Archive for the 'Towns' Category

A Typical Day Off in New York

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

New York is my favorite city in the world, so instead of jetting around in public transportation or taxis, I like to walk around so that I can immediately explore anything that looks interesting. I loosely base my routes around bakeries and stores that I want to check out. When I have a whole day off, I actually like aiming for places that are far away from each other, b/c it gives me exercise and a chance for my palate and stomach to relax between tastings.

So, today, as I often do, I started off with a cupcake in mind…

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Buttercup Bake Shop, at 2nd Ave & 51 St. Cupcakes are everywhere in NY, and I’m determined to track down the best one. I don’t have a “control cupcake” — it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s vanilla cake/icing or chocolate cake/icing because I theoretically like all those combinations. I just want a delicious, moist cake with flavorful icing (with conf sugar buttercream — not Italian, Swiss, or French buttercream, b/c I just don’t like ’em). The most common letdown is a dry cake… like this one, unfortunately. The icing didn’t taste very chocolate-y, either, so the whole result was pretty bland. Too bad. My cupcake search continues.

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Banana Pudding. I have a sentimental spot for banana pudding — the Magnolia Bakery version was my big discovery of 1999, and I made it countless times after I moved back to Chicago for college (it was probably the first and only dessert that I made for years); it now also reminds me of the entremet cake that I made in culinary school.

Buttercup is owned by an ex-partner of Magnolia, so it made sense that this was here. This version was very thick — the pudding component itself, but it was also packed with Nilla Wafers and banana slices. Texturally, it was too much for me, like a traffic jam in a cup. I wished that the pudding was a little fluffier and that it had more room to breathe amongst the cookies and bananas. The flavor was nice, though (infused with banana, with hints of sweetened condensed milk and vanilla).

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Then, on to Fauchon, at Park & 57th St, whose hot pinkness can be seen from blocks away. They only had a few pastries out at about 10:45, so I got these two petit fours and walked to the plaza in front of FAO Schwartz, at 5th Ave & 58th St, to eat them.

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The Pistachio Eclair was pretty bland (tasted of… sugar) and oddly dry yet chewy. Maybe it was old.

The Key Lime Tart had an initial creamy flash of lime that dissipated into an eggy taste; the lime almost, but never quite took off. I think that the construction is really interesting, though — it looked like that sphere was formed by joining two hemispheres of molded curd. I think it would have been even better if it had been on a crust that really showed off its roundness, rather than this slightly larger round one — the curd was off-centered and looked like it was in baggy clothes when it should have been svelte. It would be good to try to smooth the seam a little more, too.

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I’ve had these caramels before, and they’re rich, chewy, and flavorful; I could only wish that they included their salted caramels in the box, too. I didn’t have any today, though, b/c yes, Chad, they’re for you.

Then through Central Park and this gazebo to get to the southwest corner of the park…

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And to Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. I’ve been there a couple times and will write a full post about it later, but here’s a grape tart that I had there today as a preview…

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And then I walked up the Upper West Side on Broadway. I wandered around Fairway, at 74th St, a bustling gourmet grocery market with an especially fabulous outdoor produce display.

Then I happened upon Beard Papa Sweets Cafe, at 76th St, which I vaguely remembered reading about — there are a few of these Japanese chain stores around NY and they’re known for their cream puffs, so I got an Earl Grey Milk Tea one (the other choice was vanilla)…

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Light and crispy (very admirable on such a humid day as today), with a smooth pastry cream inside that not only had a balanced sweet Earl Grey flavor, but also had a hint of a lemon tang. And it’s just me, but I don’t like the way that conf sugar and choux pastry taste together, though, so that was my only issue with this.

And then found myself in front of H & H Bagels, and got a just-perfectly-chewy sesame bagel, which was the closest thing that I had to a lunch…

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And then to the wonderful Zabar’s. After browsing the grocery section, I spent a lot of time upstairs, inspecting and collecting baking paraphernalia, like tart tins, a food mill, magi-cake strips, silicone cake pan liners, a triple sifter, and some miscellaneous, which I squeezed into my backpack before pointing myself back downtown.

I noticed Ottomanelli Bros, at Amsterdam & 78th St, and was excited b/c I was at a dinner party last night where I was served an amazing New York strip steak from Ottomanelli. But I’ve since found out that that steak came from Ottomanelli Brothers at York & 82nd St. There’s also an Ottomanelli Meat Market in the West Village. I can’t tell if they’re related.

And then I just walked a lot — down to NY Cake & Baking Distribution, at 26th St & 5th Ave. They have everything that people who enjoy decorating cakes would need, and I was interested to see that they have gelatin sheets, acetate, and glucose for sale.

And then into the 18 miles of books lining the shelves of The Strand, at Broadway & 12th St. A while later, I came outside with Cakes by Maida Heatter and The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion — b/c soon I’ll be back in Napa and eager to bake on my own.
Then I read for a while before dinner at Sapa, at 6th Ave & 24th St. I got a ride home, and I admit that was fine with me at that point. I’ll post about the actual meal later.

Farm Stand and The Purple Orchid – Los Angeles

Monday, August 28th, 2006

I’ve been in El Segundo a lot over the past couple years. If people think of El Segundo at all, it’s usually as that area of LA just south of the airport. That’s good because it keeps the area crowd-free, but that’s bad because it’s one of the most comfortable neighborhoods in LA. It’s a beach town with a wide, clean beach and plenty of BBQ pits, but the town is mostly oriented inland. Unlike Manhattan Beach and Venice, El Segundo’s Main Street is completely apart from the beach.  It’s lined with cute, non-chain boutiques, service shops, coffee shops, and little restaurants. The rest of El Segundo is mostly residential, with a lot of families who actually spend time outside in their yards and walking around. Apparently, at about 5pm on weekdays, the sidewalks of Main St are packed with locals walking about, and its streets are relatively empty of cars… which is almost unheard of in LA. All the same, there’s plenty of free parking if you do need it.

El Segundo makes me feel like I’m in a home town (and not only because its stately high school is frequently used in films set in cute home towns). Only the big Chevron plant on the water tarnishes the small town charm, but even that lends a Simpsons-esque air. So, it’s not a place that you would necessarily make plans to visit, but if you know locals who want to hang out locally, be prepared for a good time.

Its restaurants and bakeries don’t have much of a presence in the LA food scene, but for the most part, they have a great value and …um, how do I say this?…. are full of real people (no bling, no attitude). The street behind Main Street — Richmond Street — is a smaller, funkier version of it that probably has the highest concentration of interesting places to go in LA in a two block area. It has the Old Town Music Hall, a reliable and healthy CA-style cafe called Good Stuff, the timeless Richmond Bar & Grill, an slightly upscale Second City Bistro, a surf shop, and a fun tiki bar called The Purple Orchid that’s one of my favorite bars in LA, which I’ll talk about more later.

One of the more interesting recent additions to Main Street has been Farm Stand, which stands out as rather chic against the backdrop of traditional sushi bars and casual eateries in the area. It calls itself an urban country restaurant.  Chad and I checked it out a few weeks ago. I think it’s still finding its footing, but it seems to be going for American-Middle Eastern-Italian cuisine. Not fusion, just dishes that represent. But not necessarily by name. Both dishes that we ordered were given descriptive names that skirted their culinary origins. That’s probably a good idea, because it probably makes the dishes more accessible for people unfamiliar — and uneasy — with mysterious dishes. After reading her new cookbook this weekend, Cindy Pawlcyn sometimes has the same strategy.

We’ll definitely go back, and I’m interested to see how it develops, especially as it adjusts to demand and its own style.  I really liked being there — its open design makes it very welcoming, and an open kitchen is always a treat.  The service was maybe a little too eager and friendly, but it’s hard to complain about that.

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Mama’s Herbed Ground Beef — Our Signature Family Dish — with a Rice Pilaf of Lentils, Dates, Raisins, & Roasted Vegetables. I believe that this could be called kofta… A perfect kofta amid a playground of fascinating things to eat. That roasted tomato was so soft and deep with flavor, while the dried ground everything in sweetness and chewiness, the pico de gallo (or so it looked) mixed things up again with crisp onions and garlic amid the perky herb tomatoes that contrasted so nicely with the roasted tomato. It’s a fun dish to eat, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

While Chad explored this playground, I played tag… With this…

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And this…

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Walnut and Pomegranate Stew: Baked Chicken with Walnut & Pomegranate Puree with Basmati Saffron Rice. I would have called it fesenjan, and I’m always thrilled when I find it. But I think it’s like meatloaf — everyone does it a slightly different way; and my friend’s mother makes what I consider to be the seminal version for me. This version was heavy on the pomegranate molasses, so it was rather sour and yet syrupy sweet, and the saffron basmati rice did little to adjust the flavor or texture. I prefer the sauce to be heavier on the walnut so that it’s a bit lighter and creamier. It was okay (and actually, the chicken itself was juicy and tasty), but in comparison to the ground beef dish, it got a bit boring. Perhaps not as many things could be added to it as easily as to ground beef dish, but it needed something more to maintain attention to it.

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We ordered the After School Warm Chocolate Chip Cookies with Milk for dessert. I think that the way they did it was to partially bake the cookies, and either keep them warm or heat them more to order. Chad liked them well enough, but they had unappealing oily spots in the center and the chocolate chips had that scorched flavor that pops up when they’re fresh from the oven. Oddly enough, I was smitten by the milk — when was the last time I had a glass of whole milk? Of course, it was like cream to me now, but hey, I like cream… so this was more like lowfat cream than high fat milk. 🙂

I also wanted to mention The Purple Orchid, which is a fantastic tiki bar in El Segundo. The drinks are consistently great (which is so rare at any bar), and unlike the occasional drama at Tiki-Ti in Silverlake (which is, also, very good nonetheless), it’s very laidback, full of locals who happen to like hanging out in a Hawaiian bar.

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The Volcano Bowl is fun for a group.  We got it with their retro Mai Tai, and I think they usually light the middle part.  Other stand out drinks include the Rum Swizzle, which balances its sourness with spicy cinnamon, and the Purple Orchid Martini, with vodka,  honey, lime, and raspberry.  And of course, anything that comes in a glass like this is bound to be good…

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And if you’re in the mood for something different, I recommend going there on St. Patrick’s Day…

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Tomales Bay

Tuesday, February 7th, 2006

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We chose a beautiful route up along Tomales Bay on our way through Marin county and back into Sonoma county. There are lots of signs for BBQ oysters in restaurants. The bay is a prime oyster spot, and the Tomales Bay Oyster Co and Hog Island Oyster Co have been recommended to me. You can buy oysters and barbecue them right on the water; and bring a cooler to bring oysters home, if you’ve so inclined. An article about west coast oysters is here. Hog Island Oyster Co is also located in the San Francisco Ferry Building.

We didn’t indulge in oysters, but did admire the scenery, and the houses that have great views of the scenery.

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And finally, I was able to stop near a farm to take pictures of the lovely cows that make such fine cheeses and milk and cream for the area.

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Point Reyes Station

Monday, February 6th, 2006

Point Reyes Station is the town with the largest commercial area along the Point Reyes National Seashore, which looks like this on the map, with our drive from the French Marin Cheese Co. To the west, the park is supposed offer hiking and a beautiful lighthouse. I hadn’t heard found anything about the pastries in that area, though, so pfft…. we reserved that for a separate trip.

We walked around the cute town itself, whose commercial streets pretty much form an “I” shape.

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Isn’t it amazing that this seems to work so well?

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(more…)

Sonoma

Sunday, January 29th, 2006
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Like Napa, Sonoma is a town, a valley, and a county. When I woke up this morning in Napa, it was a little foggy, but I thought it might make for atmospheric drive so I aimed for the town of Sonoma. As if I’d wandered into Oz, Sonoma was surprisingly clear and sunny, with a mostly blue skies and rolling green hills.

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This is just outside the town of Sonoma. I know what the word means, but I don’t know what the sign means.

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The downtown is centered around a square, which has a park and City Hall in the center.

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I was just on a morning mission to scope out the town, so I just walked around the lovely square, which is lined with shops on the outside.

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Sonoma Cheese Factory is a landmark on the square. They’ve been making cheese since 1931, and are known for their Sonoma Jack.

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Lots of jack. Lots of free samples. After I tried them all, I settled on the hot pepper one.

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Adult cheese whiz.

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Although it’s great fun to drive around wine country and visit what you find in the greens hills and valleys, a benefit of stopping in towns is that there are often stores operated by wineries that have tastings. Drunk driving is a big problem here, so such stores let you drink and rest and explore until you can drive again. In contrast, killing time in a rural winery’s parking lot is little fun.
I was excited by the popular Basque Cafe.

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But I was in the mood for walking and the display was a little too monochromatic for me, so no tastings were made. I am curious about what they put in that gateau basque on the upper right, though…

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The square is quite large, and it was a good stroll to see the variety of establishments. I was impressed to see an art house movie theater.

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I was also impressed by the prospect of a quilt shop… or maybe the idea of it–I didn’t seek it out.

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And how to get them hooked young….

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The girl & the fig is probably the best known restaurant in town, and you’ll see their products, such as spreads and sauces, everywhere in the valleys and beyond.

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With so much competition, having an historic garden can’t hurt.

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There were also quite a few arcades around the square lined with little shops. Yes, this one has a store called Scandinavian Trends with a gnome in front of it.

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Sonoma reminded me a lot of Healdsburg, which is a town in northern Sonoma County that is also centered around a square. The weird thing is that, despite the variety of stores and architecture, these towns also remind me of New England, with their modern quaintness and traditional quirkiness and assortment of jams for sale. The main difference is that New England rarely ever gets this dry and sunny.