Monday, March 21, 2005

Home Cooking - Waffling About

Sunday mornings, when taken in lazy, limb-stretching doses amidst sun-speckled, faintly-warm smooth sheets, call for a meal of leisure. I took the opportunity to cheat a bit, using a nut-filled blend-and-cook dry mixture: Macadamia Nut Pancake and Waffle Mix. 'From scratch' is a term I was willing to let slide this past weekend, instead choosing the quicker-gratification route. Soon, we had golden brown Belgian waffles slathered with Phillipines mango jam (I think they produce the highest quality mango products; look for their signature dried mango slices in blue and goldenrod-yellow plastic packages. Delicious and healthy!) and powdered sugar, and embellished with an island favorite of mine; Passion-Orange-Guava (POG) juice.

* sidenote: Remember the cardboard disc-flipping game fad of POG in the 90's? It featured trendy, flashy collectible circular disks to cater to the young consumers of our nation, but the original game began in Hawai'i, with the playing pieces being plain, cardboard tops that were lodged into the underside of POG juice bottles. And thus, the name of the game. :)

Oakland, CA - Legendary Palace

In my mind, one of the best ways to start out a late, sunny Sunday morning isn't with an overwhelming, stomach-sinking Sunday brunch, but rather, a leisurely grazing of dim sum, both familiar and new. Fresh, toothly, quality dim sum and steaming, potent earthy tea (PO(h)-nay / PO(h)-lay being my family's preference, depending on how you pronounce it) never fails to elict a sigh of pure happiness from me.

Legendary Palace of Oakland Chinatown provides quality dim sum (*** Do not go here for the regular dinner menu, which leaves something to be desired, only visit for the dim sum!***), providing that you do not go on a holiday weekend (then, as with many places, the quality plummets abysmally). The price is more than fair, I believe, with the entire bill (including tip) coming out to be ~$50 for four people. My stomach is already craving its next visit there!

Chinese restaurants are enamored with a few decoration accents including but not restricted to: gold-gilded phoenixes and dragons, red wallpaper, neon purple and turquoise light accents recessed in ceiling alcoves, aquariums, money trees, incense, and... chandeliers. I spent our waiting time shooting pictures of their chandeliers, experimenting with the best camera settings with which to capture the sparkling, fractured light spectrums.

And then... it was all about the food.

One of the lightest, flake-crumbling honey-glazed savory pastries that I've enjoyed.

Inside was a treasure of succulent, rich, sticky jewels of sweet-salty cha siu, Chinese roasted pork.

Chicken feet, which (when done well) simply melts in your mouth in tender dissolving layers of meat. Imbued with a sweet garlic, black bean, and meat brothy sauce that is warming, mildly sweet, and sometimes with a discreet chili kick, it dances lusciously on your tongue. For those who shy away from the high concentration of bones and looks of the dish, I say that it is just as, if not more, satisfying than sucking the last bits of fatty, smoky-sweet sauced pork from baby-back ribs.

Full-flavored roughly-minced shimp, water chestnuts, and cilantro stuffed inside of delicately crispy deep-tried bean curd skins (made from the 'skin' that forms upon resting warm soy-based liquids, somewhat like hot milk on the stove).

The same lovely bean curd skins wrapped around a moist filling of pork, bamboo shoots, and crunchy wood ear, and then braised in a rich sweet-soy, sesame, and pork broth. Flavor oozes out of this dish with every bite, and it is one of my favorites, although I always forget the name of it. (shin-JHOOK-ghuen)

Whoo...! I'm used to this dish being a mild, refreshing combination of naturally-sweet shrimp and crunchy green bell pepper coated with lots of flavorable sauce, but this particular rendition was hot, hot, HOT, with chili peppers taking over the dish. Quite good, but I had to take a short break before going back to sampling other dishes.

Braised (deep-fried and then sauteed in a black-bean sauce) tofu with shrimps embedded on top provided beautiful textures on the tongue.

The fried tofu forms a crunchy skin, while maintaining a silky interior.

These fried nuggets look boringly innocuous, but this newcomer really amazed me when I bit into it to find...

... a soft custard-like filling (I suspect fried milk, which is a mixture of milk and egg white, creating a creamy, mild custard) in which chunks of onion, mushrooms, pork, and fish were suspended. Delicious!

And of course, there were the usual culprits (and much-beloved by me) of siu mai (pork dumplings) and ha gow (shrimp dumplings).

The ha gow were particularly good here, with generous portions of entire shrimps and bamboo shoot accents inside perfect toothy, resilient wheat-starch wrappers that picked up the shrimp flavor wonderfully. A must-try!

And lastly... sweet mango pudding enrobed in creamy evaporated milk. The perfect, light ending to the day's decadent start. :9

Legendary Palace
708 Franklin Street
Oakland, CA 94607

Friday, March 18, 2005

Walnut Creek, CA - Three Seasons

The food at Three Seasons can only be described as Vietnamese food that has been elevated to royal status via Cinderella-esque transformation. We couldn't get enough of the fusion flavors and textures that provided an almost-perfect dining experience.

The early spring-like air invigorated our spirits, and after wandering around the picturesque-meets-trendy downtown neighborhood of Walnut Creek, we peeked our heads into this deep-toned, tranquil niche. We kept our dinner on the cool side to match the impeccable weather.

The menu ranges from items with a clear Vietnamese heritage, to those that seem, at best, mildly pan-Asian. I wasn't much interested in most of the latter, but one caught my eye. The Viper Roll promised a rice flour wrapper of grilled eel, sweet soy 'tare' sauce, and cheese, served with a ginger soy dip. Eel? And cheese? Images of thick, smooth cheese sliding over flaky, warm eel came to mind. I was intrigued.

Unfortunately, the marriage of eel and cheese was not a happy one, at least not in this manifestation. The sad highlight was the soy dipping sauce with gari (Japanese picked ginger), which was sweet, tangy, and light. The messy swirl of wasabi paste and a cocktail-chili siracha sauce were extraneous, and felt like a hasty afterthought rather than a carefully-placed element. The rolls were more about looks than anything else. Rice noodles, lettuce, and cucumber (sadly, no Vietnamese herbs to add flair) completely upsurped the 'main' ingredients of eel and cheese. When my tongue finally located a sliver of eel, the cold shredded cheddar cheese rudely pushed it out of the way. What a disappointment; my homemade rolls are far superior to this.

Luckily, from here on out, everything instantly got better. We decided on a garlic-fried crab dish for the wonderful seasonal price of $20, the house specialty of garlic noodles, and string beans with mushrooms.

Even the crab shell crackers were elegant.

When the crab arrived, I couldn't stop taking pictures of it. Spectacular!

The crab was impeccably fresh and well-cooked. The garlicky oil seeped in through the joint openings during cooking, resulting in light, fragrant, flaky meat. We fairly inhaled the dish, unabashedly getting our hands smeared with the seductive oil. The green onion and non-spicy chili (well-seeded!) adornment was just fabulous atop fluffy jasmine rice.

Garlic noodles sashaying with butter and parmesean cheese may be a far cry from a Vietnamese dish, but these thick, toothy, smooth noodles were so fantastic, I could care less about their authencity. It's easy to see why this is a house specialty.

Even the beans were great, standing out with a crisp freshness that was made rich with richly sweet shittake mushroom slices. Vegetarians would enjoy this restaurant a great deal, I believe.

Full-belled and sighing, we contentedly looked at the well-cleaned dishes of our meal, but as soon as the dessert menu was put in front of us, it only took a glance to find a second wind. Luckily, the combination of small dishes and one main dish allowed us the indulgence of multiple desserts.

Deeply-fragrant, soft but subtle banana cuddled with melted chocolate in lightly crackling, fried coccoons laced with caramel glaze. Fried bananas have nothing on these golden treasures. Homemade vanilla bean gelato was well-done; a beautifully-understated, supporting partner.

Ginger perked up this technically-perfect creme brulee coyly protected with a caramelized sugar shell. One of my eating partners claimed this as his favorite, but I found it to be a little heavy in contrast to the other flavors that had floated far above it.

This trio of geen tea, ginger, and lychee gelatos was a fair compromise between opulence and moderation, providing light richness on the tongue that unobtrusively and easily melted from one flavor to another.

This restaurant is gorgeous, both in atmosphere, with it's multicultural, foreign-tongued music and soothing walls and glass partitions depicting reed fields of Vietnam, and in the symphony of flavors it presents so well.

Three Seasons
1525 N. Main Street
Walnut Creek, CA

NY - Brasserie

As you enter the swiveling doors of this New York restaurant, your image is captured by video cameras mounted at the entrance and a snapshot of you is broadcast on the multiple television screens around the bar, visible to all in the restaurant. Yes, ladies and gentleman, this is a place you go to when you want to show off that new suit or that lovely dress. Because even if they miss you on the cameras, they certainly won't miss you walking down the staircase that enters the dining room. But step carefully, I warn you, for I have seen many a person trip down those very steps.

Brasserie is a staple in New York. The newly re-opened location (re-opened about 2-3 years ago) is on 53rd Street between Lexington and Park. The food is delicious but nothing to get excited over. I fancy starting off with the tuna tartare and then having the steak frites as my main course, but their simple menu provides something for everyone. For larger parties, you can order their seafood appetizer. While some of the seafood was very tasty, I was a bit disappointed with much of it as well, having tasted not the cleanest or freshest seafood that one would expect from such a restaurant.

I've been to Brasserie many times, more often than I really care to be there, and although I will sometimes venture into trying something new (perhaps one of the specials; their duck dishes are pretty good actually), I almost always stick with my safe bets of tuna tartare and steak frites.

100 East 53rd St.
New York, NY 10022