Sunday, March 23, 2008

Bay Area - California Cuisine

So I hope that from my last post, it doesn't seem as if I hate California and I hate the environment. In fact, I am quite fond of both. It's just an adjustment. But once again, Daniel and I did some mighty fine eating on this trip. In trying to categorize the food we ate, I've decided to break it up into two realms - California cuisine and ethnic eats. Both alliterative, pleasing the ears of this future English teacher.

I'm not sure of the official definition of California cuisine, but to me it puts an emphasis on fresh ingredients, a healthy mix of fruits and vegetables, often with an Eastern or Latin American influence. Does that sound about right?

So here's what and where we ate in that general sphere:

Pomelo - we met a couple of friends in this Noe Valley fusion restaurant, which I'd read about somewhere or other. It was a bit crowded, but very pleasant atmosphere, and if we're going to live in SF, Noe is one of our top neighborhoods. As an appetizer I had the Puerta Princesa - a salad of shrimp, avocado, pomelo, cucumber, mint, cilantro, chiles, and peanuts (very California, it seems to me). For my main course, I had the San Fernando - a Filipino style rice soup with chicken, ginger, garlic, saffron, and some other stuff. Daniel split two dishes with our friend Adam - an egg noodle dish with seared tuna (called the Lanzhou) and the Barinas - pulled beef with plantains and black beans.

The verdict: My salad was really yummy and fresh tasting. I love citrus and avocado together, and the chiles added a nice piquancy. The shrimp was good, but frankly almost unnecessary, as the fruits and veggies were so flavorful. I'd ordered the soup thinking it was going to be light and a good complement to the salad. Boy was I wrong. It was an enormous bowl of almost congee like rice porridge with poached chicken. Very well spiced, the chicken tender and moist and the porridge itself nice and comforting. But it was WAY too much food. Luckily, Daniel and Adam were happy to finish it off for me. I had a little sample of their dishes, both of which seemed to please them. The meat was nice and soft, but I took a tiny little nibble so as not to deprive them, so I don't have much to say on it. The Lanzhou was yummy. Who doesn't like egg noodles? Although as Adam pointed out, naming a seafood dish after landlocked Lanzhou was a bit odd. All in all though, a lovely evening.

Cafe Intermezzo - Eric took us on a tour of Oakland and Cal (that's what those in the know call UC Berkeley), and then we headed here for a little lunch before my interview at a school in San Francisco. This is a favorite of Eric's and it's easy to see why. He urged us to go for the combos - choice of two - salad, half sandwich, or soup. Being the big eater that I am, I'm usually wary of half sandwich and salad combos as I find they're never enough food for me, but he assured me that it would be sufficient and so I took his advice and did a half turkey sandwich on whole wheat with a garden salad.

The verdict: This place is redefining the "big salad." It was huge. Simple, but very good - lettuce, tomato, carrots, etc (no sprouts as there was a recall). I went for the low fat veggie dressing, which was sort of fruity tasting, with lots of sesame seeds. My half sandwich was also on the generous side, with lots of turkey on big slices of sweet, chewy bread. I was good and full by the end of it and the whole thing was only $7.95. And it came with a piece of freshly cut pineapple. Yum.

Cafe Gratitude - I'm really not sure where to begin with this place. So I'll let it speak for itself. "Café Gratitude is our expression of a world of plenty. Our food and people are a celebration of our aliveness." This Berkeley establishment is covered in brightly colored murals featuring inspirational quotations and features a vegan menu consisting almost entirely of raw foods. All of the items have names like "I Am Dazzling" or "I Am Thankful," and there is a lot of nut based "cheese" and sprouted bread represented on the menu. We decided to share "We Are Bountiful" (a cracker and spread sampler plate, featuring live crackers, soft cashew cheese, and spicy hummus) and "I Am Fulfilled" (a large salad with tons of veggies and Brazil nut Parmesan.) Daniel and Ariel each opted for live pizza, "I Am Passionate" and "I Am Sensational", respectively (these are buckwheat sunflower seed sourdough flatbread crusts, topped with sauce and cashew ricotta, Ariel's came with an additional pesto tapenade.) Eric and I decided to share the "I Am Terrific" (live pad thai - vegetable noodles with almond butter) and the "I Am Cheerful" (a Live Sun Burger! - Gratitude's punctuation, not mine...)

The verdict:

"We Are Bountiful":

This was really pretty nice. I would be hard pressed to tell you which spread was which, but they were very flavorful, and generally surprisingly creamy. The tomatoes, which I assume were raw, had a texture much like roasted tomatoes, and added a nice tang to the unexpected richness of the spreads.

"I Am Fulfilled":

A really nice salad. Lots of fresh, well cut or julienned veggies. Good enough that even Daniel, the non-salad eater, had a couple of helpings.

It was at this point in the meal that our waitress came over and informed us that she'd just found out that the restaurant had ran out of "I Am Cheerful." Not being Cafe Gratitude regulars, it took a few seconds to realize that this was the veggie burger Eric and I had ordered. Feeling less than cheerful, we tried to find the sort of zen-like calmness the restaurant specializes in and placed a new order for "I Am Elated," the enchilada of the day. We tried to find elation and take solace in our cashew cheese, but five minutes later the waitress returned to inform us that they were now out of "I Am Terrific" and "I Am Elated." Again, not knowing the menu, these titles meant nothing to us, and suddenly, "I Am Grumpy" seemed more appropriate. I asked the waitress to please explain which of our orders these names represented and was pleased to learn that once again, Eric and I had drawn the short straws. So we abandoned the sharing plan, and I tried to take inspiration in my order by choosing "I Am Accepting" (although I really wasn't) and Eric chose "I Am Divine" (a "fiery carrot and avocado soup)

At around this time, Daniel and Ariel's pizza's arrived.

"I Am Passionate":

I had a bite of Daniel's, which although entirely unpizza-like in nature, was tasty. They both seemed pleased, although Ariel became overwhelmed by the flavor of hers and couldn't finish it.

Finally, Eric's and my food arrived.

"I Am Accepting":

This is one of the few foods from the menu that is heated. It is subtitled "the sushi bowl", and is comprised of red Bhutanese rice, kale, cucumber, scallions, and avocado with a sesame ginger sauce. It was really very good. The rice was nutty and hearty and the kale had a good bit of crunch left to it and was a nice companion to the creaminess of the avocado. Luckily, it was a pretty large portion, so I was able to give about half of it to Eric who had been stuck with a carrot and avocado soup that was among the strangest foods I've tasted. The first bite was okay, but it was so rich and weird tasting that anymore would have been pretty gross.

We finished up with a couple of desserts - a key lime pie and a chocolate cream pie (both involving nut creams and crusts). I'm too tired at this point to look up their official Gratitude names. They came with nut ice cream.

All in all, in spite of the ordering problems and the slightly cloying atmosphere, the food was good. Our waitress, although entirely earnest and seemingly dedicated to the restaurant's mission, was nice and sensing our black hearts, began calling our table "Cafe Smarty-Pants."

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