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.

Paradise Park Cafe: Welcome to the Neighborhood

There is an up and coming neighborhood in North Oakland called Paradise Park that sits on the borders of Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley. I am familiar with the area because I drive through it twice a week when I take my nephews to school at Oakland Military Institute. A new cafe that shares its name with the urban Paradise Park neighborhood opened up last month and I was invited to a media event to check it out.

Paradise Park Cafe serves coffee from local Equator Coffee & Teas from San Rafael. Two thumbs up for the espressos that I have been making with their coffee beans. With opening hours of 7am on weekdays, I am likely to stop by for a morning latte before work. The cafe also specializes in juices. I sampled a few options and using purely fruits and vegetables, they’ve made something vibrant and delicious.
Vegetarians and vegans have quite a few choices at Paradise Park Cafe. They offer a quinoa burger and plenty of salads. I was impressed with their homemade chickpea tofu which is the protein in their vegan wrap and an option to add to their salads. This works really well for the health conscious.
On the other hand, their grass fed burger is served on a brioche bun and topped with Vermont cheddar cheese, fried onions, and a garlic and pepper aioli. It was juicy and packed full of flavor. The French fries held its own.
My favorite item on the menu is the fried chicken sandwich. The chicken breast is marinated, grilled, and then fried in a light tapioca batter. This photogenic sandwich includes fresh carrots, radish, and kale, pickled onions, and a sriracha aioli. It also includes a side of crispy tasty French fries.  
Having a kids menu really speaks to the neighborhood. I would recommend the creamy homemade mac and cheese. For those that care, it’s also gluten free. 
For dessert you can order an ice cream burrito. Ice cream is wrapped in a flour tortilla and flash fried. I would recommend sharing this one and eating it pretty fast, otherwise you might make a hot mess.
I’m sure those in the Paradise Park neighborhood are happy and excited to find a new cafe in town. I would definitely keep an eye on Paradise Park Cafe as they plan to utilize part of their space for pop-ups.  

King of Kebabs: The Kebabery

After hiking nearly thirteen miles today from the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Beach along the Bay Ridge Trail, my friend and I were hungry. Since I have another week of my diet of not eating carbohydrates and sugar, my options are somewhat limited. I have friends who dined at The Kebabery on Friday evening with a positive review and since kebabs are a great choice for me, I suggested we have dinner there.

The folks behind The Kebabery are the same people behind the very successful Camino. This casual joint is located in North Oakland, bordering Emeryville. Unlike Camino where the focus is cooking from a wood fire oven, The Kebabery celebrates the grill.

We tried to order as much variety as we could for the two of us. We started with their soup which was a vegetarian soup with garbanzo beans, celery, tomato, Swiss chard, and mushrooms. A dollop of Greek yogurt and some infused oil was placed on top. After blending it with my spoon, the soup thickened up. It was comforting and tasted delightful.  Another side dish to consider are the spiced fries. The other night, my friends ordered and polished off every last piece of the shoestring potatoes.  
We each ordered a Kebab Plate which includes a choice of one kebab, two side dishes, yogurt, herbs, spicy picked chiles, and either flatbread or red lentils. My friend’s plate had the lamb kebab, spiced carrots, mashed beets, and the flatbread.  
I ordered an extra kebab on my plate so we could try all three varieties. The two kebabs I ordered were the marinated chicken and the spiced king trumpet mushrooms. My sides were the mashed eggplant salad and the homemade pickles. In lieu of flatbread, I ordered the red lentils.  
All the side dishes are purposely cold. It reminds me of eating a mezze platter. My favorite sides were the mashed eggplant salad and mashed beets. The homemade pickles were kind of fun because it had an assortment that included carrots, cauliflower, fennel, and celery.  The lentils were mild in flavor and a creamy texture that I liked. My friend enjoyed the grilled flatbread. I am a sucker for flatbread and really wanted to taste it so I sampled a piece the size of a quarter. It was warm, fresh, and chewy. 

Of course the real star of The Kebabery are the kebabs. The lamb, the chicken, and the mushroom kebabs were all marinated with delicious spices that lend to a great grill. The lamb kebab was particularly flavorful. The chicken kebab was ever so moist and the pieces with chicken skin were crispy and amazing. The king trumpet mushrooms were also quite delicious. This option really gives vegetarians the opportunity to enjoy a full meal.
Every ingredient used at The Kebabery is organic. With that said, I think the prices are very reasonable. A sandwich goes for $12 and a kebab plate runs $15. Another thing to note is that there is no tipping at The Kebabery. This tells me that the staff at The Kebabery are paid a fair wage and the prices you pay go towards that. I like this innovative approach and I’ll be back when I don’t feel like cooking. 

Farley’s East: Growing with the Community

Farley’s East, a cafe located in Uptown Oakland has been around for eight years. Since it is close to work, I occasionally stop by for an espresso beverage. They recently expanded and took over the space next door that used to be Subway. Doubling in size and having an actual kitchen is allowing Farley’s to do a whole lot more.
I attended a media event a few weeks ago at Farley’s to check out the renovation and try some of their menu items, including a few new ones. The extended space has a beautiful new counter where you not only can order a latte, but can grab a local beer or wine on tap.  

Avocado toast is a new breakfast item at Farley’s. Everyone’s doing avocado toast, right?  What’s different about their version is a little olive oil, a sprinkling of Japanese 7 spice (from Oaktown Spice Shop) and micro greens. On top of a perfectly crusty slice of Acme levain, my satisfaction has been met.  
I had the opportunity to sample some salads that I personally would never order for myself. Replacing croutons with chickpeas on both the Whole Health Protein Bowl and the Uptown Caesar, the healthy factor has increased. For the health conscious, these vegan salads have a great assortment of fresh vegetables and the variety of textures are reasons these salads stand out.
Another favorite for me was the chipotle mac and cheese which is a new menu item. The smokiness adds another dimension to the Gruyere cheese. This might be a dish you share with a friend as I found it to be quite heavy.  
For those that go to Farley’s for their panini, don’t fret because the panini press is still around. Actually, the sandwich menu has many options that are either grilled on the panini press, toasted in the oven, or meant to be eaten cold.  They’ve also added a new refrigerator section where you can “Grab & Go” pre-made items. I think this is great idea and will work well for the lunch crowd.  

I really like the expansion and improvements at Farley’s East.  It is clear this coffee shop has a strong sense of community. They support and partner with local food suppliers, they display the work of local artists, and the coolest thing is they set up the first urban parklet in Oakland.  

Check Please Bay Area Viewing Party

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you have likely seen or heard of the PBS show “Check Please, Bay Area.” This is the television show where three Bay Area residents review their favorite restaurant. Each of the three people have the opportunity to dine at the restaurants that the other two choose. They come together on the show to talk about the three restaurants. “Check Please, Bay Area” is now in its twelfth season. The original show was launched in Chicago. One episode even featured Barack Obama, as one of the diners, when he was just a State Senator.

Season 12, episode 7 aired this past Thursday and featured two East Bay restaurants. The first was Monkey King Pub and Grub in Alameda. They describe the restaurant as Asian fusion food. From the food pictures, it looks more like Chinese American party food. Either way, the food looks awesome and I can’t wait to give it a try.

The second restaurant featured on the show was Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch in Saint Helena.  The farm to table restaurant has an array of fresh and comfort food that has me wanting to make the drive up to Napa County.

The final restaurant featured on this episode is the reason behind this blog post.  I was watching the screening of “Check Please, Bay Area” at Grand Lake Kitchen in Oakland. They were hosting a viewing party and my BFF found out about it and bought us tickets. The ticket included entrance, two drink tickets, and light nosh.

As soon as we arrived, we went to the bar to select our first drink. We went with the boozy slushy of the day which was a Grapefruit and Gin cocktail. It was sour, which I am a fan. The umbrella in the drink was a prediction of a fun evening to come.

The waitstaff began passing out appetizers. Fried chicken sliders were the first to come out and when it reached our table there was just one left. I insisted my BFF take it. Another tray of sliders came from another direction and they were all gone right as it reached me. I was thinking I might completely miss out on the sliders. “Light nosh” might be zero nosh for me. I decided to alert one of the waitstaff and she apologized and said she would return with some more.  

There were actually two types of sliders, fried chicken sliders and the burger sliders. They were both delicious and included homemade pickles. 
We also had egg salad on rye toast topped with fried chicken skin. These were mini versions of the popular open faced sandwich they normally serve on the menu.
Pickled shrimp crostini were also passed. I was surprised that the flavors were subtle.
I really enjoyed the flavor and texture of the tempura fried mushrooms, but they were a bit greasy.
There was also a smoked fish display with bagel chips, cream cheese and all the fixings. I suspect this is similar to the “smoked fish tower” that is on their menu.

The food kept coming out and there was never going to be a shortage of sliders. Light nosh was actually heavy nosh. I was full before the show started.  

The owner May Seto Wasem made a speech and introduced Rene, the diner who nominated the restaurant to be on the television show. We all then watched the show together as it aired for the first time.  

It was a great show and a fun evening. I suspect that with the fame of Grand Lake Kitchen being on tv, there might be longer wait times. I would recommend avoiding weekends.