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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Great Cake Debate - Two Schools of Thought

Photo by Joe Homsy at the Saratoga County Club wedding of Chris and Mo in 2010.

When to cut the cake? No doubt it is an ongoing discussion in wedding circles. A popular DJ in our area, Ron Grandia, makes a great case for cutting the wedding cake right after the meal in his blog post called The Great Cake Debate. I make no effort to refute Ron's points. However, I think there are two schools of thought on this topic and I normally come from the other one.

Here are some of the advantages I see in cutting the wedding cake after a short set of dance music.

1. It gets the guests right out of their seats. Often weddings can drag a bit from the guests' perspective with ceremony, photos, cocktails, dinner and toasts because for the most part these are passive activities they observe. Food and alcohol coma can set in and energy is lost when the guests sit too long. Background music can only be so peppy and if they don't get up and moving, they can fade.

2. Saving the cake for just a little while will give you (the hosts and entertainers) one more "bone" to toss the guests. It becomes the surprise sweet treat they have been eyeballing so the prolonged tease can even increases the anticipation and temptation.

3. As a music programmer I always use the cake break as a logical and smooth transition between styles. I take no breaks myself when I do a wedding so I am always looking for the most subtle way to move from genre to genre. So the cake break can be a great way to stop the dance music and start it again in a completely different style without causing culture shock. If older guests are likely to leave early, then my intention is to satisfy them with this pre-cake cutting dancing. They are then able to dance, enjoy the cake and leave without feeling like they missed anything.

4. If the couple chooses to toss a garter and bouquet, there is no better time than immediately following their ceremonious cake cutting. While the staff is serving the cake the garter/bouquet tosses can be easily made without any interruption of the energy because it's down time. It is also the easiest time to keep the audience's attention because as an MC you already have it. Alternatively you must find a time to stop for the tosses later during your dance sets which can often kill the dancing energy. Finally, you still have the maximum number of guests there to participate in the tossing ceremony because most wedding guests will stay at least until the cake is cut.

5. And there are exceptions to every one of my rules. If for any reason the reception is running way behind schedule, I will default to a cake cutting right after the meal. I really don't want any guest to miss out on cake and there are always a few guests (as Ron accurately points out) that are not going to stay to the end of the reception. When we are grossly behind schedule I completely agree with cutting and serving cake immediately after the meal.

Most will agree that the cake cutting ceremony is a turning point at a wedding reception. I am certainly not arguing that it should be in the final hour of a reception but just after a short and energetic dance set. Normally, I allow this set to go on about thirty minutes in order to let everyone know that dancing is definitely on tap for the remainder of the reception.

Finally, I believe that your DJ is the person who ultimately should decide when that perfect moment is to stop for the cake cutting. It is a matter of energy, timing and flow. No one else at the event is in a better position to determine that moment. Your DJ should always give the other vendors a good heads up when that moment is approaching so they are ready for it. I've heard many stories about photographers missing a cake cutting because an amateur DJ made the cake announcement while they were outside taking a photo of the grandparents. I find that most planners, coordinators and catering staff normally concur on this timing give or take a few minutes.

So what's the best time to cut your cake? It is really the vibe of your event and not the exact time on the clock that makes the biggest difference. Trust the person in charge of the energy level at your reception.

Monday, September 26, 2011

September Food Excursion: Pleasanton - The Name...and The Food Fits

This month we chose a favorite little town of mine in the east bay known for it's blend of old vintage downtown area and steady urban sprawl east towards Livermore. This iconic sign looms over Main Street and reminds you that "The Name Fits." It did not take us long to discover the culinary scene there is equally amiable.

Our first stop was not downtown but rather in the commercial area of town on Hopyard Road at the wildly popular Eddie Papa's. Eddie's slogan on his sign says it all: "American Hangout." This place is super casual so let your hair down but don't let the informal atmosphere fool you. Eddie is doing some seriously good food here. They strive for local sourcing, natural and organic ingredients whenever possible. My knee jerk impression of the logo and ambiance was sort of a retro diner in the vein of Johnny Rockets but that's where the similarity ended. Eddie Papas is a real restaurant and not just a burger and fries joint.

The first thing that greets you at the door is a very friendly reception by the hostess and a glimpse of their sports bar type lounge. This area is likely a fitting hangout during game time but we had our sites set on lunch and in particular their Monticello Macaroni and Cheese.

Eddie Papas covers all the bases of a great hangout with this inviting neighborhood lounge.

The first thing that caught my eye at the booths were these cool retro condiment holders. I was hungry before I even had a menu in my hands. Ice water in the Mason jar kept the whole theme alive.

When people talk Mac and Cheese they always have my attention so I figured that Eddie Papa's version was worth a try. I was a bit surprised they chose wagon wheel shaped pasta but it worked very well as a pallet for the cheddar and jack cheeses. They offered a nice choice of either house made potato chips or garlic bread crumbs for the topping and finished it off with a touch of truffle oil. Our waiter made a very cool move of mixing both toppings when we couldn't decide so we enjoyed the best of both worlds. It was simply delicious mac and cheese that would make both kids and adults very happy. A full order with the veggies is $8.95 and a side order only is $4.50.

Mac and Cheese with perfectly sauteed local zucchini, squash and carrots at Eddie Papa's place.

Our indecision on which topping has turned into a strong recommendation. Just get to Eddie Papa's and request the mixture of potato chips and garlic bread crumbs. Disappointment is not on their menu.

Speaking of indecision there were so many great offerings at Eddie Papa's I was nearly struck with option overload. But when the Green Goddess Wedge caught my eye on the list of salads I knew it was a no-brainer. I was a bit surprised that my foodie friend, Stacie Tamaki, was unfamiliar with Green Goddess dressing as it has truly been a part of my diet since my earliest childhood recollection. Our discussion did reveal that Green Goddess is actually just a local flavor that was introduced in the 1920's at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Lucky me for growing up in the Bay Area where the dressing is native. Stacie is from the Pacific Northwest where Green Goddess was not on the list of salad dressing choices. Eddie Papa's uses a crisp Iceberg wedge and really kicks up the textures with toasted almonds, dried cherries, slivered red onions, Point Reyes bleu cheese crumbles and hickory bacon. Although we had them hold the bacon the layers of flavor seemed endless.

Green Goddess Wedge at Eddie Papa's Pleasanton - $6.95

I am always impressed when the chef and/or owner of a restaurant comes out from the back room/kitchen and visits those dining. The entire time we were at Eddie Papa's the owner whose real name is Eddie Westmoreland was cruising the floor and chatting with everyone. He insisted we try their mushroom tart and treated us to an order. Stacie is not a big mushroom lover but my fetish for them balances out our team. The crust was delicate, the cheese was perfectly melted and I was a very happy camper. I had to grab a shot of this long time restauranteur and commend him on a job really well done.

I show off the Green Goddess Wedge with owner Eddie Westmoreland.

Mushroom Tart topped with some mixed greens.

Finally, Stacie chose to take her personal beverage challenge at Eddie Papa's and ordered a Moxie Blue Cream Soda which was created in 1884 in Lowell, MA. Like every item at Eddie Papa's there is a story or tie-in to American dining.

Moxie Blue Soda - $3.50

Just when you think you've seen enough surprises at Eddie Papa's they bring the check and tucked inside is a Seafood Watch pocket guide. Eddie Papa's walks the walk. These pocket guides are intended to educate the consumer as to which seafood is sustainable and safe. It is really unusual but highly refreshing to see a purveyor of fish offer this information to their customers.

And in the category of "Nice Touch" the award again goes to Eddie Papa's when they bring a complimentary serving of cotton candy at the conclusion of your meal. Ed told us that his original intention was to create a place where families were comfortable but the food was exceptional. This restaurant is exceptional because everything is made from scratch while the vibe is total hangout. It is a unprecedented combination that we found enchanting. I only wish it was not so far from Santa Cruz. Stop One on our tour of Pleasanton gets major points. Thank You Eddie Papa's.

Cotton Candy concludes an Eddie Papa's experience.

Next we headed to the charming downtown area to try Nonni's Bistro. We were instantly grabbed by the Euro feel of their front porch outside seating. Downtown Pleasanton is great for people watching and many of the eateries lining Main Street offer tables out front.

We were curious about their Curried Egg Salad Sandwich with Arugula, scallions and shredded carrots. However, curry can also overwhelm as a spice so we had to give it a try. Fortunately, it was seasoned perfectly and served on a nice Ciabatta roll and mixed greens on the side. It could have easily been an open faced sandwich and possibly a bit less messy to eat.

Nonni's Bistro Curried Egg Salad Sandwich with side salad - $9.00

Another Nonni's specialty that peaked our interest was the Vegetarian Gnocchi. This entree is bursting with flavors from fresh herbs and parmesan cheese. Stacie said the potato dumplings were the best she's ever had. I have to agree because they were really satisfying but not so dense and heavy as gnocchi can be.

Nonni's Bistro Vegetarian Gnocchi with fresh herbs and Parmesan Cheese - $12.00

We were also greeted at our table by Chef/Owner, Jon Magnusson who shared with us some stories about his restaurant days in Carmel. I just love the personal touch of meeting the man behind the food.

We decided to add some ethnic flare into our trip through Pleasanton and quickly zeroed in on a popular Vietnamese place called the Saigon Bistro which was also right down the way at 824 Main Street across from the iconic Pleasanton Hotel. I am big on spring rolls so we ordered some vegetarian ones that came with a nice brothy peanut dipping sauce.

Saigon Bistro's Vegetarian Spring Rolls with peanut sauce - $4.50

In order to mix things up a bit we chose the Lemongrass Tofu. They perfectly bread chunks of tofu then flash fry and wok toss them with lemongrass, onions, bell pepper, garlic and pepper. The dipping sauce is very peppery as well. These spicy chunks of tofu were both a huge flavor and texture explosion as well as a nice compliment to the cool spring rolls. It was a perfect pair of dishes to order together.

Lemongrass Tofu at Saigon Bistro - $8.95

And right back up Main Street we were able to just walk for a taste of Mediterranean fare at the Oasis Grille & Wine Bar. By this time of the day the setting sun was way too bright to get a photo of their store front but the interior has an elegant feel with white tablecloths and rich dark wood finishes.

Main dining room at Oasis Grille & Wine Bar in Pleasanton.

Their signature dish is pumpkin sauteed in olive oil, spicy peppers and garlic with a garlic yogurt sauce called Pumpkin Borani. We had great timing because it was happy hour and everything was priced accordingly. We enjoyed a full order of Borani for just $5.00. The Borani has sweet, salty, rich and savory all going on at the same time. It could be an appetizer, entree, side dish or dessert depending on your mood. The order size was huge and could easily be split by four people. At happy hour pricing it was a serious bargain. It was smothered in the delicious yogurt sauce that was great itself just to sop up with their flat bread.

Speaking of flat bread the Oasis' version is a full basket and not what we expected at all. It had all of the great flavor we anticipated but was thicker and easy to dip. Another very generous portion accompanied the Starters menu with five dipping sauces.

Warm Flat Bread basket at Oasis Grille.

We tried the Warm Flat Bread with five dipping sauces. Each sauce was different enough to make this tour of Mediterranean flavors really interesting. There was spicy serrano vinaigrette, cilantro chutney, red pepper chutney, garlic yogurt and classic hummus and all for only $5.00 at happy hour with the warm bread.

L to R: Red Pepper, Classic Hummus, Cilantro Chutney, Garlic Yogurt, Serrano Vinaigrette.

We also enjoyed a mixture of Marinated Olives for just $3.00. This overall shot of our mini feast says it all. From 2:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. all signature drinks are only $5.00 and all beers are $3.00. The tab for all of this delicious food was only $14.14 plus a tip. A serious bargain when you add in the atmosphere of Oasis and the coolness factor of downtown Pleasanton.

Happy Hour Heaven at Oasis Grille & Wine Bar in downtown Pleasanton!

Wanting to not overlook a sweet ending to our excursion of Pleasanton we opted to visit a popular bakery called Primrose Bakery. Primrose is a classic small bakery that felt like a total throwback for me. I'd describe it as tea cozy and their little sidewalk sign kind of says it all.

Inside Primrose bakery has a couple of tables, all of the smells and feel of a classic boutique bakery. It's that place you run into for a cookie or other treat when the sweet craving overcomes you.

I was honestly too full to eat anything more that day I so ordered a Blueberry Coffee Cake to go. I loved the swirling design and pie shape. It was a huge hit with my family the next morning at breakfast and also comes in apricot and raspberry flavors. Primrose is also noted for their wedding cakes and they are on many of the preferred vendor lists at reception facilities in the Tri Valley area.

Blueberry Coffee Cake with Streusel topping

We wrapped up our culinary excursion of Pleasanton by visiting a great kitchen store called Pans on Fire. I had first met owner, Linda Wyner, at a regional conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP )last month in Southern California. Pans on Fire is a small store that is huge on selection and displays that are as appetizing as the food you can make with these gadgets.

Pans on Fire's inviting front entrance is irresistible and simply draws you inside.

When you stop by make sure you allow plenty of time to browse as this store is an example of merchandising at it's very best. This photo of a display is just one of many that fill the store and give it a dazzling ambiance.

Pans on Fire is alive with colorful displays that brighten this purveyor of cooking goods.

Here Linda posed for us with her book called "Food for Thought" where she taps her background as a food anthropologist and wraps recipes around food history. This lady is everything food and her store really reflects it.

At the back of the store is a fully equipped kitchen where Pans on Fire holds cooking classes and events. Pans on Fire is simply one stop shopping for any true foodie in the Tri Valley area. Visiting Pans on Fire was a most appropriate conclusion for our food tour of Pleasanton.

Kitchen and culinary instruction center at Pans on Fire

My parting shot goes back to where we started. Eddie Papa's slogan "American Hangout" really also describes the Pleasanton food scene as well. This town is likely a great place to live but not bad for visiting and hanging out too. In just a half dozen stops we enjoyed huge variety of American, European, Vietnamese, Mediterranean flavors and a dazzling display of very cool cooking gadgets. To check out Stacie's story of our adventure just click here. We send a big thanks to all of the merchants for their hospitality, warm welcome and really good food.