Observations on Food in the Bay Area
website - On Kipling in downtown Palo Alto, this enormous Mediterranean-styled restaurant provides some pretty darn tasty family-style food and a great wine list. There's a nice selection of shareable small plates, and all the large plates are combined (eg, 1 plate of 3 servings of steak) and intended to be shared around. It's a great place to go with large parties because (a) they've certainly got enough space for you, and (b) the way they serve food is designed to handle big groups. It also gives you a chance to try lots and lots of what they have to offer.
What did we eat?
Well, lots of folks had oysters, which unfortunately I derive no pleasure from, but from what everyone else seemed to think they were quite good. At least, they ordered another whole plate, so I deemed that to be a good sign. Well, that and the fact that everyone said "These are great!"
Also got some of the little appetizers such as the chicken terrine, which was very tasty, and the hummus and eggplant caponata, both of which were merely good.
"Israeli Cigars" - tasty, with a very creamy filling not entirely unlike what you'd find in croquettes, but the crispy phyllo shell was greasier than I thought it should be.
Main courses (that I had a chance to sample)
roasted halibut with chorizo & other stuff - good. not spectacular, but good. Nice flaky consistency - well cooked. The flavor and toughness of the strips of chorizo left something to be desired.
whole roasted fish - looked very nice when it first appeared, but after it returned from a deboning, there was hardly anything left. Didn't have a chance to taste it, but was glad I had more to eat than the poor fools who got that one.
grilled hangar steak with potatos, mushrooms, red-wine reduction sauce - fantastic. Really, truly fantastic. I'd eat this 5 nights a week, and twice on Sunday. Steak was grilled just barely medium-rare, but of a perfectly melty consistency, and served sliced, so you could see just how barely cooked it was in the middle. YUM! Fantastic pepper crusted edge, as well. The wine sauce was a magnificent addition, and the mushrooms, of what type I'm not sure (something reasonably fancy), were spectactular. They'd also been lightly grilled, and had obviously been soaking up that wonderful wine sauce. Wow. Perfect counterpoint to the steak, and it all matched perfectly with the (large) selection of wine we'd brought (a very fruity pinot - 01 Sebastiani Russian River, which is truly wonderful if you can find it anywhere - a cab, syrah, and also a mourvedre).
Sides of note
polenta. 'nuff said. get it. you'll thank me. in fact, get 2.
warm chocolate cake - First, I must note that I'm quite a chocolate fan, and very picky about how chocolate cakes should be, in all their many varieties. Warm Chocolate Cake, in terms how how it truly should be - the Quintessential form, if you will - was served up best and truly perfectly by a spectacular restaurant which unfortunately didn't survive our little economic downturn, Menlo Park's Wild Hare. This was easily my favorite restaurant on the Peninsula, and could easily go toe-to-toe with many of its betters up in SF. Their Warm Chocolate Cake (which as I recall they dubbed "Oozing") defined the genre. Baked just long enough that the outside would be firm enough to contain the hot, semi-liquid inner chocolate heaven, it was rich beyond the wildest dreams of avarice. In fact, one would be tempted to say "Non! It is too rich for me - I cannot handle it!" But its brilliant creators forsaw this eventuality, and paired it flawlessly with a scoop of ice cold mint-chip ice cream in a crisp cookie container, the perfect cooling counterpoint to the nearly overpowering chocolate. This dessert was truly the stuff of which dreams were made. Culinary orgasm? You betcha. I should also note that the first time I had it, it was recommended to be paired with a York Creek port, which made an equally wonderful combination with the chocolate. Anyway, enough of my trip down memory lane (sigh) and back to the cake at hand. Zibibbo's implementation is at first glance rather tallish, which (as I'd feared) resulted in a more thoroughly cooked ensemble, leaving little of that warm, gooey center to please the palate. And the outside was nearly dry as a result. It's flavor was also not as rich as it ought to have been. Finally, there was no perfect pairing to cut the sweet of the chocolate (perhaps because it was not, in fact, so sweet as to need it? a loss, not an excuse). Disappointing, at best. But then, when matched against perfection, how could it not be?
All in all, the food was quite good, the service very attentive (especially for a party of 15), and complimenting the large wine list is a corkage fee of $15, which while not cheap, is reasonable considering how much effort they clearly put into maintaining that wine list (which does have a number of reasonably priced bottles, though not too much under $30, as I recall). We did order one nice New Zealand sauvignon blanc from the list.
Perhaps a bit pricier than it truly deserves, but if you've got a big group and you want a nice dinner, it's a good choice.
website - At Battery & Green in SF, this Basque restaurant really suprised me with its quality/price ratio! Going there, I expected in advance that the food would be good, but to come away having only racked up a $400 bill for 7 people, including 2 bottles of wine and a 25% tip, seemed reasonably extraordinary to me given how good it was. (The chef also gave us a free round of drinks at the beginning as a table wasn't ready until 15 minutes or so after our reservation, which was quite nice.)
Anyway, the first thing I have to drool over was the wine. Great wine list! And incredibly reasonably priced. I believe the average cost of a bottle (excluding the 2 pages at the end of Ludicrous Reds) was around $35-40. Nearly astounding at a nice restaurant around here.
Ijalba Graciano '00 Rioja, for only $38 at the restaurant. I described it at the time as medium-dark and earthy, yet with a bright fruity nose with hints of charcoal. A great, warm, wonderfully flavored medium body, fruity (raspberries?), with a hint of spice on the quite long finish. Only moderately tannic.
Here's Wine Spectator's take on it:
VIÑA IJALBA Graciano Rioja 2000 89 $20
Inky in color, rich on the palate, this red spotlights a grape that normally takes a small supporting role. It offers meaty, mineral flavors and very firm tannins, and needs a grilled, dry-aged steak to show best.
Anyway, it was great stuff. Hopefully I can find some somewhere.
On to the food...
Piperade skipped the tapas style and went for a more standard appetizer/main course menu.
The endive salad, dungeness crab salad, and selection of cheeses were quite good.
The prawns and braised oxtail were beyond good. Way beyond good. More like fucking brilliant. Wow. Especially the oxtail. Holy shit.
piperade was very tasty, and the serrano ham was fantastic.
lamb chops were fantastic. perfectly cooked. marvelously tender. very yummy marinade.
veal (one of the specials) was rather astounding. pretty much explained why people like something that's that hideous to contemplate. i've never had cow melt in my mouth like that before.
flat iron steak was very good, but (while certainly not what I'd call tough) the toughest of the 3 meat selections.
we also had a couple white fish plates, whose individual identities I've since forgotten, but both of which were perfectly cooked, and they both shared a very similar (and very tasty) light smoky flavor.
we also got some fries on the side, which were exactly what non-steak cut fries should be: mildly salted, very crispy on outside, and nice soft inside. addictive.
gateau chocolat - dense, rich, and wonderful.
we got something else, but I've forgotten what it was. It was good, too, though. heh.
Anyway, all that is to say that the food was fantastic, the service excellent (which reminds me - really good bread, and fantastically tasty olive oil!) and quite knowledgeable about the largely Basque & European wine list, and the price very reasonable considering the quality. Piperade places VERY favorably when set up next to similarly nice establishments such as Boulevard or Hawthorne Lane.
Yeah, we'll be back.
Iluna Basque (last updated 04.02)
website - Located at Powell & Union in North Beach, this little gem is a far superior replacement of whatever used to occupy this place. Which should be obvious, considering the number of times I've been past that corner, and couldn't tell you for the life of me wtf used to be there.
Anyway, the first thing they've got going for them is that they're open until Midnight(!) in a city notoriously short handed when it comes to real places to eat late. It's also got good atmosphere, with little red candles, generally dark interior with some funky hanging lights, and a somewhat random flatscreen TV with the sound off which while we were munching was playing some old black & white movie situated rather centrally on a wall. Quirky, but fun, I suppose, if your date is hideously boring. Or maybe just weird.
The menu is basically all tapas - small plates, which vary in price from $3-10 each, and when they arrive give meaning to the phrase 'small plates'. Don't expect to get full unless you get a few of these. Each. But the food is quite good.
We, as people only snacking late, didn't get much, but here's what we had:
mache salad - really good! a hint of vinnaigrette dressing perhaps, and the feta & walnuts were a good addition.
crab croquettes - there were 3. and they were about 1 inch long each. must admit I was kinda hoping for more there... not a whole lot of crab flavor (or crab at all for that matter, from what I could tell), but they were pleasantly creamy. and deep fried. so they can't really be bad, right?
seared tuna - the tuna was fantastic. perfectly seared, melt-in-yer-mouth, wonderful consistency... wow. unfortunately, the blue cheese basque sauce completely overwhelmed the light flavor of the tuna. not bad for dipping bread in, but keep it away from the fish! this was the biggest of the 4 dishes.
salmon tartare - also really yummy. the salmon just melted, clearly very good and very fresh fish. perhaps a few more capers than I would have thrown in, but capers are yummy, so why not?
then came dessert.
bread pudding - damn. is that what bread pudding's actually supposed to be? no wonder I've never liked it before; I've clearly never had it before. fucking brilliant.
beret basque chocolat - chocolate was wonderful; very mousse-like. the cookie-like base underneath it was rather undestinguished; a bit too hard to cut through easily, and didn't add much in the way of flavor. worth getting again for the chocolate alone, though. yum.
garlic & shrimp soup - fantastic. wonderfully flavorful & rich, yet not so overpowering as to obscure the shrimp. also had some very very tasty piiiig. mmm... piiiig.
tortilla de san sebastian - a spanish style tortilla, sort of like an omelette in that it's mostly egg & stuff. my girlfriend said it was very good and quite authentic, but I'm not a big egg fan.
So other than that, they had a good by-the-glass selection of wines; I had a Cotes-du-Rhone which was suprisingly good. There's also a reasonably sized menu of full bottles, including a selection of Basque wines.
UPDATE 04.02: they even have the Ijalba we got at Piperade by the glass! Fantastic stuff, but they're charging $10/glass, which is way overpriced. Well, unless it's really really hard to find. Which it might be.
The other rioja was also very tasty, and cheaper.
One of the menu pages also lists a selection of specialty drinks from the bar, most of which (I only glanced) were martinis. Normally, I might have spent more time here, but I was in the mood for wine & food; not so much the booze. One of the selections was partaken of by our table, a concoction of Gin and mint, which tasted refreshingly like Listerine. hm. Not the best mix, methinks.
All said, though, I'll certainly be back, not only for the generally quite-good food, but especially for the fact that they're available so late, and being something of a nite-owl, I appreciate a restaurant with such clearly good taste in dining times.
Also worth noting that they were reasonably busy for 10pm on a Wednesday, which I take as a good sign that hopefully they'll stick around a while.
One final note - their chef came from Piperade before this, which amusingly enough we were at merely 4 days prior. I should probably post a review of it as well, since we'll be returning there also.
Just so you all can start drooling in advance, I thought I'd put up a little taste of what tidbits I've in mind for future commentating. I'll also see how many gratuitous food references I can work into this, just cuz.
Expect such delectable morsels as:
wine & liquor stores
fancy (eg, not grab the tinfoil wrapped tube & go) Mexican
Shawermas (like burritos, only grab & go reviews, not sit-down quality reviews)
Mediterranean (mmm... Kan Zaman)
Other nibble-worthy eateries I might find the stomach to comment on:
fancy restaurants in general - in a standard comparison sort of format. maybe think Battle Zagat $$$$!
or perhaps, simply reviews of good restaurants I've been to. In fact, I may feel inspired just now...
(last updated 08.11)
Sooner or later, I had to start this one, so it may as well be now. Pizza, like burritos, is one of life's perfect feel-good foods, when done right. Unfortunately, far too many out there just don't do it right. For something so reasonably simple, consisting mainly of bread, sauce, cheese, and toppings, it's amazing how many opportunities there are to completely ruin the final product.
The most important aspect to really truly get right is the sauce. How often do you run across a pizza whose flavor is just bland? And then there are those pizza places that can pull you in from a block away, the aroma is just that good. It's almost all in the sauce. The most fascinating thing to me is how many pizza places smell fantastic, yet the flavor of the pie itself doesn't live up to the aroma. After sauce, the crust and cheese are pretty much equal in importance - how buttery? too greasy (think Pizza Hut)? bland or flavorful? Is the cheese just perfectly melty, or has it been burned to a brown, hardened, ruined crisp? Toppings really aren't a problem, beyond being fresh and of good quality, unlike the oft-encountered 'rabbit-turd' sausage you find at such quality establishments as Dominos. hah.
On to the ratings!
The Best of the Best
Zachary's Chicago Pizza, in Berkeley and Oakland
#1. The single best pizza I have ever had the intense, excruciating pleasure to enjoy. The sauce is the perfect combination of fresh, chunky tomatoes, oregano, and various other spices. That astounding aroma that has you drooling for the entire time you await the arrival of your perfect pizza, and keeps the 2 restaurants perpetually full? The pizza is even better. This is not a place where the pie doesn't live up to the standards set by your nose. The crust is fantastically flavorful, with just the right mix of soft in the middle, crunchy around the edges, and pleasantly buttery. Perfectly cooked everytime, this is Chicago Pizza. While my friends from Chicago will claim that it's not quite as good as the originals - Gino's East and Pizzeria Uno (not the chain, dear god no), non-Chicagoans I know who've had all of the above say they think Zach's is the superior pie. I really can't praise it enough. Bow, scrape, and prostrate yourself to the altar of this pizza!
A couple of notes: first, I speak only of the deep-dish. While Zach's makes ordinary thin-crust pie as well, it's not what anyone in their right mind goes there for. Second, some pizza purists who believe that New York style is the be-all, end-all of pizza may attempt to discredit Zach's for not being "pizza". Personally, I don't care what you call it. Some reviews I've seen describe Zach's as a "cheese pie", which is actually remarkably accurate. So to you East Coast pizza dorks I say, call it what you want, but recognize the brilliance. Finally, to those of you who think that Pizza Chicago represents authentic Chicago style pizza, well, you're wrong.
I'm amused to note that in the '04 Zagat survey, Zachary's was rated the 20th most popular restaurant in the entire Bay Area. Um. I can't even guess how many (tens of?) thousands of restaurants there are around here, and Zach's beat all but 19 of them. Yeesh.
And in a remarkable tie for first place,
Patxi's Chicago Pizza, in Palo Alto
#1. See the review
While I haven't yet had a pie there that was quite as perfect as the pie at Zach's (largely because I've, for various unfortunate reasons, ended up having nothing but pepperoni so far, which is a bit too salty for my taste) the pie I have had has been very, very nearly as good, and the wonderful bar, great beer and wine selection, and how fantastically friendly the staff has been on every occasion has combined to equal everything out. Unlike Zach's which is perpetually over-full, Patxi's doesn't rush you through your dinner, but lets you relax as you over-stuff yourself. Treat yourself tonight, and if you do, say 'Hi' for me.
Marcello's Pizzeria, across from the Castro Theatre in SF
The best New York style pizza I've found in the Bay Area. Possibly the only other pizza joint from Zach's where the flavor lives up to the expectations set by the aroma - their sauce is fantastic. And for those of you who like lots of weird crap on your pizza, they're quite willing to accomodate. Avoid the Sicilian style - it isn't bad, but it's nothing compared to the thin crust. As a final bonus, they deal in slices and are open until 1 or 2 in the morning for that late-nite fix!
The Quite Good
Applewood Pizza (Menlo Park) - great. Very yummy pizza, if a not terribly traditional flavor. One of my favorite crusts - just very very flavorful and a perfect consistency. They've got a fascinating take on garlic bread also: it's a pizza crust (whole and round) with a roasted head of garlic in the middle. That's it. As an added bonus, they've got a fantastic selection of imported German beer. And we all know there isn't much better than beer and pizza.
CPK, or California Pizza Kitchen to you non TLA fans - they've got a lot of odd stuff, and they're clearly overpriced (they took the California bit too much to heart) but it's definately yummy.
Victor's Pizza (Polk & Pine, SF) - good NY style stuff. They do slices in the easy-cheat of take a pre-made cheese pizza, add toppings and cheese, toss it back in the oven for a couple minutes, and serve. Advantages are that the underlying pizza is often fresher, since as there's only one pizza out at a time being eaten, it is replaced more often. Disadvantages are, obviously, that the toppings and pizza don't mesh as well. The pie itself, however (especially when ordered whole and not as a slice) has good flavor, better than average sauce (if not quite fantastic), and good slightly crispy (if variable) crust. They also employ the less common whole-slices of cheese approach, rather than covering the pie in ground up cheese. This tends to offer a more uniformly thin cheese layer than the scattering of ground cheese, which can be good or bad depending on your preference.
Amici's East Coast Pizzeria - tends to be quite greasy, but is reasonably authentic East Coast style. Very thin-crust, foldable, oregano-y pizza. I like their spicy sausage.
Pizza My Heart - clearly owned by, and showing a strong family resemblance to, Pizza a GoGo, these stores have obviously learned something of a lesson from real pizzerias. The slices are actually edible. Not great by a long shot, mind you, but at least edible.
Windy City Pizza - they may once have been a good Chicago pizza store, as evidenced by the photos on their walls which show what Chicago pizza is supposed to look like, but they clearly haven't looked at those photos in years, because their pizza bears no recognizable resemblance. Bland, disappointing flavor, crusty overcooked cheese, overly buttery crust that really has no flavor apart from the butter.... There's nothing to recommend this place.
Pizza a GoGo - thank whatever god(s) you believe in that there are only 2 of these. A worse pizza I doubt I've ever had. Everything about this stuff, from the cardboard crust to the straight-out-of-a-can sauce to the nasty fake cheese is virtually inedible. I doubt I'd be able to choke this down at gunpoint.
Avanti Pizza (San Mateo) - I'll give them this one credit: they're generous. However, they use the age-old cheating techinque of taking a slice of pizza that's been sitting out for 2 hours, burying it in fresh cheese, dumping your desired toppings on it, and putting it back in the oven to pretend it's fresh. Unfortunately, all you end up with is a slice that tastes like cheese, and not much else, as the slice itself has long since lost all desirable flavor.
Pizza Chicago - By far the best of a generally very poor crowd. The deep dish crust tends to be a bit too thick, but the cheese is not over cooked, the toppings are good, and the overall flavor is pretty tasty.
Pizza Hut - pure crap. One of the quintessential examples of (a) too much grease and oil in the crust and (b) overcooked, hard brown cheese that is so stiff it tends to pull all the way off the pizza on the first bite. What a waste.
Mr Pizza Man - not impressed. The slices are often old, and not that great. And there's little worst than old pizza sitting under a heatlamp.
Dominos - not as greasy, but always overcooked, nastily-flavored crap. Creators of rabbit turd sausage.
Round Table - generally very greasy, but that's because they mix cheddar into their cheese. Generally pretty good, and they never, ever, ever skimp on toppings. Sometimes you can't even see the pizza underneath.
Little Caesars - what a mix. Can be tasty in the way that fast food is tasty, but can also be awful. Bit of a gamble, really.
Extreme Pizza - like Round Table, they're generous with toppings, but are more fast-foody and less sit-downy. Reliable in a pinch.
A brief commentary on my blogging style, or the lack thereof
Given that a number of my posts are likely to be rather topic specific, such as the taqueria/burrito commentary below, it seems to me to make rather more sense to go back and edit those posts when I have something to add, rather than simply making a new comment about it, which few people are likely to connect if it happens to be some months later. So don't assume that just because you've read it once, it isn't worth glancing at again.
If and when I feel the need to update a previous comment, I'll make sure to include an edited-on date, so you'll know if you need to update yourself on the latest intelligence gatherings.