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.

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!

I Dream of Sushi

I recently met my BFF at Angel Fish in Alameda for dinner. Sushi is always a good choice on a hot day and Alameda is usually a bit cooler as well. My BFF has been a regular at Angel Fish for almost two decades. Every time I have dined at Angel Fish, I have enjoyed it very much. Come to think of it, it is one of my favorite neighborhood sushi restaurants, even though it is not my neighborhood. The fish is always fresh and the prices are reasonable.

So first I have to admit I was late for dinner. My BFF had already gotten us seats at the sushi bar and ordered some nigiri at happy hour prices. From 5pm- 6pm, there are some specials, so she ordered the hamachi (yellowtail), sake (salmon), and maguro (red tuna). I was so delayed that she had to eat my portion. It was fine by me as I wouldn’t want raw fish sitting too long. When I arrived, I ordered my own serving of salmon. It was fresh and delicious as expected.
It was my first time having agemono. I loved everything about these deep fried tempura lobster bites. With a splash of lemon, I’m in heaven. One of the best things about Angel Fish is that it doesn’t always have to be about the raw items. They have a nice variety of cooked items that are unique and creative.
We ordered amaebi which I did not photograph. It’s not my favorite item, but I do like consuming the crispy fried shrimp head. Toro is one of the most expensive fish. When this fatty tuna belly is available at Angel Fish, you really should get it. It was so buttery, it melted in my mouth.  
Some other patrons ordered the cha soba so we decided we would share this as well. Cold noodles are a perfect choice on a hot evening. To enjoy this dish, you would dip soba noodles and seaweed into a sauce where you would first mix in minced daikon, green onions, and a quail egg.
One of my favorite things to eat is an unagi hand roll. With the added texture of cucumber and avocado, this is the perfect bite to me.  
Although Chef Taka still had a few pieces of uni out, he purposefully opened up a brand new box of uni for us. The opening of this box of imported uni from Japan really made our day.  
The uni was elegantly placed on top of a shiso leaf and rice and came with crispy roasted seaweed on the side.
In front of me in the sushi case was tamago that I had been eyeing throughout the course of the evening. I was relaying my limited experience and enjoyment of tamago. Typically, not a favorite of my BFF, we decided we would try it. We learned that Chef Taka makes this deliciousness every other day.

It was a great light dinner and we decided we would start dining at Angel Fish together once a month. I’m already dreaming about it.

Gio’s Pizza: A Revival of Giovanni’s

People may recall Giovanni’s as an old school Italian restaurant that had been in business in Downtown Berkeley since 1961. In 2015, it closed its doors after a major fire caused serious damage. Today the restaurant has reopened as Gio’s Pizza & Bocce, playing homage to the former restaurant.  
As you enter the front of Gio’s, the fun begins. The open bar space is to the left and an indoor bocce ball court is to the right. The dining area and kitchen are located towards the back half of the restaurant.  I was invited along with my friends to Gio’s to try out their new food and cocktail menu. The first item to come out was fried calamari with lemon aioli, fried parsley, and citrus slices. I thought it had a nice light batter. I liked the fact that it had both the rings as well as the tentacles because our party each had our preference.  

The mushroom bruschetta arrived next. The toasts were topped with lemon ricotta, wild mushrooms, garlic, and thyme. As much as I love mushrooms, it was the mushrooms that brought this dish down for me. The texture of the mushrooms were tough. It tasted as if dried mushrooms were used and not soaked long enough. I am hoping that this was a fluke.
Karen’s Cucumber Salad was brought to the table. I don’t know who Karen is, but I wouldn’t mind attaching my name to this salad. The freshness of the farmer’s market cucumbers was apparent in the crunch. The salad included a variety of cucumbers, roasted peppers, cherry tomatoes, croutons, and a champagne vinaigrette.
My friends and I really enjoyed the mushroom and squash ziti that we were presented with. The pasta dish was cooked in butter, thyme, and white wine. Soft and delicate, these mushrooms had no resemblance to the ones on the bruschetta.  
Gio’s also includes two pizzas on their menu and you can order them New York style or Sicilian style. We got to try the sausage and mushroom pizza and the Margherita pizzas as single Sicilian style. I normally prefer red pizza over white pizza, but in this case, I preferred the sausage and mushrooms toppings. To me Sicilian pizza resembles a focaccia bread. I enjoyed the occasional crispiness from the bubbles that form in the dough.

Dessert is a polenta cake with ricotta creme, summer fruit, and kettle corn. To offer one dessert is a huge risk. I found it to be worth going “all in” because it was a highlight for me.  
Another area of focus at Gio’s is their cocktail menu highlighting Italian amaro and vermouth. The bar manager, Nick Stolte, spent time in Italy immersed in the culture and building relationships with vermouth and amaro purveyors. He designed and created a cocktail menu that highlights Italy’s best.  
The most interesting aspect of Gio’s is the secret back room. Behind the olive oil can door, is a private dining space that hasn’t changed since it was Giovanni’s. It is a cool space that makes your imagination of who would hang out here go wild. 
With a short menu and simple Italian food in a playful setting, I think Gio’s Pizza & Bocce will bring in a UC Berkeley crowd looking for some fun. However, I found meat offerings at Gio’s hard to come by so carnivores might be challenged.  

Plaj: Scandanavian Food at its Best

My friends and I bought our tickets to see the musical Hamilton last December. The seven month wait was finally over and we went to see Hamilton at the SHN Orpheum Theater in San Francisco last Saturday. It was such an amazing show of talent. Lin Manuel Miranda is a genius to be able to tell a story of history in a relevant and entertaining way.  
About half a mile away from the Orpheum Theater is a Scandinavian restaurant where my friends and I dined before the show. Plaj is located inside the Inn at the Opera, a boutique hotel in Hayes Valley. We chose Plaj because one of my friends had eaten there a week prior before attending the opera. She enjoyed it very much and was willing to go again so reservations were made.
We were a party of four and decided we would share everything. We started out with some fresh baked bread with caramelized butter. It was a bit disappointing as it wasn’t warm like it had been last week. The bread is dense which I believe is typical of Northern Europe. For me though, the butter was the star.  
We ordered an oyster for each of us which was topped with pickled elderberry and smoked grapeseed oil. The acid from the pickled elderberry truly enhanced the flavor of the oyster.
My friend raved about the tomato and burrata salad she had last week, so we went ahead and ordered two of them. Additionally, the fresh salad came with pea shoots, padrone peppers, and dressed with a delicious olive oil.
I was intrigued by the Raraka & Caviar. Essentially, they are bite sized hash browns served on an iron skillet topped with sour cream, chives, red onion, and anchovies. A tube of whitefish caviar is on the side for you to squeeze on top. The whitefish caviar is orange and filled in plastic and shaped like a carrot which I thought was the cutest thing. This dish was amazing. I was happy we ordered it.  
We would be remiss not to order Swedish meatballs. We actually ordered two of these entrees since we each wanted to enjoy at least one meatball. It came with potato puree, pan gravy, lingonberry, and pickled cucumber. This was pure comfort on a plate. Everything melded well together and the potatoes were the creamiest potatoes ever.  
Another entree we ordered was the grilled pork chop with broccolini, torpedo onion, yellow peach, and cognac. This dish was full of deliciousness and felt like summer on a plate.
There was some debate over the halibut. One of my friends didn’t like it at all. While it was probably unanimous that it was the least favorite of the entrees, I still thought it was a pretty good dish. The halibut came with chanterelles, watercress, fennel, and coriander flowers. I especially loved the sauce and drowned my fish in it.    
We shared two beautiful desserts. The first was called Northern Lights, which was a meringue filled with passion fruit sorbet and chocolate. If you like the combination of sweet chocolate and tart fruit, this is for you. 
The Princess Cake at Plaj is more like a deconstructed Princess Cake. Chiffon cake, raspberry jam, and pastry cream are set in a jar with a layer of marzipan tied on top with a string. It is the cutest thing and tasty, but my friend turned me into a snob. It was love at first bite with her homemade Princess Cake.
Overall, Plaj Scandinavian restaurant is worth a visit and a return visit. I highly recommend it especially if you are attending an event near the Civic Center.