Saturday, January 30, 2016

Debauchery at Paragary's

Fancy restaurants--ones where highly-trained chefs plate skimpy portions of food with tweezers and paint the dishes with vibrant sauces the way Jackson Pollock splashed acrylic on a canvas--are not our regular destinations. But the other night, we took our fourth anniversary as the reason to overindulge and dine at such a place. Paragary's was our choice. 

The evening started with a glass of Cuffs and Buttons, a citrusy bourbon cocktail, that rapidly put me in a tipsy state. The risotto fritters soon arrived, and I gasped at the sight of those dainty golden balls, topped with thin slices of tallegio like cute little headscarves. Looks can sometimes be deceptive, but that wasn't the case. The fritters were quite addictive, thanks to their nice inner gooeyness and even nicer outer crunch. The balsamic sauce offset the richness with subtle acidity, but I wouldn't have minded if it'd been left out. Sauce or no sauce, I'd revere those fritters all the same. 

Our entrees, as we anticipated, were smaller than the over indulgent plates you get at most restaurants. Mine resembled something a Top Chef contestant might make in pursuit of the honorable title and in hopes of avoiding Tom Colicchio's castigation. Perfectly braised short ribs with silky parsnip puree and a scattering of pickled root vegetables--doesn't that sound like an unwritten formula of modern fine dining? My man's main course was a bit more rustic: grilled halibut with roasted Brussels sprouts, winter squash, and brown butter vinaigrette. It seemed to be a healthy option and also tasted that way. 

By dessert time, I had already graduated from tipsy to moderately drunk. Knowing it was our celebratory night, they put lit candles on our panna cotta and toffee pudding. Plus, a snapshot of us was taken; I tried my best to soberly smile. Between the two desserts, the white-chocolate panna cotta with macadamia crumble was more refined and well-executed, whereas the sticky toffee pudding with an artillery of sweet explosives (dates, dried fig, mascarpone cream and bourbon caramel) was more whimsical and daring. At last, the check came with our printed snapshot. I took a good look at it, said to the waitress, "Yep, that's my drunk face!" and she uttered this most jolly, most sonorous laugh I'd ever heard. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Cheat Day Breakfast - Maple Bacon Cronut

While some might deem my waistline enviable, my doctor actually declared my cholesterol levels to be far from optimal. Yeah, I'm a thin person with fatty arteries. I can fool people but can't cheat a blood test. Every funnel cake and deep-fried shrimp head and pork belly confit I've devoured--it's all in there. I've been trying to eat better, though. I've managed to avoid health-sabotaging food on most days of the week. But of course, I can't cut those soul-nourishing, artery-clogging items out of my life completely. Once a week or so, we must rendezvous. Some people call it a "cheat day." 

I don't have special strategies for my cheat meals except just forget about the rules and eat whatever I'd like. Why not? I've been counting calories, doing Pilates, and living on lean meat and veggies. At the end of the week, I deserve a day of pure decadence. One of my most satisfying cheat meals is this: a cup of coffee and a maple bacon cronut. It might sound like a small breakfast but is packed with about 800 calories. And don't ask me to get into its fat content; let's just leave that bit of information undisclosed. I discovered this bacon beauty at Bakers Donuts on Florin Road. It's very light and buttery, delectably flaky, and exquisitely bacony. Biting into it, you'd get the sense of levitating to the Elysian Fields where death and misery don't exist. Screw vegan waffles and buckwheat pancakes. When I indulge myself, I do it all the way. That's what cheat days are all about. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

My Time in Half Moon Bay - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good - As someone who adores nautical and shabby-chic decor, Oceano Hotel was my heaven. I enjoyed wiggling my tired toes in the soaking tub, reading the New Yorker in the polka-dot armchair, watching the grand harbor from the balcony of my suite and inhaling whiffs of fresh coastal air. Throughout the night, I was lulled by the soothing hum of the fog horn. (It's hard for me to believe such a soft and distant sound could drive so many Yelp reviewers to the verge of insanity.) In the morning, my sweet baldy and I ventured out to the beach, took some awkward selfies and read names on the boats in hope of finding funny ones. My ADHD doesn't allow me to experience peace and utter stillness very often, but that day, at the Half Moon Bay Harbor, I did. 

The Bad - Ordering seafood benedict at Ketch Joanne's was a very wrong move. I didn't find the traditional Hollandaise on my plate, but that wasn't my main concern. I don't care much for authenticity. I'd applaud any revolutionary gastronomic creation as long as it delights my palate. The true atrocity lied in the fact that the beautiful shrimp and crab meat beneath those perfectly poached eggs were majorly disrespected. They weren't allowed to shine but savagely eclipsed by such an obscene debauchery of cheese. It was the most aggressive cheese sauce I've ever encountered, and I hope we don't cross paths again.

The Ugly - As much as I cherished my stay at Oceano, there were two things I wish I had skipped. One, the room service. I ordered crab cakes with mashed potatoes, which were delivered in a timely manner by a nice server who couldn't look any happier to bring us food. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a high-end TV dinner, not repulsive in any way but also not worth $20. Two, the complimentary in-room coffee. To be honest, I got quite excited to see Wolfgang Puck signature coffee on top of my mini bar. I had been unaware that my culinary hero even sold coffee. It must be good, I thought. It's Wolfgang fucking Puck! Then I made the coffee, and well, it tasted literally like soap. I wouldn't point my disapproving finger at Wolfie, though. It can't possibly be his fault. My guess? The coffee cup wasn't properly cleaned. So what I drank was 90% coffee, 10% soap scum. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Ginger Ice Cream

I've been going to Star Ginger for years; one of the waiters treats me like his longtime buddy; and I wholeheartedly endorse their khao soi as the best curry-noodle soup in Sacramento. For some reason, though, I'd never cared to try their desserts until a couple nights ago. Like most Asian restaurants, their dessert options aren't many. Only 3 flavors of ice-cream and that's it. No sticky rice with mango. No sweet egg tarts. No assorted mochi. The ginger ice-cream is what my tastebuds got to investigate the other night.

Three fat scoops, the color of desert sand, neatly line up in a shallow oval bowl. Simply dressed with gooey ginger caramel and nothing else, the presentation is on the fence between artistically minimalist and underwhelming. But whatever the appearance might lack or fail to accomplish, the taste makes up for it all. Laced inside each velvety scoop are chunks of candied ginger, which render this decadent treat extra texture and a little punch of earthy spiciness. It's not too rich, not too sugary, not too gingery. The balance between sweet and spicy is immaculate. Every bite carries a taste of harmony. I never thought an ice-cream could be so zen.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Dim Sum Club in Russian Hill

Given its non-Chinatown neighborhood and location on the first floor of Da Vinci Villa Hotel, some diners might question the authenticity of Dim Sum Club. Russian Hill? A hotel named after a dead Italian dude? These things do raise reasonable doubts. But let me assure you, on my Chinese grandfather's honor, that this San Francisco dumpling paradise doesn't serve what some may call "American Chinese food." Everything here is orthodox through and through. We were hungry and shamelessly gluttonous when we went there last week. It was just me and hubby, but our orders fully spread over a table for four. And among those scrumptious small plates, there were three funky items worthy of a special acknowledgement. Keep in mind that the word "funky" here doesn't mean odd or interestingly unique. I'm using this word in its original literal sense. 

The first is the chicken congee (rice porridge) with pieces of thousand-year egg. In case you're not familiar with it, let me elaborate. A thousand-year egg is an egg preserved in clay, ash, salt and a few other god-knows-whats. The preservation process probably doesn't last a thousand years as its misnomer indicates, but long enough to make the egg look like something that has survived a nuclear bomb and mutated almost beyond recognition. The yolk is murky-green, the egg white translucent-brown, the texture gelatinous, and the flavor mildly briny. Its odor of ammonia, although not overwhelming, is quite pronounced. No wonder why in Thai we call it "kai yeow ma," meaning "horse-urine egg." Anyway, the chicken congee and thousand-year egg prove to be a blissfully compatible couple. The lovely congee broth tames the egg's funk down a bit while the egg serves as an extra seasoning that elevates the rather boring porridge to something incredibly umami. 

Another slightly funkier dish is the deep-fried turnip cake, which is pungent with the smells of dried shrimp and lap cheong (Chinese pork sausage). The surf outshines the turf just by a tad in the funk arena, but both harmoniously contribute to the finger-licking salty zing. Light but firm in texture, it's like an Asian version of potato pancakes your grandmama makes with a huge dose of love. And then there's the funkiest of the funky: the durian puffs. Durian is a sweet tropical fruit that even Andrew Zimmern, a renowned bizarre-food enthusiast, finds daunting. I believe he once compared its odor to that of rotten meat. Well, I beg to differ. Rotten meat is unbearably foul and I wouldn't touch anything that smells as such. But I eat durian and quite happily so! To me, it smells more like a combination of stinky cheese and a fruit that has been way, way, way overripe. It's a good type of funk, but I do admit it's an acquired taste. And the texture? Soft and creamy, similar to a ripe banana. Now imagine that sweet funky goodness stuffed inside a flaky pastry and baked until golden. Take a bite while it's still warm, and you're in Durian Heaven!