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Monday, October 31, 2011

October Food Excursion: Willow Glen Neighborhood of San Jose

This month we decided to stay close to home and explore one of my favorite old neighborhoods in the middle section of San Jose called Willow Glen. I was born within a mile of here and have many fond childhood memories of this cozy community. Willow Glen has done a great job of redeveloping, keeping current and not forgetting its heritage. Like so many classic downtown communities most everything centers on a main street which here is called Lincoln Avenue. We were able to park and walk to every one of our destinations.

Our first stop was a new and quite unique spot called Hay Market Willow Glen. The buzz on this restaurant is steady and once you try it you will be talking too. Hay bales greet you right at the front door which is your clue that casual is the operative word for the experience you are about to have inside.

Hay Market Willow Glen at 1185 Lincoln Avenue

But don't let the casual atmosphere fool you because Chef/Owner, Joe Cirone, is delivering some seriously good food with complex flavors. Joe explained to us that his vision is provide a gathering place with communal seating and serve whatever is fresh, local and sustainable today. There are no freezers or even gas in the kitchen. All proteins are prepared using the French "sous vide" technique using airtight plastic bags in a water bath. Joe's menus are based only on what his suppliers can deliver and it changes everyday. Forget white tablecloths and reservations. Remember great food.

Communal seating at Hay Market Willow Glen

We tried the cheese plate for $9.00 which included Manchengo, Fourme D'Ambert, Petit Basque (Sheep's Milk), Joe's handmade salami cured in red wine, sliced plums, honey butter, hearty bread slices arugula and a special blend of nuts called Chow Chow Jam.

Cheese Plate at Hay Market Willow Glen

Any of these individual ingredients could be enjoyed on their own but the real fun began when we combined them into bites. All of the savory and salty cheeses really snapped when mixed with the sweetness of the plums, honey butter and Chow Chow Jam.
Chef Joe explained the Chow Chow Jam is made right here in the Santa Cruz mountains by a Los Gatos company called Friend In Cheeses. This little green motivated company's motto is "Dare to Pair 'cause it Pays To Play. They obviously have a sense of humor as well as taste. Our mission on these food tours is to seek the unique and BINGO! we hit it on our very first stop this time. Chow Chow Jam is an eclectic meeting of honey, dried cranberries, sultans, almonds, pinion nuts, soy beans, vanilla bean, bourbon and sea salt. I won't even attempt to describe how well it went with cheese but all I can say is "Just do it."

A jar of Chow Chow Jam to-go was a must for me at $8.00

What better way to follow our cheese journey than with a Plum and Nectarine Clafoutis with organic roasted black plums and nectarines and Mom's orange butter. This northern French dessert was served chilled and just melted in my mouth. I was expecting like a bread pudding but it was way lighter and super refreshing. Joe completely nails this dessert and makes it different everyday based on which fresh fruits are available.

Plum and Nectarine Clafoutis at Hay Market Willow Glen – $6.00

Almost right next door to Hay Market we found the Top Nosh Cafe who specialize in making great artisan savory pies.

Top Nosh Cafe uses only natural ingredients, hand made in small batches, wrapped in pastry crust and quick frozen until ready to serve. Just reading their Top Ten list of varieties makes my mouth water:

Grecian Spinach with Feta Cheese - ricotta, green onions and dill

Spicy Beef - cilantro, mint, jalapeno, halal beef and piquant flavors of the East

Country Ratatouille - eggplant, zucchini, red bell pepper, tomato and Herbes de Provence

Southwest Hot Potato - Yukon gold potatoes, creamy cheeses, corn and roasted poblanos

Chicken with Almonds and Yogurt - free range chicken with cardamom and saffron

Chicken with Apple and Cheddar - with a touch of curry and savory flair

Chicken with Tomatoes - cashews and spices from India

Chicken and Yam with Coconut Curry - Thai flavors include lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime

Wild Mushroom with Gruyere - Shiitake and Porcini mushrooms with fire roasted red bell peppers

Roasted Butternut Squash - Fontina and goat cheeses with caramelized onions

We opted for the Southwest Hot Potato and it came with a nice side serving of cole slaw which makes for a quick and hearty lunch.

Top Nosh Cafe Southwest Potato Pie with cole slaw - $5.75

I was instantly sold on this place and wished there was one closer to where I live. The good news is their pies are available in in many gourmet markets all over the Bay Area including seven of them right in my hometown of Santa Cruz. They call them "Farmer's Market Pies" and with good reason. Look for them in the frozen food section of your better grocery outlets.

Close up goodness inside the Southwest Potato Pie from Top Nosh

A short walk down the street is one of my all-time favorite Chinese food restaurants called Taiwan. Since 1982 Taiwan has a strong reputation and many loyal locals who are quick to offer their praises.

A landmark on Lincoln Avenue since 1982

We both love honey walnut sauce but my foodie friend, Stacie, is allergic to shrimp which is the most popular protein served with it so she orders Honey Walnut Tofu. I had never tried it so it was a perfect first for me. It had all of the texture, sweet and savory joy of any honey walnut dish I've ever had. Thanks to Stacie for thinking of a great vegetarian option for anyone who loves this unique combination of flavors.

Honey Walnut Tofu at Taiwan in Willow Glen - $9.95

Speaking of legendary local spots there is none on the Lincoln strip that has more history than Bertucelli's La Villa Deli. For over fifty years they have been a mainstay for the Willow Glen community for both their scratch made Italian recipes and wide selection of imported delicacies. It was my turn to pick and I went quickly for their vegetable lasagna, stuffed artichoke and macaroni salad.

The artichoke was amply stuffed with a tasty bread crumb that turned it into a meal in itself. I had not had them before but was sold the instant a lady came in to pick up her order of six and just stood there raving about them. She proudly held up her order and claimed it was like a party in a box. And the perfectly seasoned stuffing had me a believer as well.

Stuffed Artichoke at La Villa Deli - $5.50

My expectations of the lasagna were high but only because I have enjoyed all of their pastas and marinara sauces so many times before. Stacie claimed it was the best lasagna she's ever had in a restaurant and I have to agree. It is a perfect blend of cheeses, broccoli, tomatoes and spices.
La Villa Vegetable Lasagna - $6.99

Lunch time is huge at La Villa on Lincoln with so many people running in to grab fresh made sandwiches and their scratch made salads. I am a self-proclaimed macaroni salad junkie so trying their version was a must. They use a favorite pasta of mine called Ditalini or "Little Thimbles" which is a perfect shape to hold just enough of the dressing and also hang well on your fork. I was not all surprised to enjoy the La Villa version.

Macaroni Salad at La Villa Deli - $2.19 for a half pint

Stacie is the one who normally tries one new beverage on our excursions but this time an Italian White Peach Soda caught my eye in the cooler. It was lightly carbonated very sweet but bursting with the distinctive flavor of white peach that I love so much.

Romano's White Peach Soda at La Villa Deli - $1.99

We came to taste but ended up doing lots of grocery shopping at La Villa because the selection of cool and unique imported foods in completely irresistible. We displayed them all together on their outside dining tables.

Pastas, cheeses, sauces, tapenades, vinegars and oils available at La Villa Deli

I stood guard at the door while Stacie grabbed this quick rare shot of the interior with no customers in sight. The constant parade of customers to La Villa is true testimony of their greatness. Even after the lunch hour was over the traffic was non-stop for people coming to pick up dinner items to go.

 Inside La Villa Deli is jammed with prepared and package delights from Italy

Our final stop was a quest for some dessert and to try frozen custard. Another popular hangout on Lincoln Avenue is simply called Willow Glen Frozen Yogurt and Ice Cream Company. As their tenth anniversary approaches they have been a favorite on the corner of Lincoln and Willow in the heart of this community. Stacie had been wanting to try frozen custard and by many accounts this little shop is famous for it.

The custard was as delicious as you'd expect from a frozen dessert. It is made with cream and sugar like ice cream but also contains egg yolk solids which really kick it up in the richness department. We enjoyed vanilla with some fresh raspberries.

Small Frozen Custard - $3.00 plus $1.25 Raspberry Topping

My parting shot is of some little people's chairs on the patio at the Willow Glen Frozen Yogurt and Ice Cream Company shop. They are indicative of the small town spirit that makes Willow Glen one of the friendliest sections of San Jose. Just park once and you will be able to walk to great food and shopping. Their slogan is "Personal Friendly Different" and I am proud to have witnessed this legacy first hand for over fifty years.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Here Comes The Guy To Here Comes The Guide

I am pleased to announce that I have just joined Here Comes The Guide which was a most enlightening experience. Today there are no shortage of advertising opportunities in the wedding industry. There was a time when newly engaged couples would get inundated with postal solicitations in their mailbox shortly after registering for a marriage license. Then bridal shows and the internet provided an entirely new level of information overload. Add Craigslist to the list and the amount of exposure to wedding related services and products a bride-to-be has can be almost dizzying.

So I was really thrilled to learn the extent to which Here Comes The Guide goes to scrutinize their applicants. I say thrilled but it was also a lot of work for me and took about three months to complete the process. I was asked to provide 30 total references of which half were industry and the other half were previous clients. Just making sure all of the telephone and e-mail contact information was accurate and current was a big task because so often after a wedding that can change. I do have a long track record in the local wedding market and thankfully I passed the audition. :-)

Speaking of Craigslist this experience also underscored just how much all wedding advertising is not created equal. Anyone can toss up an ad on Craigslist regardless of their experience. As much as I love it for selling an old lawn mower when it comes to hiring professionals it really leaves the entire scrutinizing process up to the buyer. It's a text book case of let the buyer beware.

On a personal note Here Comes The Guide completely blows my mind if for nothing else, just as a seriously great resource for finding locations. In my many years of helping brides plan their weddings by far their number one quest was to find a facility. So in 1981 my partner and I published a magazine called "Wedding Scenes '81" which was Santa Clara County's only directory of wedding reception facilities. We broke it down by city and provided very basic information like address, phone, capacity, kitchen availability and outside facilities. This magazine was truly unique for its time.

We were very proud of our little local publication that listed places you could hold a wedding reception which included every tiny little restaurant willing to do private banquets. By contrast Here Comes The Guide features over 500 venues of all types covering Northern California not to mention the nearly 1200 nationwide facilities. The searching features and criteria brides can enter on their site is fantastic. It is obvious that Here Comes The Guide is the go-to resource that we were aspiring to all those years ago. Today they cover both bases by appealing to web only brides and those who still prefer thumbing through the physical book as a resource.

So not only is Here Comes The Bride a premier publication that goes to unbridled lengths to scrutinize it's vendors but also provides tons of information in one place that you just can't find elsewhere.  Here is a screen shot of my profile page and also a live link directly to it when you click on the image.

So it begs the question why am I now just joining Here Comes The Guide? I've heard some rumors circulating that I have retired or been held captive in a kitchen at chef's knife point. I consider this new adventure on The Guide to be my coming out party of sorts. As much as I love cooking it is just my hobby and being a Professional DJ and MC is my still my only profession. So really I am just a foodie and music fanatic who loves to entertain audiences with both media. Check out my blog to see the latest in both my culinary and entertainment worlds.

"The rumors of my retirement have been greatly exaggerated"

For more information on Here Comes The Guide the person to contact is Denise Auerbach and you can reach her at 510/548-0400 ext. 321 or denise@herecomestheguide.com.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

MC Skills Workshop - Too Much Is Not Enough

There's a notion that experience itself breeds proficiency and practice makes perfect. However, practicing and repeating incorrectly can also result in just the reinforcement of bad habits. I have been the MC at over 4,000 events so I am hardly shy on experience in speaking to audiences. However, when I get the chance to watch myself on video I ALWAYS see room for improvement. Every single time.

So last week when the opportunity came knocking to take the Silver Level Master of Ceremonies Workshop with Mark Ferrell right in San Jose I did not hesitate. This was not my first rodeo at a Marbecca Workshop. I had already taken their Love Story workshop and the MC series twice. I traveled to Las Vegas in February 2010 for the sole purpose of taking the MC Skills Workshop and told that story in my post you can read by clicking here.

There is so much information to cover in his workshops Mark has now split them into three levels, Bronze, Silver and Gold. Each workshop is jam packed with useful information on announcements, introductions, basic mike technique, posture, demeanor, delivery and everything a speaker needs to engage his or her audience. In this more advanced session we spent a lot of time on connecting with our audience to make them feel, not just hear what you are saying.

The best part of this experience is that it is mostly hands-on and not lecture. We all had equal mic time with video capturing every nuance of our speaking skills. It is the only way to really see yourself in action and Mark lends his expert critique from many years of entertainment experience.

So why was I only one of three local mobile DJ's to participate in this invaluable training? Mark and his wife, Rebecca, have spent most of 2011 taking their workshops on the road across America. I feel so fortunate that our area was on their list of stops but I am puzzled as to why more of our local entertainers are not interested in improving their MC skills. Over half of the participants is this workshop traveled from Seattle and Southern California while one of the group, Stacie Tamaki, is neither a DJ nor entertainer but she understands the value of improving her communication and presentation skills.

The bottom line is we can all stand to use a little tune up when it comes to communicating with others. If you have not seen yourself on video lately, I strongly urge you to do so. It might make you squirm a little but it can only lead to improving your people skills and your life.

I encourage you to check out all of the workshops offered by Mark and Rebecca Ferrell. They come from the heart and will improve everything you do. My parting shot is of the Class of 2011 San Jose Silver. From the left: Me, Stacie Tamaki, Ron Grandia, Alan Chitlik from Seattle, Mark Ferrell seated, Robert Kusters, Matt Graumann and Matt Mitchell both from Southern California and Rebecca Ferrell.

Thanks again to Mark and Rebecca Ferrell for sharing their many years of experience in this truly unique learning experience. It is obvious that everything you do is All About Love.

Friday, October 14, 2011

LYFE Kitchen Opening in Palo Alto is a Grand One

The very first thing to catch my eye at the opening of the first location of LYFE Kitchen is a huge display of fresh herbs right in the center of the dining room. Fresh herbs are the perfect metaphor for this really unique new restaurant. While so many other food sources pay lip service to quality, sustainability and natural sourcing LYFE is actually walking the walk. And not only is the flavor there but at a super affordable price point that still has me scratching my head. This restaurant is really a fresh idea that is quickly coming to lyfe.

Ever since my foodie friend, Stacie Tamaki, and I first learned about this new restaurant concept we've been eagerly awaiting the opening. In June we attended their Forklifting celebration where they first broke ground for the Palo Alto flagship store. You can read my story of that event by clicking here.

The menu at LYFE Kitchen is full of choices and has something for every vegan, vegetarian and carnivore. We ordered many dishes to get a full sampling of the dinner items.

Hands down my favorite flavor of the night came in the way of an appetizer which LYFE cleverly calls their "SHAREABLES". For just $3.99 you get the most flavorable Edamame Hummus with flatbread crisps. The hummus bursts with a lemony fresh flavor. The flatbread crisps are a perfect vehicle with which to scoop the hummus goodness.  The hummus plate is shown here in the foreground with the Roasted Beet Salad and Farro for $7.79. This salad also featured roasted fennel, walnuts, dried cranberries, orange, red onion, basil and a maple-sherry vinaigrette. Another winner from the shareables menu (back of photo) is the Grilled Artichokes with lemon aioli.

Zooming in on the Grilled Artichoke it was perfectly cooked and nicely paired with the lemon aioli for $3.99.

Grilled Artichokes with Lemon Aioli was definitely shareable by all.

Whole wheat flatbreads come in three varieties and they are all under $8.00 for a very generous portion. We opted to try the Margherita which combined fresh mozzarella, sweet cherry tomatoes, fresh basil and a pomodoro sauce.

Margherita Flatbread – $6.99 or half-order for $4.99

The first of two entrees we tried was Art's unfried chicken. Art being Chef Art Smith who helped create the LYFE Kitchen menu along side Vegan Chef Tal Ronnen. This dish rocked with roasted squash, brussels sprouts, dried cranberries and dijon vinaigrette. The only thing we ate from the entire sampling which did not win us over was a corn puree which was the bed for this dish. We opted for the Gardein version of this dish which is meatless. Gardein stems from the words garden and protein and is a plant based food that has all the taste and texture of meat without any of the disadvantages. We love the fact that LYFE Kitchen is so eager to please everyone to satisfy special diets and tastes. You will never see the "No Substitutions" sign anywhere around here.

Art's unfried chicken entree – $11.99

The entree I was most eager to try was Tal's ancient grain bowl. We watched Chef Tal demonstrate this dish at the Forklifting and it has been on my mind ever since. I found a recipe for it on-line and tried to recreate it at home with Gardein beef tips I found at the store. My version was okay but lacked some of the great spicy kick of the original's sweet ginger-chile sauce. The key to this dish is the surprise combination of two great grains, whole grain farro and quinoa. I have eaten them both many times before but never enjoyed their pairing in one dish. It was both light in the stir fry sense and yet very satisfying with the substantial hearty grains.

Tal's Ancient grain bowl – $11.99

Another plus to the menu is that many of the vegetables and sides are also offered separately as items on their SIDES menu. After enjoying so many of the flavors we ordered on the first pass Stacie had to go back for the Baked Sweet Potato Fries. They are served with a very nice house made ketchup distinctively sweetened with agave.

Baked Sweet Potato Fries with house made ketchup – $2.49

Two of the offerings on their dessert menu called THE SWEET LYFE immediately caught our attention. First up was a Lemon Pound Cake with Greek Yogurt and Fruit. As simple as this sounds the layers of sweet and tart flavors/textures hit a perfect finishing note to our meal. Using yogurt instead of whipped cream keeps this treat at just 359 calories.

Lemon Pound Cake with Greek Yogurt and Fruit – $3.99

The other must try guilt-free dessert is what I call a very reasonable indulgence. At just 367 calories the non-dairy Banana Rum Cheesecake is made with a pecan crust and topped with rum sauce. It was very rich and really sweet but not overly so.

Banana Rum Cheesecake (non-dairy) – $3.99

If all this great food isn't enough we learned that LYFE Kitchen also strives to reduce their footprint with everything they do. Their flooring is all bamboo and much of the furniture is made from recycled materials. The decor is deco style with bright accents yet comfortable and makes you feel welcome.

LYFE Kitchen's commitment to the environment goes all the way down to using compostable cartons instead of plastic bottles for their water to-go.

We appreciated the open kitchen, fast service and sense of freshness that emanates from this well designed space. There are also plenty of tables where you can get privacy too.

Like every great downtown Palo Alto restaurant LYFE Kitchen has patio dining out front.

That prominent herb display and profound quotes printed on the walls are a constant reminder that you can Love Your Food Everyday because it is not only good for you but tastes great too.

My parting shot is of us posing with two of the key players responsible for bringing LYFE Kitchen to fruition. From left to right is CEO Mike Roberts, me, Stacie, CCO Mike Donohue and our friend and photographer, Elley Ho.

Normally I avoid being the first in line at a restaurant's opening night. I prefer to give them time to get any kinks out. However, we simply couldn't wait to see if LYFE Kitchen could live up to our expectations. Not only was the food great but the attitude matched the very positive message and mission of this company. The excitement shared by everyone at the restaurant was contagious and we cannot wait to return when both their breakfast and lunch service begins. The official ribbon cutting takes place on Tuesday (18th) morning at 11:00 a.m. Congratulations to both Mikes and the many LYFE team members who have worked so hard to bring us such a great new food experience.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Encore: Spirit of Japantown Festival 2011

It's hard to believe that one whole year has passed since I participated in the 2010 Spirit of Japantown Festival and posted about it. Anytime I can offer my MC skills as community service is ideal for me because I love to engage audiences so much. This year I again had the pleasure to work with Robert Handa from KTVU Channel 2 as co-masters of cermonies to keep the continuous rotation of presentations and entertainment going on their main stage called The Spirit Stage.

Robert is no stranger to this festival and community. As we prepared for the ceremonies and introduction of distinguished guests I watched him greet so many people at the stage it felt like a family reunion of sorts. I moved quickly to grab this shot of Robert and San Jose Councilperson, The Honorable Sam Liccardo.

Councilperson Sam Liccardo and Robert Handa of KNTV.

One of the favorite traditions at this event is the breaking of the sake barrel and sake tasting by the distinguished guests. Here Robert gets every one's attention as the ceremony draws near.

This year's sponsor and donor list grew larger and a huge banner on the stage thanked all of them for their support.

New to this year's festival as a sponsor was Pacific Gas and Electric Company. This photo shows Roy Hirabaysahi, president of the Japantown Community Congress of San Jose accepting a check from Lisa Lam who heads the InspirAsian Employee Resource Group at P, G and E.

The entertainment was non-stop and kicked off again by the thunderous drum performances of San Jose Taiko.

Four mics were working really hard as the non-stop hip hop group ScoJourners kept the party going.

A few of the really fun "maids" posed playfully for me from the anime group, FanimeCon Maid Café.

Yukie Dong performed solo FanimeCon songs (on stage at right) as the other maids cheered her on.

The Spirited Kids, Japanese Dance (Ondo) drew rave responses and later the audience even joined them on stage.

Finally, the highly energetic aerobic dance group called VivAsia increased everyone's heart rate.

It was another very successful Spirit of Japantown Festival. This year was especially important as the event paid tribute and raised donations for the Japanese Tsunami disaster in March. We had a moment of silence as red Japanese lanterns were passed out to honor the victims.

A moment of silence for all those impacted by the Tsunami disaster.

I was honored to again provide the stage sound and my master of ceremonies services for this great event. The festival was once again coordinated by Rieko Iwanaga and Pam Dunnett of At Your Request event planners. Pam and Rieko sent me a very kind note of thanks for helping them with this year's event which I have posted as a testimonial on my website.