Sunset Celebration Weekend

Sunset - Bldg Sunset - Lawn OrnamentsSunset - Microbrew Sunset - Booths

Sunset Magazine hosts an annual “Celebration Weekend” that showcases the best of home, food and garden in the “West” (presumably California) on their grounds in Menlo Park. Although the entrance fee is a relatively steep $18, AK and I decided to attend again this year to seek some inspiration for our home. It was an extremely hot day, but the crowds were undeterred and packed the spacious venue. We first walked around to survey the lay of the land, and I came upon a booth selling succulents with Winnie the Pooh covering its entire side wall. I couldn’t believe that the entire display consists of plants!

Sunset - Pooh

After strolling around a little, we decided to eat first before the food booths got too busy. I ordered a pork belly over kimchee fried rice from the Chotto San Francisco food truck. It was delicious, if not a little fatty, though I think I am suffering from a little bit of pork belly and kimchee-anything fatigue. The Korean food truck craze that began with Koji does not seem to be flaming out…

Sunset - Pork Belly

Lunch was followed by dessert from The Creme Brulee Cart, a roaming stall on wheels in the city. It’s the reason I originally opened up my still barely used Twitter account, and I’ve always wanted to try it. My choice, the “Kentucky,” a vanilla-flavored creme brulee with candied pecans, was delicious! The crunch of the pecans paired perfectly with the smoothness of the cream underneath the delicate top shell. Reminds me of eating a slice of my favorite pecan pie at a place like Georgia Brown’s in Washington D.C., but almost better.

Sunset - Creme Brulee

Sunset - Creme Brulee (1)

AK and I then spent an inordinate amount of time checking out the Weber Grill display area, and it was a joy to play with these top-of-the-line barbeque grills. The knowledgeable representatives dispatched from headquarters were chatty and helpful, with no pressure at all! (The grills were not for sale at this event.) I made AK stand by his favorite model so we can start saving up for one.

Sunset - Alex + Grill

The day’s highlights were probably the food demonstrations from Susan Feniger, chef owner of STREET in LA and host of multiple food shows, and Fabio Viviani, the fan favorite from Top Chef Masters. Susan was an Energizer bunny who was loads of fun to be around – vivacious, generous and loose-lipped. Fabio, on the other hand, turned up his Italian chef accent to the max and charmed the crowd with this suave cooking style (“no measuring cups!”) and raunchy jokes. It was clear that both had oodles of star power.

Sunset - Susan

Sunset - Fabio

We escaped the massive crowds to go tour the magazine’s test kitchen. It was really fun to see the behind-the-scenes process of getting published recipes exactly right. I loved the little wooden chef in the kitchen that holds up a flag any time a plate of food is laid out for the staff – a green flag indicates that the recipe turned out great, a red flag means the recipe was not quite successful, and a black flag with skulls and bones marks the food as a total disaster. The test kitchen staff noted that regardless of the flag, every plate of food is always eaten! There must be something about being at work and lowering your standards for food, haha.

Sunset - Kitchen Chef

We finished the day touring the garden area and saw a beautiful model of a chicken coop! Keeping your own free range chicken for fresh eggs seems to be quite trendy these days, though I’m not sure I am at that level of eating “farm fresh” food yet. It was nice to fantasize a little.

Sunset - Chicken Coop

There were also multiple examples of outdoor living. Maybe one day our backyard can be transformed into something that is so gorgeous and fun!

Sunset - Garden Room

Sunset - Garden Chair

Greens Restaurant

Several years ago, when my cousin TT was visiting from Taiwan, we combined a trip to Muir Woods with dining at Greens, a vegetarian restaurant located at the northernmost tip of San Francisco overlooking the water. I remember the outing fondly. I had taken the day off from work, and, in the middle of the workday, we sat around leisurely and watched the yachts come and go outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. It was pure luxury. After our hike at Muir Woods earlier in the day, I convinced AK to give Greens a try, and he surprised me by agreeing.

For appetizers, I started off with a cream of cauliflower soup, and AK had the grilled polenta cakes. Both were nice, but nothing spectacular.

Greens - SoupGreens - Polenta Cakes

The main dishes were much better. On my prior visit I had ordered the mesquite grilled brochette, which consisted of skewered vegetables with chimichurra sauce. It was tasty this time again. AK’s entree of wild mushroom risotto was delicious, if not memorable, as well.

Greens - Brochette

Greens - Risotto

I really respect what Greens is trying to do, sourcing and showcasing organic, local and sustainable produce from small family farms and their own garden in Marin. However, for the price – our check with tax and tip exceeded $80 (without wine!) – I expected the meal to make my taste buds dance. They were not dancing that night. It didn’t help that we got here after dark, so the scenery could not make up for the lack of exciting flavors. Maybe this is a better place to come during the day for the views.

Greens Restaurant
Fort Mason
Bldg A
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 771-6222
http://www.greensrestaurant.com

Muir Woods

Muir Woods - Sign

Muir Woods is one of my favorite national parks. It’s readily accessible – just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge – and stunningly beautiful. The first mile or two into the woods consists of paved paths, which allow families and even individuals in wheelchairs to wander through the redwoods with ease, but deeper in the park there are natural trails that provide a more conventional hiking experience. AK and I took advantage of the long weekend to visit the park on this warm Sunday. What we did not count on was the massive crowds of people (long weekend in the Bay Area = packed outdoors). Even taking the shuttle up to the mountain involved an hour wait! With our late start, traffic on the bridge, wait time for the shuttle and the slow slog up the long and winding mountain roads, by the time we reached the park it was past 2 p.m. Undaunted, we made a beeline for the cafe for lunch and ordered up chef Tyler Florence’s favorite sandwich – the “Marin Melt” grilled cheese sandwich (made with Mt. Tam cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, Toma Cheese from Point Reyes Farmstead Creamery and sunflower loaf bread from Rustic Bakery in Larkspur), with a side of tomato bisque. The power combo was delicious as usual. I also love how the cafe uses locally-sourced, fresh and seasonal produce.

Muir Woods - Sandwich

The redwoods inside the park were simply awe-inspiring. How I wish I had the skills of Ansel Adams to truly capture the majesty!

Muir Woods - Trees

Even the regular forest foliage is just gorgeous.

Muir Woods

Just being close to nature was a rejuvenating experience. At the end of our day, we decided to trade in our tickets ($6 each) for an annual pass ($20 for each party) so that we can make a repeat visit soon, perhaps when the park is not so crowded. Personally, I thought $20 was a fantastic bargain for AK and I to return unlimited number of times in the next year. I know we will be back.

Tommaso’s Ristorante Italiano + Martuni’s Piano Lounge

Our Memorial Weekend began with a bang. My law school roommate, Jazzgirl, invited us to Martuni’s piano lounge to celebrate her girlfriend DM’s birthday. For dinner beforehand, we visited one of our all-time favorite Italian restaurants in San Francisco – Tommaso’s (AK was really excited that I picked an Italian eatery as opposed the usual East Asian fare). Legend has it that Francis Ford Coppola, director of the Godfather trilogy, used to eat here all the time when his studio was in North Beach (although I normally don’t care about where celebrities eat, I think Mr. Coppola is actually Italian…so I’m giving his opinion some weight).

Tommaso’s is a traditional Italian restaurant with a menu that probably has not changed in decades – one would not find, say, a pizza with prosciutto, asiago, gorgonzola, balsamic reduction and fig preserve here (that would be Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, a different but equally excellent pizza place). What they have on offer, however, is amazing. AK and I shared a pasta dish, the wonderful meatball ravioli combo, and a sausage pepperoni pizza.

Tommasos - Meatball Ravioli

Tommasos - Pizza

Those brick ovens churn out such delicious crusts! My photo doesn’t do it justice. (Also, I’ve been relying on the iPhone camera exclusively recently, but have not been completely satisfied with the quality.)  We devoured our food with relish.

After dinner, we drove over to Martuni’s, located in the part of SoMa that’s closer to the Mission/Lower Haight. We parked right outside of this very cute establishment. Is it an inviting coffee shop? A cozy ethnic restaurant? A hipster vinyl record store?

Ketama

The answer is none of the above. This place is…a medical marijuana dispensary! You would never have known this from the outside. I couldn’t believe how this was just one the side of a busy road, with people just casually strolling in and out of the establishment. I suppose San Francisco doesn’t get its reputation for cannabis-friendliness for nothing!

I loved the concept of Martuni’s. Guests are invited to make song requests, and there is an open mike for people to belt out their favorite tunes (unfortunately, it was too dark and too crowded for pictures). It turned out to be great deal of fun – I had not been to a piano bar in ages! It was certainly more entertaining than just the average dive, and many of the singers sounded professional (I was told that this was a popular hangout for theater people). It was also a very friendly and chatty crowd. After a few hours, however, AK and I started to feel strangely old, even though we were by no means the oldest people there. I guess we were just not accustomed to staying out this late anymore (sadly, any place outside of the home after 10 p.m. feels “late” these days). Shortly after 11 p.m., we bid adieu to the birthday girl and headed back to the Peninsula. It was past midnight by the time we got home, and we quickly rolled into bed. What an wonderful evening it was.

Tommaso’s Ristorante Italiano
1042 Kearny Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 398-9696
http://tommasos.com

Martuni’s
4 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 241-0205
http://martunis.ypguides.net

LYFE Kitchen (Palo Alto, CA)

One of my new favorite eateries is LYFE Kitchen in Palo Alto. With the exception of Oren’s Hummus Shop (which does indeed have excellent hummus as well as tender grilled meat), the offerings on University Avenue are typically overpriced and mediocre – all show and no substance. Thus my surprise at finding LYFE Kitchen (LYFE = “Love Your Food Everyday”). I had first walked by on my way elsewhere and was intrigued by the long line out the door at 11:45 a.m. (not even really lunch time!). Being the lemming that I am, I immediately got in line and studied the place. The exterior is rather unassuming, and I probably would not have noticed without the crowd. Having inadvertently left my phone in the car that day, I hesitated outside for a moment, but decided to venture in without the benefit of any online research or Yelp reviews (gasp!).

Lyfe - Exterior

The interior is bright and welcoming, with high ceilings and beautiful (reclaimed?) wooden tables. I especially loved the floating shelves of herbs that double as a room divider. I really want one at home!

Lyfe - Herbs

I figured out eventually that this is a cafe opened by Art Smith (best known as Oprah’s one-time personal chef) since his cookbooks were on display here. Apparently he has a partner too (Tal Ronnen, author of “The Conscious Chef”). My first visit here, I had ordered the “un-fried chicken,” a healthier option for Southern comfort food lovers, and that dish got me hooked. Today, I opted for the portobello mushroom pasta, which was every bit as delicious as it smelled.

Lyfe - Pasta

The great thing about this cafe is that on each of the three menus (regular, vegan or gluten-free), calorie information for all the items – entrees, desserts, drinks – were on display. It really helps with good decision-making! I also always get the “Lyfe Water,” which is a refreshing blend of ginger, lime, strawberries and mint with chia seeds (something my friend Ms. Sunshine insists is one of those super foods). At least it tastes good (like mini tapiocas) and has barely any calories.

Lyfe Water

This has become one of my weekly indulgences when I run errands down in South Bay (since I’m not working these days, I try not to eat out too often). Not only do I support their vision of sourcing locally and sustainably, but delicious and healthy is a combination that’s hard to beat. I hope they stick around.

LYFE Kitchen
167 Hamilton Ave
Palo Alto, CA 94301
(650) 325-5933
http://www.lyfekitchen.com

Postcript: I took AK here for a late lunch this following Saturday and it was a little bit of a bust. The “unfried chicken” was tired and soggy, and even the sweet potatoes fries were unappetizing. Really hope this is just a one-time thing! (Also a bit bummed b/c I was hoping AK would like it more.)

Mother’s Day Brunch (Newport Beach, CA)

Mothers Day (w Sherry)

For Mother’s Day this year, my extended family gathered at the Palm Terrace Restaurant inside the Island Hotel in swanky Newport Beach. We had forgotten to ask the server for a group photo, so I’m posting two almost identical photos so that both photographers (my sister and my cousin) can be included. I think everyone looked great! I also love how the restaurant seated us at a round table – much easier for socializing and having group conversations.

Mothers Day (w Kalen)

The food was pretty decent too, especially the chicken and waffle dish.

Dish - Chicken+Waffles

AK had only ordered the Belgian waffle and was kicking himself after seeing the delicious fried chicken. At least his dish included some juicy strawberries…

Dish - Waffles

My dish was an interpretation of a Japanese breakfast, which, not surprisingly, was not very authentic. Not only was the rice too hard, but the flavors were bland (I was even forced to pour soy sauce on my rice…that’s how desperate I was).

Dish - Japanese

One of the best dishes was the crab cakes topped with poached eggs and truffle hollendaise sauce. I had serious food envy (why is this photo is so blurry?! I feel like I didn’t take this photo, but maybe in the excitement of the moment, my hands were trembling?).

Dish - Crab Cake

The restaurant was not at full capacity (I believe everyone else was at the $94 special brunch next door), so even after we finished our meal, we had plenty of time to catch up leisurely. Thanks to the high ceilings, which helped muffle the loud chatter coming from our table, we didn’t attract any sidelong glances or unwanted attention from other guests.

After lunch, the whole group wandered over to nearby Fashion Island shopping center, where pet dogs were out in force (it was a glorious, sunny day, perfect for outdoor shopping). We all enjoyed some old-fashioned people- and dog-watching, and most of the group ended up taking a very long detour at an expansive pet store with tons of animals (the usual cats and dogs, but also rabbits, parrots, hamsters, and many others). I bowed out early, since I had to take AK to the airport. Wonder how much longer everyone else stuck around to pet the animals?

Palm Terrace Restaurant
Island Hotel
690 Newport Center Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 760-4920
http://www.islandhotel.com/Dining/PalmTerraceRestaurant.aspx

Pedicure + Gingerbread Cookies

Gingerbread Cookies in Bag

AK and I are driving down to LA today at noon, and I only realized last night that I am in desperate need of a pedicure! I had forgotten that SoCal is pretty much open-toe shoes all the time.  Thankfully, super nail lady Renata Bailey at Soreno Salon had a last minute morning appointment so I rushed off after breakfast, leaving AK at home to finish some conference calls.

There is something magical about Renata’s pedicure – she is so thorough and her products are so good that my feet have never felt cleaner or softer! My last pedicure lasted a whole month without a single chip, even though I had also spent 10+ days in Maui running through sand and seawater at the beach or swimming at the pool practically every day (salt/sand/chlorine usually wreak havoc on nails).

After the pedicure today, Renata had a special treat for me – gingerbread cookies! They are in the shape of a pair of manicured hands. In the bag, they look adorable, but outside of the bag…you be the judge.

Gingerbread Cookies

Bailey’s Nails and Toes
(Inside Sereno Salon)
206 2nd Ave
San Mateo, CA 94401
(650) 342-4300
http://www.baileysnailsandtoes.com

A Fun-Filled Sunday

My friend K decided to drive down to the Peninsula from Oakland to meet me for brunch at Alana’s Cafe in Burlingame. Although this branch does not have the same old-school charm as the Victorian house in Redwood City, it’s still a pleasant sun-filled cafe with a friendly vibe and great service. Both of us ordered the egg scramble – I chose the “Mediterranean” with prosciutto, artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, fresh basil and provolone cheese, and K picked the “Florentine,” which was a mix of mild Italian sausage, spinach and provolone cheese. We really enjoyed the food (I made a mental note to get some sundried tomatoes for home – the intense flavors were great) and the opportunity to catch up. It was so fun to see her!

To walk off the food, we strolled over to the Burlingame farmer’s market, where I picked up a bunch of gorgeous ranunculus for $5, and then stopped by a pet store. K wanted to pick out a few toys for her new cats, Cupcake and Honey (such adorable names!), and she carefully sorted through the inventory for “Made in the U.S.A.” labels. I had no idea that pet owners were so conscientious these days. Apparently it’s for safety reasons – there has been a spate of unsafe products manufactured overseas, and she didn’t want to take any chances. I have to keep that in mind next time I pick up a new toy for my mom’s dog Commie.

After we parted ways, I swung by Heidi’s Pies to pick up a dessert (blueberry sour cream pie, the best thing at Heidi’s) for the Game of Thrones viewing party tonight in San Francisco. This week’s host is M, and she and her husband really cooked up a feast! We started with a trio of cheeses and baguette, paired with an array of wines and beverages. The meal began with a corn and tomato salad that was very refreshing and tasty – I especially enjoyed the dressing made with fresh dill, and the main entrees of braised beef and tilapia in honey mustard sauce were both big hits as well. As it turns out, M loves cooking and is a huge fan of Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa), so we excitedly shared some of our experiences cooking her recipes. It’s so inspiring to meet other home cooks who enjoy the process, especially since sometimes I feel like I’m just throwing my life away in the kitchen…The enthusiasm of others can be very infectious.
It was quite a fun weekend filled with time among friends (and good food), despite having to rush around a bit. Now I’m ready for the week to begin and for me to start “working” again (mostly on my personal priorities, like reorganizing the kitchen and streamlining our finances).

Heidi’s Pies
1941 S El Camino Real
San Mateo, CA 94403
(650) 574-0505
http://www.heidipies.com

Koi Palace – Best Chinese Restaurant in America?

My sister told me about a list of top 10 Chinese restaurants compiled by a Los Angeles-based attorney and accountant, David Chan, who has meticulously documented each and every one of his over 6,000 restaurant visits in an Excel spreadsheet (full list here – note that they are all located in California). According to this list, Koi Palace in Daly City ranks #1. I have been to Koi Palace a few times many years ago, but have always been reluctant to return due to the massive lines and Hong Kong-style crowds. After salivating over the pictures online, I convinced AK that we would go right before opening hour on Saturday to try our luck.

We arrive at 9:45 a.m. in the morning, and the scene was already insane! Even before the restaurant is officially open at 10:00 a.m., tons and tons of people are jockeying for position both inside and outside the restaurant. I guess it was shrewd for the restaurant to at least open its doors early to release some of the nervous energy, which was palpable. We gently shoved our way inside, but it really was a little unpleasant being constantly on guard, eying each new entrant as a potential line-cutter (I know, here my F.O.B.-ish tendencies really come to the surface). Thankfully, the restaurant officially started acknowledging its guests right on the dot, and we were quickly seated. We wasted no time in ordering up a storm (the perfect size for dim sum is really a party of four).

We started off with some pork and leek dumplings, followed by Sichuan-style chili oil pork dumplings – since these are not really native to Hong Kong, the skin was thicker than usual, and the sauce not spicy at all (even for me). However, both dishes were delicious.

Pork-Leek Dumpling

Red Oil Dumpling

We also ordered a plate of the roast duck, which is usually a great Hong Kong specialty. It did not disappoint! The meat was so juicy and the skin was extra crispy. (Even the leftovers were great – I incorporated the duck into some chowmein I made the next day.)

Roast Duck

The true star of the show was the har gao (shrimp dumpling) in XO sauce. The shrimp filling was tender but flavorful, and the XO sauce, a mix of dried fish, dried scallops and chili sauce, really put it over the top. Probably the best har gao I’ve had in recent memory. I would come back just for this!

XO Har gao

Last but not least, I had to have my favorite–egg tarts! The version served here consists of a thicker, flakier shell and a custard-y interior. It looked so good that I forgot to take a photo before diving into it (thus the missing bite). I almost ate another one on the spot, but held myself back with much difficulty. You can tell I didn’t even notice that the photo was blurry! (Or was that my vision?)

Egg Tart

So, was it the best Chinese restaurant I’ve had in the U.S.? Probably not for me (the top honor will probably have to be a place in LA). However, it was definitely a solid contender and worthy of an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Koi Palace
365 Gellert Blvd.
Daly City, CA 94015
(650) 992-9000
http://www.koipalace.com

My 40th Birthday!

20130420-104938.jpg

My dear friends insisted on taking me out to dinner for this milestone birthday a couple of weeks ago. It was quite a generous gesture, especially since I had already celebrated with AK at Atelier Crenn, itself quite the splurge (it was a surprise location to me). We chose AQ in San Francisco, which has won much critical acclaim since its opening in 2011 (voted by Esquire magazine as one of the 5 best new restaurants in SF; nominated for a James Beard award). The food was quite tasty, if expensive, and the presentation was beautiful and exquisite. But my favorite part was the decor, which changes with the seasons. In this photo, I’m standing under cherry blossoms created from paper that are part of the “spring” theme. Reminds me of being back in Washington DC!