So Very SF

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

gg_2.JPGThis week turned out to be so very San Francisco.  I patronized two exceptional restaurants, bought a bouquet of flowers I don’t recognize, heard the foghorns drifting up from the bay at night, concocted a delectable dessert, watched a naked protest and walked across the Golden Gate bridge.   “What was that, I’m sorry?   A naked protest?”   Indeed, that is what it was.   Naked men on bikes – one on rollerskates – riding slowly down Market Street at 2:00 in the afternoon on a Saturday.   We were stopped at an intersection so caught the chant, “Less gas, more ass!”   The precise details about what they were protesting was unclear, but from the chant, and the fact that they were on bicycles, I surmised that they were protesting overuse of fossil fuels.   But then why were they naked?   Oh wait-  because it’s San Francisco, and because “ass” rhymes so well with “gas”.


I finally made the short journey to Citizen Cupcake, the restaurant that produces the desserts to end all desserts.  I met two friends for dinner and the rules were that we could not order the same foods.   Ergo, a berry shortcake, a lemon-drop inspired medley, and my chocolate cake-like, Brazil-nut-studded, pineapple-shot-accompanied miracle.   The other two desserts were good, but frankly, my thoughts were focused too keenly on my own plate to have justly tasted the others.  Chocolate, no less!   I have to change my self-described rule of never ordering chocolate. But what really set it apart- what really made it something extraordinary – was the spicy pineapple shot.  There must’ve been cayenne in that there drink, or somethin’, because it made my eyes widen – and then water – in delighted surprise.  Served with chocolate cake and Brazil nuts?  Who thinks of this!?   Elizabeth Falker, that’s who. rosebud.JPGMy new hero, she who created the recipe for the sweetness I built last Tuesday: condensed vanilla custard with caramel crisps and pistachio cookies.  Jaw-achingly sweet, even though the cookies are almost savory with their saffron edge.   It is, perhaps, a little much when consumed in the same day as the cherry pie Marc made (the first pie he has ever made), but somehow, we managed to find enough will-power to eat both.  For breakfast.

Art as Dessert

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

I came to the realization some time ago that I am not a dessert person. I rarely order from the dessert menu, am never tempted by the ubiquitous chocolate concoctions available for $8.00. Occasionally, I might be talked into sharing a few bites of something with a fruit compote. My after-dinner weakness takes the form of cheese, much harder to resist than sweetness: a lovely, hard, rich cheese to nibble on between sips of a dessert wine, a creamy blue cheese to melt on the tongue.

But then, from the library, I borrowed Elizabeth Falkner’s Demolition Desserts, and have been unexpectedly converted to the dark side. She’s local, this woman, owner and operator of Citizen Cake and Citizen Cupcake. I know of her, I’ve read about her in cooking magazines, seen her on TV, but have yet to walk the short distance to her restaurant to sample the art. It’s definitely on the list of places to try, indeed, walking to the library constitutes a quarter of the distance it would take to get to the café, and we practically drive past it each week for groceries, but I haven’t mustered the motivation to go out just for dessert. Now, perhaps, ça vaut le voyage.

This is a book in which I am actually tempted to try each and every one of the recipes. The pictures make my mouth water and I enjoy reading the background explanation for each creation, how she came up with the idea and the title for each. The fact that each dessert has a title should be proof that they are works of art, like “Untitled II: Chocolate with Raspberry and Fennel Tones“. The first recipe in book, and the first one I tried, was perhaps not art per se, but rather a plain warm-up to what was to come: I started wtih Chocolate Chip Cookies Straight Up. I have, what I consider, The Best Chocolate Chip cookie recipe- doesn’t everyone? – so I was curious to try another person’s interpretation of The Best, especially that of an artiste. Plus, I had on hand some fabulous Dagoba dark chocolate chips (I will never go back to milk chocolate) and turbinado sugar which, at Elizabeth’s suggestion, decided to experiment with in a cookie recipe. The one main difference I noticed in this version was that it included baking powder, which I had never put in cookies, but which yielded very pretty, puffy, chewy cookies. Alas, they were not as good as The Best. I suppose personal taste is everything.


Skipping ahead, I settled on a plated dessert to try: Norcal (An Homage to Laura Chenel) – chevre rice pudding, dates, candied kumquats, pistachios, honey. I chose this one only because we had goat cheese on the point of souring in the fridge, which turned out to be an unlikely and fortuitous happenstance. Kumquats just happened to be on sale and, oddly, Medjool dates were actually on special display at the grocery, so it was practically destined. I didn’t realize that rice pudding could taste this good. How could I ever have known that such ingredients could be combined to transform what is normally a cloudy sludge into light, fluffy, salty, sweet magic? I will never look at rice the same way again.

Thus initiated, it took little time to decide on the next experiment: Lovelova: Persian Strawberry and Saffron Pavlova. This, now this, is quite possibly the best dessert I have ever tasted. img_0013.JPGIt is rose-perfumed bliss, every bite enveloping my senses with strawberries and saffron, roses and pistachios; it is something to taste with the whole mouth. I am astonished and continue to be astonished with how good this is. I have not, as yet, bought the twenty-two dollar bottle of pistachio oil which is the only thing I skipped in the presentation of this dessert, but now, I feel that the droplets of dressing to surround the sweetness warrant the purchase. It certainly won’t expire because there will be no shortage of occasions to use it. This sensational dessert and I am only three recipes in! We have some amazing 3-course meals in our future.

By the bye, I include this photo of Coconut-Lime Cake with Mascarpone Frosting. It sounded good in the magazine, but the dry, heavy cake is an example of why I don’t normally go in for dessert. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the picture. And the frosting.


Eastern Interpretations

Monday, July 17th, 2006

I’m down to one Korean meal a day. I’m really sick of eating kimchi, which the Koreans seem to eat three times a day without fail. When eating ‘ethnic’ food they must have an ‘ethnic’ substitution such as a bowl of sliced pickles with a pizza or a small seaweed salad with sushi.

When I want burgers, I want Lotteria. Most of the burgers have a Korean twist, but they’ve also out-done the West with some of our own ingredients, such as with my favorite, the European Frico Cheese Burger.


Take a slice of good cheese, bread it, fry it and insert it as an extra patty = absolutely brilliant. How could North America have overlooked this? Also included is a slice of yellow pepper and black olives. I’m not a fan of olives, even on pizza, but it’s great on this burger. A few other noteworthy Lotteria burgers:

  • Kimchi Burger: Janet likes this one, a breaded patty of spicy cabbage.
  • Bulgogi Burger: A giant patty of famous Korean BBQ.
  • BBQ Paprika Burger: The sauce is quite good on this double patty burger.
  • Chuncheon Dakgalbi Burger: More of a typical chicken burger than the spectacle of dakgalbi.

Of course, the local interpretations can be less pleasing. Potatoes on pizza are popular. The last pizza we had included a ribbon of rubbery cheese with mashed sweet potato piped on top. At least the traditional ingredients in the middle were good.

Caffeinated Gems

Sunday, July 16th, 2006

Janet had nearly convinced me to give up on coffee until we returned to Seoul. The five dollar cappucinos made from water and powder were less than satisfying and a waste of our funds. The Lonely Planet Guide, usually refered to as “The Book”, recommended a coffee shop in Gyeongju called Clara & Schumann. Although it stated the place was for coffee lovers, we weren’t even sure it served espresso.

We arrived sweaty after a long walk in the heat. My macchiato was on par with the Blue Bottle Company in San Francisco, the best I’d ever had. However, the whole experience was outstanding. The owners seemed to know more about coffee than anyone I’ve ever met. They didn’t speak much English, but they went to extremes to ensure we they had the best coffee and everything complimented the coffee. It didn’t hurt that they gave us a lot of free stuff to enhance our experience.

IMG_3851.JPGOn the first day we polished our first cups off too quickly, so we were brought cups of a mild coffee almost like tea. It was thin and weaker than I’m used to, which I would normally accocciate with bad coffee, but these people are very deliberate. Besides the usual cappuccinos and lattes, one can select from dozens of beans which are ground specifically for the order. However, prices are different depending on the coffee and how strong you want it. Rather than using a machine, water is poured by hand over the grounds and the water tempurature is closely monitored. The Wedgwood cups were nice too. I’m glad I didn’t break one.

IMG_3907.JPGOn the second day, my macchiatto was not the best compliment for the cheesecake we ordered so I was brought an espresso. Later, we were given Double Toast, two inch thick toast with butter and jam. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed butter. On the third day we were brought complimentary cappuccinos for no particular reason.


Beijing Duck in Beijing

Sunday, June 18th, 2006

Of particular importance during our visit to Beijing was the opportunity to try Beijing duck. Being the milquetoasts that we are, this turned out to be more of an adventure than we anticipated.

First, there was the question of how we were going to make a reservation. Our guide book (without which we would have been hard pressed to function well) suggested a restaurant but made it clear that the staff insisted upon a reservation. Had they not used the word ‘insisted’, we might not have bothered but, in the end, we decided to just call and see if we could bludgeon our way through the language in order to book a spot. Marc lost the rock-paper-scissors and so he made the call. “We may or may not have a table for two at seven.”

Now the second challenge: find the restaurant. Our obstacles were the following: different spellings of the name of the restaurant depending on which map we consulted, an inability to pronounce the name of the restaurant properly, an address within a maze of hutong (small alleyways) which didn’t appear on any map we had, and a city in a frenzy of destruction and reconstruction of great areas of itself in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. We had tried to find a bar the day before and were completely unsuccessful owing to the fact that not only had the bar changed its name and moved, the building it was in, and almost the whole street it was on, was in the process of being torn down. We gave ourselves a 30-minute window to this restaurant that looked to be approximately 5 blocks away. 28 minutes after setting out, Marc returned breathless to the spot I had been waiting while he scouted out the area for the restaurant. It had been an unsuccessful mission. Also, after 20 minutes of waiting , I started worrying that he had fallen into an open excavation and that, while standing there alone on the street corner in my only nice outfit, people were probably beginning to think I was a lady of the night.

As a last ditch effort, we approached a rickshaw driver and pointed to the name of the restaurant written in Chinese characters. He was happy to offer to take us there for what amounted to quite an inflated price. We in no position to bargain very much and so settled on a price quickly and jumped into the back of his converted motorcycle-rickshaw. A few weaving alleyways later, he stopped to ask for directions and we exchanged a glance that asked “should we turn back now or let ourselves become even more lost than we ever have before?” Just then, Marc spotted a sign for the place “Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant” and we hopped out in front of a place that truly lives up to the description of being a hole in the wall. Though these often prove to be where the best food is, so I was actually a little encouraged, if extremely over-dressed.

We walked inside, past the open, wood-burning stove, into a very crowded restaurant. We managed to charade that we had called for a reservation. A woman nodded and led us past a couple of other waiting fellows to our table in the back. Seconds later, the two fellows that were waiting at the front joined us at our table for four which, we guessed, meant that we were sharing. Not to worry, we ordered two of the ‘house specialty’ which looked to be roast duck with an assortment of appetizers (?) and beer. As the plated began to arrive, we learned that our neighbours had ordered the same thing and we found out that they were Japanese. A table of tourists!

And now the next challenge: figure out what we’re about to eat and how to eat it. We got six plates immediately: a plate of small, thin crepes, some broccoli, spears of cucumber, a dish with brown sauce and slivered scallions, a plate of ??, and something that looked like duck foie gras. We tasted each and, indeed, all were as we thought, including dish xyz, which was made up of a vegetable – more scallion? – and a meat – unidentifiable, slightly chewy, but not unpleasant. Normally, an unidentifiable meat would seem a bit disconcerting but I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve been served something which we are completely unable to identify beyond being a part of either the plant or animal kingdom and we just have to dive right in. Most often, we eat the whole plate of miscellany without ever having been able to identify what it was, so we didn’t have much concern about tucking into this meal. However, at this point, I broke the number one rule of eating miscellany in China: don’t examine it. After a few bites, I had a closer look and it came to me that this was probably a plate of duck tongues. And then I was only able to to manage a few more bites before imaging the quacks that these tongues had once made and I pushed the dish aside. I didn’t feel too badly about it as our Japanese table mates hadn’t even touched their foie gras.

After some time, our neighbours’ roast duck arrived. It came whole, with the head attached, and we all took pictures before it was carved (which came as a relief as I was a little worried that we’d be presented with the whole thing and left to fend for ourselves armed only with wooden chopsticks and a sharpened bottle cap).


It was served on an enormous plate and there was enough lovely carved meat and crispy, fatty skin to have fed all four of us. They started in while our duck arrived for its photo session. It turns our that we were pretty lucky to have been sitting with these two as one fellow was living in Beijing and showed us the proper way to eat it: fill a thin crepe with duck and a little of each of the plates of what we had thought were appetizers, roll it up and dip into the brown sauce. With encouragement, further instruction and many napkins, we were able to eat our traditional Beijing Roast Duck and it was delicious, further strengthening the theory that some of the best food is served in the seediest joints.


Now that we had become friends, our table mates asked for a couple of extra glasses and offered us a shot of the beiju they were drinking. I had read about this drink, a traditional rice wine with over 50% alcohol content. Of course, we accepted. And again, and again- pause to order a second bottle – and again. It made the duck taste even better.


After all that adventure, and all that rice wine and beer, we figured we could find our way back through the maze to the hostel. Fortunately, our dumb luck led us straight there, where we could recommend this wonderful restaurant to other travelers.

You know, “TWO”

Sunday, June 4th, 2006

Kaifeng 1.JPGKaifeng may not have been quite as rustic as I had hoped, but the markets were an unexpected spectacle of delights. The people were also very nice. In Shanghai people were pushy and always trying to sell us things. In Kaifeng people were friendly, extremely patient and knew a fair bit of English. After some confusion about price, one woman in her late fifties, who didn’t speak a word of  English to us, wrote “TWO” on a piece of paper.

On the first afternoon we passed through an empty square to access an alley filled with food vendors, produce stands and live poultry—such a contrast to metropolitan Shanghai. Another market consisted of  a few alleys filled entirely with consumer goods, like a Walmart broken into dozens of shops.

Kaifeng 2.JPGIn two hours the empty-ish intersection of streets near our hotel coverts into dozens of outdoor restaurants with kitchen carts, tables and chairs. Vendors loudly announce their products and proprietors try to usher passers-by to tables.  Nibbling and drinking beer in the square made an effective substitution for a patio bar.

Although there are many vendors to choose from, there are only a few main types. The kebab vendors have charcoal grills and a wide selection of skewered foods, including chicken, octopus and unidentified brown insects. Dumpling stands may also have steamed buns and wonton soup. Other vendors sell thick pita-like bread stuffed with your choice of filling. It seems that a few stands will share a seating area and cooperate to offer a wider selection of food.

kaifeng 3.JPGOur first choice was a kebab stand. The kebabs were fine, but we became concerned over the cleanliness of the beer glasses. Another man approached us with a menu which we were completely unable to read. He kept pointing at the 3 beside the first item which designated the price, as if that would make us buy some. We saw other people with soup and managed to order some from the man. The soup was warm, sweetened green tea with pears. It was almost like dessert. The next stand we tried had steamed dumplings and the beer was bottled and cold. It was noisy, crowded, hot, busy, dangerous (with fire flaring occasionally from underneath woks and inside kebab-BBQs), friendly and perfect.


Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

Before I came here, I thought I knew what crowded was, I thought I knew what rich was, I thought I knew what culture was. And then I experienced the MTR subway at rush-hour, the outrageous cost of living in Repulse Bay on the south part of Hong Kong Island and the fantastic food, art and, mostly, architecture that this place has in abundance.

The first day we were here, we went straight for the waterfront along the northern edge of Hong Kong island to see the tallest building in Hong Kong.   We saw a TV documentary on this building once and now, we have actually been to the real life version! Does it get any better than this?

Jan - Victoria Harbour1.JPG

Victoria Harbour.JPG

The next thing we did was to take the tram up the unexpectedly steep slope to Victoria Peak for the view.

View from Victoria Peak.JPG

I won’t go on about how amazing the view was because the interweb is littered with such descriptions. I will, however, mention that the people who live in the houses on the road leading up to the peak must be exceptionally wealthy. The kind of wealthy I wouldn’t even know if it bumped into me on the street, which it may very well have already in a city this busy. I am invigorated by the crowds. There are more people on this island than I can even fathom and when everyone decides to take the MTR at the same time (when the drivers of their Mercedes and Jaguars have the day off, I presume) it is too crowded to move. The crowds at the Temple street Night Market can’t really compare but the lights, colour and traffic make up for the density.

Temple Street Night Market.JPG

Today, we visited the Graham Street market which is known for its food. From start to finish, from one end to the other, we were wishing desperately for a kitchen in which to cook.

Marc - Graham Street Market1.JPG

There were many vegetables and a myriad of fish that we’ve never even seen before, let alone can imagine cooking. What I wouldn’t give for just a chef’s knife! (Though the hostel does have a corkscrew for happy hour so we’re not completely lost.)

Speaking of food, we went for dim sum today at the “famous” Yung Kee restaurant in SoHo.

HK Dim Sum.JPG

Apparently, the roast goose at this restaurant has been the talk of the town since 1942. We didn’t have the goose, but we did have steamed dumplings with shrimp and bamboo fungus, yummy steamed pork buns, spring onion pastries, garlicky squid,spring rolls, mango pudding and an appetizer we didn’t order: century eggs.

Century Egg.JPG

I think they’re hard-boiled eggs that have been… um … preserved (?) for a few months. I tried them first and then coaxed Marc into trying. They weren’t bad but they’re weren’t something I would’ve ordered. Who cares, I tried them, and that’s the whole reason we went on this trip.

P.S. Typhoon Chenchu is due to pass through Hong Kong tonight. Should be.. interesting.

A Culinary Tour of Halifax

Friday, May 5th, 2006

Halifax 1.jpgWe had to pack a lot of food into one day and two nights. On our first night I insisted we order from Salvatore’s Pizza. They make a plain cheese pizza to die for. We also split a mushroom and garlic pizza, a meatball hero and a salami-pepperoni hero. This was a traditional meal of Danny J and me. I used to favour the salami-pepperoni hero over the meatball, but this time was different. The meatballs are sliced and covered in cheese and sauce. The texture clearly states the sandwich is full of fat. It’s worth it.

Halifax 2.jpg The next day required an extra lunch to fit in all the mandatory stops. Ray’s at Scotia Square has a wide selection of Lebanese food. I hadn’t been there in three years. Nothing is fried. Everything is low fat. I always order the barbeque chicken pita. Rather than lettuce, he adds salad with tomatoes and pita croutons. The croutons add a great crunch. The oddest ingredient is roasted potatoes. He finishes it off with hummous and tahini sauce. I guess I’ve been there a lot. Ray looked and me and says, “it’s been a long time.”

Lunch two was chirashi sushi from Dharma. It wasn’t as good as I had remembered. That may have been purely because of the plating. Normally chirashi is served in a bowl with sushi rice at the bottom and assorted shashimi on top. The unique element at Dharma is barbeque eel sauce on the rice. On this occasion the rice was on one side of a plate and the fish on the other. All the fish was excellent, but it didn’t have the usual visual punch.

Halifax 3.jpg Steve-o-reno’s has the best coffee in Halifax. We both ordered the double short latte. It wasn’t as good as the Blue Bottle Company in San Francisco, but still very good.

Our next stop was Dio Mio for chocolate ice cream. They do have many more special flavours, but the chocolate is better than almost anywhere. It’s not too sweet. The cocoa flavour is strong. I remembered it being even more so, but the ice cream still tasted very good. I used to eat a small tub of it every week along with another of strawberry sorbet.

Dave and Karen picked up Indian takeout on our last night. Some couple with a hole in the wall sells their own frozen dishes. We had paneer, butter chicken, curry goat, curry vegetables and samosas. All were excellent. The best Indian food I’ve had at a restaurant was only marginally better.

Taipei Supper 101

Friday, May 5th, 2006

We quickly learned how to get necessities in Taipei. Someone told us Taipei is a good city for us to transition to Asian travel. Most people speak at least a little English. Most signs are posted in English and most places have very good signs. The metro is very easy to use. They even provide a very good map of the city for free.

Taipei day 1.jpgFood can be a little challenging. The key factor is selecting a food stand where we can communicate what we want. Some restaurants and stands have pictures, others have English menus. Some just have food on display at which to point. It’s also possible to point at meals that have been served to other people. Most food vendors seem used to selling food in this fashion.

On our first night we selected a small restaurant with pictures of noodle soup. We pointed at what we thought was chicken, but were served barbeque pork, which was better anyway. The pork and broth were very tasty. The soup also included baby bok choy, an egg and a slice of white something with a pink flower that had no flavour at first, then tasted like fish or fake crab. I suspect it was some sort of fish log. The smiling proprietor brought us some ice tea at no extra charge.

Taipei day 1B.jpgDessert was a bit of surprise. I picked out something pink from a display case with the assumption it was soft, fluffy and creamy. I’m glad we didn’t wait until we got back to the hostel to eat it because it turned out to be frozen. The outside was covered in sticky gelatinous rice. The inside was like strawberry ice cream, but with a slightly waxy texture. We’re sure to have more pleasant surprises.

There are so many places to go in Taipei and so much food to try. We could spend a three weeks here instead of a few days.