Happy Mooncake Day!

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Today is the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, a Chinese holiday which lands on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Lunar Calendar. It is always a bright full moon. What does my family do for this holiday? My answer is usually “have dinner together”. My family actually celebrated last night. There was a bit of playing Mah Jong, and of course, there was dinner.

My mom spent a substantial amount of time preparing which includes grocery shopping in Chinatown the day before. She even started a lotus root soup that would cook for more than eight hours in order to get the flavors bursting. We also had roast duck, steamed chicken, taro root with Chinese bacon, and bitter melon with shrimp.

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The holiday can also be casually referred to as Mooncake Day because this is when you eat mooncakes. These pastries come in cute tins that you can buy in Chinatown. Usually there are four in a box. The outside of a mooncake is a thin layer of crust and has an extremely dense sweet filling of bean or lotus seed paste. In the center is a round salted duck egg which is reminiscent of the full moon.

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To tell the truth, I am not a big fan of mooncakes. It is a tradition, so I may have a small bite once a year. That is probably a good thing because my understanding is that one mooncake which is about four inches in diameter has about 1000 calories. To give you an idea of what a big deal the mooncake is, China is expected to produce 280,000 tons of mooncakes this year. Yikes!

Happy Mooncake Day to all and eat those mooncakes in moderation!

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The Las Vegas Buffet: Did I Get My Monies Worth?

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I am not a big fan of buffets. Most buffets serve average food and buffet goers hope to eat more than their monies worth.

In Las Vegas, buffets are pretty popular at every hotel. It seems there is always one that shines each decade. In the 1990’s, it was the Rio’s Carnival World Buffet and in the 2000’s, it was the Buffet at the Bellagio. Two weeks ago, Caesar’s Palace opened Bacchanal. It was a $17 million renovation. I was in Vegas last week and I was eager to see what this was all about.

Bacchanal is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My friend and I opted for dinner. We both seemed to be on the same page wanting to do tastings so that we could try as much as possible. Our strategy was to arrive early, pace ourselves, and share some items. The restaurant was very sleek and inviting.

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There was a good variety of Asian cuisine, but some unique items included xiao long bao aka xlb (dumpling filled with soup) as part of their dim sum collection and made to order noodle bowls. I did try the xlb but thought the skin was a bit dried out by the heat warmers. The ramen bowl was really good. The broth was flavorful and the noodles had great texture.

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The Italian section was full of small plates of salads like Caesar and watermelon and feta. There were pizzas that were coming out of their wood fired oven. There was plenty of pastas, lasagna, and anti pasta. The watermelon salad was plated like a checkerboard and was one of my friend’s favorites. We both agreed that the pizza was not good.

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There was a Mexican area filled with carnitas, beans, and a variety of salsas. I only wanted to try a hand made tortilla. Although there was a stack under the heat warmer, I asked the woman making them if I could have a hot one off the grill. Of course I could and it was good.

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The American food at Bacchanal was expansive. You could get stuff like sliders, fried chicken, and fish and chips. We didn’t try any of those items. There were fried sides like onion rings and sweet potato tater tots that were placed in mini metal baskets. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the sweet potato tater tots, not just the concept. The mashed potatoes were probably some of the best I have ever had, so yummy and creamy.

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The carving station was serving various meats. I went back three times to get another lamb chop. This was my favorite thing. They are individually grilled and charred to a perfect medium rare. The flavor was amazing with a hint of honey.

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Seafood is always popular at buffets and this one had crab, oysters, and shrimp. I noticed that many people pile on crab legs and shrimp cocktail onto their plates. This is where you know people are trying to get their monies worth. I had a couple of crab legs just to try them, but they were quite boring.

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The last thirty minutes at Bacchanal was dedicated to their fine dessert section. Every dessert was a miniature one, except for the made to order crepes. I would skip the crepe, but try a few other things. I was speaking to one of the pastry chefs who offered me a banana soufflé hot out of the oven when I was ready. I was ready and she recommended that I have it with the baklava gelato. It was pretty awesome. The other flavor gelato that I went back for was the strawberry mint. It was refreshing and a great palette cleanser to finish off my meal.

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Did I get my monies worth? If you calculate by quantity, maybe not. But I definitely got my monies worth when you think of the variety and quality of food that I ate. I think Bacchanal will be the new buffet of this decade.

The Waterbar: Worth a Visit on a Nice Day

One of the biggest reasons I choose to live in Oakland over San Francisco is because it is typically at least ten degrees warmer in Oakland. But on the occasion when the fog is clear and the sun is beaming, I would wish to be no where else than San Francisco. We had one of those days recently when my friends and I went across the Bay Bridge to have lunch to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I recommended the Waterbar at the Embarcadero. We got to sit in the outside patio upstairs. It was a beautiful day.

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The Waterbar is known for their oysters on the half shell. Everyday before 6pm, they have a featured oyster that they sell for $1 a piece. It comes with a tasty citrus mignonette. We ordered a dozen oysters to start. What a great deal.

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It was fun to enjoy lunch cocktails as well. I really could stop writing here. The Waterbar is one of the best places to enjoy oysters on the half shell and drinks. The rest of the food is a bit inconsistent. There were some hits and misses.

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I’ll just share with you what was enjoyable. The salmon tartare was a nice appetizer. The bright orange color was not only a sign of freshness, but it was attractive.

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The soup was presented beautifully. The waiter poured the corn soup into the bowl of shrimp and creme fraiche. It was rich and creamy and quite tasty.

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The entrees were not so good. I think I had the best entree which was the trout. Especially good was the nice charred skin on the fish. In my opinion, the other dishes aren’t worth mentioning.

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For dessert, we chose to have a blueberry bread pudding. The taste was just okay. I am only mentioning it because it was nice that they decorated the plate.

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Service was quite slow, but we weren’t really bothered by it because we were not in a rush and were just appreciating the day.

The Waterbar is a fun place to enjoy a beautiful afternoon with drinks, oysters, and maybe a few appetizers. With Indian summer coming up, there will be some great opportunities.

In LA: The Sycamore Kitchen

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I was in Los Angeles two weeks ago and made a point to have lunch at the Sycamore Kitchen. I found out about this place by following the tweets of food critic Jonathan Gold. He was really tweeting about the potato chips. If you know me, I love me some potato chips. Put a chocolate bar next to a bag of chips and I will grab the chips.

The Sycamore Kitchen is a cafeteria style establishment where you order your food at the counter and they bring it to you. I felt a bit overwhelmed as I got to the counter. My friend and I were likely to share a few things. There was a chalkboard with a menu listed and a window filled with yummy looking pastries.

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I was immediately intrigued by the Double BLTA sandwich. It consists of the usual bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado, but it also had the addition of braised pork belly. This was a delicious sandwich. The crusty bread and the braised pork belly brought out a smokier taste that I liked.

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My friend who doesn’t eat pork got an open faced chicken salad which is prepared with grapes, walnuts, tarragon, and a Greek yogurt aioli. She enjoyed her sandwich as well.

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Mr. Gold says, “the real reason you should go to Sycamore Kitchen – why you should get in the car and drive there right now – is the little pail of potato chips you can order as a side, discs of pure crunch that somehow broadcast the presence of good oil without being at all greasy, are salted to a degree just on the gentle side of stinging, and taste of the very best potatoes. They are the best I have tasted in a lifetime of extensive potato eating, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hatfields somehow became the Laura Scudder of the 21st century”. I agree with Mr. Gold’s description of the chips, but disagree on his opinions. I don’t think that the potato chips are the reason to go and can’t say they are the best chips I have ever had.

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One of the specials that was available that day were chicken wings made with brown sugar, Aleppo chili, and Thai basil. My friend and I shared this appetizer. The flavors were delicious and finger licking good. These would bring me back to the Sycamore Kitchen, not the potato chips.

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I had a bite of my friend’s salted caramel pecan babka roll. I will describe it as chewy, gooey, goodness. The modern twist to this babka is not only creative, but makes for a divine treat. My curiosity piqued on what other goodies were behind the counter window. I’ll have to wait for my next visit.

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Porto’s Bakery and Cafe

One of my favorite flights is the Southwest Airlines flight from Oakland to Burbank. I like it because it is one of the shortest flights. You are in the air for about fifty minutes. The flight attendants are funny. Both airports are small and that makes getting in and out fairly simple. I like the Burbank airport because you get to enter and exit from the back of the plane. Last weekend I flew in and out of Burbank and now have another reason to love the airport. The Burbank airport is two miles from Porto’s Bakery and Cafe.

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Porto’s Bakery and Cafe is a Cuban bakery that has been in existence since 1960. This family owned business has three shops in the Los Angeles area. My brother has been bringing back cheese rolls whenever he has gone to Southern California.

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One of the most popular items at Porto’s are the cheese rolls, which are delicious pastries with a cream cheese filling. They have a sweet sugar glaze on top of the crispy flakey puff pastry.

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A few months ago, a friend brought some cookies to share on a day hike. They were dulce de leche kisses from Porto’s. Let’s just say I was never able to forget them. These buttery cookies have a somewhat chewy center of dulce de leche.

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Porto’s is a very popular bakery especially on weekends. They are so popular that they could run out of your favorite things. To prevent this, you can pre-order in advance and let them know when you would pick up. The pre-order line could also save you waiting time.

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On this trip, I returned home with a few dozen pastries and cookies. It meant I would have an additional carry-on so I would have to check-in my suitcase. Another reason to love Southwest.