Archive for the 'San Francisco' Category

The Chronicles of Napa, Part 1

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

So, last weekend, Chad and I journeyed up to Napa for a wedding… and well, to eat.

First, we rushed off from the Oakland airport to have lunch at Canteen in SF. We paid $3 worth in quarters for the privilege of an hour’s parking, only to arrive at 2:02pm… and be told that they were closed. We’d once had a wonderful lunch there, watching the chef and his assistant cook from our perch at the counter. I remember that teasingly moist skate sandwich well, and still do… b/c my memory remains unclouded by any new dishes there. Sure, I could have mentioned that we’d just flown up from LA, loved the restaurant, and were dying to eat there again (along with their rmg guests)… but the stove was empty and I felt like it was right to accept that their shift was over. I hope someone used up the 53 rmg minutes on the meter, so that I can stop regretting my wasted laundry quarters.

In any case… to Tartine! Where parking was free and there was practically no line at 2:30 in the afternoon!

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Their Croque Monsieur is one of the better consolations you could come across. They’re displayed unassumingly on the counter, but once their heated up and cut into…

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…they’re beacons of comfort and deliciousness. The secret is in the bechamel sauce, which soaks into the bread to provide a silky canvas upon which the Niman ranch ham, gruyere cheese, thyme, and pepper play. The bread is also just soft enough, even though it looks like it’d be hard to cut into.

Unfortunately, Chad’s Ham and Gruyere Sandwich was rather soaked through with mustard, and he only felt fortunate that the nasal passages behind his nose hadn’t caught fire by the end of the sandwich.

And my pickled carrot was shockingly spicy… which I liked.

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The chocolate eclair was also a little funky. The pastry cream was very runny and the glaze very thick. I made a mess of myself trying to eat it, and turning it upside-down helped only until the pastry cream started spurting out the sides. The glaze was also a little too harsh with cocoa flavor for the rest of the eclair.

We also had the Lemon Meringue Cake again, but the chiffon cake was too dry for it to do its magic.

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And then to Emeryville, to catch up with the good people at Charles Chocolates, where I worked with the chocolatiers during the holiday season. They now have a retail store which has a seating area that overlooks the chocolatiers at work, and where tours are given.

I was lucky enough to be lavished with the peanut butterflies and lemon-pistachio clusters that I once daily rationed to myself… 12+ hr days were never so much fun before. I also got a jar of their newly offered Meyer Lemon Marmalade. It’s made with just organic meyer lemons and sugar — no commercial pectin, so it has a slightly more delicate set and the lemon flavor is bright and delicious. It’s nice on bread… or just on a spoon, if you’re me.

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By the time we got to Napa later that night, I was too excited to laze into the hotel room, so Chad and I went to have dessert at Redd, where Nicole Plue is the pastry chef (formerly of Julia’s Kitchen). We shared Sweet Corn Fritters with Cherries and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. I loved how creamy the fritters were inside, and everything was good on its own but I wasn’t totally in love with everything on the plate together — even though the subtle yet brilliant apricot sauce did its best to tie it together. I do like corn as a dessert, but I think it’s hard to match its flavor and intensity with other components. I also really liked the corn pop-like puffed corn kernels. I wonder if they do that themselves… and how.

It was cool to have microgreens on a dessert dish, and actually, they probably fit in best with the corn according to my taste buds. And the texture of the leaves was something novel and nice in a dessert. When we inquired, we were told that they were baby cilantro, which was interesting b/c they neither looked nor tasted like mature cilantro.

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The next day, we set out on an exploratory mission to Wild Flour Bread, committed to basking in the scenery, turning onto mysterious roads, and otherwise finding pleasure in getting lost.

We happened upon the historical Kenwood Depot this way.

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A walk around back brought me under a canopy of what I thought were possibly long-lingering apricots, blushing orange in the sun.

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So, when I reached out to touch them, I was surprised by their smooth texture… and the fact that they were plums. I’m not sure which variety. Rather small and yellow, with a smooth honeyed taste, a bit like greengages. If anyone cares to guess what they were, please let me know.

There were also thorny blackberry bushes rambling here and there around the tree and fence. If only we’d also come across some puff pastry and an oven, I think we would have had the galettes of our lives.

As a city dweller, even this little bit of wild fruit chase was enough to give a glow to the morning. Even when I lived in Napa, I realized that for all the lush landscape, it’s hard to feel truly outdoorsy without some effort. Driving through it or walking past it on the way inside a winery is far more common, unfortunately, if you live in an apartment.

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Once we made it to Wild Flour Bread, we got three loaves for our lunch. All were still hot from the oven, including this gloriously chunk-laden fougasse. We also got a goat flat and the egyptian, with a cinnamon bun-like form flavored with fig, ginger, and pear. All wonderful.

And this was the first time that we wandered into the beautiful garden behind the bakery, and next to the pile of wood used in the oven. It’s full of vegetables, berries, and flowers… and just enough wildness.

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Our little traipse in the garden must have given us time to digest, b/c we went to Patisserie Angelica in Sebastopol for dessert. On the left was the cleverly-designed Peanut Envy, with peanut butter, caramel and nuts in a cylinder of chocolate, and on the right was the key lime tart. Both were flavorful and fresh, and miraculously, completely consumed.

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.

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…

Tartine – San Francisco

Wednesday, December 13th, 2006
You can now purchase my handmade candy bars and marshmallows at http://www.bonbonbar.com/
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Lemon Meringue Cake

First off, isn’t that cake gorgeous? I think it’s emblematic of Tartine. Stylish, but ultimately simple and somehow bountiful. The Lemon Meringue Cake has a chiffon cake, lemon cream, caramel, lemon syrup, and Italian meringue. I’m willing to call the inclusion of caramel a stroke of genius.

The day before we visited Tartine, I happened to read through the entire Tartine cookbook. I have to admit that while many of the techniques described in the book seemed clever and useful, I didn’t mark any recipes to make soon because they seemed pretty traditional — either French or American. Croissants, Chocolate Pudding, Pumpkin Pie, Shortbread, Fresh Fruit Tart, Frangipane Tart, Lemon-Buttermilk Pudding Cake, etc.

But I’ve been converted. Once you go to Tartine, you get it. They’ve made the classics their own, and then some. Their food sparkles, culinarily speaking. Now, I want to make just about every recipe in the book.

I think of Tartine as the Chez Panisse of bakeries. Indeed, Alice Waters wrote the foreword to the cookbook. The emphasis is on fresh, seasonal, often local ingredients prepared with a loving attention to detail.

Tartine is in the Mission District. For a Saturday lunch, we spent a long time looking for parking, a reasonable time in the line that went out the door, a while standing up and eating our cake as we waited for our sandwiches, and a while sitting down and eating in two chairs we snagged at the communal table. Traffic there and back in the rain was a bit rough. As I finished off what I could eat of my cake, I took a long look around at the beautiful food and lively people… and wondered if I’d ever have the time and energy to make the trek there again before I move back to Los Angeles in February. Sadly, probably not. But at least its cookbook will allow Tartine to pop up again on my blog someday. And if you’re in SF, I hope that you can make it there and enjoy it as much as I did.

I believe that I’m still full from this meal…

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Passion Fruit and Lime Bavarian. Chiffon Cake, Lime Syrup, Passion Fruit Bavarian Cream, Coconut, Whipped Cream (to adhere coconut to cake). Loved the tartness of this, with just the right sweetness. The bavarian was somehow fluffy — very different from the ones I’m familiar with. Liked all the textures, esp coconut w/ the chiffon and a little bavarian. The chiffon cake seemed a little moister than the one in the lemon meringue cake.

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Three Cheese Pressed Sandwich. Bellwether Farms Jersey Carmody, Straus Cheddar, Cowgirl Fromage Blanc. Every bite of this was a little different, due to the configuration of the cheese. Pickled Carrots great, sour & spicy. Three sandwich pieces too much for an average person — and too tempting b/c so good. Perfectly butter-y toasted bread.

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Jambon Royale & Gruyere Pressed Sandwich. Niman Ranch cured and smoked ham with Dijon on country bread. A lot of mustard on this, but I was happy with that, and the whole thing. Just the smell of it brought me back to France.

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Gruyere Gougere with Fresh Herbs. This was a bit too soggy inside to completely enjoy, but the flavor was good.

Citizen Cake – San Francisco

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

Citizen Cake demands that you think about your food.

For instance, when you look at the dessert menu, you must think about what palette of flavors you want to experience as a sweet. I was torn between the “carrot cake parfait” (carrot sorbet, parsnip cake, fromage blanc, ginger ice cream, coconut foam) and the “bourbon street” (sweet potato pudding, bourbon molasses, streusel, sage brown butter ice cream), but I also could have gone for the “chocolate y picante” (dulce de leche glazed plantains, anson mills corn pudding and chili chocolate sorbet) or the “rockin’ road” (warm chocolate cake, black walnut ice cream, marshmallow foam and cocoa nib streusel). Then, you must think whether you want to pair it with the suggested alcohol (many of them, inspired) – such as Qi, a Lapsong Souchong Tea Liquor, for the carrot cake parfait or the Nocino Della Cristina Walnut Liqueur with the rockin’ road.

I chose the bourbon street, but without the suggested Knob Creek, Kentucky small batch bourbon whiskey, since I’d already had a cocktail (which I’ll get to later).

Bourbon Street

The pudding and the bourbon molasses were extraordinary, perfect companions in flavor and texture; the pudding creamy and bursting with a bright sweet potato flavor and the syrupy molasses with deeper notes. In fact, they were so good that, for the rest of what was on the plate, I could only think, Why are they there? The sage brown butter ice cream was very sugar-y, and a little buttery, but the sage flavor got lost somewhere; the streusel was neutral element that lacked a real place to go (I found no need to let it interfere with my pudding); that too-thin-to-taste carrot puree smear on top is meant for style, I guess; and the lime segments? I think that that they were meant to cut the sweet heaviness of the rest of the dessert, but they were too severe and clashed with the rest; they may as well have been replaced by a toothbrush instead. I just used the ice cream as a palate cleanser of sorts, but I wish it had a more assertive flavor. So, instead, I focused on devouring the pudding and molasses like I didn’t know any better.

Lemon Cookie

J and L got the lemon cookie. I was immediately charmed by the way that the filling is in line with the edges of the cookies, but when I broke off a piece, I was concerned by how flexible and soft the cookies were. I shouldn’t have worried, because once in the mouth, they explode with a lemon kick that makes its humble (esp for Citizen Cake) appearance a bit of a ruse. It’s a crave-worthy cookie, that I wished I could always have a stash of in my apt. It’s quite sweet and quite sour at the same time, so I suspect that it’s pulled off with a mix of meyer lemons and regular lemons, but I could be wrong.

Cit Cake Pastries

I wanted a fuller picture of this Citizen Cake, so I brought home a few pastries. From left to right, Winter in Provence Tart, S’Moon Pie, Vanilla Cupcake.

I was thrilled that Winter in Provence has a name and appearance that I love while, at the same time, is completely fantastic to eat. Contained in a chocolate tart shell is a lavender and chocolate ganache that is topped by a black pepper creme fraiche and is coated with shredded coconut. The herbal, chocolate, and sour components combine together so well for the flavors, while texturally, I liked that the creme fraiche layer is just a little lighter and looser than the ganache. And the coconut was a nice textural and flavorful component that I wish that the streusel had been in the bourbon street dessert. On the other end, the crust was just soft enough and had enough flavor to be an integral part, too; I usually don’t eat all of a crust, but here I did. I have liked playing around with chocolate and salt recently, so the sour component is something new for me to think about, especially with such clean flavors here.

Unfortunately, the S’Moon Pie and the cupcake were disappointing. The cracker on the bottom of the s’moon pie was too chewy and had too whole wheat-y of a taste to be enjoyable with the rather soft marshmallow filling and thin chocolate coating. Maybe the cracker was designed to infuse more flavor into the traditionally very sweet dessert, but if anything, I think that the good chocolate should be most prominent (maybe even in the form of a chocolate syrup btw the cracker and marshmallow for a suggestion of a hot s’more), then a more honey-ish note from the cracker, and then the sweetness of the (firmer) marshmallow. The cupcake had an icing with a strong vanilla flavor (and it was studded with vanilla seeds everywhere), but I think it was also too sweet and was a little too granular from the sugar in it. The cake was a bit dry and laced with tunnels from over-mixing that we’ve spent much energy in class to avoid.

autostrada

On the savory side…. I had a L’Autostrada sandwich for lunch: ham, smoked turkey, salami, proscuitto, provolone with tomato-pepperoncini. The filling was very nice, and I loved the hint of spiciness from the tomato-pepperoncini… and was indulgent about the oil from the cheese and meats that came out of the sandwich when picked up or slightly squeezed. Unfortunately, the bread had too over-powering a texture for me. The outside was so stiff that I was tempted to knock on it like a door and then the inside was a bit too toothsome, but in a chewier way. The salad was good and fresh. And by the way, I once had an amazing Autostrade sandwich at Campanile‘s Grilled Cheese Night on Thursdays in LA, which was not only tasty, but had slices of proscuitto grilled to adhere onto the outside of the bread.

They also had a creative cocktail menu, and I was thrilled for a change of pace from wine. I got The Harlot, which had lillet blanc, cointreau, lime juice, and cranberry juice . It tasted like a tropical fruit punch crossed with a cosmo, with a balanced taste of alcohol. I liked it, and am happy to see lillet blanc pop up in cocktails.

We sat at the bar, and the service was attentive and affable. Be warned, though, that there might be a wait involved. We got there at about 2:30 and we waited for 20 mins. Then there was some confusion about whether they would serve desserts btw 3:00-5:30 because the kitchen was supposed to get ready for the evening, but then we were able to get dessert… So, I don’t know if plated desserts are available all day, but there are always treats in the pastry case.

On the whole, I had happiness and sadness with Citizen Cake, but it’s like a rollercoaster–even if it’s not always great, it’s still an interesting ride that leads you on surprising paths and sometimes around a loop-de-loop, like the Winter in Provence tart.

As a pastry student, these are some additional thoughts that I had about Citizen Cake:

  • For the desserts, the large number of elements in one dish is a safety net and a high risk venture at the same time. On the one hand, the more elements there are in a dish, the higher the chance that something will be off, but on the other hand, with so many elements in a dish, there is bound to be at least one thing that you like.
    Also, I like the variety of ingredients used and the creative uses for them individually and with other elements. Sometimes, I wished for greater focus, but as the lemon sandwich cookie shows, they are capable of that, too.
  • Also, style can go a long way. Beginning with its clever name (both intellectual and cute) and slick decor, people really want to like this place, and the appearance and combination of flavors in the desserts carry a large amount of cache. I was heartwarmed to see their squared edged cakes free of piped icing, but decorated instead with shards of chocolate cigars and chocolate shards sticking into or on them. On the other hand, call me literal, but I wish that there were more varieties of cakes; they were outnumbered by plated desserts, pastries, cookies, etc.
  • I like that there are a lot of traditionally savory elements in their desserts. I wish I could have tried more of them to see how they integrated them into sweet flavors… it must be more than just adding lots of sugar…