Sunday, July 27, 2014

Smitten Ice Cream (Dessert), San Francisco, CA

Gourmet ice cream is, arguably, the tastiest of the dozen trends that have swept the nation in recent years (honorable mention to food trucks). From Portland's Salt and Straw to New York's Big Gay Ice Cream, New Orleans stalwart Creole Creamery to San Francisco's own Bi-Rite, shops specializing in thick and gooey cream are opening to massive crowds and critical acclaim. Arguably the most innovative of these locations (no, not Humphry Sloccombe and its Foie Gras and Prosciutto scoops) is Smitten, a place that pumps out surprisingly traditional flavors from the inside of a refurbished shipping crate. Its humble address aside (the container is located adjacent to the decrepit alley that gave birth to Blue Bottle Coffee), this tiny creamery wins impressive points in numerous ways, most notably the manner in which it crafts decadent frozen treats.


Unlike other creameries who churn ice cream by the gallon each morning, Smitten revolutionizes the industry by making (not mixing like Coldstone, actually MAKING) each serving to order. To the surprise of many first timers, this approach results in quick and delicious cones that arrive to customers "in 90 seconds". Smitten's not-so-secret secret weapon/ingredient is liquid nitrogen, which can be observed billowing in plumes from the buckets, mixers, and stirring bowls behind the counter. This nitrogen is harnessed by the ice cream mixers themselves, a quartet of unique and aptly named "Brr" machines. Five years - and apparently three patents - went in to the design and construction of these mixers, creations that can't be found outside Smitten's four corrugated metal walls. Though risky, the time and money spent more than paid off; many now consider the establishment to be the best in the competitive Bay Area, if not the world. Much of this praise stems from the smoothness of the ice cream; liquid nitrogen's low temperature (-300 degrees) keeps the majority of ice crystals from forming.


Smitten's brilliance goes well past science. Beretta Creamery Milk, TCHO Chocolate, Swenton Strawberries - each ingredient used here is crafted by local, artisanal, and organic vendors. Though these ingredients are understandably more expensive (Smitten's price tag is insanely high as a result), the expense is worth it; each and every flavor tastes pure and unadulterated. My personal favorite is the Apple Crisp, only offered in November, an option that features rich, cinnamon-coated apples in a slightly sour vanilla cream. Crushed and spiced Graham crackers add a light crunch and doughy note, the perfect compliment for the fruit. Easily the best scoop I've ever sampled, it's often hard for me to walk away without a few pints around Thanksgiving. As delicious as the seasonal flavors such as this  are, the standard daily choices (offered year round) are equally delicious. Smooth, silky Salted Caramel is a favorite of most customers, with the TCHO Chocolate coming in a close second.


At $5 a scoop, the price makes Smitten's ice cream a luxury item. Though stunningly smooth, chalk full of local ingredients, and made fresh to order, the dessert here isn't completely worth the cost. Local superstars Bi-Rite and Humphry Sloccombe, two business known for expensive treats of similar quality, charge two dollars less a scoop. Smitten, because of this, is a place I visit occasionally, but not frequent. There are far better deals scattered throughout the city I like to take advantage of, and some of the best ice cream on the West Coast, made by Strauss Family Creamery, can be found at most local markets for half as much as Smitten. Regardless of price or convenience (parking's a hassle, too), Smitten is easily the best ice cream parlor in a city in love with ice cream. Though it may break the bank, do yourself a favor and give this spot a try if you're ever touring San Francisco.


Smitten Ice Cream on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 24, 2014

CREAM (Ice Cream), Berkeley, CA

Overrated restaurants exist in every state, city, and town, muddying the waters for foodies dedicated to finding the best eats. CREAM is Berkeley's answer to San Francisco duds Scoma's and Fog City Diner, a pair of restaurants so underwhelming that you wonder why reservations are unavailable for the next six hours, much less six months. Though not quite on the same scale of duddery, this tiny ice cream shop in the heart of the University District draws massive lines for a mediocre product day in and day out. Their vast array of tiny treats are idolized by newspapers and bloggers alike, some of whom compare the place with true giants like Humphry Sloccombe and Bi-Rite Creamery. To put it in perspective, such praise is like the New York Times claiming the Mark Wahlberg reboot of "Planet of the Apes" is of comparable cinematic merit to "Pulp Fiction" or "The Godfather" (I think not).


I ventured to the "Planet of the Apes" of ice cream establishments on a warm summer day in Berkeley. Though I initially made the trip to Telegraph to buy a Pineapple Bun from nearby Sheng Kee Bakery, a strange, mirage-like sight caught me off guard. CREAM, for possibly the first time in its existence, lacked a line. Stunned and with dreams of a delicious frozen treat planted firmly in my head, I walked down the block and into the shop ("shop" is generous terminology, as Berkeley's CREAM is little more than a cramped counter with two tables in the corner). Blue signage, orange walls, and perturbed servers surrounded me, the latter prodding for my order. After purposely taking my time to glance over the short menu, I confidently purchased a brownie and a $2 build your own ice cream sandwich, though I was torn on what to fill it with.


My caramel-craving taste buds won out it the end, as I took a scoop of Royal Caramel Swirl between two Snickerdoodles. The cookies, buttery and warm, were among the best I'd had in a long time. Their lack of firmness, however, didn't win points. Putting two fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies around ice cream sounds great until you realize it creates a runny mess. CREAM's Snickerdoodles did just that, melting my Caramel Swirl, which in turn saturated the cookies to the point of bread pudding. Though terribly tasty, it was nearly impossible to eat without dumping goop all over my modest khakis. Grabbing a cup and an arsenal of napkins, I coaxed the center out and ate it with a spoon while sitting on the curb outside. Rich and creamy, the ice cream actually wasn't half bad; that said, it wasn't Bi-Rite, either. Putting the namesake dessert aside, I reached for the brownie, took a bite, and threw the remainder in the trash. It had the consistency of brown sawdust and the lack of flavor associated with said wood shavings. Deciding I had come, saw, and conquered, I got up to leave. Looking back at the store, I noticed the universe had righted itself - CREAM's line stretched around the corner and halfway to Unit 1 in the distance.


My visit to CREAM was a welcome insight into crowdsourced restaurant recommendations. The trip affirmed my long held belief about Yelp's trustworthiness, a website on which hundreds (maybe thousands by now) of locals and visitors alike have raved about a tiny ice cream shop on Telegraph for the past two years. It's not that CREAM was bad - or, for that matter, Yelp was wrong - it was simply overhyped to the point where anything short of Gordon Ramsey divebombing a dragon into my taste buds would have been underwhelming. All attributes considered, I actually like the place and would recommend it to friends uninterested in trekking across the Bay or down to Fenton's for some real ice cream. Is the idea unique and fun? Sure, unique for the Bay Area, at any rate. Would I consider it on par with renowned, award winning scoops? No, not by any stretch of the imagination. Will I return? Surprisingly, I hope I get the chance.


Cream on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Elmwood Cafe (Brunch/American), Berkeley, CA

Are you Berkeley enough? Elmwood is. This restaurant/coffee shop/people watching spot truly makes College Avenue what it is - a haven for everything I love about this city. The multitude of ethnic markets, pot shops, and dream catcher weavers would seem out of place without this world-class brunch establishment anchoring the block. Lines filled with educated undergrads and ravenous residents from neighboring neighborhoods start forming early in the morning and stretch throughout the day. Locals aren't the only fans of Elmwood, though; visiting speakers, tourists, and high school students from out of town flock here after treks around the campus a few blocks North. They do so for good reason - Elmwood is THE spot for a trendy brunch in the East Bay.


I went to Elmwood with a friend after touring the Berkeley campus back in June. Miraculously, no line awaited our arrival. Waltzing straight up to the vintage marble counter, we ordered a pair of Poached Egg Sandwiches, a Blackberry Coffeecake (for me), and a Blueberry Scone (for him). Sitting down at the "bar", a solid slab of marble attached to the coffee station, I noticed for the first time the ridiculous amount of drink-forming-contraptions behind the barrier. Espresso makers, French presses, strainers, Percolators, and other foreign machinery lined both walls, forming a caffeinated gauntlet. Lamenting my lack of hyperactivity, I got up to order a Cafe Au Lait, but was sidetracked by the array of "French Cream Soda" syrups marinating on the window sill. Deciding coffee would affect the hue of my pearly whites, I opted for a Peach soda and returned to my maroon bar stool.


All the food arrived simultaneously, with the drink floating over the bar to my right as egg sandwiches and pastries joined it from the left. The portions were personal, aka small, and pricey. Though disillusioned by the expense, I pushed forward and sunk my teeth into the poached egg. Wow. Perfectly cooked bacon (organic Niman Ranch bacon, to be precise) added a delicious smokiness to the otherwise excellent egg (equally organic). Underneath, tomato (notably organic as well), herbed mayonnaise, and arugula (organic-ness unspecified) added notes of a summer garden. The fresh baked ACME Bread Roll containing it all soaked up the juices of the tomato and ovum alike, allowing the whole sandwich to avoid degradation into an arugula salad topped with bacon.


Next, I sipped my Peach soda. Double wow. I never knew soda could be so beautiful. Fresh peach flavor mixed with the silo of cream I dumped atop the drink and mixed in. It tasted almost dessert like, yet surely cost me no more than 200 calories. The second dessert-like item, the Blackberry Coffeecake (triple wow), cost me upwards of 2,000. Rich and delicious, the thick treat made my arteries feel like Chris Christie's after his third Big Mac. Each bite contained firm little bits of peach and blackberry and almost no sign of blackberry seeds, the bane of my existence (I mean, the fruit would be perfect without seeds, am I right?!). My friend adored his scone, claiming it was the "best he ever ate", and cradled it like a newborn child. To further elaborate on his adoration, he noted the perfect thickness and multitude of berries, a pair of compliments I was unable to confirm as he refused to let me try it. Finishing our pastries, we reluctantly walked out of the shop, and back to the bus stop.


Any doubt I once held about the excellence of Elmwood vanished after that trip. Since then, I have returned twice, ordered the same meal, and been equally happy both times. Even now, I dream of the perfectly runny, lightly salted egg and thick coffeecake that accompanies it. Long story short, this restaurant is a gem in a city chalk-full of gems. Though it lacks the "grunge" of the University District, it has charms of its own (namely the food). For people slightly frightened by the happenings on Telegraph, too poor for Chez Panisse on Shattuck, yet curious enough to check out the "tamer" side of the city, College Avenue, and its flagship restaurant Elmwood Cafe, is the place to be.


Elmwood Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 21, 2014

Frost Cupcake Factory (Dessert/Bakery), Campbell, CA

"I've never met a problem a proper cupcake couldn't fix." - Sarah Ockler

Cupcakes are, in short, the best sweet on Earth. They're personal, portable, delectable, and affordable, a fearsome foursome of positive attributes usually reserved for donuts, bacon, and puppies (not the delectable part... ew). Each cake, when done right, features big flavors, creamy frosting, and a heaping spoonful of creativity, the latter of which opens the door to infinite flavor combinations. All the above praise comes from a guy who whole heartedly hated cupcakes until stepping into a little place called Frost Cupcake Factory in downtown Campbell.


The establishment, a pink and brown wonderland of cup-based treats, converted me into a lover months ago, but I didn't get around to documenting my new-found adoration until today. Perhaps I was embarrassed, shy, or simply in sheer disbelief, a disbelief eradicated by my follow-up visits to Frost. My first time, I opted for the childish, yet sinfully delicious Cookies 'N Cream, a chocolate cake covered in thick butter cream frosting layered with crushed Oreos. Though admittedly simple, the sweet was perfectly crafted, with textbook frosting and a light, soft cake balancing each other out. Try two I went for the slightly more sophisticated Lemon Meringue. Frost came through again, crafting an excellent, authentic Meringue (a la the famous cake), not a knock off vanilla cream sprinkled with citrus. The mound of frosting was fluffy and delicate, topping off a bittersweet lemon-vanilla base.


Try three I upped the ante, ordering a ridiculous twosome, the Blueberry Peach Bellini and Oh My Bacon. I was hoping they'd mess it up, pleading for a double punch to my taste buds that would send me back to my doughnut craving ways. Mess it up they did, but only with cupcake number one. The Blueberry Peach consisted of a thick, whipped cream style frosting (yuck) and boring cake filled with mushy fruit. It was, much to my joy, a total disappointment, especially the nasty cream on top, which lacked flavor and a pleasurable consistency. Fully ready to give up on the place and head over to Psycho Donuts, I took a bite of the Bacon offering and fell in love all over again. The cream cheese frosting paired perfectly with the smoky vanilla cake beneath, a cake littered with crumbled bacon bits. It made me forget the Bellini disaster ever happened, all while making me sick to my stomach (cream cheese frosting is nothing to play with, kids).


Frost, no matter how big the dud, always follows with a killer treat. I love this place without having tried their award winning, mind-blowing, flagship flavor, Apple Borscht. At this point, I can't imagine the severity my addiction will deepen to once I sample that treat. For now, my craving only burns, not rages, but that could change in the coming months. Show your solidarity with my waistline by giving this place a look. Cupcakes are officially a part of my life now, and I think they're here to stay.


Frost Cupcake Factory on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Los Gatos Cafe (Breakfast/Brunch), Los Gatos, CA

Breakfast is easily one of my top three favorite meals of the day, and few places in the South Bay do it quite like Los Gatos Cafe. Others mass produce mediocre food at lightning speed, pride themselves on carton eggs, and charge ridiculous amounts for tiny portions. LGC, on the other hand, avoids those three negatives by serving quality cuisine at reasonable expense. Each dish is made to order by a skilled staff that specializes in benedicts and "egg souffles", two of the most difficult morning entrees. Outside the kitchen, staff bounce from table to table taking orders and delivering plates, eyes bright and smiles wide. In a small city renowned for overpriced foodie-favorites, trendy flameouts, and improperly popular cantinas, Los Gatos Cafe provides a refreshing reprieve.


Two days back, after a depressingly long early morning doctor's visit at Good Sam, I made the decision to try the "best breakfast in town". After driving in circles for a solid twenty minutes in search of a parking spot, one miraculously opened up right next to the front door. It must have been a sign. Walking in, my heart dropped when I saw the "cash only" placard plastered on the register. An ATM in the corner came to my rescue, and I proceeded to take a seat near the back door. Looking over the expansive menu, I decided to order a classic benedict - the Californian - to establish a baseline.


The food took about fifteen minutes to arrive, and only about five to eat (don't judge, needles take more out of you than a blood sample). My benedict, which I oddly paired with a blackberry pound cake and grits, was fantastic. Both eggs were perfectly poached and placed atop a pair of avocado halves and thick ham slices, which in turn rested on a toasted English muffin. A layer of thick (but not too thick), creamy, and well spiced Hollandaise topped it all off. It may have been the best benedict of my life. My side orders did not reach the same level of excellence. Though well made, the blackberry pound cake was hard to eat (too crumbly and full of seeds), while the grits next to them were basically terrible. They had the consistency of a tomato bisque your uncle dropped a bag of oyster crackers in (a.k.a. mushy and runny). The ball of pancake butter placed on top didn't help matters, and even after asking for cheddar of brown sugar, the bowl was still a mess.


Grits aside, my first experience at the downtown Los Gatos Cafe was a positive one, unlike previous ventures to the uptown location. Here, I left a handsome tip for the service (tipping is almost against my religion) and took a delicious cinnamon roll for the road. There, I threw out my order and nearly got in an argument with the waiter over the proper fillings for a Denver Omelette. Needless to say, I enjoyed this spot far more, and look forward to coming back in the future (preferably without getting shots first).


Los Gatos Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Kumako (Japanese/Ramen), San Jose, CA

Japantowns everywhere are renowned for their top-notch Asian cuisine (be it Japanese, Chinese, or Korean), excellent festivals (Obon, Cherry Blossom), and peerless ramen. Kumako, one of San Jose's numerous noodle joints, has helped maintain the latter of these three attributes since its opening in 2006. Like many others in the area, this tiny, "New York-style" restaurant boasts a half dozen soups and a loyal cult following of foodies. Said foodies, many of whom hail from nearby San Jose State University, swear by the traditional Tonkatsu and Charsu Ramens, a pair of pork bone based dishes. Other creative ramens like the Tan Tan (Spicy Pork with pepper) and Curry (curry broth with crab) are equally big hits, helping Kumako keep its reputation as the "Best of Silicon Valley".


Last night marked my tenth (or hundredth, who's counting?) trip to Kumako. Per usual, I started with a nice order of Charsu Don, a small bowl of rice covered in succulent chunks of roastedpork, and a side of Gyoza (pan fried pork and vegetable dumplings). The Charsu Don was delicious, although a little fatty, but the highlight of course one had to be the Gyoza, a dish Kumako makes in house unlike most other local establishments. Five came in the $3 order, making it more than worth the price. A crispy crust crackled on the bottom of each dumpling, protecting the sizzling ingredients inside that burned my mouth on first bite (I never learned to wait before eating them). After nearly searing my tongue and ruining my meal, I made short work of the other four pouches and proceeded to order my main dish. I opted for Tan Tan Ramen over the neighboring Tonkatsu Ramen, as "trying something new" sounded like an excellent idea.


That idea turned out to be a mistake. The Tan Tan, though tasty, was $10 of pure spice with a few pieces of pork thrown in. Its broth, what I assume was a Shio or Miso, was so chalk full of pepper flakes, pepper oil, and curry spice that it was nearly inedible. Though I ordered the dish knowing it would be hot, I sincerely hoped for a complex, slow burning heat as opposed to a face punch of chili. As inedible as the broth was, the main ingredients floating in it were pretty perfect, most notably the noodles, which had the nice, slightly chewy consistency I search for. While the fat fest on top of the Charsu Don was good, the pork in the Tan Tan was equally juicy and tender, with half the blubber weighing it down.


Needless to say, I learned my lesson: never stray from traditional types of Ramen at fast casual noodle houses. Shio, Miso, and Tonkatsu are the only types worth sampling, especially here. As enticing as "Italian Style Clam Ramen" sounds (not), I won't ever be giving it a try Kumako, I apologize. Next time, I fully intend to stick with Kumako's respected, edible, and borderline good Tonkatsu Ramen with sliced pork and bamboo shoots. Just thinking about it makes me salivate a little, while the thought of another bowl of Tan Tan induces gagging.


Kumako on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 14, 2014

Falafel's Drive-In (Middle Eastern/Greek), San Jose, CA

San Jose has long been a town devoid of culinary creativity and quality. Many say most of the city's greatest establishments would not last a month in more competitive regions like San Francisco or Berkeley. Falafel's Drive-In, one of the South Bay's oldest and most cherished establishments, might be the lone exception to that generalization. Since its founding in 1966, this Middle Eastern joint has been serving up hundreds of signature Falafels and Banana Shakes a day to throngs of hungry customers. Its success stems in part from its unique design and vintage appeal; a lone service window fields orders from long lines of visitors attracted like gnats by the restaurant's iconic twenty foot high neon sign. Design aside, multitudes more are attracted by the great, simple, and affordable food. Regardless of attraction, the vast majority of customers leave happy, helping Falafel's Drive-In keep its title as the best cheap choice in West San Jose.


Though I initially dined at Falafel's back in 2000, my first return visit did not occur until last week, when I drove down San Carlos scanning the sides of the road for a quick bite. After passing up a McDonald's, Jack in the Box, and an arsenal of taquerias, I nearly gave up hope before spying the giant "Falafel" sign in the distance. Reluctantly, I agreed to drop a Middle Eastern lunch into an already upset stomach. After parking, I shuffled up to the window and quickly decided to order the classic meal (a large banana shake and large Falafel) and a Koubby. All the food combined cost a cool $12 (the meal $9), a reasonable price for the portion size. The service, though slow, was kind, wishing me a nice day as I took my seat and waited on my food.


My lunch came quickly, just five minutes after I paid, even though a large crowd had ordered right before me. I started with the Koubby, which, in retrospect, wasn't the best choice. The thick ball of ground beef and pine nuts coated with a cracked wheat shell was essentially a bad deep fried meatball - greasy and flavorless, as well as slightly overcooked. Though initially put off, I recovered my appetite by sipping the banana shake, a delicious, simple drink made with real ice cream, a little ice, and fresh whole bananas. Thick and creamy, the milkshake turned out to be the best part of the meal.


My Falafel was simply not of the same caliber. Filled with four freshly fried Falafel balls, iceberg lettuce, and a half cup of Sriracha, the large sandwich was certainly worth the price. The entree came laid out on its side, though, a position that allowed the ingredients to spill out onto the tray. Once placed upright and re-stuffed, the pita holding it all together instantly began to disintegrate, far too saturated by the lake of Sriracha to stay together. Grabbing a fork and knife, I ate my sandwich like a nice salad. Though tasty as a whole, the excellent Falafel balls were overwhelmed and equally saturated by the unnecessary amount of pepper sauce. A tangy Tzatziki would have done a far better job of accenting the flavor of the Chickpeas, assuming that's what the chef intended to do. After throwing the last hunks of iceberg lettuce away and cleaning my place, I left the restaurant and returned home slightly unhappy.


Though my first return trip to Falafel's did not live up to expectations, I found enough positives to give the place a second chance. Two days later, I returned with an empty stomach and mental note to skip the Koubby. My second sandwich was far better than the first (less Sriracha and lettuce, and a hint of Tzatziki on the Falafel), but the shake was icy and boring. This left me with only one possible conclusion: Falafel's Drive-In is the definition of hit-or-miss. Some days, the food pumped out by this tiny kitchen is the best around. On others, the shakes are sad and sandwiches soggy. It all depends on the date, your stomach, and, apparently, the phase of the moon or other arbitrary factor. Flip a coin, heads you buy a falafel, tails you get a taco down the street. Either way, you have a chance of getting some great food that won't break the bank.


Falafel Drive-in on Urbanspoon