thick and they always give you a sample while you wait. Miller's pastrami was well seasoned if a bit on the salty side, but generally the right flavor.

My friend had the Monte Cristo and loved it. Egg battered bread with the traditional fillings. We also had a good basket of onion rings which I would order again.

I'd come back, if only to have some onion rings and a pickle (and maybe I'd try the brisket). The food is fine. The main thing that is missing is the neighborhood feel. The staff at my old NY delis were these gruff and sometimes surly guys until you got to know them. Once familiar they became friendly but still had the rough butcher guy attitude. The service at Miller's was efficient, but lacked the gritty character of the old timers in NY. Our server was a youthful clean cut disaffected type that didn't say much and probably rode his bike to work. I guess that's the San Francisco touch.

Polk near Clay

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Berkeley Oakland Tour

G and I headed to Berkeley and Oakland for an afternoon of food. The goal was to visit some old stomping grounds, have fun, not explode, and be back to the City in time for dinner.

Vik’sHyderabadi Fish was the daily special, we enjoyed the fish and the mild buttery sauce. I love the pickled achar and papam that comes standard with the specials. We also had the pane puri which is the mini puris with potato, chickpea and mint. I prefer the giant puri’s and liked the look of the dosas being consumed around us, but felt that would be far too filling to start off our day. We also had the Dahi Pakori a lentil dumpling topped with yogurt, which I did not like because of its sweetness. This is not a negative reflection upon Vik’s preparation. I’ve had this dish at other restaurants and didn’t like it. I just keep forgetting that I don’t like it and for some reason the description always attracts me. Note to self no more Dahi Pakori. The last time I was at Vik’s was about six years ago and the furnishings were far different. Good to see the place doing well with real seating and nice new counters.

Acme – picked up an Epi loaf, Pain Levain and an almond croissant for later. I was disappointed by the almond croissant. The Epi loaf was good, but I still prefer the walnut bread at Tartine (as well as Tartine’s Frangipane Croissant).

Then headed to the Cheeseboard for pizza. The pizza du jour was Asparagus, Prima Donna Gouda, Mozzarella, Olive Oil, Lemon Zest, Garlic and Parsley. Beautiful pizza, thin with the right amount of cheese, the lemon and parsley really stood out. The bottom was wonderfully crisp and supported the softer layer of crust above. Hooray, a place with good crust!

Café Rouge. I wanted to buy some sausages and decided on a few of their house made Merguez and Seville sausages. The seville was made of pork, proscuitto, all spice, and Seville oranges. At home I found it very tasty, salty from the proscuitto, red and slightly citrus from the orange, the flavor profile reminded me of a milder version of Calabrese sausage. We also picked up some proscuitto for a cheese tray we were putting together. The proscuitto was excellent with the port salute cheese brought by E on Sunday; it was not as intense as the one from Lucca.

Headed to Ici. Tasted the Cardamom and Burnt Caramel. The burnt caramel had a bit too much of the bitter burnt flavor to me, I guess I’ve become accustomed to Bi-Rite’s salted caramel. The cardamom was good, but I settled on a Meyer Lemon with Gingersnap ice cream sandwich. Enjoyed the gingersnap layers very much and liked the Meyer Lemon ice cream, but it is slightly icier and more citrus than the one at Bi-Rite which I prefer. My friend had the Catalan Cream flavor and loved it. It was flavored with Anis, Vanilla and something else. She also loved the cone and commented that the flavors at Ici are fairly pure as if they should be served with something as a dessert. They are still good as stand alone ice cream (she preferred Ici to Bi-Rite), but better with the ice cream sandwich layer or their excellent cones. This made sense to me given that it was started by a former Chez Panisse pastry chef.

Off to Oakland's Chinatown where we had Har Gow at Delicious Foods. The Har Gow were particularly good, better than many of those I’ve had from the Clement take out places. Very good recommendation. A thinnish dumpling skin gently wrapping a soft shrimp filling. The wrapper was soft, not thick or gummy, and held together a substantial amount of shrimp. I will get those again.

Walked around the corner to Napoleon Bakery where we grabbed a couple of sponge cupcakes and custard tarts for later. The guy next to us was loading up on the cupcakes and said ‘these are great aren’t they, like biting into pillows.’ As I bit into one in the car, I found them soft and airy, simple and not too sweet. We consumed the tarts that night, nice egg taste, good crust - they held up well.

Then to Tao Yuen, a couple of doors down where we opted for the tofu skin rolls and a sesame ball. The tofu skin rolls were very crispy on the outside even though they had been sitting around and must have been fried a while ago. The flavorful filling had pork, shrimp, mushrooms, water chestnuts -- better than the soggy style served on Clement. The sesame ball was not good at all. Rice rolls were recommended, but both G and I agreed that we were not in the mood. I then sheepishly admitted I was not a huge fan of mantou or long rice noodles. G exclaimed “me too!” and we agreed that it was odd because many people whom we respect love them. We walked out and enjoyed our tofu skin rolls, happy with the knowledge that two people sharing the same stomach had managed to find each other in this crazy world of ours.

It was starting to rain, so we figured we better get to the taco trucks before it became too wet to eat outside. After cruising past several of them we stopped at Tacos Guadalajara. Both of us had al pastor. The al pastor had the spicy seasoning I expected, but the meat was cut a little more thickly than what I’m used to. I’m on the fence as to whether this was an improvement or not. There have been times I felt that the thin cut al pastor was too overpowering, this cut was thick and juicy and held up to the seasoning. The tortillas were slightly toasted, but still soft.

Made a short stop at Cinco de Maya Nieves shop on Int’l Boulevard where we were disappointed to find some regular ice cream bought wholesale. Of course, we were at the wrong place, not the food stall that we had intended to try. We ordered a hibiscus flavored snow cone. It was the typical kind that you get at a school fund raising carnival, but at least something to refresh us before we headed to Taqueria Sinaloa . The snow cone was too sweet and the ice was coarse (not like shaved ice in Hawaii). We would not come back here.

Finally a stop at Sinaloa where we ordered tacos de carnitas, al pastor and tripitas. The meat on the carnitas and al pastor were very tender and juicy. She particularly liked the soft juicy carnitas meat. The al pastor was tender though the sauce was slightly sweet, which I was not expecting. Tripitas were a bit of a disappointment for me, because the tripe was somewhat soft. I’m used to the Tonayense trucks where they fry the tripitas right before serving so that it gets crisped up to the consistency and taste of crisp bacon. The tortillas were crispy and a bit oily from frying. I’ll get the carnitas next time.

Thanks to the folks on Chowhound who armed us with recommendations and maps for our tour, I was happy with the food sites around Berkeley and Oakland. Even after trying eleven places in one afternoon, I was already thinking of new possibilities for further adventures.

Our day was a success, we had fun, survived without any permanent injury to internal organs and were back in time for dinner. Hopefully G will be up for Part Two on the next visit to SF.