Boston Hound visits the Bay Area (long report)
- lipoff Jul 8, 2009 10:13 PM
I'm from boston, but I visited the San Francisco Bay Area for a few days this past weekend for a wedding and wanted to make a quick write-up of some places I visited:
The wedding rehearsal dinner was held at Shalizaar in Belmont, near Palo Alto. In addition to several terrific appetizers --- flat bread with a few simple dips such as eggplant (mirza ghasemi), yogurt (mast-o-moosir) and a platter of terrifically fresh herbs (sabzi) --- we only had one dish, a plate of three meats and a variety of grilled vegetables. The meats included chicken kabob, koobideh (ground beef) and barreh, an amazingly succulent cut of lamb --- some of the very best lamb I've had. I think this is on their normal menu as the "special for two". I can't guarantee that it wasn't made with extra care for the Farsi-speaking wedding party, but it was certainly very, very good.
Lunch the next day was at a so-so Thai restaurant in Downtown Palo Alto, Krung Siam. Very mediocre payapa salad, but some nice BBQ beef. I was very surprised to see lamb on the menu at this restaurant, as I don't think I've ever seen lamb at a Thai restaurant! Beautiful presentation of the dishes and I like the amusigly literal translations on the menu, but this doesn't make up for the overall food.
I stopped into A.G. Ferrari Foods, a little Italian food store in downtown Palo Alto, and while restraining myself from purchasing any of the other wonderful things on offer, I managed to snag two bottles of Vignette Wine Country Soda. The pinot noir was unremarkable (tasted like too-sweet sparking grape juice!) but the chardonnay was a very nice soda. Both were reminiscent of the British brand Schloer. Apparently there is also a Rosé variety which was not stocked there. Staff was unusually nice at Ferrari as well.
The wedding dinner was at Fu Lam Mum in Mountain View. They had rented out the entire upstairs and several dishes were quite good, including a very moist roast duck, "double happiness" fish (both steamed in ginger and scallion) and some surprisingly excellent fried rice. Some of the other dishes were a little bland for my taste, but quite accurate Cantonese renderings. Their mango dessert was second-to-none. The restaurant was quite crowded at 7 PM, cleared out by 9:30 PM but was hopping again when we left a little before midnight.
The next day I had a light lunch at Sushi Tomi, around the corner in Mountain View. This seems a terrific deal for lunch, although I found the sushi itself unremarkable, although not bad. I didn't try this, but others in my party had the homemade (pork filled) gyoza, which were roundly praised as excellent. It was also an interesting preparation, with a sort of crust that connected all the gyoza until they were broken apart.
We followed lunch with some bubble tea at Tea Era, just around the corner in Mountain View. This was really terrific bubble tea --- my rose flower tea had little bits of rose petals floating around in it and the boba were very flavorful. I enjoyed this so much I returned after dinner to have a grapefruit tea with lychee jelly, which is a nice combination. The grapefruit tea was maybe a bit more like grapefruit juice, which is not bad, just one should have fair warning. They have a very extensive bubble tea flavor selection.
I had dinner at the Chinjin Eastern House in Cupertino/San Jose, which I covered elsewhere (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/634194). In summary, the beef shao1 bing3 and yang2 rou4 pao4 mo2 were the best choices from what I had. The niu2 rou4 xian4 bing3 and cong1 you2 bing3 were fine, but not remarkable. I meant to try the unusual niu2 rou4 xiao3 long2 bao1 (beef soup dumplings) but it's hard to be one person at a Chinese restaurant and not already order too much food!
Lunch the next day was at the Amigo's Grill in Laderas. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but I was really impressed. Maybe I have a different standard for Mexican food, being used to Boston, but the enchiladas jalisco were really nice, with a tangy mole sauce and particularly excellent black beans. The bottled non-alcoholic sangria complements this very well.
I drove up to San Francisco to have dinner at Jai Yun. I'd been there once before on a previous trip and I liked it very much and wanted to return. This time I'd say about half the cold appetizers and maybe about a third of the dishes were repeats of what I'd had before, so there was some overlap but also plenty of new things. Some highlights included bamboo shoots and a beef tripe among the liang2 cai4, and then gently fried shimeji mushrooms, a beautiful eggplant dish, mungbean noodles with Chinese bacon, and squash with bitter gingko nuts and sweet lychee jelly. The xue3 cai4 mao2 dou4 was also nice. The only losers of the bunch were the orange beef and a bowl of gently fried fish pieces. There were some fine meat courses, but I find it particularly impressive that the best dishes were vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian. This takes some real skill. Also, I must say that I am often not a particular fan of mushrooms, but the shimeji mushroom dish really wowed me. The five of us had the cheapest option, which is now $55 per person. I think this is a bargain, especially when you go with a larger group, since the same per person charge results in an even wider variety of dishes. I invited a few friends to eat with me, and I will admit that most were skeptical about spending $70 (by the time you include tax and tip) at a Chinese restaurant. Everyone left happy and very full, although several commented that for that price, they would have preferred cloth napkins and a waiter (who was quite nice) not wearing a hoodie and sweatpants, but rather a bit more elegantly attired. Honestly, I agree with that --- the decor in the restaurant looks clean and nice, the plates are pretty, the table settings are pretty, but the paper napkins do seem out of place, and the wait staff is dressed too casually for the price point. I still look forward to going back.
Dinner last night was at Burma Superstar in Oakland. We arrived at 6:30 and were seated immediately, although there was a line out the door by 7 PM. It was crowded and a bit noisy inside, but that couldn't detract from the truly amazing food. The tea salad is as exciting as advertised, with very strong flavors of garlic, peanut and the fermented tea. The yellow peas made for a nice texture but had no flavor. We asked for the chili lamb "super spicy" and were rewarded by a dish with real kick. I was less enthused by the Bun Tay Kauswer (coconut chicken) noodles, which I found lacking in flavor, although my DC loved them. The coconut rice was one of the best renditions I've had. I could enjoy it just by itself. The platha was wonderfully flaky and just a bit oily. We ordered it as a side order, but should have ponied up the extra couple dollars for the appetizer version, which includes a rich sauce. The black rice pudding made for a terrific dessert. This is really excellent cooking, and the wait staff couldn't have been any sweeter. The chili lamb was very different than the few Burmese dishes I've had before, and also quite different from a Chinese preparation. The lamb itself was very succulent and tender, and was cut quite thickly, not thinly as is more commonly found in Chinese cooking and was being used for flavor, not texture. Not sure whether this is a more Burmese method, or if this dish had been more or less invented in America. Wherever its origin, it was truly terrific. I think this was the best meal of my trip. I almost went to Fleur de Lys instead last night, and while I do hope to go there, I am oh-so-happy with my choice.
Before heading back to the airplane to take the red eye I stopped with a friend at Eggettes in Glen Park. Eggettes is a bubble tea / waffle / frozen yogurt cafe. I was tempted to put some frozen yogurt on top of a waffle, but decided I was too full and just had some bubble tea. The peach green tea itself wasn't terrific, but the boba was very sweet and tender. My friend ordered the red bean milk shake, and there were definitely real pieces of red bean floating around and it was not too sweet. A nice ending to a very enjoyable trip.
680 Clay St, San Francisco, CA 94111
300 El Camino Real, Belmont, CA 94002
2810 Diamond St, San Francisco, CA 94131
635 W Dana St, Mountain View, CA 94041
Chinjin Eastern House
1530 S De Anza Blvd, San Jose, CA
4721 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA
271 Castro St, Mountain View, CA
Krung Siam Thai Cuisine
423 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301
3130 Alpine Rd # 290, Portola Valley, CA
Fu Lam Mum
155 Castro St, Mountain View, CA 94041
Since you liked Burma Superstar so much, on your next visit you should try Larkin Express, which sets the standard for Burmese around here.
Pretty good picks.
Here's my thoughts on BSS, Alameda.
Great looking spot. Ridge by the glass, which is the wrong wine for the food but a great wine any time. Funny white sangria drink was a better match; fun and inventive.
Tea leaf salad - meh, although meh tea leaf salad is still very good. Way too much romain, not enough tea leaf, otherwise nice. They have a lot of romain lettuce in burma?
Chickpea tofu - WOW. earth stopping good. Yes, virginia, you can make tofu out of other beans. I don't know if they make it at a secret BSS master hut, or if it's a burmese thing, or if it's commonly vended by tofu makers and I was not informed. I will now & forever be on the lookout for chickpea tofu, just for my home cooking. It's just different, nuttier, more flavor, stands on its own. The salad it was in was well balanced and interesting, lemon cut through nicely.
Eggplant Curry - very nice. not too oily, a warm unctuous curry instead of lots of pep, which worked as a dish.
(ate all veg with a veg friend, didn't try any meats)
Would return if in area, would not drive all the way up there. Didn't seem like exemplary burmese food, simply very good, but was a very pleasant all-around experience. Service was good (nice combination of on-the-ball and let-us-alone). Can't think of a restaurant I currently like in Alameda better, now that Pinata has weakened their soup, but I'm out of touch with alameda.
* notes on your trip *
Amigo's grill in Portola Valley - I think you hit the nail on the head, boson's not known for it's mexican, is it?
Krung Siam - and the bay area's not known for it's thai.
Fu Lam Mum - sounds like a good choice by your wedding party, because it's about the only place that's open that late and is big enough. I've had the same food experiences there - broad menu with some hits and misses.
Sushi Tomi - interesting you weren't that impressed by the fish, it's considered one of the better places although I've been going elsewhere myself recently.
Shalizaar - doesn't get enough love on CH. I know an Iranian guy who organizes take-out from there on a regular basis, and the place is pretty darn tasty for him, too.
Great reviews - thanks for writing!
Great writeup, fellow gastrotourist! Slight Burmese tangent here: I loved the tea leaf salad at Larkin Express so much that I was really disappointed to find it chock full o' romaine when I had it at Pagan in March. Had to go to Larkin Express two days later to try it again, and sure enough, no romaine (see slightly washed out photo) and all delicious. I keep thinking I should try Burma Superstar but between the romaine and the lineups, I think I'll stick to LE when I visit :-).
Thanks everyone for the comments -- just what I was hoping for!
Let me add a few of my own:
While it may be true that Boston is not known for its Mexican food, we have some good places, some very good places, and some bad ones. Have you ever tried the Amigo's grill in Portola Valley? It was very good. The enchiladas jalisco were specifically recommended by the local with whom I had lunch. I can imagine that a random Mexican place is of much higher quality in the Bay Area than a random Mexican place in Boston, so maybe this is typical for the Bay Area, in which case you are lucky!
To clarify on Sushi Tomi: The white tuna was quite good, but the Spanish makarel was not at all. The Ume-shiso roll was too salty. The quail eggs were slimy, rather than bright, suggesting a lack of freshness. I had a little taste of salmon sashimi that came with a bento-box lunch and it was just fine, but nothing special. The vegetable tempura with the bento-box lunch was much more impressive.
I really look forward to trying Larkin Express next time I visit. But I have to say again that I was truly impressed by Burma Superstar, having eaten Burmese food a number of times before. We couldn't have enjoyed the whole experience any more.
I also attach a few pictures --- of the cold appetizers at Jai Yun, the tea leaf salad at BSS, the eggplant salad at Krug Siam, and the yang2 rou4 pao4 mo2 at Chinjin Eastern House.
Perhaps I was a bit snide and prejudging about Amigo's. I'll put it on my list to try sometime. Amigo's is certainly in the "random mexican" pile for me - it's just some place I drive past to get to the actual mexican district. It's hard to imagine portola valley with "real mexican", but stranger things have happened, no?
It sounds like Sushi Tomi is reacting poorly to the new economic reality. You see it quite a bit: some restaurants refocus, redo their menus, and come out brighter and better. Some keep their menus the same, start having turnover, keep their ingredients around longer, a number of sins - but still have some great dishes.
For example, Kaygetsu, a high end japanese place in Menlo Park, seems to have reacted well. They've re-started their sushi lunches, but resist the push to keep their whiteboard stocked. Instead, they're running a little leaner and thus, sometimes, have a more limited menu - but they keep their quality up.
Thanks again for the detailed report!
Just went to the BSS in Oakland for the first time last week, and I think it's significantly better than the BSS in Alameda (and I thought the one in Alameda was good). The platha are really outstanding - thicker than my other favorite platha (from Mingalaba, in Burlingame), and just as good, I didn't do a great job in taking notes, but across the board, flavors were strong and complex. I thought I'd be unimpressed with a tea leaf salad cut with romaine, but the flavors were so strong that it was actually really balanced. It was much, much better than the same dish in Alameda.
I haven't been to the BSS in SF, but based on comparisons from other posters on BSS vs. Mandalay/Mingalaba/Larkin Express, I suspect the Oakland BSS is better than the SF branch as well.
I haven't been to any other branch so I can't really comment, but I will mention that my DC there (who's a local) was worried that we weren't getting the "authentic" BSS experience at the Oakland branch and so asked the hostess about this before we sat down. She explained that they have the same menu and rotate some of the chefs around between restaurants. Maybe one branch is consistently better, but it may also be one particular chef is consistently better and he's a moving target. =)
Terrific report. Thanks so much
Fu Lam Mum
246 Castro St, Mountain View, CA
A G Ferrari
200 Hamilton Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301
635 W Dana St, Mountain View, CA 94041