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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Celebrating La Borinquena Mex-icatessen

  
When I first heard that La Borinquena Mex-icatessen was closing after 71 years of business in Oakland, I felt a kind of sadness. La Borinquena is a Mexican restaurant with a cafeteria style setting. Tucked in the back of the restaurant, they have a little shop selling supplies such as spices and tortillas. In general, it’s usually not good news when a business has to close down in Oakland. I view it as a retirement and became happy and excited for them. Four generations of a family have operated the business for seven decades and have earned this awesome status. I call it success.  Friday, July 31, 2015 was their final day of operation. I went over for lunch the day before with a couple of colleagues to be one of the last patrons to enjoy the food of La Borinquena. There may have been about 25 customers ahead of us. I observed a family leaving with two huge buckets of masa. Others were leaving with bags of goodies. The party ahead of us have been regulars at La Borinquena all their lives. There was definitely a sense of history and celebration as I awaited.
 After about a thirty minute wait and changing my order in my head a few times, I made a last minute decision to order what one of the people ahead of me ordered. I got the carnitas plate which came with rice, beans, and tortillas. I enjoyed it very much. It probably tasted exactly like it tasted 71 years ago. There is something to be said about good tasting, classic food with no frills.

  
A friend of mine who grew up in Oakland and now living in the South Bay was sad about this closure. She requested some tamales from La Borinquena, so I ended up with half a dozen tamales to go.  
I froze my tamale. In the weeks to come when I crave a “Tina Tamale”, I can pull mine out and celebrate again. Congratulations La Borinquena Mex-icatessen on your retirement! 

Revival Bar & Kitchen: Downtown Berkeley

On a recent weekday night, I had dinner with a friend at Revival Bar & Kitchen in Downtown Berkeley. It was our first time dining there, but we both knew we had been to this location before. Revival has been there for about five years, but before that it was a Restaurant called Downtown.    

The bar was pretty busy when we arrived. I had reservations so we were seated in the main dining area which was less busy at the time. I had a bad taste in my mouth at the start because we were told we couldn’t participate in the happy hour menu unless we were at the bar. I ended up skipping on the cocktail and went straight for a glass of wine to compliment my dinner.  
The menu lists small plates, large plates, sides, and cheeses. After reviewing the menu, we decided to order a bunch of small plates.  
Our first dish was the chopped curly kale caesar salad. I’ve noticed kale salads are becoming popular on menus lately. Revival’s version had kale, quinoa, almonds, fennel, avocado, turnip, romanesco, and pecorino cheese tossed in an anchovy vinaigrette. This beautiful salad was fresh, crispy, and deliciously flavorful. I really enjoyed all the textures. My friend absolutely loved it and tried to get the recipe. The chef told her the key is massaging the kale. 
 Our next dish was the fried soft shell crab. I hardly ever see this on a menu unless I’m at a Japanese restaurant so I wanted to give this a try. The crab was laying on top of a deviled egg sauce, lentils, and mushrooms. The crab was good, but the deviled egg sauce really elevated the dish.  
 We ordered the housemade lamb sausage meatballs. It came with a two bean succotash, green harissa, and smoked habanero honey. These meatballs were quite unique. They were coated, dense, and had exotic flavors.  
 My favorite dish was the spicy mushroom pho flatbread. It had yam purée, housemade ricotta, savoy cabbage slaw, porcini gastrique, fried onion, and serrano chili. The combination of ingredients on this flatbread was perfectly harmonious.   
 For dessert we shared the rhubarb upside down cake which was complimented with a carrot sorbet, puffed black rice, and buttermilk ice cream. This creative plate was really fun and pleasing to the palette.
 At the end of dinner the Warriors game was coming to an end so we moved to the bar to watch the last few minutes. I ordered a Cactus Red Cider which had a very pretty color. It was a bit on the sour side, but enjoyable.  
 We had a great dinner at Revival Bar & Kitchen. The chef is creating dynamic dishes that are both creative and delicious. I highly recommend dining here. It would make the perfect spot for pre-theater dining in Berkeley.

Japanese Pop Up: Abura Ya

Garden House is a casual lunch spot serving salads and sandwiches open on weekdays for the business crowd. Located on 14th Street between Franklin and Webster Streets in Oakland, Garden House is pretty close to my work. I have often walked by, but have never stopped in to try it. The restaurant is long and narrow and not very interesting. It’s actually quite easy to just walk by without stopping. The idea of opening up a pop-up restaurant when Garden House is closed is pretty genius, especially as more businesses have opened and improved the area. Abura-Ya opens Wednesdays-Saturdays nights and specializes in Japanese fried chicken.

My friends and I went to the Abura-Ya last night. After walking in, I shortly discovered how it works. You order at the counter, pay cash, and find a seat. It took some time to review the menu so it was good that there were two parties ahead of us so we had time to decide on what to order.

The fried chicken is marinated in shiso-koji and pepper and then battered with corn starch. You have a choice of eight different flavors, three wet and five dry. We chose two of the dry seasonings, Shanso and Japanese Miso. I enjoyed the fried chicken, but wish I could try the other six flavors to make an informed decision.
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The deviled avocado was half an avocado stuffed with egg salad and drizzled with a sweet teriyaki sauce. The avocado was perfectly ripe giving the entire dish a silky smooth texture that was delicious.
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We ordered the Japanese chicken curry dish as well. It came with curry sauce over more fried chicken and rice. It seemed a bit repetitive for me since we already had the eight pieces of fried chicken. One of my friends loves curry so she preferred this dish over the other seasoned fried chicken.
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I was intrigued by the beef stew as I never had a Japanese version of this dish. The soy braised beef came with potatoes and onions and was served over rice. It looked and tasted similar to other Chinese beef stews I have had. I liked it, but there was a disproportion of sauce to rice. A little too much sauce was poured out. If I had another large scoop of rice, this would have been much better.
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The albacore tataki salad special was essentially pieces of seared tuna over a bed of greens. The tuna was nice, but I didn’t really like the salad. By the time I had the salad on the bottom, the flavor of the tuna leaked onto the greens tasting somewhat fishy.
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I mostly enjoyed the food and atmosphere of Abura-Ya, but I loved the concept of the Pop Up. Eating from paper trays and compostable utensils was fun and made things pretty easy to clean up as well.

Come All to Comal

A comal defined by Wikipedia is a smooth, flat griddle typically used in Mexico and Central America to cook tortillas, toast spices, sear meat, and generally prepare food. Comal is also the name of a Mexican restaurant located in downtown Berkeley. I met some friends at Comal for dinner last week. The space is beautiful with two dining areas that lead to a third space for drinks.

We started with some house margaritas while we perused the menu. There were four of us and although we had a few different things in mind, we easily agreed to share a bunch of items. The appetizers and sides were much more appealing to us which is great for sharing.

If I see chicharrones on the menu, I gotta have them. I just love the lightness and crispiness of pork rinds. These house-made ones met my expectations as I added hot sauce and salsa to them. And yes, I did share.
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The “chips” we ordered came guacamole and three different salsas and they all had great flavor. The freshly made tortilla chips were also crisp and light and disappeared pretty quickly.
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Originally I thought it was a mistake to order the chips and salsa when we also ordered the sikil pak because it also came with chips and salsa. This was my first time having sikil pak which is a dip made of toasted pumpkin seeds, grilled eggplant, and habanero. I enjoyed this especially with more delicious chips. It didn’t seem to be a mistake after all, since we ate up all the chips. Let’s just say one order of chips feeds no more than two.
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We ordered a salad made of bitter greens, persimmons, pomegranates, spiced pepitas, and Manchego cheese. Welcome Fall! I’m always thinking of what could go into a Fall salad so now I have some ideas.
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We got an order of beef & pork albóndigas en adobo. This was pretty amazing with the tenderness of the meatball and the smokiness of the adobo sauce. The meatballs come with fresh hand made tortillas made on-site. Reminds me of Old Town San Diego. This was my favorite plate.
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The enchiladas of the day were duck. The plate comes with two enchiladas so we had two orders. We also got a side of black beans de olla. I enjoyed these as well and they were perfect for sharing.
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Another side we ordered were the Brussels sprouts and autumn squash with pequin chiles and pepitas. This side was good, but my least favorite item. The flavors just couldn’t match up to everything else.
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Comal also does family style plates of meats and vegetables cooked in their wood fired oven and comes with traditional sides of beans, rice, and tortillas. We didn’t try it this time, but I am pretty sure I would enjoy it.

We shared two desserts. The first was arroz con leche or rice pudding with plums and toasted pistachios. I really liked it especially with the additional texture that the pistachios added.
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Our second dessert was flan with raspberries. It was really creamy and tasted more like a creme brûlée. Still delicious, but if you are looking for more density and caramelization in a traditional flan, that wasn’t there.
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Overall, Comal was a great dining experience. Living in California especially the Bay Area, I feel fortunate to have access to such amazing Mexican cuisine.

Philly: Not Just Cheesesteaks

My time in Downtown Philadelphia lasted less than 36 hours, but I still managed to have two great dinners. Both were in the Rittenhouse district.

I had to solely use and trust yelp because my last trip to Philly was many years ago and I didn’t have a lasting impression in terms of food. Yelp really came through again.

My colleague and I arrived in time for dinner Friday night. I found a British pub called The Dandelion. The restaurant is beautiful with various rooms that were themed. I call our room the “horse room,” as there were paintings of horses throughout.
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As an appetizer, my colleague and I shared a pint of prawns which came with cocktail sauce and a lemon mayonnaise sauce. A pint equates to about ten large plump shrimp. The prawns come from the Gulf of Mexico and were super sweet.
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I ordered the popular dish from London, beer battered fish and chips. It was a nice filet of cod that was coated and fried to perfection. The batter was crunchy and the fish was flakey, and melted in my mouth. It looked as if each order of fries was one large russet potato that was sliced thickly. They call it triple cooked. I call it triple good.
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My colleague ordered the burger. The photos we saw on yelp looked great. She ordered a well done burger so I was not thinking too much of it. I did have a small bite and thought it remained juicy and was quite flavorful. She enjoyed it very much.
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For dessert, we shared the sticky toffee pudding. The moist cake was drenched in a toffee rum sauce topped with date ice cream. We both enjoyed it although we were quite full.
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Last night’s dinner was at Luke’s Lobster. my colleague and I shared the “Taste of Maine” menu which included half a crab roll, shrimp roll, lobster roll, a bag of Cape Cod chips, a gourmet soda, and a pickle. For an extra $2, we got two lobster claws. We also added two soups, the clam chowder and the lobster bisque. I felt like I was in seafood heaven.
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I couldn’t imagine two better meals on this trip to Philadelphia. I definitely have some lasting impressions this time around.

Exploring Louisville, Kentucky: Part I

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I just got back from a conference in Louisville, Kentucky. (Pronounced Lou-uh-vul). I admit I wasn’t really looking forward to the location, but at the same time I do like exploring new territory.

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With some free time, a few colleagues and I headed a short distance outside Downtown to the Butchertown Market. The historical brick building was really cool with a few retail shops including Cellar Door Chocolates. My BFF asked me to bring home some bourbon balls so I knew this is where I should get them.

What is a bourbon ball? Essentially they are chocolates made with buttercream and bourbon. Kentucky is well known for making bourbon. I picked up the classic bourbon balls as well as the bake apple flavored ones. The sales lady said baked apple was her favorite. The apples are puréed into the mixture. Bourbon balls are not baked so that the bourbon stays in your mouth for a bit.

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We needed to grab a bite of lunch before heading back to the conference. I was happy to discover that the Blind Pig was across the street which was on my list of places to eat in Louisville. The Blind Pig was cute inside and out. The building was also made of brick and the tables were made of hand carved wood.

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What to eat? I was contemplating between the Ivory Bacon Sandwich or the Bacon Butty Sandwich. The waitress recommended the Ivory Bacon which is house made boudin blanc sausage, bacon, muenster cheese, and aioli. I could not resist pork on top of pork. It was a great sandwich with loads of flavor, and the fresh greens I substituted to replace the fries made me feel like I was being a little healthier.

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There is more to blog about Louisville, so stay tuned for Part II of Louisville which promises more bourbon.