Friday, May 30, 2008

CHOW...PERFECT FOR A CASUAL MEAL ANYTIME

One evening while Sister V was visiting, I didn't feel like cooking dinner at home but also did not have a lot of time to go out to a restaurant. Since I was hosting a big party at home, and had already set up for it, getting takeout was not the best of options.

With very little debate, we decided to head to Chow. The Lafayette, California Chow is the closest one to my home. There are two in San Francisco and a new one which is about to open, or may already have, in Danville.

The ambiance is casual, the food fresh, organic, sustainable, and pretty darn good...no matter what you order.



At each table, there is a Hershey Syrup can in which there is flatware, napkins, and chopsticks...you pretty much set your own table.

The Lafayette Chow also has a small produce, meat, and wine market. One can order anything from the menu to take home and many ready to eat meals are available as well.

Chow does not accept reservations, but, if you call as you are about to leave for the restaurant, they will put your name on a waiting list. While the dning room is always busy, I have never had to wait very long to be seated. The Lafayette restaurant also has heated outdoor seating and dogs are welcome to sit with their people on the patio. In fact, your server will bring a bowl of water for your dog.

A lot of Chow's menu is best described as "comfort food" from various cultures. Some of my favorites include the Thai Chicken Salad, the Cobb Salad,Rose's Spaghettin and Meatballs, Smiling Noodles, Lasagne, Baked Eggplant Parmesan, and



Pot-Roasted Beef Short Ribs.



Each day, two or three fresh wild seafood dishes are featured.

And, there is a different Daily Sandwich every day. The Daily Sandwich is a complete meal on one plate...the sandwich is accompanied by your choice of Green Salad, Fries, or Soup. I often make a special visit to Chow on Tuesday for the Daily Sandwich...currently on Monday it is Fish Tacos, onThursday Steak with sweet peppers, onions, gruyere cheese, and arugula; and on Friday, it's Wild Petrale Sole garnished with a spicy avo-mango salsa and chipotle-lime crema. The Sunday Sandwich is Rose's Meatballs with Provolone cheese. I recently discovered that Chow will serve the Meatball sandwich any day of the week, it your request it.

Which brings to mind that the kitchen at Chow is willing to accommodate many special requests. Sometimes, when I stop by for breakfast, I don't want a big omelet or scramble, but only one fried egg, a cup of fresh fruit, and a pastry... they are always able to serve me what I request. Even on the evening that we came here with Sister V, J had Chocolate Cream Pie for dessert



and V had a Lemon Bar.



I kept it light with a cup of fresh fruit.



Chow is open every day of the week, serving lunch and dinner daily, breakfast on weekdays, and brunch on weekends. The same menu is featured for lunch and dinner. Prices are extremely reasonable, particularly for the quality or food served. The Daily Sandwiches are about $10, meal-sized sandwiches are about $13 for the largest size (salads come in small, medium, and large servings), and Pasta and Fish/Meat dishes are in the $13 to $18 range.

It is popular with diners of all ages, from babies to seniors...just as popular for family gatherings as it is for solo dining.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

MORE TOURING WITH SISTER V...LEGION OF HONOR

On Sister V's second day in town, we started the morning with coffee with some of my Walnut Creek Masters Swim Team buddies.



Once a month, a group from our workout get together to celebrate those who have birthdays in that month.

From there, V and I headed into San Francisco to the Legion of Honor, one of the City's Art Museums.



The Legion is located on the West side of San Francisco in Lincoln Park. The building is a replica of the French Legion of Honor in Paris. It was built to commemorate California soldiers who died in World War I.



The views from the building are of the Golden Gate Bridge, downtown, and the Pacific Ocean. The weather the day of our visit was spectacular, as were the views.

V was particularly taken by the large glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly.



There is one in the outdoor courtyard



and another in one of the galleries.

We went to the Legion to see the Annie Liebovitz Photography exhibit, which ended May 25, 2008. We wound up spending most of the day here. I especially like the Legion for the diversity of its collection. I always enjoy the Rodin sculptures, especially the larger Thinker in the front Court of Honor (great place for a photograph). The European Decorative Art collection includes furniture and decorative items from the French Baroque and 18th Century English periods...and much more. The lower level gallery filled with English porcelain is easy to miss if you don't know it is here; it is worth seeing out. The Legion's European Painting collection runs the gamut from the 14th through the 20th centuries.

One of the Legion's major exhibits for Summer 2008 (June 12-September 21) is Women Impressionists: Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassat, Eva Gonzal├Ęs, Marie Bracquemond. The works featured in this exhibit come from the Schim Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

We stopped for lunch in the museum's restaurant.



V broadened her culinary experience by ordering the Meatball Bahn Mi Sandwich, a Vietnamese sandwich of pork meatballs with a tasty sauce. Her plate was garnished with a daikon and carrot salad.



My choice was a Veggie Wrap. In true San Francisco Bay Area fashion, the Legion of Honor Cafe's menu features seasonal dishes made with ingredients that are grown or produced by small family farms and artisanal producers who are located within 150 miles of its kitchen. Diners get a true taste of the Bay Area when they eat here.

We made one final and sobering stop outside of the Legion at The Holocaust, a sculptural memorial by Pop Art sculptor, George Segal.



Sunday, May 18, 2008

MRS. GROSSMAN'S STICKER FACTORY & SONOMA PLAZA

Sister V was visiting from Virginia for a week which meant outings just about every day.

Since V makes handmade greeting cards and does a lot of decorative rubber stamping, high on her list of places to go was to Mrs. Grossman's Sticker Factory in Petaluma in Southern Sonoma County. Petaluma is headquarters of Mrs. Grossman's.



Visitors can tour the factory, by reservation. The cost is $3 per person and, visitors get their $3 back if they spend $20 or more in the retail shop on the day of their tour.

Friend MA came along with us for our 11 a.m. tour. We saw stickers being printed, cut by lasers, and packed for shipping. We met employees and their dogs. Mrs. Grossman's is a dog-friendly workplace and as long as chief dog Angus approves, other employee's dogs come to work in the factory.

The final part of the tour is a Sticker Art craft project...each of us was given a blank postcard and bag of stickers.









As you can see, our creations were extraordinary! The fact that we were the only ones on our tour over the age of 10 or so, did not hold us back when it came to creativity.



Then it was on to do a bit of serious shopping in the company store. Believe me, it was not hard to spend $20 and a whole lot more. The store has stickers for just about every subject and theme. It also sells ribbon, card stock, scrapbooking materials, and lots more. When you go, be sure to check the sale tables and racks at the back of the store for special buys.

By now we were famished. Just a short drive from Mrs. Grossman's is Mr. Pickles Sandwich Shop.



Mr. Pickles is a franchise chain of neighborhood sandwich shops with locations mainly in California and Nevada. The Petaluma shop is one of the first Mr. Pickles and is always busy. Order your sandwich or salad in line and one of the staff will bring it to you. My favorite is the Tuna with Swiss Cheese, Avocado, and Cucumber...my bread choice is the Dutch Crunch.

After lunch, we headed to the City of Sonoma to spend the rest of the afternoon walking around the Plaza.



Unique shops, galleries, and restaurants line all four sides on Sonoma's Plaza. Wild Chickens used to wander on the Plaza, but this time we didn't see any.



We wandered into any and all shops that caught our attention. The Hipkiss Gallery is one of my personal favorites. It showcases the whimsical sculptures and art works of members of the Hipkiss family.



Our final stop along the Plaza was at the Mission San Francisco Solano, the last and northernmost California mission. It was the only mission founded after Mexico's independence from Spain and also the only mission founded without the prior approval of the Church.
Most of the Misson's buildings are open to visitors for a small fee.



Before heading home, we made one more stop few blocks off the Plaza at Vella Cheese, the small cheese factory where I first was introduced to Dry Jack Cheese. Other cheese producers now make Dry Jack, but, for me, none are as good as Vella's.



In the stone building where Vella first got its start, there is a small retail shop at the front and the factory at the back. The friendly staff cut samples for us of just about all the cheeses that Vella makes...they've come a long way from making just Dry Jack, but, to this day, I always come away with a wedge of Dry Jack.



And so ended a fun day.

Monday, May 12, 2008

IT'S MORE THAN CHICAGO DEEP DISH PIZZA

I'm a regular at Zachary's Chicago Pizza...I usually go to their College Avenue location in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood. Occasionally, I stop at their Solano Avenue shop in North Berkeley. And, I'm going more and more to the newest location in San Ramon, which is the easiest drive from my house.



Prior to Zachary's, I'd had limited experience with Chicago style deep dish pizzas. Zachary's spoiled me with their amazing pies, laden with fresh tomato sauce, lots of cheese, and whatever fillings I chose. The deep dish (stuffed) pizzas are so substantial that I can barely consume more than one piece of a small pie at a meal...believe me, I can eat a lot more of the traditional flat pizzas at any other pizza parlor.

A few weeks ago, when I hosted my MacManiacs group of Apple computer lovers, I chose Zachary's San Ramon for our meeting. For most of the day before the meeting, I was envisioning whether to order the Spinach and Mushroom stuffed pizza...my favorite...or to go with the Zachary's Special, a combination of Sausage, Green Pepper, Onion and Mushroom.

Well, all my dreams were squashed when one of the members declared that he does not like stuffed pizza and that he wanted a Thin Crust Pizza. After much debate over how to order, the rest of us decided that, just this once, we would all share a Flat Pizza in a place famous for its deep dish pizza. We mutually chose toppings: Pepperoni, Mushrooms, Zucchini...and started with a Caesar Salad to share.

To my amazement, the THIN CRUST PIZZA is every bit as good as, if not better than, the Deep Dish!!! When I got my first look at it, I wondered what the layer of white sauce on the top was...as our waiter began serving us individual slices (how many fancy restaurants do that?), I realized that the white stuff was a rather thick layer of cheese! Oh yum, or, as Rachel Ray would say, "YUMM-O!" The crust is not cracker thin...just the right thickness...the tomato sauce is Zachary's same fresh tomato sauce that is used in the Deep Dish version. Zucchini, instead of being sliced is diced and layered on the top. All told, a fabulous pizza.

So Deep Dish or Thin, Zachary's is a satisfying pizza experience. And, their salads are always delicious...your choices are Caesar, Garden, or a wonderful Spinach with Feta Cheese, Toasted Walnut, Red Onion, Tomatoes, and Bacon (or not bacon, if you wish).

Zachary's can make all their pizzas Half Baked so you can take them home and cook them to your order later that day or, if you keep the pizza refrigerated, a few days later...almost as good as eating at the restaurant.

Friday, May 2, 2008

POSSIBLY THE BEST MEXICAN FOOD IN BERKELEY



Back on my lunch prowl in Berkeley, I went to my longtime favorite for Mexican food, Picante.



Picante was opened in 1994, in an industrial part of Berkeley, on 6th Street near Gilman Street, by Berkeley natives Jim and Laura Maser. The Masers share a love of Mexico...in fact, they met in Mexico.

To this day, Picante is busy from the time it opens (11 a.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. weekends) until closing time (10 p.m.). The restaurant is open 7 days a week. It's a neighborhood hangout; it's a lunchtime and after work favorite with local business people; its worthy of a detour off Highway 80; and, it's even worth a special trip from other Bay Area suburbs.

Why has Picante endured? Let me count the reasons....for starters, it is a place to enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine. Prices are reasonable (just about everything on the menu is priced at less than $10). Servings are generous. And, in addition to making food that tastes oh-so good, the ingredients used are fresh and healthful. Tortillas are made by hand throughout the day (you can watch the tortilla maker at work) from corn that is ground daily at nearby Mi Rancho in Oakland. Herbs, spices and chiles are imported from Mexico. The meats are naturally raised. Local cheese artisans make the cheeses in the style of authentic fresh Mexican cheeses.

Picante is a casual place to dine. Line up to order and pay for your food at the counter. Find yourself a seat either inside in one of the large dining rooms, or outdoors on the patio. Soon, your food will be brought to your table.



J ordered the Manchamanteles Tacos, described as "tablecloth stainer" chicken in red mole. There were three tacos in her order, along with a side of beans...she chose Pinto Beans.



My choice was the Rajas Tacos; I chose Black Beans for my bean side dish. Rajas is roasted poblano chile strips with onions.



I also had a Fresh Fruit Cup for dessert. Our taco plates were $6.95 each. My very large cup of fruit cost $2.75.

Sampling the Manchamanteles, I preferred them to my Rajas, but both dishes were excellent. It was not until after I had placed my order that I discovered that one can order Tacos a la carte, as well as a plate of three as we did. Next time, I plan to have the Manchamanteles, a fish taco, and maybe a Chorizo and Potato one.

It's not all tacos at Picante either. Other choices include Quesadillas, Tostada Salads, fabulous Soups (the Sopa Azteca with chicken looked outstanding), Tamales, Enchiladas, Burritos, and more. A special Vegetarian menu indicates which dishes are Vegan, Lacto-Vegetarian, and Ovo-Vegetarian. A special Brunch menu is offered weekends and holidays until 3 p.m.

And, don't forget the beverages....several agua frescas (fresh fruit drinks) are offered each day and there are always Margaritas and Mexican beers.