Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

Eating California

November 21, 2007


Recently, we were out of the kitchen for more than a week. Instead, we were feasting on the abundant and varied wonders along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Here are some of the highlights. These aren’t restaurant reviews, by any stretch of the imagination—just some nice memories of some great places and moments.

First, some lovely mornings were spent at the table of our hosts Cara and Jun in San Francisco, whether over pastries picked up at a bakery a few blocks away or omelets filled with cheese and enoki mushrooms, prepared by Jun and accompanied by much discussion of Japanese cooking. He sent us home with some dried kelp that will be central to future soup experiments.

And now on to restaurants:

Mandalay, 4344 California Street, San Francisco. This was the emergency back-up Burmese restaurant when it was determined our first choice would be too crowded. We were impressed. Chicago has, at last count, zero Burmese restaurants. Mandalay also offers some Chinese dishes, but we were there for Burmese. The spices are different from Chinese cuisine, and the food is less “saucy.” Jun guided us to the most distinctively Burmese dishes on the menu: the salads—rainbow, mango and green tealeaf. Tossed by hand by the waitstaff at the table, ingredients include roasted lentils, garlic, coconut, sesame seeds, crunchy fried garlic, sesame seeds and pickled green pepper. We had all three—all three were wonderful. As was everything else, six or seven dishes in all. And the pre-tip bill for six of us, including half a dozen drinks and one dessert [sweet-toothed Cara tried to share, but we were all happily full], was a whopping $109. Which leads me to ask, who do we have to talk to to get a Burmese place here in Chicago?

Fifi’s Bistro, 1188 Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove. This was a delightful Internet find by the always resourceful Marion. Pacific Grove is a small town [its own words] on the Monterey Peninsula, filled with wonderfully restored Victorian cottages. It was also the last community in California to give up temperance, not until 1969. So longtime resident and total non-teetotaler John Steinbeck had to leave town to get drunk. The name Fifi’s didn’t fill us with confidence, but a quick look at their website did. And the restaurant delivered: a lovely, relaxed setting and delicious food. Marion had a sea bass special; I had the Petrale Sole Piccata, with lemon butter sauce and capers, a regular offering. Both were excellent. And happily, Fifi’s has embraced the repeal of temperance with a great wine list. We embraced it too.


Nepenthe, Highway 1, Big Sur. That’s about as much address as you get in Big Sur. Ask locals for more directions and you’ll get, “It’s about half a mile past the…” And when we asked at our hotel, the Glen Oaks Big Sur [address: “Highway 1, Big Sur”], at 4:30 in the afternoon when we should go to Nepenthe for dinner if we wanted to see the sunset, both locals in the room said, “Now.” They were right. This time of year, the sun drops like a shot ox.

Seated atop a cliff on the edge of America, with spectacular views down the coast and out across the Pacific Ocean hundreds of feet below, Nepenthe could get by on looks alone. We all know restaurants that do. It doesn’t. The wonderful food is every bit the match for the scenery. And Nepenthe is staffed with friendly, helpful people who genuinely want you to have a good time. When we bravely chose the terrace rather than the fireplace-heated dining room [it was chilly, but the view was so enticing], the busboy dragged one of the heat lamps over to our seats along the railing. [Except for one bartender in Santa Monica, we found this kind of attitude to be the case everywhere we went in California. And in the bartender’s defense, he probably thought he was supplying needed etiquette lessons to one hapless patron—not us, of course.] We both had the glazed duck, half a Maple Leaf duck generously and mysteriously equipped with an entire extra leg and topped with a mango glaze. It. Was. Incredible.

Olde Port Inn, the end of Avila Beach Drive, Avila Beach. No doubt about it—California has some interesting addresses. This restaurant is on the end of a working pier jutting into the Pacific, just north of Pismo Beach. That means much of their seafood is especially fresh. It is also quite good. We had the Fisherman’s Plate, a plentiful combination of grilled fresh fish, shrimp, scallops, clams and calamari. And no, we don’t always [or even usually] order the same thing. It just worked out that way.

As good as the food was, the entertainment was even better. California sea lions live in the waters around the pier, and at night, they congregate on a dock under the pier—and more to the point, directly beneath the restaurant. Their LOUD barking often drowned out the quiet jazz on the restaurant’s sound system. After dinner, we walked around on the pier a bit—again, a working pier, not a tourist attraction. At one point, Marion looked down a gated wooden staircase and saw several LARGE sea lions sitting there, conversing loudly.

Café Angelica, 490 First Street, Solvang. Solvang calls itself the Danish Capital of America. It is, in letters five miles high. Just a brief walk down its relentlessly cute streets lined with shops relentlessly stuffed with all kinds of precious, fragile blue and white… what’s a polite word for crap… I was struck by the desire for an aluminum baseball bat. In my mind’s ear, I could hear the satisfying ping of aluminum contacting porcelain.

We got to the restaurant just in time. Café Angelica is a Cal/Italian oasis in a sea of kitsch. We were on our way to wineries near Los Olivos, but it sounded like our best shot at restaurants was Solvang. Fortunately, our guidebook pointed out this fabulous non-Danish option. One thing about just about everywhere we ate in California, by the way: Everything was incredibly fresh tasting. Café Angelica was no exception. I can’t even remember specifically what we ordered now, but it was delicious. If we ever have the misfortune to end up in this hyperquaint town again, you’ll find us holed up here.

Daikokuya, 327 E. First Street, Los Angeles. After a few days of breathtaking nature and out-of-the-way places, we were ready for big city fun in LA. We checked into The New Otani Hotel downtown and headed out for some gallery openings. A whole gallery district has opened up downtown since the last time we’d been there, and there were people galore trawling the scene. Then we headed for this amazing noodle shop around ten. Daikokuya is a narrow little place with booths along one wall and a handful of stools along a counter facing the open kitchen. Even at this hour, it was more than a half an hour before we got a couple of stools. One taste of the exquisite Daikuko Raumen told us why it was so popular—and why it had made L.A. Weekly’s 99 Essential Restaurants: The Metropolitan Palate list. While they do serve other dishes, the raumen is the reason to go. The soup is made from pork bones boiled for almost a full day. It is then topped with [stuffed with, actually] noodles, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, green onions, slices of tender kurobuta pork and an entire boiled egg. The place was loud, bustling and lively—the perfect change of pace from the laid back meals of the past few days. We ended the evening with a set of jazz at 2nd Street Jazz Bar & Grill. All these places were walking distance from our hotel, a rare treat in LA.


Chez Jay, 1657 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica. When Chicago transplant friends Lou and Marie suggested we meet in this nondescript little dive near the Santa Monica Pier, one look at the menu online was enough to sell Marion. They had Sand Dabs. Pacific Sand Dabs [also sanddabs, depending on whose spelling you believe] are smallish relatives of halibut and other flatfish. Marion had read that they are also hard to find, and that when you do, you should order them. Period. So what makes a flatfish a flatfish? They start out looking fairly standard issue, but as they mature, one eye migrates to the other side of their heads, right alongside the other [see the photo, cadged from Wikipedia, as I recall—God knows where they got it]. They then spend much of their lives lying on the sandy ocean bottom, nicely disguised as they wait for prey to move within range. Some of them are then caught and become the amazing, delicate fillets served at Chez Jay.

As a place, Chez Jay is reliably, comfortably divey. Great bar [with the aforementioned bartender the night we were there], checkered oil cloth on the tables and a great history. Hard-drinking celebs like Robert Mitchum used to hang out there because Jay knew how to keep his mouth shut when gossip columnists called. Even today, they frown on cameras in the place.

Frying Fish Restaurant, 120 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles. Chicago expat Lou also turned us on to this place, a lively little sushi joint in Little Tokyo, also walking distance from our hotel [I think we perplexed some California friends with our propensity for walking in LA]. There are a few tables, as I recall, but the action is centered on the stools and narrow counter in the middle of the room. A conveyor belt travels the edge of this island, carrying individual small plates of sushi. A sushi chef works continuously inside this loop, creating new dishes and adding them to the conveyor belt. As the small plates pass by, you grab what you want—the plates are color coded by price, and at the end, the cashier counts up your plates and charges you accordingly [the prices are quite reasonable, by the way].

Everything is fresh and delicious, and the chef keeps an interesting variety coming. And if you have a special request, you just call it out and the chef prepares it, sometimes with a side of editorial comment. Someone called for California rolls, and he let out a big sigh and said, “Ohhhh, okayyyy.”


Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. This landmark market in downtown LA dates back to 1917. Its produce stands and restaurants—mostly Asian and Latino food vendors with narrow counters around their booths—are always bustling. On this visit, a mariachi band was roaming the huge hall. The food we had here was mostly just filling—an important factor before we headed for LAX—but the atmosphere was wonderful. Director Ridley Scott filmed much of Blade Runner across the street at the historic Bradbury Building. Looking around the market, at diners crowded at counters and a constantly moving sea of shoppers among the stalls, I could imagine him getting inspiration for his dark street scenes in the movie.

Okay. I know this sounds like much more than a week’s worth of meals, but there are actually places I left out. Just about everything we ate was wonderful, though. And I would happily return to just about every place we hit.



International comfort food—in a tuba museum?

August 29, 2007

Quirky, comforting little places like the Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum in Okemos, Michigan, are why you leave the Interstate. It’s not quirky in an it’s-so-bad-it’s-good sort of way—owners Jennifer Brooke Byrom and William White are in on the joke of its charm. Neither is it quirky in a calculated, corporate theme restaurant sort of way.


Instead, everything about the Travelers Club—the decor, the friendly, relaxed staff, the ambitious, multi-paged international menu—seems to have grown organically from the owners’ own travels and lives. You get the sense that the restaurant is the way it is because this is the kind of place they want it to be.

And the way it is is comfortable and charming. The whole place has a relaxed, slightly homemade, slightly shabby [in a hippieish good way] feel. Tubas, sousaphones, French horns and fluglehorns adorn the walls and ceiling, along with an assortment of world maps for the traveler in us all. In addition to the handful of tables and booths, there’s an outdoor garden patio with the world’s only Sousaphountain. The music, when someone remembers to put it on, is an eclectic mix.

The tuba collection [or museum, as they call it] grew just as organically. William is a tuba player. He started leaving horns around the restaurant to play with visiting musicians [speaking of WTF?] and ultimately decided to create a museum. Most of the horns on display are in playable condition.

An overnight Michigan road trip led us to the Travelers Club. We’d driven past it on previous trips, so when Marion found a positive write-up of it on Chowhound, we decided to give it a try for dinner. We liked it so much, we went back the next day for lunch.

As I said, the menu is ambitious. It goes on for pages and pages, embracing American classics along with latin, asian and middle eastern dishes. Pulling this off would be a feat for any restaurant; for a small place like this that does breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, it is a formidable challenge. Not everything succeeds. But the stuff that is good is really good. And when we sent back a weirdly subpar gazpacho, the waiter cheerfully announced he would take it off the bill, without even being asked. Among the successes were the buffalo burgers and the ridiculously delicious Deluxe Nachos Grande with chorizo. There were plenty of excellent vegetarian offerings too.

A dinner special, Pescado en Tikin Xik—a fish dish from South and Central America, grouper fillet charbroiled in an achiote paste [a mixture of garlic, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and vinegar]—was wonderful, but just not plentiful enough. And let me clarify: We are not big eaters. But the fillets were tiny, probably weighing in at three or four ounces. We would gladly have paid a few dollars more than the far too modest price of $10.95 had another small fillet been added.


The prices across the board are insanely modest, even after factoring in my Chicago-trained threshold for wallet pain. This extends to the equally ambitious beer and wine lists. They serve 120 beers, all well-priced [although, of course, they were out of the first one Marion ordered]. And the well-chosen wine list—including more than a dozen Californias, a truly international selection of imports and even a few Michigan wines—has by-the-glass prices starting at $3.50 and topping out at just four dollars more.

It all adds up to this: Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum is a delightful, cozy, quirky place that would quickly count us among its regulars if we lived there. Not precious, not hip. Just real. Best of all, it’s run by people you know you would end up calling your friends. And what more can a traveler ask for?

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Downtown St. Louis’ second act

July 4, 2007

Originally posted 7/4/07

In the most recent census, the population of the city of St. Louis actually increased after decades of decline. I’m speaking specifically of the city proper now—the metropolitan area has shown steady growth all along, but in recent years, the city had been bleeding population to the suburbs. it had been losing businesses too—the compact but beautiful downtown was becoming a ghost town, with perilously high vacancy rates in the office buildings that weren’t just plain empty. Amazingly, the convergence of these two daunting problems [common, by the way, to far too many mid-sized American cities] is leading to a single, elegant solution—one that has even garnered the attention of the New York Times.


So what is bringing people back to the city? The reinvention of downtown as a residential community. Vacant and near-vacant office buildings are being converted to lofts and condos. More important, people are snapping them up and moving in. Restaurants and various neighborhood services are following. One of the pioneers, City Grocers, has even spawned competition—two of the local supermarket chains are opening stores downtown, something I’ve argued that they should have done years ago. There are bars, clubs and art galleries sprinkled around the area. And some of the businesses do still remain, adding their own energy to the mix. The overall result is that downtown St. Louis is becoming not just a neighborhood, but a fun, lively, very urban neighborhood. Other cities have tried this approach—and are trying it now—but for some reason, it is really taking hold in St. Louis.

One of the hubs of all this cool new development is Washington Avenue, the former garment district. Even when much of downtown was on life support, this area was already making things happen. Artists and photographers were renting entire floors of former clothing factories and warehouses for cheap. Soon, young entrepreneurial promoters were renting storefronts and converting them to live music venues and lounges. People started flocking downtown for more than just Cardinals games. Eyes were opened.

Washington Avenue remains at the heart of much of the development. And one of our favorite places for a weekend bite to eat is there—Crêpes in the City. It’s only a part-time restaurant, tucked inside Washington Ave Post, an office services and supply center that offers photocopying, UPS shipping, rental mailboxes, Internet access and a full service coffee bar. Washington Ave Post also offers its wall space to local artists and participates in the First Friday Downtown Gallery Walks.

crepes.jpgCrêpes in the City adds just one more element to this cool patchwork quilt of a business. On Fridays at lunch and Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 2pm, Mary Gonzalez and her partner José set up a crêpe station with three electric crêpe griddles much like those you’d see street vendors using in Paris. And there the Peruvian-born duo turns out a delicious assortment of savory and sweet crêpes. The crêpes themselves are light and paper thin, the fillings fresh, inventive and generous. No wonder happy diners quickly fill the handful of tables inside and on the sidewalk out front.

To some, this half-copy shop, half-crêperie might seem like an odd setting for food. To me, the cobbling together of all these elements into a business is part of its charm. Of course, this kind of casual, let’s-give-it-a-try-and-see-what-happens entrepreneurial spirit is at the heart of many of St. Louis’ more interesting businesses and endeavors. Enjoy it while you can at Crêpes in the City—Mary and José are talking about taking the crêperie full time a couple of blocks up the street sometime this fall. I can’t wait to go there when they do.

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