Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Happy Birthday Dixie!

Dixie, Jean, Sue, and I usually celebrate one another's birthdays by taking the Birthday Girl out to lunch at a restaurant of her choice.

Yesterday was our celebration of Dixie's Birthday.

We all swim on the Walnut Creek Masters swim team and have been friends for more than a decade.

This year, Dixie chose our local Mary's Pizza Shack. None of us had ever been to Mary's until a few months ago when the restaurant donated a portion of on day's proceeds to our swim team. In support of the team, a group of us met for lunch and were delighted with the food.

Mary's has 18 restaurants in Northern California. It was founded in 1959 in Boyes Hot Springs (Sonoma County) by Mary Fazio, who prepared her family's Italian recipes in what was a shack of a building. Although Mary passed away in 1999, the family, now including grandchildren, continues to operate what started as, and so continues as, a family-owned restaurant.

So here we were, back again.

Remembering how good Mary's Salad, with lettuce, marinated bean salad, salami, hard-boiled eggs, mozzarella, beets, and other fresh veggies was, Dixie ordered a small Mary's Salad and a Regular-sized order of Mozzarella Garlic Bread.

The other three of us, chose one of the newer sandwiches on the menu: the Italian BLTA, a BLT with sliced avocado, melted provolone cheese, and Italian dressing on foccacia bread. All Sandwiches and Entrees are served with a choice of soup, a small Mary's Salad, or a small Caesar Salad.

When Dixie's Garlic Bread arrived on a small pizza pan, we all gasped at what a large serving it was.

That did not phase Dixie at all...she started in on it and by the time we were done with our meals, Dixie had eaten all but one slice which she shared with me and Jean. Follow the pictures in this post to see the Garlic Bread disappearing.

As you can see, the servings are very generous and all ingredients are fresh. Most lunch items are priced under $10 and there are lunch specials for as little as $6.25. Dinner prices for entrees are slightly higher, but none over $15.

Of course there are lots of pizza choices too in a variety of sizes (from individual to large), crusts (including gluten-free) and with a large choice of toppings.

When I got to the restaurant, I told the host that we had a birthday in our group. I wasn't sure if they would offer Dixie a dessert or just say "Happy Birthday" or do nothing...but, it never hurts to try and, lo and behold, a Brownie Ice Cream Sundae was brought to Dixie...a full-sized serving, on the house.

Lucky for all of us, she shared and we all enjoyed.

Happy Birthday, Dixie!!!

Monday, June 28, 2010


This past Saturday, it was our turn to host our cooking group. At this point, we've been cooking together, every three or four months, for at least 30 years, we think longer.

So we gathered at our house on a warm summer's night and got started on an evening of eating and drinking.

While Arlene prepared the first course, an amazing Raw Kale salad, we snacked on Red Pepper Feta Dip, Dolmas, Greek Olives, and a yummy nut and legume mix that Arlene brought along.

Arlene & Jim's Kale salad had dried cranberries, pine nuts, Ricotta Salata cheese, and a lime dressing. It was wonderful tasting and healthful too!

Next was our main course. Because Frank was out of town, we invited Mary Ann to join us and to assist Jim in the preparation of the main course, a Moroccan Mahi Mahi. Jim had made the tomato-based sauce in advance but the grilling of the fish was the real tricky part. They grilled the fish to perfection.

To accompany the fish, I made Couscous which was seasoned with Cinnamon and Cardamon and mixed with toasted pine nuts and grilled squash.

Mary Ann brought a bottle of Stag's Leaf Merlot (2005) which was perfect with the fish.

And for those purists who feel that only white wine goes with fish, we drank the rest of the Navarro Gewurztraminer that Arlene and Jim poured with their salad. I had a bit of both since they both are such tasty wines.

Colesie's dessert was a lemon cake from a Barefoot Contessa recipe. She served it with fresh Blueberries. Colesie's cake was so perfect, both in taste and appearance, that Jim thought it was store bought...not at all, just Colesie's talented baking.

And so ended another night with special friends and food. Til the next time..

Thursday, June 24, 2010

iPhone 4: I'm in Love...Again

The day dawned cool and a bit foggy. I'd set the alarm for 5 a.m. My goal was to leave the house by 6 a.m. to get in line for new Apple iPhone 4 which went on sale today.

I got to the Apple Store in Walnut Creek at about 6:15 a.m. The line went almost around the entire block.

I debated since I had not pre-ordered and had no idea what kind of inventory the store would have. I quickly checked at the AT&T store nearby where there was no line...NO LINE? Then I got closer and the sad truth was revealed on a sign on the door: despite what they had told me several times in the past week, there were no iPhones for sale today for those who had not pre-ordered. AT&T will not have any to sell until June 29...next Tuesday.

I debated a few minutes more and decided to give the Apple line a shot.

I was in line before 6:30 a.m.

Within a few minutes, after a run by of Apple Store employees with lots of high fives and thank yous to us, the big long line was split between the pre-orders and the rest of us.

At 7 a.m., the lines started moving. Apple employees worked the line and always gave words of encouragement, but never gave information about wait times and inventory.

Word spread that for every 4 pre-orders, one of the rest of us would get in the store.

We were moving very very slowly. And the batteries on our older iPhones and iPads were starting to run low.

After awhile, I started calling those in the pre-order line, "The Chosen Ones." And, that they were, as evidenced by a cheerful Man of the Cloth in their line...he was smiling even more when he paraded past us with his new iPhone 4 in hand.

After a few hours, Apple people came through the line with bottles of water.

Also, being good citizens to their fellow retail neighbors, the store employees picked up the garbage that those who spent the night out on the street in line left behind.

The Apple folk also made sure that we did not block entrances to any of the businesses where we were in line.

Barnes & Noble set up a coffee cart by their front door, before they opened for business at 9 a.m. A bit later in the day, they wheeled a cart of soft drinks through our line, for sale, but welcomed by many.

We made runs to Starbucks, to move our cars from limited time parking spots, to make restroom runs, to buy food.

Then, about noon, an SUV pulled up and unloaded cartons of KFC to-go boxes. We thought this was food for the Apple Store employees, but no, it was box lunches for US...Fried Boneless Chicken, Mashed Potatoes and Gravy, Mac & Cheese, and a Biscuit. Not my usual fare, but, let me tell you, it was delicious...and a bit of carbo loading was just what we all needed.

This fortified us for a few more hours.

Security people walked the line, kept doorways clear, and strategized about keeping things calm...it worked; there were no problems that I saw.

Finally, at 2 p.m., I was allowed into the store and I made my purchase...and not a minute too late!!

This is what the store activity looked like.

As I was leaving the store at about 2:15 p.m., those still in line were told that there were just 5 16 GB iPhone 4's left.

Was it worth nearly 8 hours in line? Of course!!!

It was an adventure. It was fun! And I enjoyed the company of my "Apple Family for a Day."

Thanks guys for the company.

Thanks Apple for the food and encouragement and for creating amazing products that keep me falling in love over and over again.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Best-Ever Croque Monsieur

I love sandwiches.

When I am out to lunch, if there is a Tuna Melt on the menu, that's what I will order. In fact, a few years back I wrote an article that evaluated Tuna Melts in restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area.

My second favorite sandwich is the Croque Monsieur, a French version of a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. And, what a version it is...traditionally, the filling is sliced ham and gruyere cheese, with some dijon mustard on the bread. The sandwich is grilled in a frying pan until the cheese melts. Then, it is topped with a layer of Bechamel sauce and set under the broiler until the sauce is bubbly. There are many variations on the Croque Monsieur and I enjoy most of them.

Last week I had a lunch date in Sausalito with Mary and Jane. When Mary suggested Le Garage,

where she said the food is French and there is marvelous outdoor seating overlooking the Bay, I couldn't wait to go there.

In anticipation, I checked Le Garage's menu on their web site and the Croque Monsieur immediately caught my attention.

There was no doubt about what I was going to order...not that I wasn't tempted by the Salade Nicoise or the Pan Bagnat.

Mary ordered Mussels and French Fries (Frites).

Jane went for the Salade Nicoise which was made with seared fresh tuna (to the restaurant's credit, our waiter asked Jane if seared tuna was OK for her. This is a big plus for me because, I like my fish cooked through and often experience disdain from my server when I request it so prepared).

Le Garage's Croque Monsieur was the best one I've ever eaten. And that includes very good versions in Brussels and all over France and even in the homes of French friends. Le Garage uses Brioche Bread and the cheese was perfectly melted. The sandwich was topped not only with Bechamel, but also with an added slice of cheese...absolute perfection!!!

We had a lovely visit and and a pleasant meal, all the while enjoyed the spectacular view.

No dessert for us, but, believe me, I am curious to try their Tarte Tatin on another visit.

After lunch, I stopped at the nearby Heath Ceramics factory and outlet, in hopes of snaring some seconds of their classic table ware. Their new summer designs, in shades of blue and yellow are beautiful, but there were no seconds in good enough condition for me to splurge on a bowl or pitcher.

Even at about 30% off for seconds, Health Ceramics pieces are fairly pricey. So...I need another lunch soon at Le Garage with a return trip to Heath in hopes of finding some treasures.

One final note: While I am raving about Le Garage, and it certainly is very popular despite its off-the-beaten path and away-from-tourists location, Mary later told me that she did not think her Mussels and Frites were as good as she has enjoyed in her past visits. I sampled both and had no complaints, so I guess you will have to try them yourself.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Yesterday was father's day and, while Louie and I wanted to have a special dinner for Jim, we had limited time to prepare it.

As is our usual Sunday morning routine, we have coffee with friends at Whole Foods most Sunday mornings. It's our version of a "salon" where we meet, sip tea or coffee, maybe have a pastry, oatmeal, or one of their yummy breakfast egg sandwiches, and catch up on life and love and try to solve both our own and the world's problems.

Yesterday, Kathie and John were in town and joined us at Whole Foods.

As I read through the Weekly Specials flyer, I saw that they were featuring a 10-piece bucket of fried chicken for $9.99. How could I resist the indulgence? And, paired with some of their Cole Slaw and the fresh corn I had bought that morning at Farmer's Market, I had the Father's Day dinner.

So, in I went, made my purchases, and when I came out, Kathie said, "I could go for a chicken wing right now." Now, I must reveal that she had already had coffee and oatmeal, but, Why Not!

As you can see, she loved it and we later loved the chicken, heated up in the oven for dinner..and we have enough for dinner tonight too.

Bon Appetit!

Monday, June 7, 2010


Walnut Creek is rapidly becoming the East Bay/Contra Costa center for Asian/Fusion restaurants. It seems that a new place opens just about every other day.

While I exaggerate a bit, I personally think it is getting a bit overdone...more so than Italian did a few years back.

Jim and I already have our favorites, but are always willing to give the newcomers a try. We've been to Elevé which we enjoyed but, because we were one of the very few customers in there the night we dined, we've not been back...I always am uncomfortable when I see more servers than customers and, while it may be unfounded, tend to think the ingredients can't be the freshest if they are only serving a few customers on a given evening.

The other night, we were in the mood for Vietnamese food after a movie in Walnut Creek. We already love elegant, but comfortable Le Cheval and the more modest Da Lat. But I proposed that we try somewhere new.

We chose Vanessa's Bistro 2, a Vietnamese French place that has been open for a few months. Vanessa's may be new to Walnut Creek, but not to the San Francisco Bay Area. Chef Vanessa Dang has had a Berkeley restaurant for three years and, with her children, decided to expand to Walnut Creek. Her son Michael Nguyen owns the Walnut Creek restaurabt.

Vanessa's occupies a space that previously was a Japanese restaurant. It has a long busy bar, where you can eat also, and several tables in the main dining room where you enter. There is another dining room off the back of the main room. The decor is simple but stylish. I liked the ambiance immediately.

The restaurant describes its menu as "Vietnamese Tapas with a French Twist."

Right off Jim questioned having Tapas in an Asian restaurant, saying that Tapas are Spanish. I calmed him down, with an explanation that, these days, small plates are being called "tapas" regardless of the cuisine.

To my surprise, the menu is not all tapas; there are several full-sized entrées. This being our first time here, I asked if the larger dishes could be shared, as I frequently do in Asian restaurants. Our server assured us that all dishes are able to be shared.

We decided on two Small Plates (Tapas) from about 20 choices and one entrée-sized Seafood dish.

Our Tapa selections were Crispy Saigon Chicken Rolls

and Panko Crusted Fish Tacos.

The Chicken Rolls were served in a bowl with lettuce leaves and shredded carrot, mint, and daikon. Our server told us to wrap a roll in a lettuce leaf with the vegetables and dip it in Nuoc Mam Cham sauce that accompanied them.

The Fish Tacos were garnished with avocado and other tasty vegetables.

Our larger dish was Sautéed Jumbo Prawns & Day Boat Scallops with Vegetables in Thai Basil Coconut Curry.

We might have ordered more but our server told us that this would be enough. She was correct and we did not order dessert because we were more than satisfied with the amount of food we'd eaten for our meal. Another time, I have to at least save room for their Tarte Tatin, an upside-down caramelized French friut tart that I rarely pass up.

The wine list features over 50 wines by the glass and over 150 wines by the bottle. By the glass wine is offered in 2 ounce and 4 ounce servings. We both chose 4-ounce glasses of an Albarino from Spain; it was perfect with our meal.

I enjoyed every dish. The ingredients were fresh, the flavors wonderful. I'm planning to return again soon to sample more of the menu. I've been told that their Sandwiches (Rib Eye, Roasted Pork, Crab) are wonderful and there are several Small Plates that intrigue me (Green Papaya Salad with Poached Prawns, Maple Leaf Duck Confit Lettuce Wrap, Salt & Pepper Calamari, Shaking Beef,to name a few). Jim, on the other hand, liked what he ate, but likes our "regular places" better.