Friday, September 29, 2006

California Eatin': Pictures from Avenue

Warm Mushroom and Brie Tart with Balsamic Reduction:

Braised Lamb Shank With Gnocchi and Snow Peas:

Hot Chocolate Cake With Toasted Marshmallow Spoon (with a bite taken out of it already, oops):

Thursday, September 28, 2006

California Eatin': Quick Restaurant Reviews

During my recent trip to CA, I ate out a lot. Even though I had a "suite" with a mini fridge and a minier microwave, it was far easier to partake of the bounty of restaurants in the area. I miss living in an area with lots and lots of good restaurants, where one runs out of the number of meals to be eaten far sooner than the number of restaurants one would desire to try.

Breakfasts were eaten at the hotel's free breakfast buffet because they did have eggs and sausage. I need two things in the morning: protein and coffee.

McDonald's: Ok, technically this was in the Denver airport, but I needed coffee and I needed it fast and for some reason there are no good coffee places in Terminal B/United. Ok, there's a Seattle's Best, but it's all the way down the other end of the terminal and the coffee isn't that good. McDonald's was there.

The coffee wasn't half bad. It may be their new coffee, it may be that I had one of the first cups out of a new batch, but it was quite acceptable and a step up from Village Inn or Denny's coffee. The Egg McLugnut, however, was execrable. How you can ruin something so simple is beyond me. The hash browns were worse. I spit out the one bite of them that I tried - they tasted like rancid oil - and threw out the rest.

Chicken Dijon: A chain in Southern California that specializes in roasted chicken and things to do with it. We'd found it quite by accident during our last trip and really liked the food - it reminded me of Pollo's in Northern CA, but with a Greek/Mediterranean twist rather than a Mexican.

I had the house sandwich and a side salad: the house sandwich is chicken pieces, lettuce, tomato, mayo, some dressing, and a side of a yogurty garlic sauce. The side salad is a basic tossed salad. It's good, filling, and relatively in plan. I like the well-cooked chicken they have - I'm of the school that chicken needs to be cooked until DONE and tender, not just until the juices run clear.

Coco's Bakery Restaurant: This meal was far more about the company and conversation than the food, so Coco's was a fine choice. There used to be one here in Colorado Springs, but it's long gone - apparently there are some left in Colorado somewhere, but they're really not worth searching out. Not since they discontinued the fried chicken dinner many years ago. I had a nice BBQ chicken salad which was remarkably tasty, and a nicely adequate slice of coconut cream pie. And a lot of good company and conversation.

LA Food Show: Technically part of the California Pizza Kitchen empire, this one off restaurant has its own unique menu focused on the cuisines of California. I think I'd call it Cheesecake Factory, Lite - it's trendy without being too out there, but the food is good. I had the Avocado Egg Rolls, technically an appetizer, but plenty of food for a light lunch, since they come with two sauces and a dollop of whiskey blue cheese slaw.

Avenue: This is a little gem of a restaurant on Manhattan Ave in Manhattan Beach, just a hop, skip, and a jump from where I was staying. I knew I wanted to eat at least one interesting meal while I was out there, so off I went to search eGullet's California subforum for recommendations. One of the folks who knows that whole area had listed Avenue, and a quick trip to their website showed me that this was exactly the kind of menu I was looking for.

I admit I was a little nervous about finding parking, but going latish on Sunday evening proved to be an effective strategy. I found lots of parking and had no trouble walking in without a reservation.

I started with the Warm Mushroom Tart, Melted Brie, Balsamic Reduction. The mushrooms were served over a square of puff pastry, topped with the brie, the balsamic reduction scattered artistically about, and a few leaves of arugula. I love mushrooms and I love brie, which is why I chose this appetizer. The balsamic reduction added the needed punch - with it, the flavors came alive. Bites without it were rather flat.

I drank a glass of Snoqualmie Gewurztraminer with this - flavors of grapefruit and honey, complemented it perfectly and cut through the richness of the brie. This was my only drink as I was tired and driving.

For an entree I'd been torn between the pork rack and the braised lamb shank when I happened to catch a glimpse of the entrees being served to the table next to me. When I spied the large chunk of meat looking like something straight out of the Flintstones, I decided immediately to have the lamb. It was an excellent choice: lots of tender, falling apart lamb with some snow peas, carrots, and gnocchi underneath. And even more importantly, it was perfectly salted so the flavors just popped.

Dessert was the hot chocolate cake with a toasted marshmallow spoon. The cake is a liquid center cake, but amusingly baked in a coffee cup to look like it's hot chocolate. A dollop of marshmallow fluff on a spoon is served alongside, torched to brown it a little. I wasn't quite sure exactly how to eat it, so I pushed the marshmallow into the liquid cake, like I would with a mug of hot chocolate, and licked the rest off the spoon. The chocolate cake wasn't too sweet so I could really taste the chocolate and cocoa in it.

Heck, even their coffee was good. Definitely a place I'd like to eat at again.

Beaches: I found myself with some free time before my flight back, so I went back down to Manhattan Beach and spent some time walking around the downtown area and out on the pier. I ended up at Beaches restaurant for lunch, which is right on the beach and has some amazing views from their tables. I ate my Coconut Crusted Mahi Mahi with Thai Red Curry Sauce watching the palm trees and the white sand and the surf. The fish flaked apart, the sauce was nicely spicy with good Thai basil flavors, the rice alongside was tasty, but the bread had been over-reheated to the point where the crust was vulcanized. This is a place where the view is as important as the food.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

California Eatin': Trader Joes

A recent trip to Southern California served to remind me that while corporations are working to homogenize this country, regional differences still abound. I used to live in Northern California, now I'm living in Colorado, and I know what I'm missing.

One of the big things I'm missing is Trader Joes.

If you haven't heard of Trader Joes, go visit their website. I'll wait.

Ok, got it? It's a reasonably priced mecca for foodies. Like Whore Foods (Whole Foods, which is now ubiquitous, and known as "the whore" among those I chat with about it for obvious reasons), they have interesting foods; unlike them, you don't have to bankrupt yourself to shop there.

Since I was flying, and only had half an empty suitcase to fill, not to mention the 50 lb weight limit imposed by the airlines, I had to pick and choose what I could bring back. This was difficult - I wanted to try their "pretzel bread" rolls, but was seduced by the idea of porcini ciabatta. (And it was good.) Too much glass was right out - weight and breakability reasons - so the pomegranate vinegar and the bottle of Thai Yellow Curry sauce had to stay. Already had a bottle of their Roasted Garlic Salsa at home.

But I found things like shelf stable Thai marinated tuna steaks - instant dinner. Two different kinds of Sumatran coffees. Tea. 73% cocoa solids chocolate. Stuff easily schlepped in a suitcase. I don't know if it's all good yet, but it's cheap enough that it was worth trying.

I simply didn't have enough meals available out there to get one of their fresh prepackaged Chinese Chicken Salads. They were one of my standard lunches when I lived out there - tasty dressing, snow peas and all. I also spent some time whimpering over their wine selection - at least 3 or 4 bottles I'd've bought in an instant if I was driving instead of flying. Next time I do the road trip out there I'm bringing back an assorted case of wine.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Starbucks, Love 'em or Hate 'em

Like most people, I have a love/hate relationship with Starbucks.

I hate that their coffee (as opposed to their flavored milk drinks) is so uniformly awful. (Not quite as bad as Peet's burned rubber, but that's another rant.) I hate that they are everywhere, sometimes two or three in the same shopping center. I hate that they really are making it harder for independent coffee shops to get by unless they're in the middle of a large city.

But I love their convenience. It's not just being located in easily accessible areas, it's also that they're open an hour or two later than any of the local independents. I used to love to go out for coffee and dessert after dinner, but by the time we're done eating, everything except Starbucks is closed. I'm sorry, but places I patronize have to be open at hours that are convenient to me. And if the locals want to roll up their sidewalks at 9pm (7pm on Sunday), well, I can't very well buy coffee there at 10pm, when I want it.

I also love their familiarity. Some years ago we were on an Alaskan cruise, stopped at the port of Skagway. As far as I could tell Skagway exists only to separate cruise passengers from their money, and it was a cold, rainy, miserable day on top of that. After sloshing about the town we were gearing ourselves up for the trek back to the ship, and there it was: Starbucks. Rarely has anything tasted so good or been so bracing as the coffee and muffin I ordered there. It was comforting and familiar and I was done with being under attack by the weather and crowds for the day.

(I highly recommend Alaskan cruises, but Skagway was kind of the low point of the trip. Juneau and Ketchikan were both lots more fun.)

I wonder when they're going to reach saturation, though. It's getting to the point where there's less than a mile between Starbucks along Academy, and it's getting that way out on Powers, too. I mean, yes, we're all running on caffeine these days, but how much coffee can people really consume?

(Side note: when the economy goes bad, like it is now, people tend to spend more heavily on the little luxuries that make their lives more pleasant. I'm wondering if this is part of what's behind the Starbucks explosion.)

The coffee I brew at home in my automatic drip pot is still better, though. And cheaper. And available 24 x 7.


Monday, September 04, 2006

Legacy Review: Caspian Cafe

Date of Visit: 2/25/06

While it may be housed in a former Denny's building, that's about as close as the Caspian Cafe ever gets to the chain.

The interior of the building has been transformed from its Denny days into a warm cozy space, with lots of dark wood and cream walls subtly enhanced with hand-painted scrollwork. The tables range from smallish high tops to roomy standard height models - go for the standard height if you can.

We started with the Eggplant in Spicy Honey Sauce - three slices of grilled eggplant with a thick, sweet sauce of honey, ginger, chili, and other spices. Alongside were three pita triangles, three slices of lemon, and a good sized dollop of plain yogurt. I would have liked the eggplant to have been just a bit more cooked - it was still a bit firm in spots - but the honey sauce was delightful, sweet, spicy, and worked perfectly with the tangy yogurt.

The bread was Italian ciabatta, according to the server, and while it had the prerequisite dense, spongy interior, the crust was a little soft. It's served with individual saucers of olive oil for dipping.

Entrees come with soup or salad. The salad was half greens, half other vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions) with currants and ground sundried tomatoes. The pomegranate vinaigrette was lovely - sweet and sour, fruity
and complementing the vegetables nicely.

One of my dining companions ordered the soup, a fava bean with cavatelli in a tomato broth. It was not as flavorful as expected, although the beans were quite tender. The salad was the better choice.

For an entree I chose the Moroccan Roast Chicken, a chicken breast and part of a wing rubbed with spices that definitely included ginger and saffron, roasted with lemons and oranges. I wish the chicken had been slightly more tender. The rich flavor was offset nicely by the citrus - it was served with asparagus, basmati rice, and wonderful spaghetti squash cooked with ginger and other spices.

Another dining companion had the Greek Country Salad, which was loaded with Kalamata olives and feta cheese; he declared it very good. Another person had the pork chop special, stuffed with olives and feta. It came with the same sides as my roast chicken. And yet another ordered the Shish Taouk, a chicken kabob basted with saffron and butter, served on a mound of basmati rice.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to share our impressions of our dishes at the time because the sound system was playing very loud music for the Saturday night belly dancing.

While belly dancing is a common enough entertainment at Mediterranean restaurants, this is the first restaurant I've eaten at where it became a complete nuisance. Other places often clear a space in the middle of the room for the dancer so those who wish to watch can, and those who want to converse are not constantly being interrupted. The dancer did her level best to dance between the tables, but she was almost always hovering over someone trying to eat, nearly clocking someone with the sword she had balanced on her head, or blocking the servers from bringing food or refilling glasses.

Speaking of the service, it's friendly and knowledgeable, but very leisurely. Glasses were kept full, but plates hung around on the table for awhile.

Despite the distractions we hung around for dessert. The dessert menu is fairly standard - baklava, nut roll, sorbets, ice cream. I split the dessert special of the night, a chocolate mousse with grand marnier, served in a tall champagne flute. It tasted slightly closer to chocolate pudding than mousse, but there was no mistaking the grand marnier. The other couple split a "pastry combo" of one baklava and one nut roll, which were declared good
but slightly overhoneyed.

I will be returning to the Caspian Cafe, but not on Thursday or Saturday nights when the belly dancing is featured. When I go to dinner I want to concentrate on my meal and conversation with those at my table, not be deafened by music or trip over the entertainment.

Update: haven't been back since. We really should.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Legacy Review: Orange Oasis

I have a number of old legacy restaurant reviews sitting around, and if I post them here I won't have to keep them in random files on my computer anymore. I'll post the review as written, with updated commentary at the end.

Date of Visit: 1/15/06

I've been watching the Orange Oasis restaurant (5934 Stetson Hills Blvd.,Colorado Springs) being built out on Powers for probably about a year now. As a free standing restaurant that is apparently not part of a chain, it's something of an anomaly around here -one of the many things that piqued my interest. It opened towards the end of last year, and giving them some time to work out the inevitable opening issues, we finally got around to giving them a try tonight.

We met two friends there and were immediately surprised at how full their parking lot was - especially since the restaurant itself was quite empty. The floor is larger than expected, with not only a large amount of tables, but also a full bar with a large seating area. Granted, we did arrive at 5:30 pm, but this is also a town that eats early.

We were seated at a corner booth and immediately noticed the extremely poor lighting. I don't have "older eyes", so when I don't have enough light to read the menu, there is usually an issue. Fortunately, when we mentioned this to a server, the light in our area was brightened.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I opened the Orange Oasis' menu, since they do not have a web site that we could find, and the only mention of them on the web was a job listing where they were looking for a chef for a new
"steak and seafood restaurant". After reading the menu I wouldn't exactly call it a steak and seafood restaurant - American eclectic is as close as I could come.

Yes, they do have an assortment of steaks, and some seafood dishes, but also an entire page of sandwiches running the gamut from albacore tuna to a chipotle club to curried chicken. I also seem to recall some Asian inspired pasta dishes, too.

Our friends had arrived early and ordered some potato skins for the table. They were adequate - cooked through, with cheese, bacon, tomatoes, and green onions for the topping, along with a side of a nicely thick sour cream. But there was nothing special about them - they were just potato skins.

We were also served a basket of fried dough rounds with sugar, compliments of the house. Sadly, these were greasy, and got worse as they got colder. I tend to think of fried doughnuts like these as more of a dessert item than an

The four of us ordered from all over the menu, so we sampled bites and had a chance to evaluate each others' dishes. Three of us started with salads, one with soup. The salad was a mix of nice baby greens and underripe tomato wedges; I had the honey citrus dressing which was fairly tasty, but had someodd herb in it (oregano?) that didn't quite meld with the honey and the citrus.

The loser of the bunch was the vegetable beef soup - the friend who chose that said it was tasteless.

The entrees ran the gamut from slightly better than adequate to slightly worse than adequate. I had the roast beef ciabatta sandwich - roast beef, onions, and cheese on ciabatta bread with jus on the side. The ciabatta was the best part of the sandwich; while not artisanal, it had a nice chewyness and a good crumb. The beef was tender and tasty, although it needed salt. But the jus was completely and utterly tasteless. I dipped the sandwich in it, then tried it on a bit of the ciabatta, and then just took a spoonful - in all cases, it tasted like nothing more than warm water. Considering that jus is almost always made from a mix, this was quite disturbing.

My husband had the chipotle club - turkey, lettuce, tomato, bacon, and a chipotle mayonnaise. He said it was a nice club sandwich, but the only way he could tell there was any chipotle on it was that his lips tingled a little. He couldn't taste it.

One friend had the grilled tuna, which was obviously badly overcooked. It also came with a sweet lemon sauce, which she described as being like lemon jelly.

The other friend had a steak with what was described as "risotto rice". I had a sample of the rice, and that was not risotto - slightly sticky rice at best. The steak also came with some of the flavorless jus, and a side of horseradish he described as potent.

Our server was friendly if somewhat scattered; we had to ask several times for small plates for our potato skin appetizers. The kitchen had a bit of a timing issue, as we had not yet finished our salads and soup before the entrees came, making for a crowded table.

The restaurant is decorated in a style I can only describe as 1970's meets minimalist. The color scheme is muted orange, brown, and black, with an anomalous crystal chandelier in the entryway.

Orange Oasis bills itself on the menu as a fine family dining restaurant, and I'm afraid I can't agree. At best, it's an average family restaurant; at worst, it's overreaching its capabilities. There's nothing terribly wrong with the place, but I can't think of much that was right with it, either.

When we left around 7 pm, the restaurant was busier than when we arrived, but there were still a significant number of empty tables. At 7 pm on Saturday night at most places in town there's a wait for a table.

Another puzzling thing about the restaurant is the number of visible staff - I saw at least 5 servers, one manager, one gentleman who might have been the owner, a bartender, and two door hostesses - and that doesn't even count the back of the house. That and the size/expense of the building makes for a lot of overhead, and I don't see how they're supporting it.

I don't think Orange Oasis is going to be around for much longer unless some significant changes are made, starting with the menu and the execution thereof. It was worth going to once - I've certainly had far worse meals - but there was nothing we saw or ate that would recommend a second visit.

Update: Wow, did I call it right. Orange Oasis didn't make it to the summer; sometime in the May-June time frame it stopped being a steak and seafood house, and had a huge sign out front: Chinese Restaurant. It kept the Orange Oasis name, though.

The Chinese restaurant made it through about August. As of this writing, the place is shut down and the building has a huge For Sale sign on it, less than one year after the restaurant opened.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Review: Wild Ginger

The Thai food explosion may be news in most parts of the country, but as far as I can tell the wave of fish sauce and lemongrass has been stopped dead at the Colorado Springs border. I've been on a quest for really good Thai food ever since we moved here some 10 years ago. The only contender for the title of Really Good Thai to date was the late, lamented Royal Thai, and the other places I've tried range from ok to inedible.

We finally got around to eating at the Thai restaurant that routinely wins the "Best Of" polls in both The Gazette and The Independent: Wild Ginger, at 3020 W. Colorado Ave., Colorado Springs (Colorado and 30th).

The decor is comfortable, both inside and out. Red vinyl booths, tables with dark wooden chairs, all in a homey setting. Clean, neat, requisite pictures of Thai royalty, but nothing polished about it.

The menu covers appear printed on an ink jet, but the large number of listings inside are legible, and the main ingredients of each dish are listed. I always appreciate that because I have an allergy/sensitivity to bell peppers, and I like to know if I need to ask for them to be omitted.

The menu is mostly Thai favorites: soups like Tom Kha Gai and Tom Yum Goong, salads like Neu Nam Tok and Yam Neu, Laarb, Sate, curries, and noodle dishes like Pad Thai and Pad See Ew. There are also a few Chinese dishes, like Hot and Sour Soup, and American favorites like Fried Calamari. It's typical for restaurants around here - trying to appeal to the widest range of palates.

We ordered the Tom Kha Gai to start, not only because it's my favorite soup, but it's also my gold standard as to whether or not a Thai restaurant is any good. Wild Ginger's version includes cabbage (another variation I've only seen at Colorado Thai restaurants) along with straw and button mushrooms, onions, chicken, coconut milk, lemongrass, bird chilies, and a decent amount of keffir lime leaves. We'd ordered the soup medium, but it was more like mild - despite the attractive amount of chili oil floating on top, it lacked a commensurate bite. Fortunately, there were large bottles of Sriracha on every table, so we adjusted the heat accordingly. The soup was quite good, but even with the addition of the Sriracha lacked the punch I've come to expect.

For dinner we selected the Neu Nam Tok (Thai beef salad), Pad Thai, and Panang Beef Curry, all ordered at medium heat. The best of these dishes was the Neu Nam Tok: the beef had that distinctive grilled flavor, the tomatoes were ripe, the cucumbers crisp, and the dressing had a nice kick to it. But the dressing seemed unbalanced, with plenty of sour and hot, but not much salty or sweet. I sensed a distinct lack of fish sauce.

The Pad Thai was boring at best. No heat, the sauce had no memorable flavors. The noodles were cooked nicely, as were the six shrimp. No peanuts on top, and a bit skimpy on the eggs, too.

The Panang Beef Curry was the clear loser - too much stock, not enough curry paste. No heat to speak of, and very little flavor at all. While Thai curries do tend to be more liquid than Indian curries, this was nearly soup. If I didn't know this was supposed to be Panang, I'd've never guessed. The best thing I can say about it was the beef was tender.

Unlike the food, the Thai iced teas did pack that wonderful burst of flavor that works so well to cut through the heat of an unexpected bite.

Service was friendly but slow. To be fair, they were unexpectedly busy on this cold, wet night, and the three servers were in continual motion, but the wait for someone to take our drink orders and for our food was significantly longer than other places. Fortunately, we were not looking for a fast meal.

I guess my bottom line on Wild Ginger is mixed. I've certainly had worse Thai food, especially at places here in Colorado Springs, but the food overall feels dumbed down from the high impact, in your face Thai dishes that I grew to adore in California. I expect we'll be back sometime, and will make sure to order the food hot, but I don't foresee making the trip down there all that often.

(Date of Visit: 9/2/2006)

Colorado Eats

I've been meaning to post the restaurant reviews I write, and since my other blog is being used for so many subjects already, I've decided to start another blog just for restaurants and foodie related posts.

I write these reviews for the amusement of myself and my friends, that's all. I have no affiliation with any newspaper or restaurant, I pay for my own meals, and if I happen to know any of the restaurateurs, I'll be up front about that. (Since at this point I know precisely zero restaurateurs, it makes that simple.)

Other than that, these reviews reflect my own opinion and only my own opinion; others are encouraged with great vigor to try the places themselves and form their own opinions.