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Peninsula Dining Trials

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Melanie Wong Nov 21, 2000 03:39 AM

In recent weeks I've had the chance to try a few SF Peninsula restaurants for the first time.

Shiok! Singapore Kitchen, 1137 Chestnut St. in Menlo Park serves up Nonya cuisine on tables covered with brown craft paper. Ours was the only party without a Malay, Hokkien or Indian face as you'll see in Singapore. Most looked like they might be students from nearby Stanford. After agonizing over whether to order the chili crab or the black pepper crab to celebrate the start of the Dungeness crab season, it was disappointing indeed to learn that the last one had been sold out from under us. We settled for nonya fish which was deep-fried snapper filet with a fiery hot tomato-onion sauce, vegetarian version char kway teow, sambal string beans, oyster omelet and coconut steamed rice. The fish was fresh and crunchy but the sauce seemed one-dimensional and simple. The oyster omelet presentation was pretty unappetizing - gray lumps and bumps of oysters, white dough balls (what are these chewy things?), and large curds of scrambled eggs served with a side of sambal chili sauce and lime wedges. But it was very delicious and the strongest dish of the night. The beans were snappy with just the right amount of salty/hot seasoning. The wine list is only 5 selections but well-chosen for value and quaffability. We had the 1998 Hugel "Gentil" from Alsace, a blend of aromatic white varieties with appley and citrus flavors and crisp acidity, priced at $20 that was a very good match for the spicy food. I was let down to learn that dessert was limited to ice cream (several tropical flavors) instead of Malay style sweets. Dinner for 3 with one bottle of wine, tax and a generous tip was $70.

Millbrae Pancake House, El Camino Real in Millbrae is a local institution. The gift shop at the entrance features a selection of stuffed animals, and in their heyday, this was one of the top outlets for beanie babies. Nothing on the dinner menu appealed, so we opted for breakfast (served all day) and a pancake trial. My brother William had the #2 - banger, eggs (scrambled) and 3 buckwheat pancakes. I asked for the # combo with corned beef hash, and the waitress instead pointed me to eggs with hash and hash browns with a substitution of pancakes for toast as a better deal. My over easy eggs were exactly the right amount of runniness to fold into the corned beef hash. The hash itself seemed like a slice of the canned variety with mushy mini-cubes of potato. The hash browns were underdone and only browned on one side. My pancakes were very good, light and fluffy, with a soft, melt in the mouth texture. On the other hand, William thought they were too soft and lacked toothsomeness. His banger was pretty good, with more meatiness than what I've had in the UK. The buckwheat pancakes were wonderful with a roasted malt flavor, slight graininess in the mouth yet very tender. William thinks the pancakes at Peter's (also on El Camino in Millbrae) are better because they're chewier, although a little more expensive. Dinner for the two of us, plus a diet soda, tax and tip was about $15.

Pisces, on California Street at the foot of Broadway in Burlingame, is the little brother of SF's Aqua. Billed as a more casual place, the starched linens, attentive service, detailed dishes and price levels are still in the fine dining realm. Located in the former train station, the dining room is long and narrow, reminescent of a rail dining car with small tables lining the long walls. A frying and wait station breaks up the expanse, and the periodic sizzle of fish hitting the fat seemed out of place here. We weren't that hungry at lunchtime and decided to try the two appetizer samplers, served as at Aqua in tiered towers. Priced at $16 apiece, each offered 3 bites of each taste. Sampler #1 included fried garlic clams, spicy fried calamari and mushroom strudel. Sampler #2 was tempura prawns, lobster egg rolls, and Hudson Valley foie gras on toast. Each taste was accompanied by a complementary dipping sauce. My favorite of these was the calamari with a sesame mayonnaise, and the fried clams were the weakest. While it wasn't that much food, it was heavy from being fried or coated with butter or duck fat. It's a lovely spot for nibbles and a leisurely two-hours reconnecting with a good friend. But I left feeling that I hadn't really let the kitchen show its talent.

Wild Hare, El Camino Real in Menlo Park, features game dishes. The dark woods, booths, open kitchen, lively bar, and mural of edible wildlife create a welcoming vibe combining hunting lodge, hearth and home, and night club in one. We had a 6pm reservation as Sheryl and Ralph had just arrived from the east coast. With so much catching up to do, we had a hard time focusing on the menu and our server did a good job of checking back, gently moving us along and getting our order in. This paid off later as we never felt rushed and relinquished our table by 9:30pm. You know you're in for a treat when the basket of breads arrive - each one was delicious in its own way. Many appetizers with fanciful descriptions to choose from, but we went with the wild mushroom risotto and the Maytag blue cheese and walnut salad to share among the three of us. Maybe not as novel as the others, these were beautifully executed. Each type of mushroom in the risotto retained its individual flavor adding its own note to the spectrum of flavors. Texturally, the rice was spot on al dente and we liked biting into the soft cubes of prosciutto di parma. The essence of the dish - damp earth, mushroom and smoke - was amplified by the 1995 Siduri Cellars "Hirsch" Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir I'd brought along. What an amazing nose! It's fully mature and ready to drink. The salad sparkled and the dressing was perfectly balanced with all its elements. Sheryl's venison shank prepared osso buco style was delicious but so intensely flavored it soon became tiring. Ralph was very happy with his smoked pork chop, as was I with the rabbit prepared 3 ways. Everything on the plate belonged there, nothing frivolous or intended to shock. The dishes were harmonious with a homey feel but show the hand of an expert chef, not an easy balance to achieve. The wine with our entrees was 1990 Arrowood Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, also from my cellar, which was more youthful and vivid than many 90s at this point, brimming with cassis, red plums and anise in a silky seamless body. Corkage was $15 per bottle, using good quality Spiegelau Bordeaux and Burgundy-style glasses. Our server was appreciative of the tastes we shared with him. Soon Executive Chef Joey Altman stopped by our table, and we twisted his arm to try our wine. He agreed with me that the Arrowood was drinking more like a 94 than a 90. Sheryl and Ralph were convinced that he came over because he'd heard I was in the house, but I noticed that he visited many other tables and worked the room with ease. We ended with a baked Alaska which was a rather small medallion of hazelnut icecream topped with a soft meringue and passed under the torch. An exceptional evening of great food, wine and good friends.

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    Cynthia Dec 14, 2000 05:04 PM

    I was with Melanie at her dining adventure at Shiok!, and I thought that the egg plate looked particularly unappetizing ... at the time I thought that was just because I don't like eggs or oysters! However, the string beans were really great, as was the vegetarian version of char kway teow (But as always with Melanie, the company was the best part of the evening ...!)

    10 Replies
    1. re: Cynthia
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      Melanie Wong Dec 15, 2000 02:37 AM

      Ciao, Cinzia!

      I have a 15% off coupon for the restaurant from the Stanford phone directory tucked in my wallet now. Enough to cover the tip --- they better have crab next time!

      1. re: Melanie Wong
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        Anne Emry Dec 18, 2000 09:10 PM

        Hey Melanie-

        I think someone from the Comical might be lurking, not only did they just review Dragon River (Thanks for alerting me -- I had missed the food section that day -- Yikes! That review had a whiney tone despite generally positive comments, I thought,) but Shiok was reviewed in the Peninsula Friday section on 12/15. My favorite comment was the description of the chile crab and pepper crab -- "This is not date food. They are messy, both coming fully cracked but with lots of gloppy, spicy brown sauce that manages to find its way up sleeves and down fronts."

        The reviewer appears to have missed the eating scene in "Tom Jones."

        Hope you get some of the crab next time.

        Cheers, Anne

        1. re: Anne Emry
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          Melanie Wong Dec 19, 2000 01:23 AM

          Yeppers, I just caught the Shiok! review too. Don't you think it's odd that a little place like this would be reviewed a second time by the SF Barnacle so soon? There are so many, many more new restaurants on the Peninsula to explore - why backtrack and recycle? The reviewer not only missed "Tom Jones" but also my earlier post to my darling Cousin Tida on how to eat crab with gloppy sauce. (g) Specifically with chili crab, you use the buns (ordered separately) to mop up the sauce so that there's less dripping off each piece of crustacean.

          I found both reviews (Dragon River & Shiok!) whiney. Poor little critics, forced by their editors to explore strange unfamiliar foods, and not at all happy about these adventures.

          Still hording two jars of Sing Long chili crab sauce, hand-carried back from S'pore, in the pantry. I'll have chili crab this season, one way or another.

          1. re: Melanie Wong
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            Limster Dec 19, 2000 03:27 PM

            Well, if the Chron is lurking, I'd wish that they would be a bit more adventurous and report on places that we'd love but haven't been to instead of being lazy.

            But their reviews aren't entirely useless. Robin Davis has a bad but fairly reliable habit of disliking the Chinese or Malay or Indonesian (or any Asian) dishes that I like and vice versa. It's all about adjusting to the reviewer's idiosyncrasies. :)

            1. re: Limster
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              Melanie Wong Dec 19, 2000 07:41 PM

              Good point! I also believe that consistency in a critic is more important that agreement with one's own taste. Then you can calibrate accordingly.

              Btw, do you have any advice on a less messy way to eat chili crab? (g)

              1. re: Melanie Wong
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                Limster Dec 20, 2000 12:23 AM

                I actually haven't had chili crab in a long time - I'm talking more than 10 years! The way I used to eat chili crab was to grab a piece of the crab, lick the sauce off the shell first, then crack the shell and go for the crabmeat. I'd usually dip the crabmeat in the sauce again for good measure before chowing down on it.

                1. re: Limster
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                  Melanie Wong Dec 31, 2000 05:45 PM

                  Excellent form, Limster!

                  Can one not have eaten chili crab for 10 years and still call oneself a Singaporean? (g)

                  1. re: Melanie Wong
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                    Limster Dec 31, 2000 08:38 PM

                    Actually, I've been away from Singapore for about that long. I would make a trip back at least once a year, but most of the time I'd go out to grab the hawker fare instead of going to the seafood places. The hawker centers are better deals for snarfing down several different things from different ethnicities / styles in one meal, so that's what I've always done.

                    Did have dinner at one of the seafood places in East Coast Park a few years ago, but we ended up getting pepper crab instead. Used the same trick on those crabs too.

                    Besides the hawker stuff, my favorite stops back home were Chang Jiang Shanghai restaurant at the Goodwood Park Hotel and Thahnying (Thai) at the Amara Hotel.

                    I know someone's going to suggest that the appropriate place for this would be the international board, but to be honest, I'm not really up on the places to eat in Singapore and haven't been for a while. So my favorites may not necessarily represent good recommendations.

                    1. re: Limster
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                      Melanie Wong Jan 1, 2001 06:56 PM

                      Is East Coast Park the area on the way to the airport? If so, we had some of our best times out there. I actually like pepper crab better than chili crab. I liked to stay at the Sherator to be close to Newton Circus. My experience in S'pore is dated too.

                      I've got the recipe from the Westin Hotel for making chili crab. should be very good with our local Dungeness crab.

                      1. re: Melanie Wong
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                        Limster Jan 2, 2001 12:17 AM

                        East Coast Park is on the way to the airport if you're going from downtown. Haven't really eaten much at Newton - would usually eat at a variety of neighborhood hawker centers just because they're closer.

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