Archive for the 'Restaurants' Category

An East Coast Weekend: From Fried Green Tomatoes to Wiffle Ball

Saturday, July 7th, 2007
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I went home to the New Jersey to surprise my Mom for her birthday last week, and in between wiffle ball games with my brothers, I scavenged for food in the area, including a brief trip to New York. So, here are the food highlights… and then some.

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At Momofuku in NYC, the Fried Green Tomatoes with Anchovies, Chervil, and Kimchi was one of the most boldly delicious plates of food that I’ve had in a long time. The perfect bite involved the cold and spicy kimchi hitting your tongue first, followed closely by a piping hot wedge of green tomato that crunches open to let loose its almost molten interior, and then finished with the sharp salty tang of the slightly chewy anchovies and chervil. It reminds you how much flavor food can have. Even though most dishes contain elements of crunch/chew/salt/hot/cold, this was one of the few that made it seem special, like an elaborate balancing act. And now I much prefer the wedges of fried green tomatoes to slices; there’s more room for flavor and texture that way.

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Unfortunately, my Momofuku Ramen, which ironically came out in better focus than the FGT’s, was insipid at best. Everything in it seemed over-cooked and tired. During last year’s visit, my bowl had been perfect, bordering on transcendental.

And I got to sit at the counter directly in front of the cooks, which was great entertainment.

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The caramel ice cream sandwich from ‘Wichcraft in Bryant Park was boring and very sweet… though there was a ballerina for entertainment.

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I went to Columbus Circle to get something from Bouchon Bakery at 5pm on Sunday, but the prices stood out more than the small variety of food remaining ($4.75 for a donut, $3.75 for a linzer cookie??). I didn’t get anything.

I was amused that Per Se had ratatouille on the menu, echoing Thomas Keller’s involvement in the Pixar movie.

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Back in NJ, Umberto Pizzeria in Fair Haven is my pizza of choice. It’s a mom & pop pizza shop with a Sicilian pizza that has a gooey top, pillowy middle, and crunchy bottom. They don’t deliver, but we’ve been taking it out for years. Their NY-style is also quite nice.

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The Steak au Poivre at Avenue in Long Branch was velvety and juicy, and satisfied my steak craving.

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The restaurant is on the water above the beach that now has palm trees (!).

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I also wandered into my parents’ garden and yard, in search of any and all things edible among the beguiling greenery and flowers.

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I was delighted to discover that the cherry tree that I used to be only vaguely aware of is actually a sour cherry tree.

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My parents had already picked most of them for liqueurs, but I had plans to make a pie, or compote if need be, the next day with the rmg few… but they disappeared overnight! Either by the birds or spoilage, I guess.

At least this one will be forever in mid-bite…

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Then there were the black raspberries…

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And the wild black raspberries. The immediate gratification of impromptu berry-picking is one of the greatest pleasures I know of.

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There were blueberries in the making.

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And apples.

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And pears.

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And there are always more flowers…

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Socialverse is Here!

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

Please enjoy this shameless plug for my boyfriend’s new website, Socialverse!

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You may already know that Chad’s good at thinking up dreamy birthday cake ideas, but you should also know that his true area of expertise is software engineering. With Socialverse, I like to think that his company has developed a way for people to walk the world from the comfort of their computers.**

When you sign up, you get your own little doppelganger who can stroll around a map of the US. While you can explore cities and states that you dream of visiting, the site is mostly geared towards local search and social networking. So, you can chat up locals and friends near and far as well as browse businesses. Of course, people like us would probably first think to check out and add our thoughts to the restaurants and markets, but even I sometimes need to go to the hardware store or see a dentist. Socialverse lets you put your favorites on the map and find new places to go.

I suppose that it’s like citysearch and yelp, but Socialverse is cooler because it’s in real time (using Web 2.0 in clever ways) and you can actually see where these places in the country are b/c “you” are there, too.

In a typical move, Chad has thoughtfully provided lots of goodies that go above and beyond basics. So, here’s a cheat sheet to my favorite things that you can do that might not be obvious right away:

  • Click on the “online” line on the upper right of the screen to see who else is online. Click on someone’s name to move closer to them.
  • Place your blog (as an object) in an area where people will find it useful. You’ll find Sweet Napa already on the map somewhere in LA.
  • Find the nearest ATM.
  • If a location isn’t on the map yet, add it and talk about it.
  • Use additional motions — such as sleeping, meditating, dancing, and acting scared.
  • Adjust your appearance — clothing, size, hairstyle.
  • If you are a business owner, you can promote your business online.
  • Check the weather.
  • You can’t zoom in or out on the main map, but if you click on “Self” then “Mini Map” in the “Navigate” menu, you can see where you on a zoomable mini map.
  • Share photos.
  • Search local classifieds and post your own.

Please keep in mind that this is, as Chad says, “the early public beta.” There are still bugs, but he’ll happily be the victim of anyone’s criticism… or suggestions… or insouciant banter. When the basics are ironed out, the long-term goals are to make it a nexus of local search for any type of person, business, or organization you may be interested in, and in turn, a way to build relationships and become closer with your community. More features will be added — such as perhaps coupons and ads for shops around the corner being implemented, trees being planted, menus being posted, icons being customizable, and whatever people want that the world can support.

So, feel free to sign up, check it out, and tell everyone you know about it. The world is wide open.**

**Right now, the map only functions in the US, but there are plans to make it international down the line. Also, the faster your internet connection is, the faster you’ll be able to do things. Broadband is recommended. It is also only compatible with Firefox and IE for now.

Pizzeria Mozza – Los Angeles

Friday, May 18th, 2007

Okay, I just want to know — did anyone else have a tired jaw by the end of their Mozza pizza?

I didn’t notice it to be particularly chewy or tough while eating it in the beginning, but by the end, I really wanted to let my jaw take a nap, get a massage, toughen up, or in some way feel better.

The fact that I was set on getting the famed Butterscotch Budino for dessert made me grateful for it’s no-chew-necessary comfort… but as for the two cookies that came with it… I mulled over whether I could handle the chewing. Of course, I ate one (and cleverly gave the other to Chad), but I actually mulled over eating one little cookie.

Anyway, let me go back to the beginning.

Probably catalyzed by Frank Bruni’s Mozza Mozza Mozza Madness, I felt an even greater desire than usual to try it out last Sunday afternoon. I called to ask if they had room for two for dinner, and they said “No, we don’t have anything.” I started to say “O-..” until they said:” “Not until 9:45.” I said: “Oh? So, you d-… Ok! I’ll take it.”

When we walked in, I was amazed by how small it is. Stylish and sleek with high ceilings, to be sure, but really, it’s just a room with about 11 tables, and two bars lined with seats (one bar faces the pizza oven and pizza-makers, the other faces the wines). We sat at a table, but I’d recommend to anyone planning to go to aim for the pizza bar. I had a good side view of the wood-burning oven, but to watch the oven and the pizza makers up close would be pizzeria nirvana.

I admit that I’ve only skimmed over some of the many reviews/accounts of Mozza and the Nancy Silverton/Mario Batali/Joseph Bastianich partnership… I like to know about recommended dishes b/c I have a habit of ordering the obscurely dreadful if left to my own devices, but I don’t want to know too much before I go. Aside from enjoying flavors, I like surprises. Frankly, when I went to the French Laundry last year, I felt like I was in a movie that I’d already seen because I’d pored over the cookbook, made a few dishes, and read a lot about it. There were still surprises during that wonderful meal, but it really is like movies — if you read too many reviews beforehand, the movie itself feels redundant. The real fun is reading reviews after the experience, to compare notes with others.

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I ordered the fennel sausage, panna, and red onion (front) and Chad ordered the Coach farm goat cheese, leeks, scallions, and bacon (back); but we agreed to split each pizza. All the pizzas on the menu sounded good to me. When things such as guanciale, taleggio, littleneck clams, lardo, burrata, fingerling potatoes, salumi salame, and so much more are strewn about a pizza menu, the choice becomes nerve-racking until it’s irrelevant… It feels like you can’t go wrong.

Fittingly, I really can’t say which pizza I liked better — the flavors of the toppings of each were fantastic. True to the best that they can be, and congenial with each other. As I’ve mentioned before, I love lots of tomato sauce on pizza and I was initially disappointed that neither had any… but I didn’t miss it. It would have muddled things, and both pizzas had a satisfying moist creaminess, thanks to the cream and goat cheese. The chunky, homemade sausages set a new standard. I don’t know if I liked the flavor or the texture better — loose, yet meaty and juicy, with a wonderful fennel bite.

I love the arrangement of toppings, too. Nicely distributed, but felt like it happened by chance. The pieces of topping are big enough to feel rustic and substantial without being difficult to eat… The only trick was to keep them balanced on the slices before they tumbled off.

Then there’s the crust. Bruni wrote that it has some rye flour and malt syrup, and it sits 36 hours before use. I’ll let him describe it, too: “softly chewy in spots, crisply charred in others, ever so faintly sweet, even more faintly sour.” The outermost crust is a wonder — instead of spongy tubes of dough, it’s mostly hollow, with crunchy and chewy walls. It’s fun to bite into. Both pizzas had centers that were soaked in olive oil, though, which made for a little sogginess. But if it’s good olive oil and your jaw is tired, it’s pretty refreshing.

I’m a little torn on the size of the pizza (about 10 inches)– it’s a little too big to comfortably eat in one sitting, but a little too small to think of taking some home. I ate the equivalent of a whole pizza, but at least it felt light in my stomach… not brick-like or painful.

We also had wine with our pizza. They serve many wines by the 250ml carafe, which I like because it feels casual, yet luxurious.

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Butterscotch Budino with Caramel Sauce, Creme Fraiche Whipped Cream, and Pine Nut Rosemary Cookies. This was fine, but nothing more; if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t order it again. I may be a pastry-makin’ person, but off the top of my head, I can think of three butterscotch puddings that I’ve made and liked better. There was a faint graininess to this. I liked the caramel sauce a lot — salty and deep — but with the butterscotch and caramel in the cookies, it just seemed like too much within a narrow spectrum of flavors, and too sweet. I don’t think that the rosemary helped; it felt out of place, even though it provided some contrast in the dish. The LA Times has an article and recipe here.

The cookies, btw, came 5th in the LATimes Great Cookie Challenge of 2006 (recipe included). I like the look of the frond of rosemary, and I also like to think of it as a Silverton touch. The Lemon Fennel Hat cookies that I made for culinary school graduation had fennel fronds in the same style (recipe in this book).

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Caramel Coppetta – Caramel Gelato, Caramel Sauce, Marshmallow Sauce, and Roasted Peanuts. No chocolate in sight, but this says “Snickers” to me. I liked it better than the budino, maybe b/c the gelato was so smooth.

As Chad and I left the restaurant, our discussion went something like this…
Chad: “I want another pizza.”
Me: “Aren’t you full?”
Chad: “Yes. I want another pizza.”
Me: “Isn’t your jaw tired?”
Chad: “Yes. I want another pizza.”

So do I.

One Day in Napa on May 5

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007
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Thanks to special deals from Southwest, Chad and I were able to indulge my wily scheme to visit Napa (and Sonoma!) for one day. No hotel… mostly movement. We flew out of Los Angeles at 8am, and we flew out of Oakland at 8pm. It was a tight schedule, but everything went like clock-work — the 4 shuttles, 2 planes, and 1 rental car. There was the issue of the collapsed freeway, but that only added a tolerable amount of traffic.

It’s been 3 months since I moved away, and I was so eager to remember the day that I took pictures of everything that I could. I’ve compiled them into an album on Snapfish of 136 photos with some captions (sorry, registration required). They are snapshots, not composed photographs. The majority of them were taken from the passenger seat of our rental car, going as fast as Chad deemed fit. It’s amazing how many of them are in focus, and even contain pieces of what I was aiming at. I like to think they fit well on the web, which reveals and preserves so much of day-to-day life around the world. I recommend slideshow mode. This was what it looked like to drive around Wine Country on May 5.

I did miss some things, though, like the two girls in Sonoma walking around with a youtube-inspired sign that said “free hugs” on one side.

Since this is a food blog, I don’t want to bury all my leads, so these were the food and drink goings on…

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The top sirloin burger at the girl & the fig in Sonoma (here are previous posts). The cambozola option is the way to go with this burger, but bacon’s optional. I love the way this burger tastes, but as always, the subtle genius is in the Dutch crunch roll. It gives a satisfying crunch, but its inner softness marries it well with the other elements in the burger. I’ve read that a burger bun is ideally as soft as the burger meat, and I agree… and I can admire this bun because it bends the rule for a greater good. I suspect that the bit of salt from the cheese and the bit of butter from the bun are also secret weapons in this burger.

Unfortunately, Chad and I ordered our burgers medium-rare, but mine turned up rare and his medium. His was also missing cheese, which is, as I mentioned, mandatory. When informed, the restaurant took the plate back, put a piece of cheese on it in the kitchen, and brought it back out. I’m kind of conflicted about that. While I hate to see food go to waste, a cooled off burger isn’t as much fun to eat and doesn’t melt cheese well. It’s like a permanently defective burger.

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At least our Roederer and Fig Royale (w/ black mission fig syrup) were refreshing. And the bread was freshly soft on the inside and delicious.

And for fellow devotees, the rabbit pappardelle pasta is on the menu again. When I had it last year, it was phenomenal.

Then to Bouchon Bakery in Yountville (previous posts here). Disappointed that their once heavenly Cheese Danishes were still sporting a coarse sugar crystal dusting and looked over-baked, I got a pistachio macaron, and Chad got a caramel.

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The caramel flavor was good — caramel-y, butter-y, salty, but the cookies a bit too dense… and the filling a bit too light and buttery. Instead of a lighter than air wonder, the whole thing felt more like a standard sandwich cookie.

On the other hand, my first bite of the pistachio macaron was spoiled by my need to exclaim that “this is the worst macaron I’ve ever had!” The top crust shattered above the empty pocket of air in the cookie to lead to the way to the hard and chewy remainder of the cookie.

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I went back into the store with it, and told them that it was really tough, like it was stale, and asked for a caramel instead. I would have loved a good pistachio one, but I didn’t want to take another chance with it. I was promptly given a caramel one by a courteous staff member, and was told that it was odd that they were stale b/c they were baked in the last day or two… but in my opinion, that’s a day or two too much for macarons. They don’t age gracefully.

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I wish that the pain au chocolat could have made up for it, but that was off, too…

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It shattered more like a folded cracker than a laminated dough. Perhaps it was old, but it seemed more like a prep issue to me. Either not enough butter was used or it was rolled while too warm to prevent it from laminating properly. At least the chocolate inside it was unaffected, and quite edible.

That was all the food we ate there. You might say that it was a little disappointing, but we’ll probably go back to both the next time we’re up there. This is one reason why I’ve never been comfortable with “reviewing” eateries, and recommending them to other people. None of them will ever have perfectly consistent food. Every dish that leaves the kitchen is different. Every dish is practice to improve.

I can reconcile these facts two ways. The first way reminds me of something that a film professor once told me – the skill of a director is measured by what she edits out of her movie. What’s shown is truly the best and most pertinent. This applies to restaurants in so far as what they choose to put into customer’s hands. It’s quality control. There will always be some rejects in food preparations, but standards vary about what will go out, from restaurant to restaurant, employee to employee, and day to day. There are waste and cost issues with this, so that’s where the “every dish is practice to improve” idea is handy.

Also, there are the emotional ties to restaurants. I happened to like the girl & the fig and Bouchon Bakery as local hangouts and will always have good memories at both, food-wise and personal-wise. Very subjective. Only an offensively bad experience would keep me away from them in the future, and going back to them is nostalgic excitement. Like most of this trip, it was just pleasing to know that they’re still out there.

Anyway, I also bought a couple spices from The Spice House in Chicago while in the campus store at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. According to their labels… Ground Mahleb, which is the pit of sour cherries, is used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern breads, cakes, and pastries… China Tunghing Cassia Cinnamon has a very high 4% natural oil content, which lends it a smoother, sweeter flavor while maintaining a strong spiciness. I’ll report back when I use them. I also bought a fancy cherry pitter at the Sign of the Bear in Sonoma, because I have high hopes for lots of cherries this summer, along with every other fruit I can manage.

I wanted to go to Duckhorn Winery, but it was closed for a special event. I have a good knack for choosing wineries on days that their closed, but luckily, Plumpjack was open.

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The lively rock ‘n roll and conversations that surrounded us mirrored the boldness of the wines, which were a bit tannic and strong for me. Chad was more of a fan.

We also went to Paraduxx, which is is affiliated with Duckhorn. Again, the mood fit the wines. A relaxed, chic tasting room (and patio) matched the smooth and luscious wines.

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Their wines are all fusions of zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.

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Be aware that tastings are $15, though it does include table service, spiced almonds, cheese straws, and bottled water.

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Frankly, though, if you’re going to Wine Country with someone else, sharing tastings is the best option. Once you become accustomed to the fact that all wines taste and feel differently, you become eager to see what else is out there — what else wine can do. If you have to drink all the tastings by yourself, you’re more apt to become tipsy and unable to sample more, at least thoughtfully. After a while, the tasting size seems like so much. If you like it, you know you want to buy some or look out for it on the future, and if you don’t, you want it out of your way. For better or for worse, wine tasting is rarely a time to savor, per se. It’s a time to evaluate, and you may as well try as much as you can without getting overloaded. On the other hand, I prefer wineries like this one — with tables and chairs, a mellow ambiance, and pre-filled up glasses — so if you want to savor… well, just go right ahead.

Goodbye, Napa… Hello, Los Angeles

Monday, February 12th, 2007

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks packing, moving, unpacking, and waiting to get my internet service installed in my new apartment. Now, that’s all settled, and it’s back to blogging, as usual.

I’ve also been taking an occasional picture, so here’s my little transitional scrap book… I had so many “last meals” to commemorate and enjoy the Bay Area that I’m going to have to do the highlights here. And no notes to work from… just memories and stream of consciousness.

So, of course, to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, which has become my favorite restaurant in the area. Consistently creative and flavorful food with a wonderful wait staff.

First was the legendary Rabbit Tostada, which I’ve rhapsodized about in previous posts. No pic this time, we just ate it straightaway.

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Next was a Macaroni and Cheese with Ham, which made me fall in love all over again. In addition to cheese that walked the line between creamy and elastic and a crunchy blanket of bread crumbs, the ham was so tender — like a pulled ham — that it made me wish that all those unfortunate rubbery cubes of ham found elsewhere could be banned. It was also just a little spicy, just to make that much more perfect.

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I think that any fellow Mac & Cheese enthusiast would appreciate this.

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Ricotta Bread Pudding with Huckleberries. Chad liked this more than I did. It was a little too messy on the plate and in the mouth, but it was redeemed partially by a nice ricotta finish.

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Campfire Pie. Amazing as always.

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And that burger at the girl & the fig. With cambozola and grilled onions. Meaty and juicy, of course, but also tangy, sweet, salty, sour. And that dutch crunch roll is the stuff of genius.

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I also liked their “the works” cheese plate.

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I also liked the donut from Bouchon Bakery, with the panned sort of chocolate bits on top. An excellent firm, yet yielding texture to add to a donut — without going all crunchy on us.

I wish I’d had time to go to Bouchon one more time, and Ad Hoc, for that matter. Ad Hoc is the restaurant that Thomas Keller opened with the intent of closing it after so many months, but it’s become permanent, which is good news for everybody. In addition to salads and cheese courses that are able to surprise and delight because of their freshness and well-judged creativity (such as pickled apples with cheese), the main courses are usually slow-cooked succulent meats with lots of vegetables. Unfortunately, I’ve found their desserts to range from the average (panna cotta) to inedible (large tablets of dry and hard puff pastry served with a dollop of whipped cream and too few berries, like a do it yourself Napoleon). Similar things could be said about Bouchon (and I believe that the same chef oversees both kitchens) — the special meat course of the day is usually wonderful — and the desserts have always disappointed me there, too. Ad Hoc is $45 for four courses (only one menu avail each night; no choices, except wine), which is high for a casual restaurant, but low for a Thomas Keller restaurant. The skill is evident in most courses, though, and frankly, I crave the place. I did have one last opportunity to go for their Fried Chicken night — Thomas Keller Fried Chicken = TKFC! — but knowing that it would involve a glass of wine, I found it too hard to justify a $60 fried chicken dinner under the circumstances. Instead, I vowed to visit the fine establishment known as Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles in Los Angeles asap to get my fried chicken fix, and I’ve decided not to look back… too much.

So, anyway, back to the legendary food that I did eat…

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Contrary to my melancholy musings before, I did manage to go back to Tartine (though, truth be told, walking there from the Ferry Building is no more of a picnic than driving and finding parking there). This glorious morning bun had a perfectly chewy caramelized outside, enhanced by the crunchiness of the sugar crystals and seductive hints of orange and cinnamon.

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The gooeyness inside was also brilliant, amidst the tender ribbon of dough.

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The meringue with cocoa nibs was an unexpected pleasure. Simple, but with deep flavor, and a balance of sweet and bitter, crunchy and soft, wet and dry.

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The quiche as a little disappointing — I think it had been over-cooked — but I can appreciate a flaky crust when I encounter it.

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I kept eating this Banana Cream Pie out of stupefied curiosity. As far as I can tell, chocolate is painted on the crust, caramel and pastry cream spooned on top, slices of banana are put on top of that, and then the whipped cream and chocolate shavings are on top of that. I spent too long looking around in the tart to see what else was in there, and it was also kind of watery inside; some banana slices were bare, some were, say, half swimming in liquid and half in pastry cream. The ingredients seemed good on their own — delicious, in fact — but confusing when put together; and maybe it was old and something had separated.

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This Cake aux Olives was another source of wonder. It had gruyere, ham, eggs, wine, olives, and a bit of flour — enough for a salt-rific, slightly crisp crust. A slightly gummy texture, but in a thought-provoking way. I guess it’s like a cross between a quiche and an olive bread.

And then to Zuni Cafe, where I really wanted to try their burger.

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I liked the pickled onions and the soft but supple bread, but the meat was a little bouncier in the mouth than I like. I also got a lovely gigantic plate of fries, which I can proudly say, I made a dent in. And their bread was gorgeous and tasty.

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BUT the best thing about the lunch was the service — it was extraordinary, and made me feel all warm and peaceful inside. I just walked in alone and without a reservation for lunch, in hiking sneakers, jeans, and a backpack, and on my way to the hostess stand, I spied a few spartan, small tables in a tiny nook and thought that I’d glimpsed into my future. But NO, they gave me a completely wonderful table near the window in the main dining room that was already set for one person (no awkward removal of utensils or chairs in my presence necessary), and the wait staff was thoroughly congenial and helpful. I read my history of candy book, ate my food, and walked out sprightlier than I’d walked in — which is no mean feat, considering my burger ‘n fries ‘n wine feast (and bfst at Tartine). I really appreciate their thoughtfulness, which was gauged to fit my situation. I’m now an ardent fan.

I won’t go into all the issues of dining alone, except that the best restaurants realize that a lone diner one day is a leader of, say, a party of six another day (and/or, say, a writer of a blog post), and that it’s a compliment for a person to want to eat at a restaurant alone, b/c they just really want to eat the food (and in my case, read; I concede that sitting there with a book at a table and wearing hiking sneakers doesn’t add to the mood of the restaurant, but at some point, we all want to eat good food while reading and wearing casual shoes, so why not go for it?). And of course, good service is good service no matter how many people.

And then… I guess this was it… my final meal…

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A turkey and herbed goat cheese sandwich and chocolate bouchon from Bouchon Bakery. Half the sandwich consumed for dinner in Napa, the rest as lunch at a rest area, somewhere off the 5 hwy, in my car. Yum.

I’ll visit Napa, SF, and Berkeley as often as I can, but for now, here I am in LA again… with lots of eating and baking to do. When I left LA in mid-2005, I’d gone for years without using an oven — I barely knew what to do with it — or doing any real cooking. I would run down the hill from my apartment to the corner convenience store for an occasional pint of icy Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. I spent most of last week unpacking, but I also found time to make: two sorbets, candied blood orange peel, a banana bread, a ganache, five spice marshmallows, pounds of roasted carrots, brined pork tenderloin with apple/quince/potato medley (from Lucques cookbook), and a banana chocolate malt ice cream base is waiting in my freezer, to be spun tomorrow. Not a bad start…