Mockingbird Moves Me to La La Land.

Over eighty restaurants participated in this year’s Oakland Restaurant Week (ORW). For ten days, various restaurants around the community were offering lunch and dinner menus with special pricing. I find that ORW is a great way to try out a local restaurant that I haven’t tried yet. I was super excited to try Mockingbird for the first time in Downtown Oakland.

I made reservations for a friend of mine to have dinner there last week. The Golden State Warriors were playing so we agreed to meet at 5pm to grab a drink at the bar before dinner. Mockingbird has a nice Happy Hour menu so in addition to drinks, we thought we should order some snacks to munch on as well.

Perfect to have while watching the Warriors game, we ordered the some fancy chips and dip. The House Smoked Trout Dip was made with trout, cream, scallions, and lemon oil. I could not stop eating the thin crispy potato chips.

We also ordered the deviled eggs which were topped with capers, pickled jalapeños and herbs. Deviled eggs are one of my favorite foods and Mockingbird makes me want to eat more.

Joe was our bartender but he ended up taking on the role of waiter because we were really getting into the game and didn’t want to leave the bar! We were still able to order our ORW dinner. The ORW menu was simple and each course except one had two different options so my friend and I pretty much shared everything.

For the first course, we had soup and salad. The soup of the day was a tomato soup with a dab of crème fraiche. It was creamy, tangy, and  smokey. Lucky for me my friend had been souped out from the week before so I got to enjoy most of it.

The salad offered was a winter fruit and baby kale salad with pumpkin seeds, ricotta salata, and a sherry shallot vinaigrette. This salad was dressed perfectly and really defines the season.

The second course included fried Brussels sprouts. My coworkers have been raving about these sprouts so I was pretty excited about trying them. The Brussels sprouts are tossed with a confit garlic aioli, blue cheese, thyme, and an Italian syrup called saba. After eating these, I completely understand where my coworkers were coming from.

Also part of the second course was a charcuterie plate which came with a duck liver mousse, jam, pickled vegetables, olives, and crispy bread. This was a fun dish to pick on.

The third course was the main entree and there were actually three options. Originally we ordered the chicken and pork and had decided to skip the vegetarian option. The Moroccan Spiced chicken came with roasted rainbow carrots, chickpeas, greens, and herbed buttermilk dressing. Every item on the plate was harmonious and complemented each other. The flavors were even more infused the next day when I ate the leftovers for lunch. I had a few colleagues comment on the wonderful aromatics.

We were really looking forward to the overnight pork sugo which came with crispy polenta, arugula, pickled red onion, and sheep’s milk cheese. The pork tasted really salty so we requested for a wedge of lemon to see if we could cut down the saltiness. At that time, Joe asked how everything was and the truth came out about the pork.

Joe was generous and offered us the third entree, the Winter Vegetable Tagine which was cooked in a rich sauce and topped with lemon yogurt, castelvetrano olives, and cilantro. This vegetarian dish was extraordinary and made me forgot all about the pork sugo. The vegetable tagine reminded me of the food of one of my favorite chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi.

Our fourth and final course was dessert. The first dessert was the Mockingbird Bread Pudding which is described as a traditional bread pudding with vanilla and nutmeg custard, caramel sauce, and whipped cream. To me, this was nothing but traditional and I absolutely loved it. I had more than my fair share of this one.

The other dessert was a citrus almond flour cake with chocolate ganache and candied almonds. I believe my friend preferred this dessert unless she sensed how much I was fawning over the bread pudding and was being nice. Either way, there was not a trace of sugar left on either dessert plates.

After dinner at ORW, I have decided that Mockingbird is a place that I will be adding to my repertoire. The food and staff are great. Joe even told us that he and the chef tried the pork sugo and agreed with us that it was overly salty. I really appreciated this acknowledgement. All in all, it was a perfect evening – the Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and my tummy was in la la land.

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Crab Times Three at Le Cheval

Is it Dungeness crab season in the San Francisco Bay Area or is it not? I heard crab season had opened up in mid November and then I heard it was postponed until December, and then it was postponed again until January. It has been very confusing to me, especially when I heard on the news during the holidays that Dungeness crab was expensive and selling out fast. If the season was closed, how could there be local Dungeness crab available? Maybe it was fake news.

When I got invited to a private Holiday Crab Feed at Le Cheval late last year, I was intrigued. It was not only an opportunity to dine at one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in Oakland, but I could pig out on crab. I’m all in. I RSVP’d.

The crab feed was in late December and open for 50 people in tables of 10 family style. My friend and I were seated in the “Oakland” table. It was cool to meet and share a meal with new folks and discover that you had more in common than you expected.

The first course was an appetizer of spicy chicken wings which were pan fried in onions, jalapeños, and red peppers. The table seemed to love these. I thought they were good, but not the best I’ve had. However, it came with a tangy black pepper sauce that I can’t get enough of. 

 
Next we were served a prawn salad which was made up of shredded cabbage, steamed shrimp, jellyfish, lotus roots, mint leaves, and cilantro tossed in a light homemade vinegar and fish sauce dressing. It was topped with fried onions, peanuts, and giant prawn chips. The table seemed less impressed with this dish. I ended up taking seconds because it was there and it was my way of eating a little healthier.

  
It was the Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Long in San Francisco that popularized crab and garlic noodles. The garlic noodles at Le Cheval are cooked in butter, garlic, and olive oil topped with parmesan cheese. By the time the dish made its way to me on the lazy susan, it was only fair that I take a few strands so the rest of the table could have some. Luckily a second plate came around later allowing me to have a more substantial portion. But the second plate went as fast as the first. Who doesn’t love garlic noodles?


We would be served crab three ways. For each preparation, we would get four crabs meaning that our table of ten would be sharing twelve crabs. The first preparation was ginger crab which is pan fried with ginger and green onions. There was plenty to go around. I enjoyed several pieces and I didn’t need to fight for a shell. I consumed the crab innards, which is sometimes referred to as crab butter. It tasted like a cross between uni and custard and is definitely a delicacy not for everyone.  

The next preparation was the dried fried crab which is lightly battered and then dry fried with onions, bell peppers, and salt and pepper. This is actually my favorite preparation. I pretty much love anything fried, but the fact that it is dry is the reason I like it. You get to enjoy the sweet crab more naturally with the help of a little seasoning.  


The last preparation is the tamarind crab which is pan fried with tamarind sweet & sour sauce. This is the most saucy of the preparations. It had a nice flavor profile, but probably my least favorite of the three. Not surprising to me is that my friend preferred the tamarind and the ginger crabs because she generally loves sauce.


The preparation of the crab were all delicious. It was great to try all three in the same seating to discover my personal preference.

Although this crab feed was an event, the public can enjoy everything we had at Le Cheval including the three crab preparations. They charge market price so that could mean high prices if there is a shortage of crab.

I started to do a little more research about this year’s crab season on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website and it seems to make more sense to me now. It looks like in November the commercial crab season opened to the area south of Sonoma/Mendocino county, but stayed closed for the area north of Sonoma/Mendocino county which caused a shortage of availability of crab. The commercial crab season north of Sonoma/Mendocino county is scheduled to open tomorrow, so that should bring an abundance of crab available and bring down some prices. Start looking for more crab at the supermarkets and menus in the Bay Area!

Get Yourself to Shinmai While You Still Can

Happy New Year! I will begin my first blog of 2018 writing about one of the hippest restaurants in Oakland today. Shinmai opened about six months ago by partners Yingji Huang and Andy Liu. This is their second project together after Kakui, a sushi restaurant in Montclair. Shinmai is touted as bringing the Izakaya experience to the area. Izakaya is the Japanese version of an Irish pub or tapas bar where you go for food and drinks. Sound good already, doesn’t it?

I dined at Shinmai twice last year and have enjoyed the experience both times. My love for Japanese food is a good match at Shinmai because the menu allows me to sample a variety of differently prepared foods.

Their are five categories to their menu — raw, izakaya, robota, ramen, and sweets. The menu itself only changed slightly from my first visit in August to my latest visit last month.

The Raw category appears to stay consistent with two options —ocean trout or hamachi. I had the ocean trout which came with arima sansho, piquillo, and shiso. It was a beautifully presented dish and was quite tasty, but when it comes to raw fish, I may have to consider myself a purist. All I need is a little soy.

The Izakaya options were more extensive. The items on this list are like small plates meant to be shared. We were accidentally served the hand cut potato chips flavored with furikake, hon-dashi, and umami and I was so happy for the mistake. If you know me, you know I’m a sucker for potato chips and these were definitely umami.

The chicken karaage came with two sauces, but again the purist in me just needed a squirt of lemon to balance the crispy delicious fried chicken pieces.

The ebi okura is simply translated as shrimp with okra. It was prepared with brown butter ponzu, onion, and paprika oil. The ebi okura was in many ways a fusion of flavors.

We also ordered the PEI mussels which was prepared in a Thai coconut curry and red peppercorns. This curry was so amazing that my friend didn’t ask for more bread, but requested a side of noodles to soak up every last drop of sauce.

I tried a few options on the Robata or grill menu. Although not available at this time of year, I was able to try the corn with yuzu, dashi honey-butter, and bonito. This is like the Japanese version of elote or Mexican street corn. Note to self to come back to Shinmai in the summer for more corn.

The king trumpet mushrooms were prepared with house-made ponzu and peppercorns. This came on top of a bed of arugula and could have been classified as a warm mushroom salad. This was a hearty dish that I would rank as one of my favorites.

I was not that impressed with the beef ribeye which was grilled with ginger, black garlic, and charred leek. I felt like it was missing something. Maybe this could have been placed on a bed of arugula as well.

Shinmai also serves ramen which is a nice option to have. Typically when you eat ramen it is at a ramen shop and you have your own bowl of ramen and maybe you share an appetizer with it. At Shinmai you can share a bowl of warm deliciousness and still have room for much more interesting food. I shared a bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen with pork chashu, shoyu egg, wood ear mushrooms, onions, and bamboo shoots at both visits and each time it brought me comfort and a smile.
There is a limited Sweet menu. I didn’t have dessert on my first visit, but I did try the panna cotta with vanilla-green tea and candied lotus root on my second visit. It had a perfectly creamy consistency and the flavor profile was wonderful.  

Shinmai has everything going for it. The food is both creative and delicious, the space is hip and trendy, and they carry my favorite Japanese beer with the cat on it. Located in the neighborhood called San Pablo Gateway, Shinmai is West of Downtown Oakland near the Oakland Ice Center. It’s actually hard to find. Make sure you have the address, 1825-3 San Pablo Avenue, and look for an unmarked black door.

Lemon and Mixed Berry Striped Cake

Last month I started cooking out of the Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh cookbook “Sweet” and it has been both fun and rewarding. If you missed it, check out my blog post.  Last week I was alerted that the US/Canadian version of the “Sweet” cookbook had some errors with oven temperatures and baking times. If you have a copy of the book, you can email sweet@tenspeed.com to inquire how to obtain a corrected copy when it comes out. In the meantime, there is a link to a document that you can print out to get the corrections.

My family celebrated Christmas on the Eve and my niece and I made the lemon and mixed berry striped cake for dessert. I call it the vertical cake. In my opinion, it is the most stunning dessert in the entire cookbook. A friend of mine had already made it for me for my birthday in November and now it was my turn.

There are three parts to the recipe. There is the cake, the buttercream, and the fruit purée that is used for the drizzle on top as well as in the buttercream. With my new mixer, prepping has gotten a lot easier with better results.  

I was impressed how light and airy the cake batter was. The batter is spread out as a sheet cake so it’s much easier than a layer cake. The cake is “trained,” meaning it is rolled up while it is still warm.  I suspect that if you didn’t do that, the cake would crack.  When it has cooled down it is rolled back out and cut into three even pieces and spread with buttercream. Starting with one piece, it is rolled and each additional piece is added.  

The large cylindrical cake is turned on its side where the remaining frosting covers the cake thoroughly. Finally, the mixed berry purée is drizzled on top.  

The cake doesn’t actually look all that impressive until you cut into it. It’s like magic and it tastes like magic too. No corrections needed on this recipe!  

An Eggtraordinary Meal

“I Must Eat This” was the subject line of an email from a friend of mine in Los Angeles. It was referring to a meal inspired by the Sanrio character Gudetama at the Japanese restaurants called Curry House. According to Wikipedia, Gudetama was introduced by Sanrio in 2013 and is a gender neutral character that is the yolk of an unfertilized egg. The name Gudetama is derived from the Japanese word for lazy “gude gude” and egg “tamago”. Gudetama is known as the lazy egg.

I flew down to Los Angeles for a few days to visit and enjoy the Gudetama x Curry House meal. My friend and I had a late lunch this past Thursday at the Curry House located in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. The meal starts with soup and salad. The generous sized salad of lettuce, red cabbage, and shredded carrots was tossed with a light miso dressing. Gudetama’s cute face is imprinted on top of a warm cup of sweet creamy corn soup.  
The entree was Keema curry with rice topped with a sunny-side Gudetama. This version of Keema curry was cooked with ground beef, enoki mushrooms, potatoes, and carrots. I broke Gudetama and thoroughly mixed the egg into the curry and rice. I thought the curry was a bit too salty, so I was glad there was an abundance of rice.  It is the epitome of comfort food.
My friend ordered the vegetarian option which was tofu katsu. Tofu is breaded with panko and deep fried. These crispy tofu patties with brown curry gave it the perfect flavor balance and were delicious. I think I would have preferred the vegetarian entree.

The meal ends with a custard pudding. It is more gelatinous than it is creamy. I liked that it was not too sweet. I would never order this if it was not part of the menu, but it was definitely a nice treat to end the meal.  
For $29, you get all of the above plus you leave with a Gudetama X Curry House beanie as a souvenir.  
Altogether, I thought it was a very hearty meal and a fun promotional event. Eggs are awesome and I think it is a way to appreciate the protein. If you want to participate in Gudetama x Curry House, the promotion runs through January 20, 2018. There are several Curry House restaurants in the Los Angeles area. If you live in the Bay Area, there is one location in Cupertino.  

Treat Yourself to Gott’s Roadside Walnut Creek

This past Thursday was the grand opening of Gott’s Roadside in Downtown Walnut Creek. The opening marked Gott’s sixth location in the Bay Area, but the first to move into the East Bay. I had a special invite on Tuesday to check it all out. 

I was already familiar with Gott’s. I actually remember it as Taylor’s Refresher in St. Helena. It was always a part of “Treat Yourself” day with friends. We would drive to Napa Valley and pick up a cheeseburger, fries, and milkshake at Taylor’s before enjoying some spa services. I’ve also enjoyed a few cheeseburgers at the Gott’s location in the Ferry Building in San Francisco.
The new space is very bright. I was most impressed with their installation of garage doors made of glass that can be opened up when weather permits, perfect for warm Walnut Creek.  
I would dare say most people go to Gott’s for some kind of burger. After all, they have high quality burgers with patties made from Niman Ranch beef. Depending on your tastes, there is probably one you would like. You can order a simple hamburger or cheeseburger or have something more complex like a California Burger or a Kimchi Burger.  
It was really nice to be able to explore more of the menu, since I don’t remember straying away from my typical cheeseburger at Gott’s. It was my first time trying the Ahi Poke Crispy Tacos. The crispy taco shell is filled with marinated ahi, cabbage, cilantro, avocado, green onions, and sesame seeds. Every ingredient was fresh and flavorful and was well balanced. These tacos are now on my radar and I would go there just for them.
I enjoyed the Crispy Teriyaki Chicken sandwich very much. This tasted like a Fried Chicken Sandwich that married a Vietnamese Banh Mi Sandwich. The fried chicken went well with the pickled carrots and daikon radishes. 
Gott’s prepares a very good Avocado, Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato (ABLT) sandwich. The key to this sandwich is fresh ingredients and it’s got that plus a charred jalapeño mayo that makes it shine even brighter. The simplicity of this sandwich makes it a great alternative when you don’t feel like a burger.  
Have you heard of the Impossible Burger? I recently heard of it and I didn’t really give a care because I simply have never been a fan of a veggie burger. I was told that this is a veggie burger like no other —The Impossible Burger smells, sizzles, bleeds, and tastes like a beef patty. I was here to try stuff out, so I took a bite, and another bite. I was amazed and could not believe that I was not eating meat. This was a great burger with all the accoutrements. Eating the Impossible Burger made me pause and think. This is a burger that is going to save the world one day, but right now, it’s a big step in protecting our environment.   
Seasonal ingredients allow Gott’s the opportunity to put some specials on the menu. Right now, you can order a Dungeness Crab Sandwich, a Dungeness Crab and Bay Shrimp Louie Salad, and Fried Brussels Sprouts. I had a taste of all of these, and they were quite special.
For something sweet, there is the option for a milkshake during your meal or a soft serve after your meal. Three Twins Ice Cream is used to make the milk shakes and Straus Creamery to make the soft serve. How can you go wrong with either choice?
Gott’s Roadside is a great addition to the Downtown Walnut Creek. After a day of shopping at Broadway Plaza or after hiking Mt. Diablo, stop by Gott’s and Treat Yourself! The Walnut Creek location also has a bar and lounge area serving local wine and beer.  

Nico’s: A Memorable Feast

I had the pleasure of having dinner at Nico’s 1508 in Berkeley a few months ago. With competing priorities, I hadn’t gotten a chance to write about that experience until now. However, I think it speaks volumes about a meal when many of the dishes I had a while back are still memorable. 

We started with a couple of appetizers including the Steamed Mediterranean Mussels that were cooked in a lovely red curry kaffir lime broth. The Asian flavors struck a perfect balance to the shellfish. It was a generous portion of mussels and we ate every mussel and soaked up every drop of broth. I remember it well because it was one of the best prepared mussels I have ever had.
My friend and I decided to order a combination surf and turf and some sides. When the food came out it was like eating family style, except it was just two of us. 

Our sides included the roasted root vegetables, the pork belly chipotle mac and cheese, and the maple glazed butternut squash. I would say the root vegetables were the least memorable. The mac and cheese was a bit overkill, in that the pasta was overdone and it was just way too heavy for my taste. Hands down the butternut squash was the star. We were like children in a candy store eating all the glazed goodness.
The fish was a roasted Hawaiian Walu which was complemented with braised fennel and potatoes, a Meyer lemon and thyme butter sauce and a balsamic reduction. I wonder if I should praise the chef or the saucier on this one.
Nico’s offers three cuts of steak – the filet mignon, a New York steak, or a bone-in rib eye. We selected the filet mignon cooked in a bourbon demi glaze. It was cooked a perfect medium rare providing a tender and buttery texture.  
With full tummies, we shared one dessert. After all, who could turn down warm bourbon pecan bread pudding with a dark chocolate sauce and a Grand Marnier cream. It was the perfect match to the end a fantastic meal. 
With the holiday season here, Nico’s is a great place to share a nice meal with friends or family. I also hear they offer an excellent brunch.  They are even open on Christmas and New Year’s Day!