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

“The Making Of…” at SF MOMA

SFMOMA - Ticket SFMOMA - Entrance

“The Making Of…” was a recent KQED radio program featuring a collection of Bay Area makers and artists, who have produced a wide range of things ranging from the everyday (e.g., a woman making jam to remember her late French mother) to the truly unique (e.g., Filipino karaoke ice cream truck). As a follow-up to the broadcast, the producers of the show, Kitchen Sisters, staged a community event at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA). Intrigued by the meshing of radio and real life, I decided to head up to the city and check it out (it also gave me an opportunity to have a quick workweek lunch with AK).

Even though it was a Friday, the event was packed! I realized after I arrived that this was the last weekend that SF MOMA would be open before closing for renovations until 2016, and the crowds were there because the museum’s final days were free to the public. The workshops were all interesting, covering the gamut from textiles to preserved fruits to outdoor gear (loved the camping gear from local outfit Alite Designs – got to check them out another time). I especially enjoyed observing the old Japanese lady hand sew a kimono.

SF MOMA - Textile SFMOMA - Workshop SFMOMA - Kimono SFMOMA - Hat SFMOMA - Jam SFMOMA - Tent SFMOMA - Camping

The most unique display item was probably the miniature-sized pink vintage Cadillac (I call all old cars I cannot identify Cadillacs) for a company called “Homobiles” (tagline: “Moes Gettin’ Hoes Where They Needz to Goes”). As explained in the radio show, Homobiles is a non-commercial, volunteer-run 24/7 car service created for the LGBT community and others around San Francisco who need safe, dependable rides (suggested donation is $1 per minute, though completely voluntary). According to the founder, drag queens, sex workers, transgender and other members of the queer community often have trouble hailing cabs (drivers would complain about the excess glitter, for example), so the service provides a much needed relief from harassment and dangerous situations. It feels nice to be part of such an inclusive city!

SFMOMA - Pink Cadillac

A separate wing of the museum was dedicated to food for the duration of the event, and many of the hip San Francisco eateries were there selling food for charity – participants included Bar Tartine, Mission Chinese Food, Tacolicious, Wise Sons Deli, La Cocina and Stag Dining Group. There was even a very cool pasta-making demo from Thomas McNaughton, founder of flour + water, a restaurant whose popularity has prevented even my friend Ms. Lin from nabbing a reservation. The secret weapon for making quality pasta, according to the master, is the water spray bottle (along with exact measurements). I have to try that at home next time I muster up the mental willpower to make fresh pasta from scratch.

SFMOMA - Pasta SFMOMA - Pasta Demo Water

It was wonderful to see all the creativity, innovation and diversity of the people of the San Francisco Bay Area. It certainly makes me feel connected to the greater community and appreciate where I live.

Leisure Saturday (Ferry Building + Spice Rack Organization)

After a long absence, we returned to the Ferry Building on this glorious Saturday morning. My original goal was to pick up some fresh produce from the farmer’s market, but the crowds were insane! We ended up just grabbing our usual items – lattes from Blue Bottle Coffee, porchetta sandwiches from the Roli Roti truck, a fruit pocket from Frog Hollow Farm and something extra (this time, instead of bread from Acme or cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, we picked up a bag of dark chocolate-covered cookies from this local place called Kika’s Treats).

Blue BottleKikas Treats

The real fun began after I got home. I had seen online that Martha Stewart has a whole line of kitchen stickers at Staples, and I couldn’t wait to check them out at the store. (I am an aspirational organizer – always dreaming about getting organized, if not actually getting there). It was even cuter than I had imagined. Not only were the labels removable, but they were dishwasher and freezer safe! It was too good to be true.

Martha Stickers

After a couple hours of hard work, I successfully transformed the spice rack. (The project took a little longer because some of the spice bottles had irregularly-shaped lids.) Finally, no more fumbling for spices! Yay!

Martha Stickers - Spices

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.)

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

A Trip to the East Bay

AK and I spend very little time in the East Bay as a couple. I meet up with K or the MoFo girls in Oakland on occasion (always with a side trip to my favorite bakery, La Farine), or he goes to Cal football games as a season ticket holder with his friends.  On the occasion of the first birthday celebration of JK’s youngest son, however, we headed out to San Ramon, a quiet residential community a little less than an hour away.

Although I sometimes dread kids’ birthday parties at which I don’t know anyone, this party turned out to be really fun. JK, his lovely wife and their three children all dressed up in traditional Korean hanbok, and the overall atmosphere was warm and festive. Most of the guests were the hosts’ friends from church, and at least in my experience, that generally means an extra level of friendliness and inclusiveness. We ended up talking to a couple from LA and found out that the wife used to teach at Whitney High School in Cerritos (my rival high school)! Talk about a small world. It was really great to see her passion and enthusiasm for teaching – makes me feel grateful for the amazing teachers I have had in my own life.

The most exciting part of the party was probably when the bouncy house collapsed due to the motor shorting out the electric fuse. There was immediately a mad scramble to rescue all the kids trapped inside, and when all the young ones were finally accounted for (not an easy feat given the large number), all the parents breathed a sigh of relief. Thankfully, no one was hurt. After the commotion, we got a chance to spend a little time with JK and get a tour of the house – it was absolutely beautiful and spacious. We were especially impressed with the huge den that doubles as an amazing playroom, with storage benches that lined the wall and beautiful mahogany built-in closets (that even includes Murphy bed!).

JoeK

JK had a photographer friend take candids from the party, but unfortunately my double chin shows through in all but one of the photos of me (it’s time to start running regularly again!). So, though it’s a bit serious, here’s a only one that I’m including just for the sake of documenting the day. Wonder what the topic was for us to be all so deep in conversation?

A Night with Anthony Bourdain (featuring Eric Ripert)

bourdain-ripert-good-vs-evil-2

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A couple of weeks ago, E and I spent a perfectly good Saturday night in San Jose to hear a proverbial fireside chat between Anthony Bourdain (of Kitchen Confidential and No Reservations fame) and Eric Ripert (chef owner, Le Bernadin in NYC). In addition to the usual witty banter and good-natured ribbing (laced with profanity from time to time, of course), the dynamic duo also discussed such au courant topics as the meaning of farm-to-table, global food cultures, the role of farmer’s markets, restaurant trends, etc. What I really appreciated from Tony Bourdain is his contention that many people in the U.S. over-romanticize farms, especially those located in developing countries. In this much ballyhooed “back to the earth” type of mentality, somehow being forced to live off the land, as in the case of subsistence farming, is a way of living far superior to our modern ways. A corresponding attitude is the “holier than thou” judgment that rains down on anyone who chooses not to buy organic, not to compost or to drink water out of (gasp!) plastic bottles. In other words, we need to return to a simpler time, before the proliferation of plastics, before the abundance/waste of food and before everything got processed to death.

When I encounter people espousing these views (not without regularity in the Bay Area), I often think about the life of my grandfather and his humble beginning as a small-time fruit farmer. As someone who had actually tilled the land and survived both World Wars (including being conscripted by the Japanese during WWII), his belief system relating to food is not driven by any lofty ideology. Instead, it grew out of a genuine respect for the earth and a perpetual survival mentality. As kids, we were never allowed to waste anything – no banana was beyond salvaging (“see, you just cut out the brown part”) and, with occasional exceptions, no food was too old to toss. Eggshells with residual egg whites were used to fertilize potted plants, and reusable bags were used for groceries. My grandfather’s generation didn’t know the first thing about environmentalism or the organic/local food movement back then, but they lived a lifestyle consistent with many of the core tenets of these philosophies. Despite this, did my grandfather appreciate the advent of supermarkets? Of course he did! How can you beat the convenience of supermarkets and, especially in the summer, the air-conditioning? (This latter part may be my own projection, seeing how he was very averse to turning on A/C even during the hottest summer months in Taiwan.) The year-around availability of all kinds of produce was great too. But modern conveniences complemented, rather than replaced, the traditional markets, and my grandfather and other shoppers continued to go to them for freshly butchered meat and seasonal produce.  (As an aside, when I was younger, those places were not the European-style farmer’s markets marked by an excessive concentration of yuppies – they were more like busy markets with harried housewives and puddles of dirty water on the ground.)

I often think that by being overly judgmental/militant/smug, rather than encouraging and inspirational, many environmental advocates and food activists miss out on opportunities to truly influence those around them. When I hear people say things like “we should eat simple diets or cook like the farmers/goatherders/hunters from Ghana/Indonesia/wherever,” I also think about how ridiculous that is and how many of those people would swap lives with us in a heartbeat. Of course everyone can do better and probably learn valuable lessons from other cultures. But no amount of harsh criticism will help the planet. Neither will a misguided sense of what lessons traditional societies can offer.

Anyway, just a bit of reflection after the event. It was so much fun to hear these guys, and the discussion was definitely thought-provoking.

My 40th Birthday!

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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!