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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top Ten Tastes of 2011 - My Favorite Flavors of the Year

This year I started a great project with my foodie friend, Stacie Tamaki. Our monthly food excursions took us all over the San Francisco Bay Area where we sampled food from a huge variety of purveyors including carts, trucks, stands, drive-ins, markets and restaurants. Then we both posted our recaps of the excursions on our respective blogs. We were introduced to many new foods and also visited some places not on our beaten paths. I am a list person and love to make all kinds of top tens. Therefore, it was only natural that I suggested to Stacie that we each post a list of our ten favorite foods we ate during the year. To see Stacie's top ten list click here.

Food is definitely subjective and always subject to moods and a host of other variables. However, my criteria in making this list is mostly based on the fact that I would return to any of these places just to eat these foods again. Although I enjoyed most everything we tasted here are the ten foods that stood out for me the most.

#10 – ARTICHOKE GARLIC HERB BREAD from Arcangeli Grocery Company. Our August tour took us along the northern coast of Highway 1 to Pescadero. They are making some seriously good baked goods here.

Fully Baked Artichoke Garlic Herb Bread from Arcangeli Grocery Company

#9 – CHEESY GRITS from Aunt Mary's Café. This dish is breakfast that I can eat all day long.

Cheddar Cheese Grits with Tomatoes, Chiles and Onions

#8 – PLUM AND NECTARINE CLAFOUTIS from Hay Market Willow Glen. Even though I'm not a big dessert person this one was light, not-too-sweet and paired two of my all-time favorite fruits.

Plum and Nectarine Clafoutis at Hay Market Willow Glen

#7 – Bubble And Squeak from Aunt Mary's Café. Another Southern cooking classic that you just don't see on too many menus.

#6 – GARDEN WRAP from Charlie Hong Kong. This restaurant is in my home town and yet as many of these wraps as I have eaten they still knock me out every time.

Charlie Hong Kong's Garden Wrap

#5 – VEGETARIAN GNOCCHI from Nonni's Bistro in Pleasanton. I love gnocchi but the quality you get at restaurants can go all over the map. These were perfectly cooked and complemented by the herbs and veggies.

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

#4 – REGULAR FALAFEL from Liba Falafel Truck. I am a long time falafel fan and have eaten countless versions. This one with your choice of toppings is easily my all-time favorite.

Liba's regular size falafel fully loaded with my choice of toppings.

#3 – FLAT BREAD PIZZA from Vin Antico in San Rafael. This last minute addition to our March excursion was an absolute winner with Crescenza Cheese, Creamy Leeks, White Truffle Oil and an overn roasted egg.

Vin Antico's Flat Bread Pizza

#2 – FRIED "CHICKEN" SANDWICH from Bake Sale Betty. This bite is the third from our May trip to the East Bay which yields the most items on my list. Their chicken breast version of this sandwich is the most popular but I have NEVER tasted tofu this well done.

Fried "Chicken" Tofu Sandwich at Bake Sale Betty

#! – WHITE CORN AND GREEN ONION PANCAKE from O Chamé in Berkeley. This dish is a perfect example fresh ingredients and simple flavors combining for an extraordinary taste. It was my hands down favorite food of a year full of great flavors.

White Corn and Green Onion Pancake

Our big news for 2012 is we are expanding our horizons to include other than just food to our excursions. We will be emphasizing photography and things to do wherever we venture. Of course, the foodies in us will also likely mean that memorable bites will always be mentioned. Thanks to Stacie for being such a great excursion partner. I look forward to the upcoming year and all of the new places we will discover.

Friday, December 30, 2011

December Food Excursion: Carmel Valley & Carmel By-the-Sea

We wanted to end our year of food adventures on a high note so I instantly thought of Carmel. I have long envied this tiny coastal enclave for all of its charm and uniqueness. Even though it is a wildly popular tourist destination they have managed to keep their identity and keep out the cookie cutter world of homogenized chain stores. There are basically two major areas of Carmel and they are both different and alike in many ways. Since breakfast is a favorite meal of our we wanted to try The Wagon Wheel which meant we had to first head for the hills and visit Carmel Valley.

Carmel Valley Road runs up the valley away from the ocean for about 12 miles and is dotted with small businesses, golf courses, wine tasting and resorts along the way. The air is definitely coastal but the terrain is rustic and rural. Just a couple of miles up we found The Wagon Wheel serving up classic coffee shop fare with an old west feel. You feel like using the spurs to kick dust off of your boots before entering this place. On this beautiful winter day they even had diners enjoying the morning on their front porch tables.

The Wagon Wheel at 7156 Carmel Valley Road

 The Wagon Wheel transcends you to another time and place in the Old West

We had read about the oatmeal pancakes and they peaked our curiosity. Turns out they are a perfect mating of the two dishes. On the outside they look and taste just like a good pancake but inside they are not fluffy but rather hearty as a bowl of hot oatmeal. It is a strange combination but topped with ripe bananas, a powdered sugar dusting and hot maple syrup all the big flavors are on board. They offer just a single cake portion and considering how filling it was this choice makes sense for average size appetites.

Oatmeal Pancake with bananas (single serving) – $5.50

What really caught our eye on the menu was what they call "The Cookout." This dish is just three poached eggs served floating in baked beans. As simple as this sounds it was really good. First of all the eggs were perfectly poached which is not something I have come to expect at many restaurants. What made the beans so good is that they were not sweet but rather had a little spicy kick to them. How good was this dish? Good enough to make me want to show three photos of it.

The Cookout – $9.50

The Cookout closer up and nicely garnished with parsley

The Cookout – A surprisingly great flavor combination

Instead of heading into town we opted to go further up the valley because several locals suggested we try Corkscrew Café. Just like everything else in Carmel you can miss it it if you are driving too fast or not paying close attention. All signage is understated in keeping with the rustic feel of this little town.

Corkscrew Café is at 55 West Carmel Valley Road in Carmel Valley

But don't let the super casual vibe of this restaurant fool you because the moment you step inside you know that really great food is upon you. Their fresh baked artisan breads and pizza oven say hello and welcome your senses.

Corkscrew Café feels like old Mission Monterey with a local seasonal menu

The artisan bread display had us curious to order their bread sampler. It included Whole Wheat, Rosemary Kalamata Olive Ciabatta, Sourdough and Baguette. While most restaurants serve bread for no charge with your meal it seldom stacks up like this platter. Great tasting butter and local olive oil turned it almost into a meal. We are both big bread lovers and almost could not stop eating the Kalamata Olive Ciabatta.

Corkscrew Café Bread Sampler – $5.75

We did manage to save room for the highly-recommended-by-our-server Onion Rings. Stacie commented that they were the best rings she has ever eaten. Although my experience with O rings is a little more limited this version was as light as air. They were super thin shaved probably with a mandolin but crispy and chewy at the same time with just the right saltiness. The only thing that kept us from devouring all of them was the steady distraction of the bread sampler. Great job Corkscrew Café!

Onion Rings – $7.00 for a nice high stack that two can easily share

Corkscrew Café is understated yet style abounds everywhere with great attention to detail. Even the water bottle brought to your table is a beautiful long neck vessel offering hydration for the senses.

Water just tastes better from a classic wine bottle

Corkscrews are not just their namesake as a huge collection of vintage ones are on display with some dating back to the 17th century.

Corkscrew Café Corkscrew Collection

We could have hung out all day in Carmel Valley but it was time to head back into town. However, one more stop in the valley beckoned as we passed by the Earthbound Organic Farm. I am a long time fan of Earthbound Organic products but I was unaware that they had a roadside retail market of their own called The Farm Stand.

Earthbound Farm Stand at 7250 Carmel Valley Road
We weren't quite sure what to expect but were pleasantly surprised by the expansive picnic grounds and gardens outside as well as the beautifully merchandised market inside.

The Farm Stand – All organic shopping along Carmel Valley Road

Inside the shelves are well stocked with gourmet goods

Super fresh and all organic produce is the standard here

We found a perfect dip to accompany our leftover bread from Corkscrew Café. It is a combination of figs and olives made by Jimtown in Healdsberg, California. It made for an instant picnic on one of their many benches. The dip was a bit more sweet than savory but the olives definitely added another layer of flavor and paired nicely with all of our breads.

As we wandered around the Earthbound Farm grounds it became apparent that this family friendly place offers more than just a place to buy organic foods.

Clip it yourself herb garden

Kids' garden with a rock labyrnith

Coincidentally, our next stop is a sister restaurant to Corkscrew Café called La Bicyclette. At 7th and Dolores this charming little French style café is another really hard-to-resist spot for just a bite or full meal.

When I saw Nante Carrot Risotto on the special menu I knew there was no question of what to order. Served with truffle marinated artichokes it was a no-brainer for me. The risotto was perfectly creamy and the fresh vegetable salad on top just popped. The artichokes were a buried treasure beneath the many flavor layers.

Nante Carrot Risotto with truffle marinated artichokes – $14.00

It was Stacie's turn to order dessert and she did not hesitate when she saw Wood Fired Quince and Apple Tart on the large wall menu.

Les Desserts wall menu at La Bicyclette Restaurant Downtown Carmel

Again I need three photos to do justice to this delicious dessert. 

Wood Fired Quince and Apple Tart with vanilla ice cream – $8.00

Vanilla bean ice cream nesting in raw brown sugar

The inner goodness of the wood fired quince and apples tart

Not that we needed any more sugar at this point but Stacie said we can't visit Carmel without a stop at the legendary Carmel Bakery and Coffee Company. After she twisted my arm we made the short walk up to Ocean and Lincoln where the line of customers extended out the front door. I thought to myself that they must have baking down if they have been in doing it since 1906.

I could have almost been satisfied by just window shopping here. The display of baked sweets in their front window just makes your head spin. Here's just a sampling of what greets your eyes before you even set foot inside the front door. We opted for a Fruit Stick and Chocolate Pretzel ($2.95 each) to go.

Fruit Sticks in raspberry and apricot

Chocolate Pretzels

Cinnamon Pastries

Almond Claws
Suddenly we looked at the clock and it was dinner time but we weren't exactly hungry after this day of delightful indulging. We had to get back home but were hardly ready to leave the charm of Carmel. This place is just as much about wandering and browsing as it is about eating. You can't help but relax and unwind here. I love the absence of billboards, graffiti and fast food restaurants. The many thatched roofs and curving gables make you feel like you've landed in an old European village.

The typically quaint style of Carmel buildings where cozy is the mode

On a whimsical side note when I was young my parents' favorite weekend getaway was Carmel. I was never curious about it because they told us that children were not allowed in Carmel and I sincerely believed them. Now I understand why this little heavenly spot was not one of our family vacation destinations. This town is strictly adult entertainment but the classy kind not the XXX rated version like you'll find on Broadway in San Francisco. To enjoy Stacie's story of our adventures in Carmel just click here.

My parting shot is of a sign in front of a home and garden shop. It is not only the name of this business but to me describes the entire town and spirit of Carmel, California whether you're in the Valley or by-the Sea.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Movie Review: "Of Wind And Waves" The Life of Woody Brown

Woody Brown's story on DVD

It has been awhile since I reviewed a movie.  Back in the spring I saw Tom Shadyac's documentary, "I AM" and posted about it. It's not that I haven't seen a bundle of movies since then but none that made me feel compelled to tell the world about them. Ironically, both of these films are documentaries so perhaps purely entertaining films are not grabbing me quite like true life stories. I also found a few similarities in Woody Brown's spirt and Tom Shadyac's message of everything in the universe being related.

Woody Brown was born into a wealthy New York family in 1912 but rejected both the city life and high society to chase his passion of flying and surfing. He lived in airport hangars just to be around the likes of Charles Lindberg and learn how to fly. Gliding was actually his biggest thrill and in those days the gliders were towed by cars to the edge of cliffs for launching. He moved to San Deigo and set a world record for altitude, distance and time in the air by flying his glider, Thunderbird, from Texas to Kansas a total of 263 miles.

Surfing was another passion which attracted Woody because of the thrill, danger and freedom. He moved to Hawaii and was a standout among the few original big wave riders. Today's generation of big wave riders like Laird Hamilton and David Kalama talk with Woody in the film and are in awe of him for pioneering this sport without spotters, jet ski towing and the advantages of modern equipment.

Once he mastered surfing Woody chased another passion of sailing and invented the catamaran. In 1947 he built the Manu Kai (Sea Bird) out of plywood and it became the fastest sailboat in the world. It was copied by Hobie Alter who made a fortune bringing the catamaran design to the mainstream. In the film they are both interviewed. Hobie credits Woody with his design. Woody had absolutely no problem with Hobie making a fortune on the sport of sailing instead of him.

If you are scratching your head at this point it is because you have yet to know the real Woody Brown. Woody is the quintessential dreamer who not only talks the talk, walks the walk but also lives the life. Every decision he made was based upon feeling. He simply could not be motivated by money or any other external factors in which he did not believe.

This story is sheer inspiration. The footage of Woody still surfing at 90 years old is amazing. His spirit and optimism are contagious. Do any of your complaints really amount to anything once you've gone for a ride on a Woody Brown wave? About my only complaint with this movie is its underexposure. I want everyone to see this flim. It is jam packed with many great life lessons.

My good friend since junior high school days, Peter Chacona, turned me onto the Woody Brown story. Like many documentaries it ran on PBS but now is much harder to find. It is available for purchase by Woody's son, David Brown or on Amazon. For more information visit David's website at: www.ofwindandwaves.com.

So in the meantime my plan will be to just continue inviting friends over for dinner but then insist they watch my DVD. So far this sneaky little scheme has been wildly successful as everybody LOVES this story. It is only 63 minutes in length but one of the best hours you can invest for inspiration and a real life feel good story. And yes, this is an invitation for anyone who wants to come over to my house to see it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Nuevo Southwest Grill - Never Judge A Book By Its Cover

After living in Santa Cruz for nearly ten years I have made countless trips along both East and West Cliff Drives because they both wind along the coast. I have passed the Nuevo Southwest Grill more times than I can recall. To be brutally honest I had prejudged this place and frankly thought it was just another taqueria of sorts based on the outside. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong with a great taqueria I honestly thought that inside this rather mundane facade were only tacos and burritos waiting.

A highly nondescript storefront at 2-1490 East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz

But once you step inside the cheery colors and bright Southwestern decor instantly welcomes you into a place of warmth and hospitality. It's a hint that something special is upon you.

As fate would have it I got introduced to this great eatery by a friend who lives in Sacramento. Go figure. After some research I learned that the guy behind the fantastic food at Nuevo is owner, Chef Ruben Partida whose experience includes Aqui, Gordon Biersch and an all-time favorite of mine in San Jose called Eulipia. The Nuevo team is a family effort with Ruben's wife, Kathy and his daughter, Alexandra both lending their talents as well as some old family recipes kept alive. Chef Ruben and Alexandra took a moment out of their always busy evenings to pose for this shot.

Chef Owner Ruben Partida and his daughter Alexandra

One of the house specialties is a variety of sangrias that go beyond the typical red wine version. Since I could not easily decide Alexandra was kind enough to bring me a trio of them to sample. From left to right is the Peach (White cranberry peach juice, Chablis, lime juice and honey), Red (Burgandy wine, orange juice, lime juice and sugar) Mango Nectar with Chablis wine.

Trio of house made sangrias for me to sample

Although I liked them all the Peach version won my personal taste test. They float fresh bits of apple that makes this very refreshing drink fun and festive. It is so light it's almost like a spritzer.

Nuevo Southwest Grill's house made Peach Sangria – $5.00

On my first visit here I let my friend order and we started off with one of their most popular appetizers, Smoked Seasoned Salmon on grilled flat bread with dill cream cheese, red onions, capers and tomato relish. Normally I am not a huge fan of smoked salmon but this version actually had a crust on it that was fantastic. And the layers of other complementing flavors made for a great start to our meal. It was a salty and savory way to get our taste buds going without filling us up. Perfecto Apertivo!

Smoked Seasoned Salmon Appetizer – $10.95

Two standout entrees we've tried many times over is the Seafood Risotto and anything with their special Tamarindo Sauce. The risotto shown here is a generous portion loaded with crab, shrimp and salmon served in a broth with sweet corn and spinach.

Seafood Risotto – $14.95

I mentioned their special Tamarindo BBQ sauce which is offered on their Braised Ribs but I tried it on a seafood skewer of salmon, scallops and opa fish. On the side was a tangy mango slaw and sweet potato fries. As you'd expect from good BBQ the sweet and tangy flavors were all playing well together here.

Seafood Skewer Special with Mango Slaw and Sweet Potato Fries – $14.95

Vegetarians are not forgotten at Nuevo with many opportunities to substitute tofu or other non-meat options in nearly all of their dishes. Pictured here are the Red Potato Enchiladas from their vegetarian entree menu. They are rolled with onions and cheese then topped with sour cream, both red and green tomatillo sauce and served with green rice and pinto beans.

Red Potato Enchiladas with Rice and Pinto Beans – $10.95

For the more traditional Mexican food lovers they also offer more classic choices like steak, chicken or prawn Fajitas, Pork Chile Verde, and Carne Asada. This photo shows the steak with all of the fixings you'd expect to find on a good fajita platter.

Steak Fajitas – $14.95

Attention to detail and tiny nice touches are everywhere at Nuevo. Chef Ruben really knows flavors and makes them pop on even simple salads. Pictured here is my favorite from their Ensaladas list. It includes Hearts of Romaine topped with carrots, jicama, cucumber and mango with a ginger sesame vinaigrette. You can have a half version for $6.25 or a full portion for $8.25. You can even add steak or chicken for $4.00 more or Salmon for an extra $4.25.

Ginger Sesame Salad ($6.25 half or $8.25 whole)

Desserts change daily and are always a pleasant surprise on their own special menu. Some of the regular offerings are Caramel Flan with crispy bunvelos, Apple Crisp with sundried cranberries and Mexican Truffle cake with chocolate raspberry sauce. However, for me the hands down signature dish at Nuevo is their Sweet Potato Bread Pudding. I am not even a big dessert eater but I find myself telling total strangers about this dish. It is rich and light at the same time. It perfectly splits the difference between sweet and savory but never once do you question its status as a dessert. I cannot say enough good things about this bread pudding is so I will just let this picture do the talking for me.

Sweet Potato Bread Pudding – $5.50

For the last seven years Neuvo Southwest Grill has kept a steady stream of loyal customers returning for their exceptional food with a large percentage being locals. Every Wednesday is Ukulele Night where the popular clubs converge for a live mass performance and Nuevo provides a special $10 menu. It is truly a comfortable local hangout with a family spirit but making some seriously sophisticated flavors. Come for the food but also enjoy the warm and friendly service. Basically they make you feel like you're at the Partida home for dinner.

Nuevo Southwest Grill – (831) 475-2233
2-1490 East Cliff Drive
Live Oak neighborhood in Santa Cruz
Closed on Mondays
Tuesday/Wednesday 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Dinner only
Thursday/Friday 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Lunch and Dinner
Saturday/Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Brunch and Dinner
Excellent value with dinner entrees from $10.95 to $14.95