Sunday, March 28, 2010

Manresa--Los Gatos, CA

We last went to Manresa about a year ago and were pleased to see last night certain things haven’t changed, such as the Arpege egg served as an amuse bouche. Having been served at Manresa for several years, this gift from the chef has come to be an expectation for returning diners. For this dish, the top of the egg’s shell was cut and the egg white removed. Added to the yoke were chives, maple syrup, sherry vinegar and cream. The concoction was then heated in warm water, but not boiled. Preceding the egg was a first amuse bouche, crispy mussels with black lentil puree. I was amazed by how similar in flavor the mussels were with the puree; but, that was all. While eating the mussel I was concerned that this would be our only amuse bouche of the night and we’d be shortchanged out of the egg—Manresa spoiled me.

My first dish off the menu was the shellfish in a roasted tuna broth. The “shellfish” were geoduck clam, clam, crab and octopus. The plate, served cold, offered an interesting mix of textures and it was fun trying to guess what exactly I was eating. If I could try ordering again, though, I’d go for the prawns, which my wife thought was the highlight of the evening.

Next was the Atlantic sea bass with mashed potatoes, cabbage and chopped oysters. Dominating this dish, for better or for worse, were the buttery, rich mashed potatoes. The finely chopped oyster was so sparsely distributed in the sauce it was only barely noticeable. To access the striped bass I needed to dig through the cabbage. The fish was served as a small strip, slightly underdone. The cabbage was crisp and delightful to munch through, especially with the buttery mashed potatoes as a dressing.

The spring lamb and tongue confit with bulghur porridge in whey proved to be the best dish of the night. Although not detailed on the menu, this entrée came with three different parts of the lamb: the tongue, shoulder and loin. The tongue was heavy but delicious. The shoulder, braised at low temperature, was so tender it fell apart under the weight of a fork. The loin was a tad underdone for my taste, but still worthy of this little masterpiece of a dish. “Porridge” would normally bring to mind a big bowl of soft grain in hot water. Tonight, though, it was perhaps a tablespoon or two of whey in a strong sauce. If there was ever a dish to go with a heavy red wine, this was it. (We went with a sparkling Riesling, which was a fine choice given the breadth of our courses.) For all its weightiness, though, Manresa delivered a dish full of distinct flavors along with one terrific shoulder.

My dessert had the charming name, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” and came with coffee ice cream, froth, chicory, pecan praline, Manresa’s version of a Bananas Foster and beignets. Our server told me it’s best to save the beignets (which are much like small square donuts topped with confectioner’s sugar) for the end to wipe up the rest of the dessert plate. When I asked if this would be bad manners, he said “no”. So, I went at it. The dessert was creative, but perhaps more of a treat for the eyes than the mouth. The competing sweet flavors (especially from the praline, banana and beignets) overloaded the buds.

Just before the check arrived we were given chocolate truffles resting in cocoa nips and flavored with Armagnac and tobacco. With its creative recipe, competent execution and hint of whimsy, this little gem epitomized tonight’s experience. On our way out, our server offered us homemade chocolate saltwater toffee. He told us to take a few—I was more than happy to oblige.

We’re sure to enjoy another dinner at Manresa, but probably not over the next year or two. In this tier there are too many other local restaurants we’ve yet to try. Moreover, I don’t dare risk relegating that exceptional Arpege egg to customary status.

320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA 95030-7218
(408) 354-4330

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thai Elephant--Hillsboro, OR

Although one would normally order from a menu at Thai Elephant, we ate buffet style tonight as eighty of us gathered there for a company outing. Dishes included Thai rice, Pad Thai, ground pork with peppers, chicken with string beans, spring rolls, egg rolls and creamy Thai coconut soup. Just for fun, I had a Thai iced tea, which both quenched my thirst and was a great pleasure to drink.

With the restaurant’s modern décor, the bar and its prominent location in an upscale outdoor mall, it has the makings of a first-date hangout. Moreover, it served its purpose well for us in providing a festive environment with good service. One might not notice, then, that the food was mediocre. Although it was supposed to be creamy, the coconut soup was overly rich and could be handled only in small doses. The spring rolls were flavorless. The egg roll was quite possibly the worst I’ve ever had. The skin had crunch, but the filling had the flavor of paste. The dinner had redeeming qualities, though. The rice was hot and soft and went well with any of the main dishes. The pineapples and oranges for dessert merited multiple trips to the buffet.

The fact that the dinner was mass produced and therefore possibly lacked quality control can’t really be blamed on the restaurant. The restaurant clearly made an effort with their service. Despite the number of guests, they tended to all of us well and made sure food was in abundant supply over the two hours we were there. I’d be willing to give this restaurant another chance, but only on a date-night with my wife. Children in this trendy nightspot would somehow seem out of place.

Thai Elephant
2225 Northwest Allie Avenue
Hillsboro, OR 97124
(503) 645-5959

Friday, March 19, 2010

Las Islitas--Sunnyvale, CA

I first ate at this location nearly 15 years ago, when it was Hot N Mild. Walking in that first time, I would never have guessed that my favorite burritos would be made in this unassuming restaurant in a 7-Eleven strip mall. I was swept away by their chicken burrito so much that I ate yet another and still left wanting more. The size of the burrito couldn’t be blamed for the fact that I was still hungry. It was so large it felt like a small baby in my hands. Rather, it was that the burrito was plain delicious, a result of the restaurant preparing each of the components well. The chicken was a dark meat that was extraordinarily tender. There was enough salsa for flavor but not so much as to make the burrito soupy. The wrap itself was heated on the grill, assuring the burrito would stay warm, even if brought all the way home. But the secret, I believe, was that hot, fluffy, moist Spanish rice. The rice set the tone for the entire burrito. After all, there was more of it by mass than any other element except perhaps the tortilla. I was so taken by their food that I ate there at least once a week for years on end. They knew me so well I often got the second burrito free or at half price.

Due to time constraints at work and obligations in my personal life, until yesterday it had been more a year since I last ate there. Hot N Mild a few years ago became Las Islitas. The name had changed but the faces at the grill and behind the register were the same. When I stopped by yesterday, though, the name was still Las Islitas but I didn’t recognize a single soul. What has survived, however, is that recipe for the perfect chicken burrito. I made the order to go and, when I got to my desk at work more than fifteen minutes later, it was still hot, seemingly fresh off the grill. And, after all these years it was still the delight I knew so well. It made me think maybe you can come home after all.

Las Islitas
848 East Evelyn Avenue
Sunnyvale, CA 94086-6528
(408) 746-9172

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mil's Diner--Milpitas, CA

With the kids in Chinese school early yesterday morning for a make-up class, the stars were aligned for my wife and I to steal away for breakfast. Mil’s Diner in Milpitas has the timeless look and feel of the classic breakfast diner, having primarily booth seating and a counter facing the kitchen. My wife and I each went with an omelet. My wife's was with bay shrimp and mushrooms. I went with the beef fajita. Each omelet came stuffed with ingredients. Mine was bulging with strips of steak, mushrooms and bell peppers. The eggs, usually a feature of an omelet, essentially served merely as a glue to hold the beef and vegetables together. My wife’s omelet was almost as substantial and arrived loaded with shrimp. It was a great suggestion by our server to add salsa, which gave zip to both omelets. It wasn't until almost the end of breakfast that I noticed that both of our omelets came without cheese. I remarked that I rather liked the omission, as it made the beef strips stand out. My wife, however, thought without cheese her omelet wasn't complete.

The hash browns were right on the mark with a crisp exterior and properly cooked throughout. I don’t recall hash browns so delicious with ketchup. Breakfast also included toast, which could be any of a variety of breads including sourdough.

The service was excellent. Our breakfast was served about five minutes after ordering. My cup of coffee wasn’t allowed to get even half empty and we never ran out of water.

Although Mil's markets itself as a breakfast diner, they also boast of burgers and steaks on their menu and website. If they're prepared as well as their omelets, I'd love to go return for more cow.

Mil's Diner
36 S Abbott Ave
Milpitas, CA 95035
(408) 946-4773

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Falafel and Kabob--Mountain View, CA

This afternoon my wife and I ate lunch at Falafel and Kabob, where we each had a chicken kabob plate. Although it was merely delicious today, the chicken can often be tender and juicy enough to turn lunch into a spiritual affair. Good day or bad, though, the lightly seasoned chicken is always served hot on two skewers with five cubes of chicken per skewer. I went with the standard plate, which came with hummus, rice pilaf and a salad composed of romaine lettuce and pickled cabbage. Pita bread was also delivered to the table. The salad is never remarkable and today’s was no exception. The pickled cabbage can taste fairly sour and my wife usually takes a pass. The hummus was creamy, as always, and wasn’t as thick as that found in, say, a sandwich at Togo’s. It was ideal for dipping and wiping up. The rice complemented the chicken well and the restaurant gave my wife an extra scoop upon request.

My wife and I have eaten lunch at Falafel and Kabob more often than at any other restaurant. We go because it’s reliable, the service is friendly—the man at the counter always recognizes me and sometimes even remembers what I usually order—and we can get there at noon knowing an available table will be waiting for us. Although we often go to Falafel as a fallback, I never leave wishing I ate somewhere else. And, most important to me, I never leave hungry.

Falafel and Kabob
1477 Plymouth Street
Mountain View, CA 94043
(650) 961-2437

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Frankie Johnnie and Luigi Too--Mountain View, CA

Last Saturday we returned to the same strip of restaurants on El Camino as the night before (please see our review for Chef Xiu). After a long wait, we were anxious to sink our teeth into appetizers. The calamari came with a relatively thick batter that flaked off easily, revealing bare, pink, extraordinarily long tentacles. I have no hang up over those long, skinny, curly tubes, but many do and it’s something to be aware of. The appetizer came with three dipping sauces, including aioli, tartar and tomato. Far more distinctive and fun was the sausage bread, which had embedded sausage pieces with cheese just under the crust. The bread was delivered hot and came with a marinara sauce.

I asked our server to choose his favorite oven-baked dish. I was glad he selected the lasagna, as that was also on my mind. What came was a monstrous portion baked in its own oval au gratin dish. By my measurement, the big chunk came in at about five inches wide, two inches deep and seven inches long. The lasagna arrived piping hot with melted cheese on top and was filled with delicious ricotta. I appreciated that there was no soupiness to it. That is, it wasn’t watery as many pasta dishes can be. Interestingly, there was a small cube of steak in my lasagna as there was in my son’s spaghetti.

My wife tried their special, a butterfly pasta (farafalle) with spinach, tilapia, salmon and clams. She wife enjoyed the dish and gave me some salmon, which all but melted in my mouth. My dad had the fettuccine with shrimp. He thought the dish a bit heavy, but good. All three of us finished our plates.

The twins each went with a spaghetti, which they cleaned up and then some. The bigger twin couldn’t get enough of the dinner bread, which was a freshly baked sourdough. He used it to wipe his plate to a mirror finish.

As I left the restaurant I was already strategizing my return visit. After all, the lasagna, however fundamental and basic the dish may be, was terrific—the best in memory. As I wrote a draft of this review a few hours afterwards, though, I was still thirsty after drinking about half a gallon of ice water throughout that evening. My wife expressed having a similar thirst, so our dinners were certainly sodium rich.

If you go on a Saturday, get there early. We arrived at 5:35 pm but still needed to wait half an hour for a table. We passed the time watching from the sidewalk the five employees dedicated to making pizza, with one only working the oven. By the way, if you take out from the Frankie’s in Saratoga, be sure to check your order before leaving. Of the three or four times we tried, they never got it correctly—they’re especially prone to forgetting the soup.

Frankie Johnnie and Luigi Too
939 West El Camino Real
Mountain View, CA 94040-2513
(650) 967-5384

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chef Xiu--Mountain View, CA

Last Friday night we tried Chef Xiu, which is a few minutes from our home. As always whenever we’re at a Chinese restaurant with my dad, he did the ordering. And, as always, he ordered lots of dishes—we had twelve, in fact. In rough order, they were sliced potato with bell pepper, onion pancakes, Five Fragrance Beef (a cold sliced beef dish), lotus-leaf wrapped shrimp and rice, shrimp dumplings, pork dumplings, sizzling tofu with shrimp, noodles with egg and cucumber, pea sprouts, stir-fried lamb with green onion, steamed carp and caramelized squash (more on that later). By the way, it doesn’t do the shrimp dumplings justice to call them simply that. They were a delicacy with a sliced scrambled egg, spinach and shrimp filling.

Overall, the dishes fell into three tiers. There were four that stood out as delightful, six that were good but obtainable elsewhere and one that was a dud. I’ll write about the extremes. The lotus-leaf wrapped shrimp and rice involved using cooked rice and lightly stir-fried shrimp which were then steamed in a lotus leaf. The process gave the shrimp a soft, delicate texture that offered one of the two greatest highlights of the meal. The shrimp dumplings, which I described earlier, were a hit because they were so distinctive. One could feel the shrimp, taste the spinach and see the egg. Because there were so many different sensations playing at once, the dumpling offered the diner a fun little mystery to solve: What exactly is in here? The sizzling tofu with shrimp was my wife’s favorite and I could understand why. What they did well here was the tofu cubes had a lightly fried exterior but a warm, very soft interior. It’s very difficult to get them both right but Chef Xiu pulled it off. Finally, the steamed carp, a Shanghainese dish, was the most tender fish I’ve had in memory. The meat nearly melted in my mouth. I certainly wouldn’t need teeth to eat it. It was served in a brown sauce that was on the sweet side. The fish was filleted and served butterflied on the plate.

The caramelized banana was a misfire from the beginning. First of all, they used bananas there were severely under-ripe (the dark green Costco bananas come to mind). This led to a dessert that was as dry as chalk and left a bitter aftertaste. Perhaps more disappointing, there was no show associated with it. For those who frequented Chinese restaurants growing up, who among you wasn’t amused as a child watching a server dump hot caramelized banana chunks into ice water? There was no such display for us, however, as they were all simply put on a plate in the kitchen then brought to us.

Overall, I thought the meal was a success but I’m not certain if I’ll be returning soon. There were too many shortfalls to give me confidence. We wanted winter melon soup, but they were out of winter melon. I had a craving for fresh ham—a staple of any restaurant featuring Shanghainese cuisine—but they were out. And when we tried to order buns for the kids? They were out of those, too. And then there were those caramelized bananas.

This restaurant has all the signs of a mom-and-pop operation including the small dining area (about seven tables), the cash-only policy and the fact that one had to walk through part of the kitchen to get to the single-use restroom. It may be harsh, then, to criticize them for the three dishes they couldn’t deliver rather than praise them for the twelve they did. However, it’s far less disappointing to the customer to offer a shorter menu that can be fully supported than an extensive one that’s in part just for show.

Chef Xiu
855 W El Camino Real
Mountain View, CA 94040
(650) 988-8820
Cash only
Additional parking in rear