February 25, 2008

our new home

This weekend, we finally moved into the new home! No, no... we didn't buy a new house... it is a new house, but we're just renting it for now. It's a truly beautiful place, thoughtfully and intelligently designed (and Built Green)... and it happens to fit all of our furniture perfectly! We couldn't be happier with our new place, and we're thankful to have such awesome landlords and neighbors who have extended a warm welcome to us.

The house inspires us... really. I've been itching to use the kitchen (a gas stove... finally!!) and the ample counter space, so for a quick dinner tonight, I thought I'd replicate one of the fantastic dishes we had at Harvest Vine on my birthday.

seared scallops, sauteed celery, shallot, kumquat

The lighting in this house is amazing... by day, the whole home is filled with natural light, and in the evening, we've got awesome light coverage for taking food photos.

Now that we have a nice sized yard, Lav is ready to launch a garden of lavender, shiso, rosemary, thyme, basil, peppermint, beer friends, japanese cucumbers and arugula (to start). And once we get later into this year, the apple, pear and plum trees in our yard will begin to bear fruit... so much fruit that we might dabble in making pies and preserves!

Dude, this is going to be an awesome year.

February 18, 2008

the Bay Area is my Chinese mustard green

This weekend, as I hit the one-year mark for my relocation to Seattle, Lav and I found ourselves back in the Bay Area for E&D's spectacularly beautiful wedding at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Our visits back "home" are always fantastic because of the opportunity to see family and friends, and the chance to eat some of our favorite foods at places still unmatched in Seattle. Don't get me wrong... we've had some amazing food in Seattle and, more broadly, the Pacific Northwest. But this trip back home was a great reminder of some of the simple foods that make us long for the Bay Area... a melange of flavors that make it particularly difficult to leave.

Lav and I still haven't found our go-to sushi spot in Seattle. Sure, there's decent sushi around, but we haven't yet settled on a place that strikes us with that special interplay of phenomenal fish, unparalleled skill, and an intimate atmosphere of familiarity that we have when we visit Sushi Sho. So that was our first stop... we literally booked it straight from the airport with Lav's parents to see our old friends Aki-san and his wife, whose 24-year old restaurant literally becomes a second home to us for those precious few hours, usually to midnight, as we leisurely make our way through hamachi-kama (always a treat), chawan mushi (with scents of fresh yuzu from their garden) and creamy ankimo (with house-brewed ponzu) as a precursor to the best hamachi, kaibashira and house-smoked sake you've ever had... perfectly unctuous and sweet uni... and impossibly buttery, ultra-premium grade bluefin toro. And Aki's the only one who gets as excited as us when we order an ume maki with pickled daikon, shiso and bonito flakes to finish. This is the restaurant we've visited most in the Bay Area, and the gastronomic relationship that hits our hearts most profoundly.

The next morning, we thought we could fit in a meal and a snack before the wedding. Since we were staying in the South Bay, we had access to stellar Chinese food, which has been surprisingly difficult to find in Seattle. Sure, we get excited about Fu Man Dumpling and the Northwest Tofu House, but Lav has been in the mood for good xiao long bao for a while, and we haven't found anything in Seattle that can match the offerings of Hu-Chiang Dumpling House in Cupertino Village. We ordered an unbelievably good dish of wok-fried rice cakes with pork, ginger and the magical accent of lightly bitter Chinese mustard greens... literally stunning in its texture, balance of flavor, lack of greasiness (which can plague this dish at lesser places) and fragrant wok-seared aroma. We also had a small plate of thin, chewy Shanghai-style green onion pancakes... totally different than the thicker, sesame-coated Taiwanese version, with just a hint of intrinsic sweetness. And then an order of eight xiao long bao...

The soul (and gut)-satisfying experience of HC Dumpling's version comes from the near-perfect texture of the wrapper (just thick enough to remain intact, but thin enough to let the filling shine through) and the purity of flavor in the pork and broth. Powerfully delicious. And all that for $16.
Given our early "lunch," we'd no doubt need something to tide us over until the wedding ceremony. We found ourselves later that afternoon at the Ferry Building Plaza in San Francisco, where we seated ourselves at the Hog Island Oyster Co. in front of a platter of Sweetwaters and Kumomotos and a steaming bowl of clams cooked in a broth of wheat beer, garbanzo beans, chorizo and kale. The kale was a new addition to the dish, and its lightly bitter, peppery note added a delicious counterpoint to the natural sweetness of the clams and chorizo. Not that we haven't had fantastic oysters in Seattle, but the simple sophistication of Hog Island's oyster bar still feels a little bit more like home.

Sunday was my final day in the Bay Area, which meant getting a bunch of old friends together at Vik's, the long-since popularized but never disappointing chaat haven in West Berkeley. A big crew of folks meant that we could get all the favorites: lamb baita roti, masala dosa (my absolute favorite), bhatura cholle (Lav's guilty pleasure), pani puri, aloo paratha, chicken kathi kabab, biryani, and a little sampler of sweets. Vik's has sorta pimped out their space since we last visited, with a custom wraught metal sign out front and pretty high-style wood paneled seating in the midst of the cavernous converted warehouse space... we all rolled out of there looking for a couch to collapse onto.

Well, actually, not quite. Lav and I paid a quick visit to Eric and Ruthie at Sketch... me for my chocolate chip cookie and Lav for her burnt caramel ice cream with a light drizzle of olive oil and a touch of sea salt. The duo at Sketch have mastered capturing the exhuberant endorphin rush of childhood ice cream memories and reformulating it into a sophisticated, modern epicurian experience. The proof? We always walk out with a simple smile of deep-rooted comfort.

And perhaps no gastronomic return to the Bay Area is complete without a little home cooking. A simple meal with my mom before heading to the airport, where the chinese mustard green was again the star, delicious in the simplicity of its sweetness emerging from its pleasantly bitter edge... like a reminder that the bittersweet longing for Bay Area comforts can be a wonderfully appropriate emotion.

What colors and contrasts our experiences is that longing for the treasures of the past, as we embrace the new, exhilarating discoveries of the present and future, all combining to form the complex dimensional layering and texture of our lives. That's what makes me happy to be a "tourist" in the Bay Area, and what keeps me excited to return to Seattle.

February 14, 2008

work-life balance and Valentine's day

Work has been busy... too busy.

That's one of my least favorite phrases. No matter how much you enjoy what you do, I think its important to have balance in your life. Getting too absorbed into the commitments of work means that you necessarily have less time to devote to the other priorities of your life. And right now, I still want a huge variety of different things to be occupying my time.

But that doesn't help with the immediate dilemma: work is too busy, and it's Valentine's Day. Is it possible to make a respectably special Valentine's dinner for two with no time for early prep or planning, if I won't be getting home from work until after 7:20 pm?


Tonight's menu (as conceived on the drive home from work):

field greens
citrus vinaigrette and creamy marinated bleu cheese

steak "au poivre"
iron skillet ribeye, scotch-coffee au poivre

flash sauteed with garlic and olive oil

2003 whispering dove reserve cabernet sauvignon, stags leap

"local" indian sweets, lav's homemade jelly buttons

Even when things are going crazy, there's time to sit down, have a special meal and spend time with each other. That is, until "Lost" starts and monopolizes Lav's attention for 57 minutes...

February 6, 2008

In search of the $100 "baguette"

Some time ago, Lav was reading in her Vancouver city guide that Urban Fare, an upscale market in the Yaletown district of Vancouver, carried baguettes flown in from France, and that these "authentic" treasures could be yours for the simple price of $100 each. Now I know that Yaletown has quickly become a super trendy, ultra-monied neighborhood--Maserati and Ferrari sightings are not uncommon--but that was just about the dumbest, most unneccessarily extravagant thing I'd ever heard. So of course, I wanted to see it for myself.

Things have been relatively busy of late, and somehow three months have passed since our last visit to Vancouver. We always start our Vancouver day trips with a pain au chocolat from Cafe Besalu en route to a magnificent Vancouver-area dim sum excursion (reason enough to make the trip). This past weekend, we set our sights on the Richmond location of Sun Sui Wah. One of the things I like best about surveying the dim sum scene in Richmond/Vancouver is that there doesn't seem to be a clear-cut winner for which restaurant has the best dim sum; instead, each restaurant has its own unique strengths. Whereas Kirin (Richmond) has amazing steamed items and luxurious dishes (dumpling in shark's fin soup), and Sun Sui Wah (Vancouver) has a special touch with fried items, the Richmond location of Sun Sui Wah has mastered the element of texture.

Among the highlights were a spectacular dish of sauteed pea shoots and abalone mushroom, perfect pan-fried daikon radish cakes (lo bak go, 蘿蔔糕), incredibly velvety rice noodle rolls with shrimp (蝦腸), an impressively thin and delicate wrapper on the har gao (蝦餃), and unctuous tofu skin wrapped around pork (sin jyut gyun, 鮮竹捲).

We next took a little detour through the Punjabi Market area of Vancouver, a colorful commercial corridor full of Indian shops, restaurants, and grocery stores reflecting another dimension of Vancouver's diversity. We stepped into All India Sweets (half buffet restaurant, half dazzling array of colorful confections) to pick up a variety of sweet Indian treats, like milky Barfi flavored with pistachios and almonds and topped with varak (edible silver leaf), flaky Sohn Papri, rich Kaju Katri, and golden Besan... seems like Seattle should have a place like this, but I haven't found it yet.

We somehow always have fantastic luck with our trips to Vancouver. So far, we've never been stuck with any real waits at the border, and this time, I narrowly dodged a speeding ticket on the way up. We also were blessed with an unexpected spectacularly sunny day... which made for an ideal afternoon of roaming around Yaletown.

We found Urban Fare and eagerly stepped in to confront the $100 baguette in all its wastefully elitist ridiculousness... only to find out that it wasn't a baguette... it was a giant 4 pound sourdough round made by Poilâne. And it wasn't $100. It was $40. Ok, so it was a giant $40 loaf that would probably cost $20 from a domestic bakery... expensive, but not the evil exclusive extravagance I had expected. Even more disarming, it is sold by the half loaf ($20), quarter loaf ($10), and even by the slice ($1.50)... dang it... it's downright accessible! And hey, ten Canadian dollars used to be like eight bucks in the U.S.... next thing I knew, I was buying a quarter loaf to bring home. Alas, I'd become the very thing I had intended to mock...

Yaletown has all sorts of other distractions... lots of unique boutiques, furniture stores, bookstores and galleries... there's even a nifty Mini showroom. Definitely go inside and sit in one of the cars... the folks there are super friendly and laid back.

Yaletown is also full of interesting objects and textures... the area itself can give off a little bit of a snooty vibe, but if you look past that, there are some genuinely interesting natural visual features... really great if you want to snap some photos.

We randomly stopped into Ganache, an amazing patisserie run by Vancouver-born pastry master, Peter Fong. They happened to be celebrating their 4th anniversary, so we were treated to a whole host of samples of new dessert concepts. Decadent truffles with intense dark chocolate flavor, delicious pate de fruits, gorgeous macarons, modern interpretations of classic desserts... an amazing shop whose delicious offerings and incredibly friendly staff make it hard to leave.

Glancing at Lav's watch, we realized we had just enough time to make it to happy hour at Rodney's Oyster House, just a couple of blocks over. $1.50 oysters, a good selection of beer, and a comfortably low key atmosphere... much more so than most other restaurants in the area. Never a bad way to whet the appetite for dinner.

Our last stop was for an early evening sushi excursion. We visited Yoshi on Denman. I was hoping for a small, sushi-only bar with an intimate, down to earth atmosphere. This was not that place. What Yoshi does offer, though, is spectacularly fresh fish (much of which is flown in from Tokyo) in the hands of expert sushi chefs. Particularly good were the geoduck sashimi salad with peppery daikon sprouts, a smooth and decadent ankimo in ponzu, truly excellent amaebi, pure and clean saba, and sweet local uni.

As an added bonus, I got to see Tak-san, our chef, methodically dispatch a live lobster for sashimi, which can be difficult to do properly without damaging the delicate flesh. All in all, a full, fantastic day trip... and time to head home.

So how was the not-quite $100 Poilâne round, with its stone-ground flour, wood oven pedigree of "retro-innovation"? To be honest, it was actually pretty good. Dense, consistent crumb, hearty nutty whole wheat flavor with a subtle sourdough backdrop (made with a starter that is over 150 years old) and a good, chewy crust. Worth the money and effort to fly it in directly from France? Probably not in this day and age, when we have such amazing local bread artisans in the U.S. But fun to try nonetheless... so, mission accomplished... sort of.

Sun Sui Wah
102 4940 No. 3 Road
Richmond, BC
Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant (Richmond) on Urbanspoon

All India Sweets Restaurant
6507 Main St.
Vancouver, BC
All India Sweets & Restaurant (Main) on Urbanspoon

Urban Fare
177 Davie St.
Vancouver, BC
Urban Fare on Urbanspoon

Rodney's Oyster House
1228 Hamilton St.
Vancouver, BC
Rodney's Oyster House on Urbanspoon

Ganache Patisserie
1262 Homer St.
Vancouver, BC
Ganache Patisserie on Urbanspoon

Yoshi on Denman
689 Denman St.
Vancouver, BC
Yoshi on Urbanspoon

Some info on shops in Yaletown.

February 2, 2008

February has finally arrived...

Well, this year's month of frugality has come and gone, and here are the results. First, I'm reminded again of the importance of the choices we make regarding the things we purchase and consume. Second, I marvel at how quickly you can spend money unnecessarily when you're not paying attention. Third, I'm surprised that I didn't really miss drinking wine/alcohol the last half of the month. Fourth, I dropped 4 pounds.

All that being said, it's nice to have all the self-imposed spending/drinking restrictions lifted. I'd been thinking about what I'd have for my first glass of wine on Feb. 1st... scanning the crates, I saw a half-bottle of 1999 Corison that we picked up the last time we were up in Napa. A truly elegant, balanced cabernet (tipping in at just 13.6% alcohol) with beautifully dark color and well-integrated flavors of fruit and dusty earth, backed by faint wafts of savory herbs. That first sip was spectacular.

Rather than going out to dinner, we stuck with a simple but decadent meal of rich and meltingly tender syrah-braised shortribs with a potato-parsnip puree. A sip of wine, a bite of food... magic on the palate. Savor it... now I remember what I've been missing!

Sigh... I should still try harder to eat less meat...