Great China: Celebrating the End of a Year

My friends invited me to their family Chinese New Year celebration on Friday to close out the lunar year. I was available to attend as my family was not celebrating until Sunday. I gladly accepted and was excited about dining at Great China in Berkeley as it was on my list to try. They have a reputation for serving one of the best Peking ducks around.
From reviewing the menu, I assessed that the majority of the cuisine was mostly from the Northern region of China. With a large menu to choose from, we narrowed it down to eleven dishes for our table of seven adults and two children.  
All in all, I thought the food was pretty good. There were definitely some highlights. Of course, we ordered the Peking duck. The kitchen delicately cuts the skin and meat from the bone and removes the fat before presenting it on a platter with thin pancakes, scallions, and plum sauce. It was light and lovely. 
 There were a few dishes we ordered that were new to me. One was called Double Skin which has mung bean noodles, carrots, cucumber, egg crepe, calamari, shrimp, sea cucumber, onions, mushroom, and pork. The waiter mixed everything together table side. It was a very interesting dish with loads of ingredients and flavors. I enjoyed Double Skin very much. 
 Ant Climbed the Tree is not the name of a story or poem, but a dish categorized as a seafood plate at Great China. It includes glass noodles (like the ones used in the Korean dish jaepchae), shrimp, green peppers, mushrooms, and water chestnuts. Even with its funny name, you can’t ignore its deliciousness.  

We ordered the potstickers for the kids, but I did try one. I thought it was plump, juicy, and one of the best I’ve ever had.  

One final dish I’ll highlight is the garlic fried rice. It was simple, but I absolutely loved the flavor and the perfect consistency of the rice.
  I really enjoyed about half the dishes and the rest were okay. I would return to Great China with a large party and probably order the items above and some additional new dishes to try.  

Soup du Jour: Vietnamese Style

I recently heard about Cafe Kim Thuy, a Vietnamese restaurant in East Oakland. What is different about Cafe Kim Thuy is that they specialize in one noodle soup each day of the week. I went on a Friday when they were serving Bun Cha Ca, a fish cake noodle soup popular in Da Nang. I had never had Bun Cha Ca so I was both wary and excited at the same time.  
When my noodle soup arrived, so did the fragrance. At this point, I was very excited. This Bun Cha Ca had five different types of fish. There was fish filet, fish balls, and three different homemade fish cakes which offered a great variety of textures. I especially enjoyed biting into one of the cone shaped fish cakes that oozed a sweet fish roe. The rice noodles were slippery and perfect, while the broth was amazing and flavorful.  The bowl was infused with various herbs and comforting to the soul. 

 I also had their fried chicken wings as a starter. It came with fried onion rings which tasted fake and unnecessary. The wings though were tasty dipped in sweet Thai chili sauce.  
 The soup alone has me interested in visiting on the other days of the week. Here’s their menu:

  • Monday: Bun Moe (Ground pork and mushroom noodle soup)
  • Tuesday: Bun Rieu (Crab paste noodle soup)
  • Wednesday: Bun Mam (Fermented fish noodle soup)
  • Thursday: Bun Bo Hue (Spicy beef noodle soup)
  • Friday: Bun Cha Ca (Fish cake noodle soup)
  • Saturday: Bo Kho (Curry noodle soup)
  • Sunday: Closed

I believe my next visit will be a Tuesday!

Venga Paella for Oakland Restaurant Week

Today wraps up the sixth annual Oakland Restaurant Week (ORW). For the past ten days, restaurants throughout Oakland encouraged people to dine in our foodie town by offering special menus at fixed prices. I think it’s a great opportunity to try a new restaurant that you have been wanting to try. With close to 75 restaurants participating, it is likely there is something for everyone.  

A group of four of us decided on a weeknight dinner at Venga Paella in West Oakland. For $30, you got a choice of a beverage, appetizers, an entree, and a dessert which is a great deal. Most restaurants don’t include a drink in the fixed price menu, but Venga Paella smartly does. They give you a choice of a beer, glass of wine, sangria, or soda. I opted for sangria to go with the Spanish theme. They make both red and white. I was pleasantly surprised by the generous glass full. While both sangria are fun and refreshing, the white sangria tends to be slightly sweeter than the red. 

 We each got our own plate of four different tapas consisting of prawns in a sherry garlic reduction; a potato, egg, and onion frittata; a goat cheese, onion, and olive stuffed piquillo pepper; and toasted bread with a tomato, garlic, and olive oil rub. I enjoyed the sampling very much. When I return next time, there’s a good chance I would order the sleeper toasted bread which I would never have if I didn’t experience the sampling.  
 Venga Paella makes five different types of paella and they were all offered for ORW. There is the traditional paella which comes with prawns, calamari, mussels, clams, and pork chorizo. I went with the traditional one since it was my first visit. Based on flavor, texture, and freshness, the chef at Venga nailed it. I also enjoyed the side salad to help balance the plate.   
 The other paella options offered included a black squid ink paella, a vegetarian option, and a chicken paella. My BFF ordered the fideua, which is made with short strands of pasta instead of rice. It was kind of like eating Rice-A-Roni, but in a good way. I actually liked the soft noodles.    

  For dessert, we also had a choice between three items: Manchego cheese, chocolate mousse, and flan. I went ahead and ordered the chocolate mousse since everyone wanted to get the flan. This dark chocolate dome was quite rich with at least two layers of variation. If you are a chocolate lover, this dessert is for you.   
 The flan was a bit on the dense side, but still quite good. It’s always nice to end with something sweet and even better when it’s included in the price of the meal. 
 The ORW menu at Venga Paella is a good representation of what you would get if you dined there at any given time, which is not always the case with all restaurants. Now that I have had a diverse sampling of their food and enjoyed it, I would definitely come back. 

A Happy Hour at Alamar

Alamar is a restaurant located on the first floor of The Grand, a beautiful luxury apartment building in Uptown Oakland. The owner and chef is Nelson German, a transplant from New York City. His food is influenced by his Domincan Republic upbringing as well as inspiration from Mediterranean and Asian cuisines.  

I met up with some friends recently for happy hour at Alamar. The three of us had wine and cocktails and ordered every food item on the happy hour menu.  

We started with a dozen West Coast oysters. At $1.50 per piece, these were a steal. The oysters were shucked cleanly and were small in size which I like. It was complimented with a tasty sambal mignonette sauce.    

I didn’t know what to expect when we ordered the petite chicken wing confit. They were basically sweet and savory chicken wings cooked with a thick bacon and honey glaze. These were not too shabby.  

The golden deep fried goat cheese with a lemon thyme honey drizzle had a picture perfect presentation with the smear of red beet purée. It came with sliced baguette. We each got one and it was too rich for me. I was also not a fan of the sweet drizzle.    

My favorite item was the parmesan truffle tornado crisp. I often see these at fairs, but I have never gotten one. The crisps individually break off as a potato chip and you can dip them in a garlic aioli. These were the best chips and dip I have ever had.     

The final item on the menu were the tostones, which are plantains that have been smashed to become flat and fried to a crisp. Chef Nelson seasons them generously with a tomato garlic salt and let’s us dip it in a sun dried tomato aioli. These bring back great memories of my time in Puerto Rico.   

Like this happy hour? Here is a link to another post I wrote on great places for happy hour in Oakland on localwisejobs.  

A Bold Bowl of Bibimbap

Bibimbap is a signature Korean dish that I love eating as much as I love saying out loud. Pronounced bee-beem-bahp, it means “mixed rice” in Korean. The dish is commonly prepared with a mix of assorted vegetables, rice, an egg, and some form of sliced meat. Although many Korean restaurants serve this dish as part of their full menu, it is a specialty at Bowl’d on Solano Avenue in Albany.  

On a recent visit to Bowl’d with a friend, we ordered bibimbap. Here are some instructions to prepare you for your visit. First off, you need to decide if you want it cold or hot. The hot one is called Dolsot Bibimbap, prepared in hot stoneware, and costs extra. This is the way I like it because I enjoy the sound of the sizzle when you mix the ingredients and the sauce hits the stoneware. Also, when you reach the bottom, you will get browned crunchy rice pieces.  

Next you need to choose your protein. Your choices are beef (bulgogi), chicken, pork, and pork belly. The chicken and pork belly has the options of ordering spicy. For an additional charge, higher end protein options of beef short ribs (kalbi) and salmon are available. Vegetarians have an option of mung bean pancake or tofu. 

At Bowl’d you are also given the option of white or mixed grain rice. Mixed grain consists of a mixture of barley, sweet brown rice, wild red rice, sweet rice, and black rice.  

I ordered the Dolsot Bimbimbap with bulgogi and white rice. The best way to eat it is to add some spicy chili paste, break up the over easy egg, and mix all the ingredients thoroughly. The dish came with assorted banchan or Korean side dishes.   
 I wanted to try the Bowl’d wings or Korean Fried Chicken (KFC). The KFC are deep fried chicken wings cooked in a sweet and tangy chili sauce. They came out piping hot, crispy, and flavorful. All I can say is that they were finger lickin’ good. 
 I love noodles so I take most opportunities to eat them. My favorite Korean noodles are the clear glass noodles made from sweet potato starch. We ordered the veggie Jhap Chae which are prepared with these noodles and stir fried with mushrooms, julienned carrots, onions, and sesame oil. I love the chewy texture of the noodles alongside the fresh cooked vegetables. 
 Bowl’d in Albany is part of a family of Korean restaurants in the East Bay. They also have Bowl’d BBQ and Oghane in Oakland and Spoon in Berkeley. Spoon is a Korean bistro where I previously wrote about their excellent brunch.    

Cooking Class at Sur la Table

It’s a brand new year and many of us have made new year’s resolutions. One of my resolutions is to cook more at home. Cooking at home usually allows for eating healthier. How can you get motivated to cook more? One way is to get a jump start and take a cooking class. Last Sunday, my friends and I took a hands-on cooking class called Flavors of Italy at Sur la Table which was a lot of fun.
Our instructor was Chef Corey. Our kitchen class was made up of four teams of four and we made a soup, a salad, an entree, and watched our instructor make dessert.  
 With most ingredients washed, measured, and prepped, we made a Ribollita Soup which is a Tuscan bean and vegetable soup thickened with rustic bread. Chef Corey gave us tips on knife safety before we started chopping which I appreciated. We also used a gadget to remove the tough kale stems and help separate herbs which I used for the first time. 
 We prepared a Winter Greens Salad with Walnuts and Gorgonzola. Grilling radicchio on a grill pan is actually something I’m excited to start doing. Cold salads in the winter is not always appealing, so this is a great alternative. 
 The entree we cooked was a Marsala Braised Chicken with Mushrooms. The fragrance that olive oil, butter, shallots, and mushrooms permeate is one of my favorite scents.   
 The Butterscotch Budino with Olive Oil and Sea Salt is a dessert that takes time to set, so there was a batch already prepared for us. We watched as Chef Corey showed us how to make this tasty dessert.  

 The class took about 2 1/2 hours. At the conclusion, we enjoyed a delicious four course meal.   

 Are you motivated to cook now? Some other ways I have motivated myself to cook is to buy cookbooks written by my favorite chefs and subscribe to the New York Times Cooking Newsletter. I’ll be doing more cooking, so you can subscribe to this food blog or follow me on Instagram. If baking is your thing, my favorite website to go to is King Arthur Flour.  

DIY: Easy, Fresh, Pita Bread

What if I told you that you could make pita bread easily? More than likely, you have everything you need to make it already in your pantry. Not only that, but to eat warm fresh pita bread tastes so much better than what you can buy at the store.  
I recently discovered this recipe from the website Half Baked Harvest and have already made it a few times. The results are wonderful.  
Minimal ingredients are:

  • 1 cup hot water
  • 2 tsp active dry yeast
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

Combine the hot water and yeast together in a large bowl and stir so that the yeast can dissolve. 
  Add the flour, salt, and olive oil to the bowl and mix together well with a wooden spoon.   
 Once it is well blended, turn the dough onto a floured work surface.   
 Knead the dough with your hands until it smooth and elastic, about ten minutes. Add a small amount of olive oil to a clean bowl and place the dough in the bowl and turn it in order to coat the dough in its entirety.   
 Wrap the bowl with Saran Wrap and let it rest for about an hour. The dough will rise and become springy.   
 Place the dough onto a floured surface. Divide the dough into eight even pieces and then put them back into the covered bowl. 
 One at a time, roll out the dough with a rolling pin to about 1/4 inch in thickness. If the dough gets sticky, add more flour as needed.   
 Heat up a flat griddle or an iron skillet to a medium high heat. Brush some olive oil on the heated pan. Place one of the rolled out pieces of dough onto the pan. If you have a large enough griddle, you can cook two at a time. Watch for bubbles to form on the dough, about thirty seconds and then flip over.   
 Grill for about a minute. Shortly after the edges of the pita bread begins rising off the pan, it will have created toasted spots and is ready to flip over again.   
 Grill for a final minute. The pita bread will puff up and you will know it’s ready. Repeat the process to make 8 pita bread.
 You will be amazed at the deliciousness of the pita bread as well as the nice chewy texture. I bought three different types of hummus from Trader Joe’s to dip the pita bread in. Of the garlic hummus, the beet hummus, and the tomato basil hummus, I enjoyed the latter one best.