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Entries in Best Meal (58)

Sunday
Aug122012

Lilly's Tacos, Santa Barbara

I’ve heard for years that the “only” place to eat tacos in Santa Barbara is La Super Rica. Why? Because Julia Child ate there. No offense, but at this stage in my taco eating career, I’ll make my own decisions. Besides, the line outside La Super Rica was 30 deep with hipsters and reminded me a bit of the now famous Brunch Village episode from Portlandia (I love that show).

 

So I went to Lilly’s Tacos, also in the Downtown area. A 10 deep line, but moving swiftly. An excellent selection of offal meats (eye ball anyone?) as well as a few choice cuts. I chose Cachete, Adobada, Fried Tripa. One, two, three. Great, Great, Great.

I don’t often bat 1000 at taco shops I’ve never tried before with three meats that are irregular selections for me. As many readers know, I consistently evaluate Carnitas and Al Pastor tacos, with an occasional cabeza or asada thrown in. Well, adobada is a close cousin to pastor and cachet is technically cheek and closely related to cabeza. As for tripa, I rarely order up the innards, except in special circumstances or in taco shops that have solid reputations. I’d say my visit to Santa Barbara was a special circumstance.

 

Tripe is a regular menu item for me in Italian restaurants. Slow cooked in tomato sauce and served simply in a casserole, I love the texture and flavor of well cooked tripe. At Lilly’s, the tripe is deep fried to finish after the regular stewing process. All of the small, hacked up pieces of tripe offered some texture with each bite, but none were chewy. The smell was of fried food, not some off-briny scent or of funky meat. Flavors were very good, although I did give an extra squeeze of lime for my tripe.

My cachete was pure meat. Whoever picked through this cheek did a masterful job; no sinew, connective tissue, or globs of fat. Wonderful. The adobada I finished last because I love the flavor of thoroughly seasoned pork. There is something special about pastor and adobada cooked properly. A mouthful of flavor, with accents from the condiments complete the experience. The slight bite of onion, heat from the salsa, the distinct flavor of cilantro, and of course the corn tortilla itself adds to the joy of eating a perfect taco. 

So forget La Super Rica and drive down the block to Lilly’s Taco’s. It may not be as hipster cool, but the tacos are really good.

Lilly's Tacos on Urbanspoon

Monday
Jun182012

Sidebar, Lake Merritt, Oakland

This has to be one of the best Reuben’s I’ve had outside of Portland or Seattle. I had no expectations walking in, I’d simply heard about the place at the bar while dining at Boot and Shoe service the night before.

The entire eating area is situated around the bar. The bar itself has plenty of seats for dining, but my guess is, it’s packed at dinner time and a bomb could drop outside and no one would hear it. Enough on atmosphere.

The Reuben. I love the Reuben. I eat it practically everywhere I go. Of the West Coast Reuben’s I’ve had, Veritable Quandary and Kenny and Zuke’s in Portland are top notch. Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island and Public House in Temecula round out the top Reuben’s I’ve eaten. I may have just found a 5th.

The bread was wonderfully toasted, flavorful, and didn’t disintegrate or mush under repeated bites or pick-ups. The meat, piled high, but not too high and thinly sliced. Cheese was applied to both sides of the bread and probably helped structural integrity. The kraut was used as a condiment, not as a way to make the sandwich to large or to appear over-stuffed. And finally dressing. Dressing was applied as it should be, a compliment to the dish, not as a wet mess to break down bread.

All the items on this Reuben were in balance. Wonderful. This was a classic representation of the sandwich at its highest level.  Bless Sidebar and its chefs.

Sidebar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday
May152012

Hitchcock Deli, Bainbridge Island

Once again, the Pacific Northwest DOMINATES the Reuben / Pastrami sandwich scene here on the Left Coast. Veritible Quandary and Kenny and Zuke's are big favorites of mine in Portland.

I did the random walk onto Bainbridge Island with a stop earlier in the day at the only distillery on the island, Bainbridge Distillery. It was later in the day and it was snack time. There are choices on Bainbridge, but the one that stuck out to me was posted in large letters on the window, Charcuterie. As luck would have it, this deli is attached to Hitchcock, a restaurant on the foodie scene in the Seattle area. I was unaware that Hitchcock was a big deal, but evidently it has turned some heads, as many restaurants have, with its dedication to high quality proteins and seasonal produce.

As is my standard, the house smoked pastrami sandwich with melted cheese and seasoned red cabbage had to be my choice. There were two options for pastrami, regular and “Piled High”. I opted for the regular portion and it was more than satisfactory. The pastrami was delicious, the richness and hint of smoke went a step beyond other pastrami sandwiches. While the pastrami was not traditional, in that it was lightly smoked, it added a depth of flavor that I couldn’t get enough of. Lightly pickled red cabbage added more pop, more crunch than normal sauerkraut, but again, not traditional. Basically it's Hitchcock's take on a modified Reuben, sort of.

This is where I don’t mind an updated interpretation of a classic Reuben, when generally, I like a classic take. Care is taken with each ingredient at Hitchcock Deli. There is a purpose to the combination, the final result achieves the balance of the original Reuben and is complementary to the original Reuben, but Hitchcock's version is unique. 

Maybe next time, I’ll get a chance to eat at the main restaurant or at least, take home a half-pound of that pastrami.

The picture of the perfectly pulled espresso is also from the deli, not just some random shot. Hitchcock has a hand-crafted Bosco espresso machine, both beautiful to look at and it makes wonderful espresso when pulled by someone who knows the subtlies and personality of the machine. Yes, Bosco machines have personality, just like a Ferrari does.

Hitchcock Delicatessen & Charcuterie on Urbanspoon

Thursday
Mar222012

Zin Restaurant, Healdsburg

I've been to Zin now more times than I can remember, which means it's becoming a benchmark restaurant. Chef Jeff is on site, harvesting his own veggies and eggs, and making his own cured meats; a Chef's Chef.

I was stopping in often for dessert, the carrot cake was my favorite for about 3 months, until Chef changed it for something more seasonal, like a berry cobbler. Other times it might be for the Blue Plate nightly special, fried chicken or meatloaf. But what brought me in for a lunch one winter afternoon was a Facebook post of that day's special, Mississippi Pork and beans with creamed greens.

This was American Southern Style Cassoulet, plain and simple and oh so good. Chicken, house-made andouille, and pork over beans and greens made for a satisfying lunch. Each element was fresh, tender, and well seasoned. And like a recent meal at Petite Syrah, the supporting cast brought the dish over the top. The beans and greens, never the main focus of any dish frankly, incorporated the dish together and were just as well prepared as the three individual proteins. Every bite was delicious and different depending upon the protein you selected. I took out my chicken first, then the sausage, and finally the pork. My last bite had to be slow roasted pork not chicken. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the chicken, but chicken just doesn’t compare to pork. 

Zin is exactly as you might expect for Wine Country, fresh food, relaxed atmosphere, professional service and an easy decision to make for lunch or dinner when you're in Healdsburg.

Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday
Feb162012

Petite Syrah, Santa Rosa

It was a self-declared special occasion for me. I wanted to try something new. I wanted to eat in the company of the chef.

So I dined at the counter at Petite Syrah in Santa Rosa.

And I had the counter all to myself. (BTW, Not a chance in hell I was going to snap a photo in front of Chef Davies. I wanted to talk with him, not take pictures of his food.)

I needed a night to indulge, to concentrate on the food and relax in the moment. I hadn’t done much research on Petite Syrah, its reputation was enough for me. I didn’t even look at the menu before my drive over. I like being surprised sometimes and I also don’t want to build up too much of an expectation about the food or the chef.

I started with the fritters of salt cod with piquillo pepper aioli. Not too salty, not to mushy, golden brown fry job on each fritter, balanced. The texture of potato combined with salt cod was well integrated and seasoned, even with a hint of salt on the exterior. But what elevated the dish was the piquillo pepper. Pure flavor of the pepper comes through. No nonsense, nothing fancy, just a lovely puree. This sauce, the supporting cast on the plate, set the tone for the evening.

The grilled octopus was up next. While I shouldn’t take any dish for granted, I had a feeling that the octopus was going to be tender. What I didn’t expect was how much I was raving about the chickpeas and North African scented red sauce with my octopus. Not that the yogurt and cucumber didn’t play a roll, they did. The yogurt and cucumber cooled the dish down, cleansed the palate, allowing each taste of octopus to be your first. But it was the chickpea sauce that opened up the palate and complimented the grilled flavor of octopus. A simple lemon wedge would have been too pedestrian, too easy. To offer yet another aioli, like the first course of fritters, would have been repetitive. Instead, Chef created another dimension, another flavor, and yet another sauce.

Now, expectations started to grow. Two dishes, two well cooked mains, two well prepared sauces. I need to really test the mettle of the chef with my next course.

I asked Chef if the pasta was made in-house. He replied with a longer answer than I expected; and suffice it to say he still makes the pasta himself, not staff. With a great deal of honesty, Chef had mentioned that finding the right balance between smokiness, saltiness, and broth was a challenge for his ravioli dish. No one gives a long answer like that unless they're proud of what they've created. My expectations are going through the roof now. 

The pasta option was ravioli of speck and ricotta in a brodo with black garlic creamI found the ravioli to be the highlight of the night. A well thought out and balanced dish, the pasta was well made and the dish well executed. Again, it was the supporting cast of brodo and black garlic cream that elevated the dish. The ravioli is the main attraction, but without this supporting cast of well thought out accompaniments, it could have been just another ravioli dish with some boring butter sauce with sage.

This type of pasta dish challenges my palate and my skills. Could I make this dish? Should I have thought about this dish? Do other diners understand what was created here or do they just want the sage-butter sauce?

My college business writing instructor said to put bad news in the middle of a letter, so here’s the bad news. The only dish I wasn’t inspired by, the sweetbreads. Deep fried nuggets of sweetbread, rather than a single large piece, was disappointing. It was a salad with pomegranates, frisee, lentils, and squash. All the items were sized as tiny pieces and didn’t feel substantial or integrated. I was a bit surprised considering the simplicity and completeness of the other dishes. Enough said (I could have made the font even smaller, like some legal disclosure language).

My final course of foie gras, needed only a hint of salty and sweet to bring out the flavor packed organ. I’m going to have to indulge more often in this soon-to-be-banned delicacy or travel to another state to “smuggle” it in for chefs and friends. I can already see the price of foie going up because the State has decided what we should eat rather than us make a choice about eating it. Caged chickens? Penned cattle? Forced Milking of Cows? Factories of Pork? Oh, wait, we eat those on a daily basis. I’m sure that cow loves to eat that much every day crammed next to all their cow friends in a pen so we can eat crappy Select Beef at a Cheap Price. Right, this all makes sense now.

Back to the foie gras as prepared. I asked for the chef to omit the mint relish, I just didn’t see that working on the plate. The foie was lovely. The sauces were sweet, but not overly so to clash with the Tokaij that I ordered. I couldn’t have had a better dessert.

As I reflected on the evening, I almost took for granted the fritters would be perfectly fried, the octopus would be tender, the ravioli would be well made, and the foie wasn’t going to be over cooked. What I didn’t expect was how the details of saucing and garnishing were so well thought out. The focus on “the little things”, the details, are what made these dishes excellent.

Additionally, as in the pasta sauce, the chickpeas, the yogurt, all were broadening the palate.  Pushing diners to think and explore.

As it always comes back to pasta for me, the ravioli course exceeded all expectations. Considering the refinements and the use of a broth, I was reminded of Italy, not Sonoma County. This type of ravioli is what I experienced traveling around Italy eating at Michelin rated restaurants and cooking with chefs along the way. I expect this level of refinement at both Cotogna and Flour+Water in San Francisco (which is why I like to eat at both restaurants). I was delighted to experience it at Petite Syrah.