Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wu Ji's Mala House--San Jose, CA

Last night's cold rain made Jenny and me eager for a hot dinner. And, with her parents in town to take care of the kids, we made a break for Wu Ji's Mala House in San Jose. At Wu Ji's, one is presented with two columns on the menu, one for house hot pots and one for mala hot pots. Each category had the same selection of meat: pork, beef, lamb and shrimp.

The house pots can be made to order as far as spiciness, but off the menu they're served without heat. For the mala hot pots, the degrees of hotness at Wu Ji's go from one to five. I was warned that a "two" is spicier than the highest level found at a typical Korean tofu house. With that being about my level, I went with the two. Jenny was told she could have her pork house pot at "0.5", but declined and went with the standard. It was a good call, as her broth was just about the most delightful I've ever tried at a restaurant and it was better left uncompromised.

We were told the broth was made using pork bones and "dairy", which was evidenced by the froth as the soup reached a sustained boil at our table. The most prominent flavor, though, was that of sweet corn, the cob of which sat in the center of the pot. Also prominent in the house pot were tofu, unpeeled shrimp and cabbage, the last of which Jenny particularly enjoyed. Coming with each of our individual pots was a fair quantity of thinly sliced raw meat. The lamb that accompanied the mala pot was good, having that signature gamey flavor, but what stood out in my soup were little delights of my childhood, such as pork intestine and stewed tripe. Beef tendon was also included. Bean noodles are the default starch for all pots, but one could substitute rice instead, as Jenny did.

The service was marginal but one was more likely to feel sorry for the server than upset. Jenny was originally served the wrong meat, my burner arrived at the table without a flame and our glasses of water were never refilled. Our server was clearly overburdened and I wondered why the management hired only her to support the entire restaurant.

There is truth to the claim that a level two is hotter than the spiciest one would find at typical Korean tofu house. I left with my mouth slightly wounded and even the skin around my lips was warm for at least an hour afterwards. The next time I visit Wu Ji's I'm going to make less work of it and order up the house pot my wife had--that broth is just too delicious to pass up.

I would not recommend bringing the kids for at least a couple of reasons. Their sensitive buds might not withstand the boiling soup, first of all. Second, the burners underneath the soup, with their often errant flames licking the sides of the pots, are a safety hazard. With all that heat surrounding us and inside of us, it was no wonder that few in the restaurant seemed to mind that the front door was left open to admit the chill of a cold December night.

Wu Ji's accepts cash only. My lamb mala hot pot was $15.95, Jenny's pork house pot was $10.85.

Wu Ji's Mala House
1715 Lundy Avenue
San Jose, CA 95131-1837
(408) 441-0822

Monday, December 27, 2010

French dip

Another benefit of cooking a five pound roast (please see entry below)? Leftovers! With a packet of au jus gravy mix and a loaf of French bread Jenny whipped together some scrumptious instant gratification: delicious French dip. Critical to the success of this sandwich is the bread, which should be a big fluffy loaf with a hard crust. The more fluff in your bread, the more juice you'll mop up. The hard crust acts as a non absorbent soak-stop layer to keep your fingers dry and provides a crunchy contrast.

Prior to loading with prime rib, we put the bread open faced into the toaster oven. We chose to skip the butter. Assuming the meat is from the refrigerator, put enough for one sandwich in the microwave on "High" for 30 seconds. As soon as my wife threw this together our bigger twin (who was relegated to ravioli for dinner) couldn't leave us alone, constantly grabbing and munching away at our beef dips.

Eat this with a big drink. You're going to need it. A pack of the mix has nearly half again more than the recommended daily allowance for sodium. This stuff isn't health food.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Prime rib roast

Although prime rib is considered a traditional cut of meat for Christmas dinner, it wasn't until tonight that we prepared it for the first time, Christmas or not. My wife's co-worker forwarded her a recipe that came highly acclaimed. As stated on the Food Network website, the aforementioned recipe for Foolproof Standing Rib Roast goes like this:

Preheat oven to 375 F

Prepare seasoning:
1 cup salt
1/4 cup garlic powder
1/4 cup ground black pepper

Let roast stand at room temperature for at least an hour.
Rub seasoning all over roast
Place roast on a rack in a pan with fatty side up

For what follows, the oven door should be closed from when the roast is put into the oven until it is ready to be served:
Roast for an hour, then turn off oven
Leave roast in oven for three hours with door closed
About one hour before serving, turn oven to 375 F to reheat the roast

We diverged from the recipe in two ways. For us, the reheat step was a little less than half an hour, at which time the sizzling prompted us to turn the dial to "Off". Also, the 1 1/2 cups of seasoning (to which we added some rosemary for color) we found to be far more than what we actually needed, which was about one-eighth that. So, you can divide the portions of salt, garlic powder and black pepper by four or even eight and you should be fine with a five pound roast--ours was five and a half.

In the end, the seasoning formed a salt-heavy but tasty crust on the ribs. It also provided that saliferous bite that goes so well with tender prime rib. As for the cut itself, I strongly advise you make this "Foolproof" recipe even more so by getting yourself a well marbled Prime cut, as opposed to Choice. As it did for us, your roast will come out with all parts tender and juicy.

Before tonight, I was resigned to putting up with the chewy portion of the cut in order to enjoy that tender, dark exterior portion of the rib. However, this recipe, so elegant in its simplicity yet so devastatingly delicious in its result, can make anyone come off as an expert chef. One great side benefit of this method is that after the roughly four and a half hours of preparation, the wonderful essence of prime rib will reach every remote corner of your home--what's not to love about that?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Cooking Papa--Santa Clara, CA

My dad and Chinese food seem to always go together. When he visited earlier this week I took advantage of his talent for selecting the right restaurant and ordering the right dishes to fit the mood and even the weather. Tuesday, we ventured to Cooking Papa and ordered up some classic Cantonese dishes.

We began with the double plate appetizer with honey barbecue pork and roasted pork belly. The gleam on the barbecue pork (or char siu) from the honey glaze and was a positive indicator of its freshness. The pork was sweet, tender and impossible to resist but it was only the second-best meat on the plate. The preparation of the pork belly made it the best part of our lunch and it achieved a delicate balance: crisp skin with soft, tender meat. One could easily see the multiple layers in the cross section, including the skin, fat and pork.

Next to arrive was the Papa Roasted Chicken (or "diu siu gai" in Cantonese). Or, loosely translated, "hanging roasted chicken". That is, the chicken was marinated during the roasting process, when it was suspended. It was very similar in substance and preparation to its close cousin, the more often-seen Hong Kong roast chicken. The meat was soft, juicy and the skin crisp and delicious. It had been a long while since I'd had its equal (probably at Joy Luck Bistro in Cupertino).

One indicator of whether a good restaurant is, well, worth its salt, is the quality of a simple dish particular to its cuisine. For Shanghainese, that may be crystal shrimp. For a Cantonese restaurant it could be beef with broccoli. I'm told, in fact, that cooking this dish is often the entrance exam for a propspective chef in Hong Kong. Using that as a measure, Cooking Papa gets an A. The meat was very soft with a lot of oil yet wasn't at all soupy or wet at the bottom of the plate, very different from the same dish I'd had only a day earlier at Joy Luck Bistro). The broccoli was crisp. Overall, I was taken by how hot and fresh the plate was, almost making it a shame to order this dish for take-out.

The porridge with fresh clam and winter mellon was probably the weakest of the four, but neverthless provided a change from the usual fish or beef jook. The clams were served in their shells, though one or two of them were stale. The porridge, as should be expected, was piping hot and hence made me forget I was sitting next to the front door on a cold December day.

Packed full by the four dishes, I had to decline dessert. It was a decision that came with great difficulty. Cooking Papa's Hong Kong Style Egg Puff is my favorite dessert offered by any Chinese restauarant anywhere. Always served hot, the exterior of the pastry is crisp, but just so, and the interior is as light as air itself. At four puffs for three dollars, the dessert is the steal of the Bay Area and is reason enough to make a special trip to this standalone restaurant. It's why I chose Cooking Papa for my 2010 birthday dinner and why it'll probably be my choice in 2011.

The restaurant was very busy--a line formed at noon. Cooking Papa accepts cash only.

Cooking Papa
2830 Homestead Road
Santa Clara, CA 95051
(408) 247-3748

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shanghai Restaurant--Cupertino, CA

Tenancy at 10877 North Wolfe Road in Cupertino has changed hands several times over the past few years. And, although many an owner, chef and menu have come and gone at this location, one commonality has been handed down from one occupant to the next, as if it were a torch: Shanghainese cuisine. One may also view 10877 North Wolfe as that address where one management after another has tried to match the skill and variety of that found at the best restaurant of all at this location: Hu Chiang Dumplings. By that standard, Shanghai Restaurant (its Chinese name, which is less generic, is the same as that of a famous restaurant in Shanghai), where we ate Sunday, falls short. But, we had a good time nevertheless.

We started with what's perhaps the most well-known Shanghainese dish of all: xiao lung bao. Unfortunately, it was also the low point of our lunch. The dumplings were hot and bulging with soup. However, they were salty and had us in need of water long after we left. Also, the crab in the crab xiao lung bao was very difficult to detect. The xiao lung bao without crab were actually slightly sweet. The "Cured Pork Zhen Jiang Style" arrived next after the xiao lung bao. It had the look and texture of spam, which was fine, but not the pickled flavor we were expecting. Things got better from here, however.

The strong flavor of our other appetizer plate, the smoked chicken, made it the best dish of the lunch and left no doubt about its preparation. The same could not be said at all, for example, of the "smoked" (but actually insipid) turkey leg we picked up at Sprouts a week ago. The meat, all of it dark, was delightfully easy to chomp through.

As for the rest of lunch? Our ji cai with yellow fish soup, another highlight, was served hot and loaded with ji cai--a vegetable often found in wontons--in every spoonful. The crystal shrimp was good, but not authentic. The squash with bamboo fungus was a surprisingly good combination, with the fungus moving through the mouth like a smooth, delicate woven fabric. Dessert was a fried red bean pancake, which was crisp, greasy and heavy with paste. Dessert wasn't our last dish, however, with the chive pancakes stumbling to our table nearly a full hour after we ordered it. The pancake (below) was fresh, though, and filled with chives, chopped rice noodles and egg. It was shiny with oil, but my dad, who was born and raised in Shanghai, mentioned the real stuff should be even greasier.

The staff all spoke Shanghainese which gave the restaurant a degree of credibility. Still, it was easy to tell that many of the dishes weren't authentic We'll probably go again, though. I never tire of Shanghainese food, even when it's a home-brewed variant. Besides, I've yet to meet a Shanghainese braised pork I didn't like.

Shanghainese Restaurant
10877 N Wolfe Rd
Cupertino, CA 95014
(408) 873-4813

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dia de Pesca--San Jose, CA

The only reason we don't eat at Dia De Pesca more often (we go only about once every year or so) is that it's twenty minutes away from home. Last weekend we checked out a swim school for the boys in San Jose. Proximity to the pool made Dia De Pesca a most welcome option for dinner. I'd long thought Dia De Pesca's fish tacos among the best anywhere. What I learned with this trip, though, is Dia De Pesca can also be an extraordinary value.

I ordered the special ($7.95), which came with three tacos and a cup of chicken hominy soup. The tacos were served hot and with a green sauce--probably avocado-based--that added a creamy texture and enhanced the flavor of every bite. The crab taco was outstanding, especially because of the generous quantity of sweet tender meat. When I dropped some crab on the table I still scooped it up and chowed it down, overcoming for a moment my notorious obsession with food cleanliness.

The other two tacos, while not as delicious as the crab, were nevertheless scrumptious. The red snapper was firm with a mild flavor, with the taco's taste overall carried by the slightly tangy sauce that went with it. The tilapia was tender and even a little juicy. As with the other two tacos, there was no skimping on the meat. My cup of chicken hominy soup was served lukewarm and there wasn't a lot of chicken though it was packed with hominy.

The special featured tacos that were a little smaller than the regular version. The tortillas in the special were four inches in diameter, whereas the regular versions were five inches.

We got chicken quesadillas for the twins and, despite their ever-increasing appetites, one order was more than enough for both of them. So, all told, we spent $28, before tip, for six tacos (Jenny got three regulars, which made her every bit as blissful as I), a cup of soup and a quesadilla loaded with meat. In other words, it was less than $30 for a delicious meal the four of us could only barely finish (though I did manage to clean up the twins' scraps), making it well worth a forty minute round trip, even without swimming lessons.

Also of note: Indoor seating is available but outdoor seating is more fun. Note the tiled artwork on the patio furniture. The small parking lot fills up before 6:00 on a weekend night. Dia De Pesca accepts cash only.

Dia de Pesca
55 N Bascom Ave
San Jose, CA 95128
(408) 287-3722

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Biltmore Hotel and Suites--Santa Clara, CA

Yesterday my coworkers and I met at the Biltmore Hotel and Suites for our holiday event. With "murder on the menu",we were treated to a murder mystery, complete with professional actors. Thankfully, the actual menu for our lunch was anything but deadly. Because this was an event for seventy, we were limited to three choices for our entrees: vegetarian, chicken and beef. I went with the London Broil.

With my cut well marbled and substantial, I was delighted with my choice of meat, which was more notable for its texture than flavor. The sauce was appropriately gentle and didn't drown out the subtle flavor of the beef. The mashed potatoes hit the mark and I appreciated that they were served skin-on. The vegetables, mostly beans and carrots, were crisp and flavorful thanks to an ample dose of oil. I would have been happy to make a meal out of them.

The cheesecake was delicious. How can one really miss that badly, after all? It was creamy and topped with chopped walnuts and chocolate chips, which combined to overwhelm any flavor the cake itself may have had. But, that was OK by me!

I have two side notes. First, neighbors at my table who had the chicken breast all cleaned up and told me it was tender. Second, the iced tea had a floral fragrance to it, which wasn't at all offputting, but nevertheless unusual.

I found that it was for good reason that the Bilmore is a popular choice for my company's events such as retirement parties. You'd be limited to one of the Biltmore's two restaurants depending on when you're eating. Breakfast and lunch are served at Montague's Cafe, while dinner is served at Hops Bar and Grill. Our event was held at the latter, as it was lunch for a private party. The venue was a little dark but otherwise ideal.

Biltmore Hotel and Suites
2151 Laurelwood Road
Santa Clara, CA 95054
(408) 988-8411

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Totoro--Mountain View, CA

Wanting hot and spicy soup to warm us up, Jenny and I met at Totoro for lunch today. Soups are a specialty there and we both craved sundubu, a Korean hot and spicy tofu soup. We each ordered a bowl of beef sundubu. The kimchi that started us off was sparse in quantity, but also fresh and did well in whetting our appetites for the main event.

Whatever level of spiciness you desire, you should probably bring it up a notch when ordering at Totoro. Jenny ordered her soup "mild", but it was so gentle that she needed to spoon in some of my soup, which I requested "hot", to add some bang. Even though I aimed high with the spiciness, my beef soup didn't bring the heat that one might find in a beef soup at, say, Tofu House or Queen's House.

The rice that came along with the soup was fine, but being used to the rice and beans (with the latter turning the former a pleasant shade of purple) at Tofu House, I found it slightly lacking. Also, there was little beef. The soup was still boiling when it came to our table, though, and on a cold day like today, that's what mattered most.

The food arrived quickly and water streamed into our glasses as needed. Sure, Totoro came short in quantity and quality compared to, say, Tofu House. However, my next bowl of sundubu will be at Totoro because any shortfalls were more than compensated for by Totoro's quick, friendly service and, not insignificantly, my being able to use a credit card. A cash-only policy, so prevalent among Asian restaurants, always leaves me wondering where the "tax" I'm charged is really going. Our bill with tax but before tip, by the way, was $17.32.

841 Villa Street
Mountain View, CA 94041-1233
(650) 691-0796

Friday, December 3, 2010

Chef Chu's--Los Altos, CA

Although it had been nearly a year since we moved to our current home, it wasn't until yesterday that I celebrated the purchase with our agent. Following his suggestion, we met at Chef Chu's, which I last visited almost ten years ago. Back then, it was a profoundly Americanized Chinese restaurant, missing only egg foo young on the menu and a pagoda on the roof. From the menu you chose an appetizer from Column A and a main dish from Column B.

Given that background, yesterday's visit was a pleasant surprise. The restaurant decor has been tastefully updated and the menu no longer caters to the chop suey crowd. Yesterday, there were even some native Chinese speakers among the clientele, giving the restaurant an air of legitimacy.

For lunch we ordered Hunan chicken and Mongolian beef. Lunch menu entrees include either an egg roll (which I got) or a soup of the day. Though hot and crisp the egg roll was on the skimpy side and virtually flavorless on its own, making the accompanying condiments (sweet and sour sauce and mustard) a must.

Both dishes were served hot, well flavored and in less than ten minutes after ordering. With a red pepper symbol next to the Hunan chicken on the menu, I was led me to believe the dish would be spicy, but it wasn't. Though a high proportion of each dish was meat, I still left lunch hungry since the portions were small.

Service was speedy, but catching a server can be difficult, especially during the lunch hour. We wanted a fresh pot of tea and it came in less than two minutes. But, flagging down a waiter took more than ten minutes. Be aggressive in getting help. As with many Chinese restaurants, servers at Chef Chu's will avoid eye contact, so be a little vocal.

Chef Chu's
1067 North San Antonio Road
Los Altos, CA 94022-1300
(650) 948-2696

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving turkey--Sunset recipe

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I prepared Thanksgiving turkey. I followed the Sunset recipe below, found in the November 2009 issue, except I substituted cranberry sauce for red currant jelly:

1 turkey (12-14 lbs.), cut up by butcher into seven parts total: two wings, two thighs, two legs and one whole chicken breast
1/4 cup of olive oil
1 tbsp. each minced fresh sage, rosemary and thyme, divided
About 2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 cups white wine, divided
1/3 cup marsala
3 tbsp. red currant jelly

Do the following with your ingredients:

1) Preheat oven to 400 F
2) Throw the turkey parts into a bowl and coat with 2 tsp. of each herb, salt and pepper.
3) Pour 1 cup of wine into a roasting pan
4) Add legs and wings to pan
5) Roast 15 minutes, skin side down
6) Turn legs and wings over, then add breasts and thighs to pan, skin side up.
7) Pour in remaining wine
8) Roast 45 minutes to 1 hour, making sure a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of breast and thighs reads 160 F and juices run clear
9) Transfer meat to a cutting board, tent with foil and pour juices into saucepan
10) Add marsala, jelly (or, in my case, cranberry sauce) and remaining herbs. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 3 minutes.
11) Carve breast
12) Garnish with fresh sage or olive sprigs if desired

For my 14-pounder I went 15 minutes for Part 1 (legs and wings) and 45 minutes for Part 2 (adding the breast and thighs).

The recipe is built upon the premise that putting the entire turkey into the oven as one uncut bird leads to something either overdone (i.e. breast, thighs) or underdone (legs, wings). Hence, some parts will need more time inthe oven than others. The big benefits to the cook are that turkey is cut by the butcher and the turkey roasts for as little as an hour--how's that for quick?

The breast was good, especially with gravy, but wasn't quite as tender as my brother-in-law's brined turkey. Still, the returnn on investment (the return being flavor and tenderness, the investment being time and energy) is tough to top and I'd try a variation on this nine Thanksgivings out of ten. The dark meat was simply impeccable.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Faultline Brewery--Sunnyvale, CA

The Faultline Brewery has been a favorite of my employer for many years for conducting lunch interviews (I had mine there). It's also a favorite venue for equipment suppliers to catch up on what my company is interested in buying for its manufacturing floor. Such was the case yesterday when I sat down to Faultline's New England steak tips, a restaurant specialty. When the plate arrived I thought, "Oh, no", as I pretty much knew it wouldn't be enough to satisfy that deep well of a belly of mine. That said, the tips, which I ordered medium rare, were tender and flavorful. The meat was advertised as having a signature marinade, giving the steak a taste that was 50% sweet, 30% sour (in a good way) and 10% smokey. I could have eaten one slice of tip after another all day long. Alas, my lunch came with only three.

With my plate lacking quantity, I spent much of the lunch admiring the salmon salad across the table. Who would have guessed that it would be a salmon salad, not the steak, that would be the more filling lunch at my table? The salad was probably as good as it looked, as my counterpart ate every morsel.

Other notes: The lemonade isn't homemade. As popular as Faultine is, especially on Friday nights, feel free to drop by whenever you like for lunch--you probably won't have to wait for a table.

Faultline Brewery
1235 Oakmead Parkway
Sunnyvale, CA 94085-4040
(408) 736-2739

Friday, November 19, 2010

Maxim's--San Jose, CA

A great friend of mine was gracious enough to spend part of his birthday with me yesterday and we chose to meet at Maxim's in San Jose on Saratoga Avenue for lunch. Formerly a part of the Max's Opera Cafe chain, the restaurant has been under a different management for at least two years. However, from Max's they kept the menu, location and a name similar enough to give pause to any trademark attorney.

At Maxim's or at Max's, the matzo ball soup has always been a must-have. Today, though, it was very, very salty--the saltiest soup of any kind I've had anywhere in years. Otherwise, beneath the thick cover of brine one could still detect a rich flavor in the broth. Moreover, the soup was hot and loaded with chicken and vegetables. Ordering a bowl, by the way, gets you two matzo balls, while a cup gets you one.

Another of my standbys is the vegetable double stuffed potato, which today was good, but only about 70% of the size of that at Max's Opera Cafe. The dish came with plenty of Caesar salad on the side. My friend's pastrami sandwich was thick and, though I'd forgotten to ask if he enjoyed his meal, he finished it without complaint.

As for service, I would have appreciated some bread to be delivered to our table. At Maxim's, as at Max's, their freshly baked bread is beyond the ordinary. If you go, request a basket and try out their raisin bread, for example. Also, when we arrived at our booth, both benches were dirty with crumbs, which we swiped off with our hands. And, along with that oversalted matzo ball soup? I got a rusty spoon. My lunch partner was so engaging, though, that I thought about the bread and a new spoon only when it was too late.

All that said, of course, I'll return to Maxim's as I always end up doing. It's a step down from the original Max's--and it's no less expensive--but the difference is compensated for by the proximity to work.

The restaurant is nearly empty at lunchtime, by the way, so come anytime you like. Cole slaw and pickles come with your dish upon request.

1620 Saratoga Ave.
San Jose, CA, 95129
(408) 379-8886

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bamboo Garden--Mountain View, CA

Last weekend the four of us ate dinner at a restaurant, near Rengstorff Avenue and Central Expressway, that recently changed hands. With Bamboo Garden featuring Shanghainese cuisine, we ordered the obligatory shao lung bao, each of which was too large to be considered authentic but was hot and loaded with soup. The crab shao lung bao did not have the distinctive crab flavor that was expected. Moreover, Jenny actually liked the standard pork shao lung bao more than the crab. Otherwise, both dumplings were good. The skin was robust enough to keep the soup inside but wasn't overly thick.

The fish fillet in wine sauce was a slight disappointment. The fish was tender but overall the dish was far too salty. The wood ear (or moo shu of "moo shu pork" fame) in the dish was served clustered and came off big and clumpy.

We offered to options to the kids. The Shanghai fried noodles were adequate--the kids enjoyed them--but not chewy. The other dish for the boys was the Shanghai fried rice. Perhaps a healthier option than standard fried rice, the dish can also taste bland. However, at Bamboo Garden the Shanghai fried rice was flavorful. It helped that they loaded the plate with bacon.

The service was fast and cheerful. As is often found at Shanghainese restaurants, Bamboo Garden provided a window through which one could watch a cook process dough and make dumplings. Our search for the HC Dumpling of 2006 continues, though. Bamboo Garden certainly doesn't meet that standard. However, we'll probably likely return out of convenience.

Bamboo Garden
108 N Rengstorff Ave
Mountain View, CA 94043

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Agape Grill--Sunnyvale, CA

On a beautiful warm afternoon last Wednesday Jenny and I met for lunch in the largely industrial neighborhood near Stewart and Wolfe in Sunnyvale. I ordered the grilled snapper, which was one of the specials of the day.

Food came quickly. The server with my lemon soup walked with me as I found my table after ordering at the counter. The soup was simple, but on the mark--hot with a strong lemon flavor and a thick consistency not far from that of chowder. The grilled snapper was a little overdone and bony.

The pita bread was the star of the lunch. It was soft and fluffy and went well with the hummus. A server even thought to give us an additional serving without asking. The large entree plus the bread and hummus had me going away full--very full. The meal was well worth the $10 price tag.

Jenny's "lamb tender" also featured a big plate, but the lamb was slightly overdone and chewy--uncommon for a skewered meat.

You can visit Agape--and I recommend you do--anytime you like. The restaurant has six tables outside but virtually unlimited seating inside (and I mean it--the restaurant could have seated at least fifty additional diners during the lunch hour). There's plenty of parking, too, making Agape a great choice during a lunchtime pinch.

845 Stewart Dr
Ste A
Sunnyvale, CA 94085
(408) 739-3354

Friday, November 5, 2010

Liang's Village Cuisine--Cupertino, CA

Perhaps more than anything else, curiosity compelled us to drop by Liang’s last Saturday for dinner. At dinnertime on the weekends, throngs of people would wait outside without complaint. Could such a long wait be worth it? Well, yes, it turns out.

To compare against other restaurants with similar menus, I tried a standard: the beef noodle soup (above), which featured tender chunks of meat in a hot, beefy broth. The thin noodles were silky smooth, chewy and didn’t clump. As good as the soup was—I’d get it again—it wasn’t even the second best offering on the table.

Better than the beef noodle soup was the ox tail (above), which was tender and delicious, due in part to the fat, which was in ample supply. The meat was well seasoned and had a flavor containing a hint of tomato.

The star of the evening, though, was the beef roll. Rolled into fluffy, oily onion pancakes were slices of tender meat, which were slightly sweet. Although the combination was simple, it was nevertheless scrumptious, filling and a fantastic value at $6.50.

As for the kids, they didn’t fare so badly either. They began by sharing a dish of tomato ground pork with thin noodles and quickly slammed it down. Since they enjoyed it so much, we ordered another. However, this time the dish came with thick noodles, which were more like ribbons roughly an inch wide. Oh, my! They were delightfully chewy and had Jenny and I had to show a lot of restraint to keep from moving in on our kids’ dinner. There’s always next time, though, when we’ll be sure to have our soups with the thick noodles.

That “next time” will require us to get to Liang’s early. Saturday we got there at 5:20 but still had to wait for ten minutes to be seated. The preceding weekend we got there at 6:00 or so and were told the wait would be half an hour. The overwhelming demand for a table at Liang’s Kitchen is well justified. From what I saw, Liang’s prepares everything well, provides an excellent value and has servers who are cheerful, too.

Liang's Village Cuisine
19772 Stevens Creek Blvd
Cupertino, CA 95014
(408) 725-9999

Friday, October 29, 2010

China Stix--Santa Clara, CA

If you were to add it all up, the restaurant we've taken out from most often is China Stix. The consistency, variety and proximity to my work in Santa Clara keep bringing us back. Two Fridays ago we picked up dinner for the four of us plus my dad.

The dish we order at China Stix more than all others is the year cake ("nian gao", above), which we love for the soft, chewy noodles. However,this time the noodles in the year cake were soft, clumped together and gooey. With the year cake being so successful over the years, however, we'll give it another chance.
Both items in the shrimp and broccoli (above) were crisp and we appreciated the quantity of the former. The noodles in the beef chow fun had just the right consistency and grease. We ordered this one to assure we'd be full and it served its function. The minced fish in lettuce cups (below), another standby of ours, was good but should be consumed quickly and not saved for later. Not only will the lettuce become limp, but the chopped rice stick will lose its crunch.

If one orders enough food for take out, China Stix will throw in a box of fried rice. The dollar threshold for this freebie changes from time to time, but in general ordering three dishes will do it Be sure to mention this promotion to the one taking your order when you call in. As always, the fried rice was the highlight for the boys.

By the way, dumplings are a specialty at China Stix and are best enjoyed fresh at the restaurant. In the Bay Area, it's difficult to find an equal to the dumpling quality and variety found here.

China Stix
2110 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95050-4055
(408) 244-1684

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Baume--Palo Alto, CA

Yesterday I met Jenny for lunch in Palo Alto. As recognition at work for a job well done, we were told to go out to any place we liked. We chose Baume.

Our appetizer (above) was a leek and truffle filled steamed bun topped with gold foil. It was ordinary and could even be considered dull without the aioli. With the bun served in a bamboo steamer, comparisons to authentic Chinese steamed buns would be made by any diner. And, such a comparison would reveal this bun lacked the distinctive flavor, scrumptious filling and overall substance of what could be found at any above average dim sum or Shanghainese restaurant. To Baume's credit, the little bun was served hot and soft.

Next, came a terrine (below) as notable for its novelty--a forcemeat composed of slices of root vegetables such as beets and radishes--as its delicious sauce, a sage aioli. Our server topped our plates with the seed-like juice sacs of orange frozen in liquid nitrogen, which was intriguing but perhaps more of a gimmick. The bits of orange quickly lost their hardness.

The liquid nitrogen was used also in freezing a "lime explosion" ice cream, a small scoop of which rested on miso-infused rice puffs in the middle of a soup bowl. Our server then poured hot kabocha soup at our table. The green ice cream and the orange soup complemented each other well aesthetically, but the combination also served to produce a soup that was neither hot nor cold. The rice puffs with their crunch and maple flavor were the most enjoyable part of this concoction in my mind.

The filet mignon (above), excised from a grass-fed cow, was the most tender I'd had in a while. My wife even thought it too tender. What made the dish so distinctive, though, was the celery sponge, made by combining celery powder and egg protein. The porous little cube packed a tangy flavor and quickly melted in the mouth with a slight fizz.

Compared to the novelty of the dishes we'd had so far, dessert (below) was ho-hum. Served to us was a pumpkin cake topped with cranberry gelee along with pumpkin seeds and ginger-apple sorbet on the side.

I have two complaints about Baume. First, despite dropping $166 for lunch, we both left Baume still needing more to eat. For me, three apples and an energy bar in the afternoon still weren't enough to keep hunger at bay. Second, the one table that left before us was given a package of marshmallows as a send-off. This is a common practice for restaurants at this price point. Over the past year, for example, we left French Laundry and Manresa with similar good-bye presents. However, for our farewell we got nothing but the bill. Granted, it may have been because the other table had the more expensive menu and, besides, I really didn't care about the marshmallows themselves (other than that I was hungry even after dessert). But, still: to offer a take-home within earshot of other guests who aren't destined for a similar courtesy is bad form, plain and simple.

201 South California Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94306-1912
(650) 328-8899