dining-out

Benu, San Francisco

by Stevie on October 23, 2012

I wanted so desperately to adore Benu! This place is über-chic right now. Supposedly when it was reviewed by some really fancy and prestigious paper in New York a while back, the writer said it was worth hopping on a plane for the six hour flight just to dine here. That’s a spectacular idea, isn’t it?

here I am getting my eye-phone ready for a gorgeous meal at Benu.  Can you see the picture on the wall behind me  I love it!

here I am getting my eye-phone ready for a gorgeous meal at Benu. Can you see the picture on the wall behind me I love it!

Well, my friend, S has been talking about venturing here for the seventeen course tasting menu for what seems like forever. At least since around the time we scheduled Coi.

welcome to Benu

welcome to Benu

We’ve been putting it off terribly, mainly because this place is expensive. The tasting for one person is $180, excluding wine, tip, tax, etc. A visit here isn’t an everyday event for most. Certainly we’re in the 99% and this was a real splurge.

They’re located in the South of Market neighborhood near Union Square in the space that formerly housed Hawthorne Lane restaurant. (It’s funny. I’ve lived in San Francisco long enough now that I occasionally know what was there before…)

the Benu kitchen overlooks the calming courtyard in front of the quiet restaurant

the Benu kitchen overlooks the calming courtyard in front of the quiet restaurant

The décor is darker than in the last incarnation of the place, though quite elegant. Unlike some other very fancy dining establishments that I’ve had the good fortune of trying, Benu wasn’t stuffy (the staff, though impeccably dressed which sometimes seems forbidding, were quite approachable and even friendly) and the dining room actually had some things hanging on the walls (a decorating tip for you, Coi and Redd.)

We had a group of six and all arrived around the same time for a 6PM reservation on a Saturday. I ordered a 2005 Châteauneuf-du-Pape for John, Hegui and I to start. Two of the others had the wine pairing and the sixth, lovely Carey M, abstained. The wine was perfect and though it didn’t traditionally match the complex, frequently Asian-inspired menu, we enjoyed it well enough. Plus the sommelier said that it was the last bottle of this particular one they had, which made it seem that much more special.

thousand year-old quail egg, potage, ginger

thousand year-old quail egg, potage, ginger

oyster with kimchi

oyster with kimchi

We brought home the menu. We three had the pescatarian one; the others, the “regular.” I’ll list everything here for you to get the idea:

thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger
oyster with kimchi
potato salad with anchovy
sea urchin tofu with wild salmon roe
chilled porridge, abalone, matsutake mushroom, pine nut
monkfish liver, persimmon, turnip, mustard, brioche
celery, chestnut, green apple, yuzu
eel, feuille de brick, crème fraîche, lime
hearts of palm, date, ginseng
salt and pepper squid
lobster in two courses
xiao long bao
fresh noodles with fine herbes
salsify cassoulet with onion-black truffle bun
sea bas, cauliflower, sauerbrussels, pear
“shark”fin soup, Dungeness crab, black truffle custard
shiso, white chocolate, almond, pomegranate
spice cake, huckleberry, yogurt, oatmeal ice cream
chocolates

So there it is. Sounds mouthwatering, right?

potato salad with anchovy

potato salad with anchovy

sea urchin tofu with wild salmon roe

sea urchin tofu with wild salmon roe

chilled porridge, abalone, matsutake mushroom, pine nut

chilled porridge, abalone, matsutake mushroom, pine nut

The flavors were as diverse as they were exciting. Hegui and I skipped lunch as we knew that we’d be dining here. Turns out, that might have been a wee mistake. The portions are really small: a bite or maybe two for most. We’re used to eating a bit more heartily at home. And we eat starch at every meal. There really wasn’t too much of that to be had on this menu.

Other places have come up with elegant solutions to this problem. For example, our fave, the soon-to-be-closed-forever Cyrus, address the varying starch requirements of their patrons by offering incredible tiny rolls and breads, fresh from the oven, which they bring tableside throughout the meal. If you’re feeling it then by all means. Unfortunately there wasn’t something analogous here.

a random shot of my napkin which played such an important role later in the evening

a random shot of my napkin which played such an important role later in the evening

Too bad for me. We’d been dining away for about four hours by the time the fourteenth or fifteenth course, my nemesis, the “shark” fin soup arrived. I was positively ravenous by then, and though I’d been cheerily snacking along with the rest of the crowd on these micro-portions of over-the-top masterful presentations of food, I felt as if I hadn’t had a thing to eat the whole time.

monkfish liver, persimmon, turnip, mustard, brioche

monkfish liver, persimmon, turnip, mustard, brioche

hearts of palm, date, ginseng

hearts of palm, date, ginseng

John looking chic

John looking chic

xiao long bao

xiao long bao

salsify cassoulet with onion-black truffle bun

salsify cassoulet with onion-black truffle bun

And then the soup…

shark's fin soup, dungeness crab, black truffle custard

shark’s fin soup, dungeness crab, black truffle custard

My first thought was that it didn’t seem salty enough for my taste. And I don’t particularly care for truffle, so I wasn’t that excited. Though still very hungry, I slurped it down as best I could. Sadly my stomach had other ideas. I started to feel funny in a not very good kind of way. And I started to perspire… a lot.

Next came the shiso, white chocolate dessert. This had to have been frozen in liquid nitrogen and shattered. It was icy cold in the tiny glass cup. I don’t know about you, but I think shiso is a decidedly acquired taste. Usually I have it as a somewhat unwelcome ingredient in the occasional sushi roll. I’d never have thought of putting it in ice cream or white chocolate or whatever that horrid thing was.

shiso, white chocolate, almond, pomegranate

shiso, white chocolate, almond, pomegranate

Suddenly my stomach clamped down hard. That’s bad. I had to leave the restaurant, immediately. That was especially awkward since there were still two more courses, wine left in the bottle, we had yet to negotiate the bill and our friends were all there chatting away amiably, hopefully still oblivious to my abject misery.

I whisked myself out the door into the night. It was total hell. I’ll spare you the details of the next twenty minutes, but let’s just say, nature took its vile course. Hegui and Carey came to my rescue with fresh napkins (gorgeous heavy white cloth numbers). I painfully returned to table for the presentation of the stunning chocolate course but by then had lost all will to live. Hegui took me home and I went to bed immediately.

Despite the drama, I don’t regret going here (my credit card bill hasn’t yet arrived, so perhaps I’ll be singing a different tune later.) Dining at Benu was certainly a memorable experience. I think it is unlikely in the extreme that I shall ever return, but how knows? Stranger things have happened.

{ 6 comments }

Real Food Daily, West Hollywood

by Stevie on September 4, 2012

Real Food Daily is not the kind of place I’d have dreamed of when I was younger fantasizing about Hollywood. Vegan cuisine in West Hollywood? Does that even make sense? Well, yes it does.

Hegui poses on a balcony of the Getty Museum with a clear Los Angeles skyline in the background

Hegui poses on a balcony of the Getty Museum with a clear Los Angeles skyline in the background

Hegui and I stumbled upon this wonderful spot on a stroll back to our hotel on West 3rd after catching up with my long-time friend and former roommate, Gene, and his delightful boyfriend, Paul. Paul works at the Getty Museum in the photography department so regaled us about the opening bash for the current exhibit: Herb Ritts, L. A. Style. The show is a must-see and the party sounded incredible. As you might expect at a Ritts retrospective, it was full of stars and models. I thought it cute that Paul seemed so put-out Madonna hadn’t bothered to show up. Ah, LA! It’s such a different California.

stunning water feature at the Getty Museum

stunning water feature at the Getty Museum

whoa!  where did all my hair run off to

whoa! where did all my hair run off to?!?

Anyhoo back to Real Food Daily. The founder, Ann Gentry, has an amazing all-American dream story herself. According to the web site (how in the world did they get the address, “realfood?”) she’s originally from Tennessee, had a short stint in New York where she became fascinated with the relationship between food and health, then migrated to Los Angeles in the Eighties to work as personal chef for Danny DeVito. Things expanded into a home delivery service then she opened the first RFD location in Santa Monica in 1993. The West Hollywood restaurant opened in the late Nineties with a lot of fanfare and critical acclaim.

sunny RFD interior

sunny RFD interior

I'm waiting for the caffiene to kick in

I'm waiting for the caffiene to kick in

‘course I didn’t know any of that when we walked by the place on La Cienega Boulevard that night. I merely pointed it out to Hegui as a vegan curiosity. We ended up going there for their marvelous Sunday brunch after an abortive attempt to eat at the classic diner, Norm’s, up the same street.

We weren’t sure about RFD so somehow forgot to photograph the exterior. The inside was all clean lines, blond wood, skylights, gorgeous staff and flagrant displays of perfectly ripe veggies. Sort of like Golden Era in San Francisco, the menu uses meaty terms to describe its vegan offerings, though here it’s a bit more tongue-in-cheek. So though Hegui ordered a popular sausage scramble, I tried the no-huevos rancheros. I liked the name and the dish itself was wonderful. My favorite thing had to have been the cinnamon bun. I’ve no idea how someone might make one of those vegan but you sure couldn’t tell by its incredible taste.

RFD breakfast scramble

RFD breakfast scramble

my RFD no-huevos rancheros

my RFD no-huevos rancheros

The service was good; the food, great. This is a place I’d enjoy visiting again sometime soon. Perhaps Ann could open one in San Francisco as her next venture? That would be awesome!

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I completely adore Littorai pinot noir.

Taj Campton Place on Stockton Street in San Francisco

Taj Campton Place on Stockton Street in San Francisco, home of the Campton Place Restaurant

I wrote that first sentence and somehow feel that the point of my story today is more than half accomplished. I adore Littorai pinot noir. J’adore! It even looks good in French.

So I was thrilled when I learned that Hegui and I had the chance to attend another San Francisco dinner with the winemaker, Ted Lemon. We didn’t know Campton Place Restaurant but that didn’t seem as important as the wine somehow—that is until we dined at this divine establishment.

Littorai Assistant Winemaker John Wilson

Littorai Assistant Winemaker John Wilson

About a block from Union Square, in the heart of the San Francisco shopping district, the restaurant is gorgeous. Sadly my only camera was an eye-phone so most of the pictures leave much to be desired. Take our word for it; the dining room at Campton Place is elegant. And the staff is impeccable. I understand they’re known for their wine collection and often host winemaker’s dinners. Click here for the schedule.

Since it’s fairly small, the entire space was taken up by the Littorai event. That seemed especially grand. We stood around for a bit sipping (or perhaps trying to sip—it was just too darn tasty. I was probably gulping) the 2009 Mays Canyon chardonnay. It was the only wine not on the preprinted menu so I’m not positive here. That’s when we met our really cool tablemates, Pam and Bill. Like us, they’re fairly new to Littorai but Bill particularly is a dyed-in-the-wool pinotfile.

lobster veloute with red pepper and summer squash

lobster veloute with red pepper and summer squash

Turns out that fifth at table was Littorai Assistant Winemaker John Wilson. Unfortunately, Ted Lemon couldn’t attend at the last minute due to the death of his father. So sorry! We’re thinking of you and your family, Ted.

That was heavy news, but it didn’t dampen our spirits for too long. John turned out to be like a younger version of Ted—intense, charming and charmingly nerdy, extremely informative and always very polite. We really liked him and what great luck it was to sit by him as we tasted away.

green apple arugula and avocado amuse bouche

green apple arugula and avocado amuse bouche

the 2009 Littorai Cerise and Savoy pinot noir did not stay in my glass too long

the 2009 Littorai Cerise and Savoy pinot noir did not stay in my glass too long

Alaskan cod with roasted nori crumbs, squid ink linguini and bonito broth

Alaskan cod with roasted nori crumbs, squid ink linguini and bonito broth

Since we drank mostly 2009s all night, which I’ve written about in a couple of other places on the blog already, I’ve decided to focus on the meal and just give our most general impressions on the wine. You can read the other stories if you’re curious or better yet try the wine yourselves.

The first course was lobster velouté with red pepper and summer squash. It was paired with the 2010 Theiriot Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. This is the wine that I liked a lot when we went on the Littorai biodynamic tour. It was a perfect match and a great start to what turned out to be a fine meal.

Then Chef Srijith Gopinathan surprised us all with a green apple, arugula, avocado amuse bouche. Light and really refreshing, it created a mini-sensation at our table.

Next came the Alaskan cod with roasted nori crumbs, squid ink linguini and bonito broth (my favorite dish of the evening) with two pinots: 2009 Savoy Vineyard, Anderson Valley and 2009 Cerise Vineyard, Anderson Valley. Both wines were great though I sort of preferred the more funky nose and fuller bodied Cerise.

instead of lamb, the chef prepared this lovely string halibut with veggies in a spicy cashew sauce

instead of lamb, the chef prepared this lovely string halibut with veggies in a spicy cashew sauce

Instead of lamb loin, we were offered an exciting pescatarian option: string halibut with mixed veggies in a spiced cashew sauce. “It’s like Indian taken to the next level. It has all the ingredients that we are using, but different,” Hegui exclaimed. The wine pairing: 2009 The Pivot Vineyard, Estate Bottled Sonoma Coast and the 2009 Hirsch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast pinots perhaps didn’t quite work with the spicy cashew sauce, but I didn’t mind. Both wines were amazing anyway.

A cheese plate was offered all diners rather than sweets. These were Abbaye de Belloc and San Andreas Bellwether Farms , though it beats me which is which. Sadly, and if there is a criticism to make about the entire event, this is it: the wine had run out by the time we arrived at the cheese course. Bill wasn’t deterred one bit by that tiny bump in the road. He ordered a bottle of 2006 Littorai Sonoma Coast pinot noir—I think that’s the one—and shared with the whole table. Thanks again, Bill!!

Taj Campton Place cheese course

Campton Place cheese course

At the end, the staff gave everyone shiny little boxes with some tiny sweets, ostensibly to take home, though I ate ours there ;) Fin.

my only pic of Executive Chef Srijith Gopinathan with Littorai Assistant Winemaker John Wilson is not the best but I had to include it here

my only pic of Executive Chef Srijith Gopinathan with Littorai Assistant Winemaker John Wilson is not the best but I had to include it here

So it was a perfect evening all around: good food, great wine, meeting new friends and wine lovers, and even stimulating our intellects. Try Campton Place Restaurant when you’re next in town. And definitely look for Littorai.

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Who wouldn’t want to eat at a place called the Barking Frog? When I was researching restaurants for our recent Sedona vacation, the name really caught my eye. Plus I loved the menu: full of exciting Southwest cuisine. I really miss this kind of food since I’ve moved away from Texas in the mid-1990s. Sure I know that it’s different in Arizona compared to Texas. But still, these are the flavors of my youth.

welcome to the Barking Frog Grille

welcome to the Barking Frog Grille

They’ve a sister restaurant in the tourist-trap part of town, Cowboy Club and Silver Saddle Room. We stumbled into that place for a drink on a hot afternoon not realizing the two were connected. I loved the whisky sampler and both of us enjoyed the thrilling cactus fries. Hegui promised to try making that at home sometime. I’m still waiting.

We didn’t order that at Barking Frog. We wanted to try something new.

here I am hungrily sitting in front of the Barking Frog Grille

here I am hungrily sitting in front of the Barking Frog Grille

cool subtitle to the Barking Frog Grille

cool subtitle to the Barking Frog Grille

I made a reservation for a Wednesday evening. The restaurant is huge with numerous very widely spaced tables in dim lighting. Hegui was preoccupied with the relative darkness (Heartline Café was really dark, too). And it is pretty jarring, insofar as the sun shines so brilliantly in Sedona. I made what I think is a funny video of him ranting on this topic.

We had great service though there was some problem with the hostess staff. Upon our arrival, we were immediately seated at a spacious corner table in a large dining room. A few minutes later, a rather officious hostess aggressively approached us and demanded to know how we had gotten to our table. Weird, right? So I said that the other hostess sat us… I mean, how else would we have gotten there? (I guess that I might have said “we walked” but I was in a good mood after our sunrise hot air balloon ride that day.) She replied with something like, “so they just sat you here?!” then she rushed off. So bizarre!

blurry Barking Frog interior

blurry and dim Barking Frog interior

Well after we recovered from the shock with a round of beer, we ordered the chili dusted calamari and the Caesar salad with cornbread croutons. Both were good though my pics turned out horridly—it has to be the dimness of the dining room—so I’m going to let you use your imaginations here.

Barking Frog Grille poblano relleno

Barking Frog Grille poblano relleno

Barking Frog Grille shrimp tamale

Barking Frog Grille shrimp tamale

For his main, Hegui had the scrumptious poblano relleno stuffed with cheese in a roasted corn cream sauce and a chipotle tomato sauce. Mmmm! I had the amazing shrimp tamales. The dish was huge, messy and wonderful.

By then we were completely stuffed. Dessert was out—sorry Heavenly.

Except for the odd seating mishap, we had an excellent experience at the Barking Frog.

looking down from our hot air balloon

looking down from our hot air balloon

inside our hot air balloon

inside our hot air balloon

memorable Sedona sunrise

memorable Sedona sunrise

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In the past, I wouldn’t bother researching potential restaurants when I travel. It always seems like so much work, and perhaps too precious. Though, often enough, Hegui and I end up feeling disappointed by the less than stellar places that we happen upon randomly. Several friends, including our lovely blog-buddie, Devaki, have been actively working on me to change my lazy ways. And I’m happy to report that Heartline Café is the first of the fruit of my labor.

I like this pic of the Heartline Cafe exterior because you can see the gorgeous Sedona red rocks reflected in the windows quite easily

I like this pic of the Heartline Cafe exterior because you can see the gorgeous Sedona red rocks reflected in the windows quite easily

welcome to Heartline Cafe

welcome to Heartline Cafe

We spent four nights in Sedona a few weeks ago. We timed our visit with a destination wedding of two of our lovely New York friends, Aleks and Christian. They got married in City Hall last year but wanted to do something special. Naturally, an outdoor ceremony in Death Valley seemed the perfect way to say “I love you.” (I admit that I was incredibly skeptical about this plan initially. Late spring in Death Valley didn’t seem like a good idea. And it was hot! 119 degrees on the Valley floor. But the ceremony, held just before sunset at Dante’s View, a peak overlooking the magnificent park, was a breezy and pleasant 85F. We were all really moved. Several of us cried a bit.)

But back to the Heartline!

I surfed the ‘net for restaurants in Sedona and selected a few that got decent reviews and seemed to have several veggie or fish choices. Heartline Café met both criteria. And it turns out it was walking distance from our hotel—an added bonus in a town that really does require driving.

Sedona is breathtaking. The exposed red rocks are everywhere. This was our first day there, so we began it with a short hike in the Red Rock State Park followed by an afternoon at the spa. We both tried the local Sedona mud wrap followed by an hour long massage. This was my first mud wrap and I loved it! To me the very best part was when the therapist gently hosed the mud off my limbs with warm water. I felt like I was melting in a really excellent way. Afterward we did a bit of tourist-trap shopping, took a nap and freshened up for dinner.

Red Rock State Park, Sedona AZ

Red Rock State Park, Sedona AZ

the destination wedding in Death Valley

the destination wedding in Death Valley

I didn’t get a great pic of the restaurant exterior (there’s a really good one on their website.) I do like the one shown here with some of the rocks reflected in the windows. Naturally, it was a warm day. We sat inside though many folks seemed to be enjoying the open air patio.

The wine menu boasted several bottles from Arizona. I asked the waiter about it. He recommended we try the 2010 Arizona Stronghold Mangus red, a sort of super-Tuscan style wine. It was quite enjoyable and went well with our meal.

Heartline Cafe interior

Heartline Cafe interior

charming outdoor seating at Heartline Cafe

charming outdoor seating at Heartline Cafe

enjoying my Arizona Stronghold as I wait for my salad

enjoying my Arizona Stronghold as I wait for my salad

2010 Arizona Stronghold Mangus red

2010 Arizona Stronghold Mangus red

We started with the warm red cabbage salad with apple and chèvre as well as the house salad in a black pepper vinaigrette. Hegui thought the latter had too many dried cranberries for his taste though I liked it quite well.

For our main dishes we ordered the special pasta: bowties with shrimp and asparagus in a puttanesca sauce; and the special fish: marlin in achiote crust with avocado sauce, cilantro, rice and asparagus. The presentation of the fish was remarkably constructed. Hegui found it a bit dry though the flavor was good. The pasta was really good—almost like something that I’d make myself had I ever thought of it.

warm red cabbage salad

warm red cabbage salad

the house salad came with a black pepper vinaigrette

the house salad came with a black pepper vinaigrette

the special pasta was bowties with shrimp, asparagus in a puttanesca sauce

the special pasta was bowties with shrimp, asparagus in a puttanesca sauce

the special fish was marlin in achiote crust with avocado sauce, cilantro, rice and asparagus

the special fish was marlin in achiote crust with avocado sauce, cilantro, rice and asparagus

By then we were really stuffed, but I kept imagining what Heavenly would do here. So I ordered dessert. The mango sorbet sounded sufficiently light. Silly me! I forgot we weren’t in San Francisco and that portion size might be different. The sorbet was perfect if a bit massive. The mango flavor reminded me of Brazil.

mango sorbet

mango sorbet

So I liked Heartline. This isn’t avant garde but they serve reasonably creative, flavorful food in a comfortable environment. The staff was very approachable. I’d come back the next time I’m in Sedona.

{ 2 comments }

Lotus of Siam, Las Vegas

by Heguiberto on June 14, 2012

Lotus of Siam seafood soup

Lotus of Siam seafood soup

The April issue of the Saveur Magazine is themed “The Las Vegas Issue: a guide to the world’s hottest dinning destination.” Sin City includes all types of indulgences and food plays a significant role in the experience. Saveur covers a whole bunch of restaurants from different cuisines on and off the Strip. Many of them ship fresh food in by air from all over to the heart of the desert. Like everything else in this town, extremely decadent.

the somewhat underwhelming Lotus of Siam storefront

the somewhat underwhelming Lotus of Siam storefront

Because I love Thai food I couldn’t help but notice an article about Lotus of Siam, a Vegas Thai restaurant off the Strip that, according to the author, has been consistently making authentic Thai food for many years. Apparently Chef Saipin Chutima has a legion of fans.

This past week we went on vacation to Arizona (more to come on that). On the way back we scheduled a 24-hour stay in Vegas. We took the time to enjoy some of the stuff the city offers: shopping, shows (we saw Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at the Bellagio) sightseeing and of course, food. We skipped gambling as we all know the house always wins. The food part leads me directly to a late lunch at Lotus of Siam. In a word: wonderful.

me in front of the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign

me in front of the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign

Hoover Dam and Lake Mead are some of the many attractions in the Las Vegas area

Hoover Dam and Lake Mead are some of the many attractions in the Las Vegas area

As I mentioned the restaurant is located off the Strip though not too far away. We had a car so it was relatively easy. You could take short cab ride. Had it not been a hundred degrees then you could probably even walk though like LA, I don’t get the sense that anyone does that much in this town.

Lotus of Siam interior

Lotus of Siam interior

From the outside Lotus of Siam was a bit underwhelming. In a huge and fairly depressing strip-mall, the place looked like a hole-in-the-wall dump. This isn’t the kind of spot that you’d think would enchant Saveur. Inside the restaurant is very large and amazingly had two large glassed-in wine cellars. I cannot recall ever seeing that at a Thai place before. The article did mention that you can have a beautiful multi-course meal here with wine parings. We stuck with Thai beer.

white wine cellar at Lotus of Siam

white wine cellar at Lotus of Siam

For lunch at least, Lotus of Siam offers a Vegas-style all-you-can-eat buffet and the option of ordering off the menu. We went for the later.

First to come was the seafood hot pot. The broth was hot, sour, and sweet, with herbal tones imparted by mint, Thai basil, fresh ginger, cilantro, and lemon grass. It had mushrooms, mussels, bits of salmon, shrimp and bay scallops. We ordered it “medium spicy” which was about right until we got to the last dregs in the bowl. These were fiery. I loved having this soup with sips of Chang beer.

Next we had the seafood salad. This had squid, shrimp, more mussels, iceberg lettuce and a number of other ingredients that have slipped my mind by now. It had a zippy sweet, salty, sour and spicy sauce which contrasted well with the coolness of the lettuce. Delicious, the sauce was so good that I reserved some to drizzle over my fried rice that was about to arrive.

flavorful seafood salad

flavorful seafood salad

For the main course we ordered a dish of vegetable Thai fried rice and steamed sea bass. The fried rice was perfect, flavorful and light. I ate most of it because I can get a bit greedy with rice sometimes. The sea bass was steamed on a bed of Chinese cabbage and young celery leaves. It had a beautiful glossy look. The fish came with a lively sweet, smoky, spicy sauce that reminded us somehow of Thai-style Mexican salsa.

beautiful veggie fried rice

beautiful veggie fried rice

Lotus of Siam sea bass

Lotus of Siam sea bass

intensely flavored Lotus of Siam sauce for sea bass

intensely flavored Lotus of Siam sauce for sea bass

By then we were stuffed to the gills so dessert was out. Overall, we enjoyed ourselves at Lotus of Siam. The food was tasty and ample. However I think that the sea bass and probably at least some of the shellfish were previously frozen: not a huge problem but they do taste different that way. The service was good and the atmosphere pleasant. Certainly locals know about this place as it was quite crowded. A banquet in the middle of the desert! Kudos to Saveur for turning us onto this excellent place.

{ 3 comments }

Ajanta, Berkeley

by Stevie on May 21, 2012

Yippie!  We've finally made it to Ajanta

Yippie! We've finally made it to Ajanta

Heguiberto and I’ve been talking about dining at Ajanta for ages! It had almost become one of those things that people refer to frequently yet always remain just over the horizon—you know what I mean: “I’ll start that diet next week” or “We really should go back to Rome someday soon.” So I was amazed if a bit shocked when he suddenly announced that we were to meet some of our fellow bloggers at this Indian restaurant apparently named “one of Alice Waters’ favorite places.”

Ajanta is a bit obscure from our insular vantage point in San Francisco. Berkeley is literally just across the Bay, yet somehow it can seem a million miles away. (Is L.A. closer, do you think?) I’m joking a bit here and want to rein it in before I cause more offense. Actually, we heard about Ajanta on another Berkeley excursion, to Viks Chaat Corner. That’s where Hegui found the incredible Ajanta cookbook. He’s made many wonderful recipes out of it, like flavorful Kashmiri eggplant, and ajwain samosas. You can probably already see where this is going. We had high expectations for Ajanta. Perhaps they were a bit too high.

evening fog blowing across the Bay into Berkeley

evening fog blowing across the Bay into Berkeley

section of the elephant mural

section of the elephant mural

gorgeous ceiling lights at Ajanta

gorgeous ceiling lights at Ajanta

Ayinger brau-weisse Bavarian hefe-weizen

Ayinger brau-weisse Bavarian hefe-weizen

That night our group was eight. That included the two of us, Fer and her husband, Maryanne and her husband (they’re spending a month in Singapore right now!) and Priscilla and a colleague of hers from her culinary school (They’re both about to graduate. Priscilla and her husband have already located a marvelous spot for her to open her own bakery back in Brazil. That’s a place that Hegui and I’d like to visit soon.) The company was a real pleasure. Everyone had interesting things to share and seemed genuinely excited to be together once again after our visit to Clos du Val.

But back to Ajanta. It’s in the Berkeley Hills a bit, so the area is lovely. We had an 8PM reservation on a Friday night. I was worried about traffic across the Bay Bridge but really it wasn’t too bad. The fog was just starting to blow across the water. Berkeley was colder than Potrero Hill, which we hadn’t expected. San Francisco has a reputation for the coldest weather in the area but perhaps it is unearned. We were ill prepared as we hadn’t even thought to bring jackets. Fortunately parking was easy. I got a spot right in front of the place.

The décor here is gorgeous, sort of “modern Indian.” There’s this massive wooden door out front. Inside the dining room looked sleek. There was a large painting of some sort of fantasy elephant scene that caught my eye. It ran across most of one long wall. The lamps hanging from the ceiling seemed like an inspired sculpture of lighting.

Tandoori scallops

Tandoori scallops

vegetarian pakora

vegetarian pakora

The place was packed. Perhaps that explains the generally lackluster service. It took forever for our beers to arrive. The group ended up ordering a variety of small plates, which we generally shared. The monthly special, Tandoori asparagus was a hit. We also tried the Tandoori scallops and Tandoori Portobello mushrooms. These were okay. Hegui ordered the vegetarian samosas, like the recipe he made from the Ajanta cookbook, but didn’t really enjoy them too well—something about the oil bothered him. The vegetarian pakoras were more successful.

special baby squash medley

special baby squash medley

richly colored and flavored Badal Jaam

richly colored and flavored Badal Jaam

One thing that’s interesting about Ajanta is that they have “monthly specials.” I don’t think that I’ve seen that at any other Indian restaurant. The veggie special was “baby squash medley,” essentially zucchini, summer squash and yellow squash with peas and paneer cheese in a mildly spicy tomato, garlic onion curry. I liked it. Hegui tried the Badal Jaam, which is the Kashmiri eggplant dish. Neither of us thought it was as good as the version he made at home. Perhaps it was the excess of pomegranate molasses?

yummy Ajanta naan

yummy Ajanta naan

So we had fun. The company was excellent. And Ajanta is good, but it didn’t blow our socks off. Undoubtedly had we never had food we prepared ourselves from their fabulous cookbook, we’d be singing their praises more—hello Alice Waters!

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the grand bar at Comstock Saloon

the grand bar at Comstock Saloon

Comstock Saloon takes you back in time. Named after Henry Comstock and the famous silver discovery, the Comstock Lode, you truly feel that you’ve walked into old nineteenth century San Francisco when you cross their threshold.

The place has a huge antique looking bar, lots of fussy lounge chairs that seem like remnants from a Victorian mansion estate sale, and music. The night we met our friends for drinks and dinner, there was a live jazz band belting out wonderful, spirited tunes. Though sometimes hard to converse, the energetic atmosphere at Comstock Saloon was infectious.

the decor at Comstock Saloon is incredibly inviting

the decor at Comstock Saloon is incredibly inviting

this isn't the best pic but just look at that wild fan

this isn't the best pic but just look at that wild fan!

Cocktail bars seem to be making a comeback lately. Certainly you’d believe that with the crowd here. I ordered the classic Manhattan, my “signature drink,” and was delighted. The down side of cocktails is that they take forever to make, so we did have to wait a bit for service. Since we weren’t in a rush and were among friends, this was fairly painless. I can imagine being annoyed in other circumstances.

cheddar crackers with pepper jelly and cream cheese

cheddar crackers with pepper jelly and cream cheese

Comstock Saloon BBQ chips with ranch

Comstock Saloon BBQ chips with ranch

glowing Comstock Saloon olive selection

glowing Comstock Saloon olive selection

hominy fritters

hominy fritters

soft pretzel with mustard--it looks funny, no

soft pretzel with mustard--it looks funny, no?

The menu is small with a focus on fairly traditional, comfort foods. We shared all the “snacks,” which included marinated green olives, a large warm soft pretzel with mustard, BBQ chips with ranch dressing, cheddar crackers with pepper jelly and cream cheese, and hominy fritters. I was ravenous so largely enjoyed these, though the rest of our group was so-so about them.

my rather sad cioppino with Dungeness crab

my rather sad cioppino with Dungeness crab

John's much more gratifying ricotta gnocchi

John's much more gratifying ricotta gnocchi

We skipped appetizers but all tried a main course. A few ordered the cioppino with Dungeness crab, clams and ling cod. Sadly this was a disappointment: simply too watered down with an apparent lack of salt. John’s ricotta gnocchi with asparagus and trumpet mushrooms was a lot more flavorful and was seasoned properly.

my Comstock Saloon classic Manhattan--now this is why I came here

my Comstock Saloon classic Manhattan--now this is why I came here!

We ended up staying for about two hours, enjoying one another’s company, the music and atmosphere. I’d go to Comstock Saloon again, but only for drinks. Perhaps this would be a good place to either start or finish an evening in North Beach.

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Contigo, San Francisco

March 26, 2012

We’ve had the good fortune to dine at Contigo, a fun and stylish tapas and wine bar restaurant in Noe Valley, twice in the past few months, most recently with our lovely friends, Charles and Fernando. Since that last time, Hegui and I’ve been talking off-and-on about what makes Spanish tapas so appealing right now. […]

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Herbivore, the Earthly Grill, San Francisco

February 28, 2012

Herbivore is one of those restaurants that you’d have figured we would have tried ages ago, as it just screams “weirdcombinations!” This is an unpretentious vegan restaurant on Valencia in the Mission District of San Francisco. Their web site charmingly describes the idea of the establishment as follows: The food is enjoyed by both vegans […]

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