Bette's Oceanview Diner - Berkeley, California


Bette's Oceanview Diner
1807 Fourth Street
Berkeley, CA
(510) 644-3932

www.worldpantry.com/bettes/

Date of Visit: Monday, March 9, 2009
Time: Breakfast - 8:30 AM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 2

Ratings
Food Quality: 5
Service: 4
Ambiance: 5



Even though there's no ocean view, and there's probably no Bette, I had high hopes for our breakfast in this place. "Don't even think about going there on Saturday or Sunday without waiting an hour or more," was the local buzz. "Best breakfast in the East Bay, the Bay Area, the West Coast, the Country, the World, the Universe..." were the raves. I love breakfast, and I wanted to love Bette's. It was not meant to be.

Located in an oasis of redeveloped industrial area with two blocks of hoity-toity shops and restaurants a block from the rescue mission and its associated hundreds of transients on the streets, the Diner is true to the genre. Small in black and white tile with red vinyl, seating choices of counter, booth, table or patio, the place is jammed from 6AM daily. At 8:30 on a Monday it was busy, but we hit a seam between waves and were seated in a booth immediately. Coffee for one of us and no bottled water available for me. I asked if I could therefore drink my own, prompting a small yet agitated conference with management, who decided to allow it - just this once. Whatever. Be advised that if you like coffee, you will get exactly one cupful. More on this later.

We perused the menu, which was quite extensive and looked harmless enough. There was a full slate of specials on the blackboard, and they looked pretty good. Our waitress came quickly, perhaps too quickly, and made it clear that SHE was ready, so that we would know that we should be also. We ordered hastily. Lest you think that this was a "Madge" sort of older diner-style waitress who is the ultimate professional and would brook no nonsense as part of the Bette's Diner shtick, be advised that our server was a very attractive female in her mid 20s, devoid of the de-rigueur Berkeley tattoos and piercings (as far as I could see), and reeking of attitude. Every movement screamed something along the lines of: "Like, kind of, well... ya know this job would be OK if I didn't have to be here so early, and if there weren't all these damned customers, and if they would just do what I want and stay out of the way..." Her attitude made me feel like I was back in Utah! Annoyed and completely humorless, she took our order and disappeared. The food arrived very quickly, delivered by the other waitress (who seemed much nicer), and we set about the business of the morning.


What we had with menu descriptions...

omelettes 3 eggs cooked in the French style (soft on the inside) served with home fries & sour cream, and choice of muffin, cream scone, light wheat, sourdough, or rye toast - fresh herb & cheese $8.95 (there were other choices)

(from the specials board) organic whole grain waffle with butter and maple syrup with two eggs any style $10.95

side order chicken-apple sausage $3.50

(from the specials board) fresh organic veggie frittata, with home fries & sour cream, and choice of muffin, cream scone, light wheat, sourdough, or rye toast $11.95

The omelet was creamy with specks of fresh green herbs and completely bland - a bit of a surprise. The waffle was on the small side, golden brown, and the room-temperature syrup was the real deal. The butter was in foil-wrapped pats and hard as a stone, as if fresh from the freezer. The taste was... OK. The turkey-apple sausage looked delicious and was completely tasteless - bland would have been a step up. The frittata was tiny, mildly rubbery, and also bland. If there had been Tabasco on the table, it might have redeemed some of the sorry breakfast, but salt and pepper were our only source of flavor. I had ordered sourdough with one entree and a blueberry scone with the other. Hold the home fries on both. The sourdough toast was the most flavorful part of the meal. The scone was dry, even for a scone, and remarkably unencumbered by blueberries. I wondered how old it was.

My partner had been out of coffee for some time, and the fellow in the booth facing me had been lunging at our very attractive and very quick waitress with his empty cup for 5-10 minutes to no avail. She was completely focused on the task of taking orders from tables to kitchen. No room for any other duties. I grabbed the empty cup from our table and walked to the rear of the restaurant where the regular tables were. The coffee pot was sitting on a warmer, so I grabbed it to fill the cup. "Stop that right now!" yelled our waitress, charging at me and suddenly aware of my existence. "I was just trying to help," was my reply with a smile. "Put that down. I will bring you coffee at your table." I shrugged and complied, being in no mood for a fight. A few minutes later she delivered, still ignoring the man at the next booth who mumbled and thrust his cup at her again. I grabbed her free hand and pointed out the unfortunate victim of her inattention. She walked over, and upon finding that he wanted decaf when she had only regular, gave him the most disdainful eye roll I have ever witnessed. That certainly showed HIM. That second cup of coffee, far too late, was the last coffee either of us would see that day. I had to wonder what she did when the place was actually busy?

All in all the meal was edible and expensive. With coffee and taxes the bill was $39.26, prompting me to begrudgingly leave $3 cash tip. To the waitress, should you read this, here's an additional tip: "Good looks will only excuse your bad attitude for a few years. After that you're screwed." At least the experience was quick. We were back in the car and on our way before 9AM, never to return, leaving a long-ish line of people begging to spend their hard-earned cash for some abuse. It certainly could not have been for the food. Bette's was the sort of place who had been told for so long how great they were - to the point that they actually believed it. And now they treat diners as interlopers to be fleeced and barely tolerated. They must be thankful that Berkeley houses so many wealthy masochists upon which to prey.

Perhaps you are thinking that my expectations are too high for simple breakfast fare. I would submit as evidence to the contrary the breakfast we'd had at First Awakenings in Monterey a few days earlier, and sadly over two hours away from Berkeley.

Bette's Oceanview Diner - NOT RECOMMENDED unless you have too much money, too much time, and prefer to be treated rudely for mediocre fare

Highs: Clean
Lows: Incompetent and rude service, obscene prices for nothing special on the plate, obsessed with their own reputation

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Firefly - San Francisco, California


Firefly
4288 24th Street (Noe Valley)
San Francisco, CA
(415) 821-7652

www.fireflyrestaurant.com

Date of Visit: Sunday, March 8, 2009
Time: Dinner - 8:45 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 2

Ratings
Food Quality: 9
Service: 6
Ambiance: 8



Firefly is tucked away in the semi-hidden Noe Valley neighborhood. Pronounced "NO-eee," it's sandwiched between the Castro and Twin Peaks. It's not easy to find the neighborhood or the restaurant, and it's nearly impossible to park there, even on a Sunday night. On a Friday or Saturday? Fuggedaboudit if you don't have a reservation, and you'll need to park somewhere else and take a cab. Be sure to remember where you parked! Because of these factors, Firefly's model is for repeat business fed primarily by the upscale nearby residents who can and will walk there, and other locals with enough disposable income to use taxis. Two things are mandatory for repeat business - high quality product and frequent changes in menu. Firefly does not disappoint. Run since its inception by Brad Levy, a St. Louis native, and his wife Veva Edelson, Firefly is a long-lasting, friendly place after which many others have been modeled. The cuisine is difficult to capture, perhaps "healthy fusion comfort food" comes close. It has a single Mobil star, begrudgingly granted by the Texan editors who found it too weird. Perhaps they were refused ketchup or barbecue sauce? It has a very respectable 25 rating on Zagat, putting it in the company of Range and Delfina. San Francisco is full of small, quirky bistro-style restaurants with fluid, seasonal menus. Few survive, and Firefly is a welcome exception at 17.5 years and counting...

Being Irish has its perks, and I invoked my genetic right to be lucky, immediately finding the only parking place within a mile, only half a block up the very steep hill from the restaurant. We strolled in at 8PM, the height of dinner rush-hour, even on a Sunday. I knew they were open until at least 10, so I figured we could get wait-listed for a late dinner. The hostess seemed almost afraid to ask us to wait 45 minutes, but I accepted her offer happily. We walked two blocks down the hill and had a beer at Peak's, a local dive bar on Castro Street. It was basically empty, with only two other couples, and it reeked of smoke. We alternated between World Baseball Championship games on the TV and watching a couple of locals shoot pool badly.

We returned at 8:40 and were seated immediately in the lower of two dining rooms. The hill is so steep that there is a six foot difference between the floor levels of the two rooms. The interior place is airy and quiet, due to the innovative draped fabric concealing the industrial ceiling. Whimsical art works inspired by kindergarten projects, or perhaps even done by children, adorn the walls at random heights, though there was one graffiti-inspired Che Guevara themed painting that appealed to me.

We declined the tap water in favor of San Pellegrino, and the busboy brought an excellent sourdough with a curried chickpea spread - a welcome and healthful change from butter or oil. They have a "Prix Fix" menu Sunday through Thursday with any appetizer, entree, and dessert for $35, saving you about $5-6 per person. We decided to go for it, and having chosen beef and fish, we asked the waiter for a wine recommendation. He chose an safe and unremarkable Australian Petit Syrah for about $35. I get the sense that if we were regulars, he would have gotten to know us and our tastes. Then the recommendation might have been more aggressive. The wine was OK, as was the service. He answered questions thoughtfully, but seemed a bit distant - a real contrast with the vibe of the room.


What we had with menu descriptions...

Butter Lettuce Salad with Shaved Radishes, Meyer Lemon, Grilled Croutons and Roasted Garlic–Manchego Dressing 9.00

Rio Star Grapefruit and Avocado Salad with Mâche, Tarragon, Macadamia Nuts and Black Pepper Crème Fraîche 9.00

Braised Corvina Seabass with Black Trumpet Mushroom–Green Garlic Crust, Sautéed Belgian Endive and Roasted Turnips 23.00

Grilled Beef Sirloin with Griddled Garbanzo Cake, Cauliflower, Minted English Peas and Kalamata Olive Tapenade 24.00

Jasmine panna Cotta with Honey Poached Pears and Coconut Sesame Cookie 8.50

Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding Parfait with Fresh, Organic Berries and Cream 8.50


Though we both ordered variants of our standard fare, one menu item caught our attention: "The Fried Chicken of Your Dreams with Mashed Potatoes & Gravy, Peas & Carrots and a Damn Fine Buttermilk Biscuit 20.00" As we wondered aloud what that might be like, the waiter carried a fresh example (pictured here) to a neighboring table. I suspect it is every bit as good as it looks. Our entrees arrived in short order. My partner was having fish for the fourth evening in succession, and she promptly pronounced the Firefly Sea Bass as the best of the four. I was skeptical, even after trying it, but then I tucked into the beef. Sirloin is a pretty flavorful cut, and this example competed nicely with the lamb dish at the Range on the previous night. Salads and sides were fresh, organic, and delicious as well. Desserts and coffee made a nice nightcap on the evening.

I suppose if we lived there we could afford to eat there regularly, and I suspect that we would indeed. Surfing for reviews shows raves for the service with a few less than ecstatic aberrations. Our guy was competent and professional, but far from warm or friendly. I'd bet this was not the norm for the place. And to be fair to the Mobil Guide guys, the place IS weird. And then again the whole city is weird, often in a good way. From the Firefly website I have embedded a video that shows what it's like to dine there, or almost anywhere in San Francisco outside of the 5 star places or financial district. It's... different. Not good or bad necessarily, but always entertaining!





Firefly - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED for excellent, organic meats and vegetables prepared with Northern California flair in a whimsical environment. Their menu statement: "All Our Meat Comes From Happy, Never Mad, Drug Free Animals; no Hormones, Antibiotics or Crack Cocaine"

Highs: Comfortable neighborhood feel, whimsical practicality, imaginative preparation of high quality ingredients
Lows: Parking, not being immediately local

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Ajanta - Berkeley, California


Ajanta
1888 Solano Avenue
Berkeley, CA
(510) 526-4373

www.ajantarestaurant.com

Date of Visit: Sunday, March 8, 2009
Time: Lunch - 1:00 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 2

Ratings
Food Quality: 9
Service: 7
Ambiance: 8



I have not had tremendous exposure to the vast variety of foods from the subcontinent of India. So if one is to experiment, one should start with the best! Hidden behind an unassuming storefront on Berkeley's Solano Avenue you can find the top-rated Indian cuisine restaurant in Northern California. Named for the Buddhist Ajanta caves in India and decorated with murals inspired by the cave paintings, Ajanta is near the top of the "Solano Avenue Stroll," and we had a very enjoyable walk from the car to the restaurant. This walk is necessitated by the total absence of parking except for on-street and the myriad of regulations for which Berkeley is so famous. Even on a Sunday afternoon parking was scarce, but the 5 block trek enabled us to absorb the picture-perfect weather. Once inside, a feeling of calm descended upon us, induced by the color scheme and decor of the serene dining area. They were not busy at all, with only three or four of the 20 tables filled, and we were greeted happily and seated promptly. We asked for two bottles of generic still water to sip while perusing the lunch menu. Example dishes from several regions (Chennai, Hyderabad, Kerala, Lucknow, Mumbai, Punjab, Sind, Uttar Pradesh) are randomly distributed throughout, making for dining combinations that would be nearly impossible in India outside of a major city. While the menu was not overly large, we took our time to get a good sampling of all they had to offer.



What we had with menu descriptions...

PAPADAM : Indian lentil wafers, served with mint-cilantro sauce (2 per order) $ 2.50

DAAL SOUP: A lentil soup, made with mung beans $ 4.50 (pictured at right)

Lunches are served with Basmati rice and a side dish of spinach and potatoes (with non-veg lunches) or chickpeas (with veg lunches) . Dishes can be ordered very mild, mild/low medium, medium, high medium or hot.

MILONI SABZI: Mixed vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, blue lake beans) cooked in a sauce made with pureed spinach, onions, garlic, coconut milk, cashews, and spices (Hyderabad) (Vegan) $ 7.00

PUDINA GOSHT: Boneless cubed Colorado lamb cooked in a sauce made with onions, tomatoes, ginger, coriander, turmeric, cumin, paprika, lemon juice and mint (Uttar Pradesh) $ 10.00

NAAN: Leavened dough bread cooked in tandoor oven $ 1.75

TAJ MAHAL BEER, Large (22 oz.) $ 6.00

CARDAMON GELATO $ 5.00

We opened with Taj Mahal beers, size large. This cool, refreshing beer is not nearly as light as the more well-known Kingfisher. It provided a malty counterpoint to the complex spice in the dishes, though the light, hoppy alternatives might have been better choices. For starters we ordered daal soup and a side of "Papadam." Most frequently spelled "poppadom," there appear to be many acceptable variant spellings (papadam, papaddam, papadom, papadum, papodam, papodum, popadam, popadom, poppadam, poppadum, poppodam, puppadum, puppodam, puppodum). However you choose to spell it, these tasty wafers are what potato chips can only wish to be - light, crunchy, complex, and delicious - these delicacies are prepared with over a dozen ingredients in labor intensive fashion and dried for several days before being grilled or fried. If Ajanta's version ever came near hot oil, it was impossible to tell - they were airy and delicate with no hint of oil or grease. Adding the freshly prepared herb sauce elevated the snack to a higher level. Having skipped breakfast, we opted for a second order. These chips are both delicious and fun - see the end of this post for a PacMan photo I grabbed from the Internet for an example!

The daal soup was as tasty as it was beautiful. Thick but not creamy, redolent of spice and fresh, organic legumes, it was the perfect stage-setter for the entrees to come. Mung beans may sound like something strange, but keep in mind that most bean sprouts you find in salad bars or elsewhere in the USA are mung bean sprouts. These legumes added bright yellow color along with great flavor and complexity to the bean texture of the lentils.

My dining companion ordered the lamb (gosht) with medium spice and I asked for my vegetarian meloni sabsi combo (pictured at right) hot. The waiter discreetly sought to find if I meant hot by American standards or a more global scale. Both diners assured him that I wanted the real deal. When the serving dishes arrived, all together, we prepared our plates with the aromatic rice and ladled portions of each entree onto separate areas. The lamb dish was bright, cheerful, and permeated with the essence of the meat. The melange of spices used added character without overpowering. All in all it was excellent. I tucked into the fresh vegetable dish, which was at once warm, fragrant, spicy, and mildly sweet. It was also very hot from a spice standpoint, bringing me to the edge of perspiration. A perfect execution.

My dining partner began fanning herself. "It's very spicy!" she proclaimed, indicating the lamb. I assured her that the lamb was not hot, and that if she thought so, she should avoid the veggie dish altogether. Instantly a waiter appeared from thin air, having heard me say "not hot." "We can make this hotter!" he assured me. "It will only take thirty seconds." I explained that both dishes were adequately spiced, but he repeated his offer. I suppose he had (quite accurately) targeted my dish for somewhere between an American and Indian hotness scale and was concerned I would need more. I don't mind my taste buds being zapped, but I don't need to break out into a sweat to enjoy it - so I declined his offer.

The side of fresh, plain Naan made a handy tool for pushing the food onto the fork, and was very tasty in its own right. Being famished and delighted with the meal, we eliminated all traces of every dish. I asked the waiter for some guidance with the desserts. Indian drinks and desserts can be extremely sweet, and I was hoping to avoid a sugar rush. He recommended the cardamon (aka cardamom) gelato, and it was a perfect capstone. Cool and fragrant, the cardamom spice is somewhere between cinnamon and clove. In the ice cream concoction it came to life, leaving my mouth with a cool, pleasant taste that lasted well into our walk down the Solano Stroll.

To be fair, if you look at my food scale, any properly prepared Indian food would rate a 7 or 8. Ajanta took it to the next level with their perfect application of dozens of spices to the fresh, organic ingredients. Each dish was a vibrant splash of color on the plate and a work of art on the palate - a solid 9 on the Ego scale.

Ajanta - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED for a top-notch Indian cuisine from several regions

Highs: Quiet and relaxed room, flavorful food, eager service, reasonable prices, free range hormone and antibiotic free meats
Lows: Unobtainable street parking

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Passionfish, Pacific Grove, California


Passionfish
701 Lighthouse Ave
Pacific Grove, CA 93950
(831) 655-3311

www.passionfish.net
Date of Visit: Friday, March 6, 2009
Time: Dinner - 10:00 PM
Server: Holly
Number of Diners: 4

Ratings
Food Quality: 8
Service: 7
Ambiance: 7.5*

*We were there very late, just before closing, and there was one large, very drunk, VERY noisy table full of people - to the extent that the waitress had to pause for gaps of comparative quiet to talk to our table. The one diner (hopefully) sober enough to drive did apologize halfheartedly on their way out.

Having been in a meeting until 9:30 PM we needed to find a decent restaurant that was open. Fortunately Passionfish in Pacific Grove was open until 10. A semi-quick 15 minute drive from Carmel and we were there, 10 minutes before closing time. The hostess/waitress, Holly, assured us our party of 4 were welcome. There was one large table with about 10 folks noisily finishing their desserts and wines, and the rest of the small room was empty. We were promptly seated and drinking San Pellegrino ($3.50). Holly brought menus and informed us the specials were all on the card, which changes frequently. I perused the wine list, shocked at the prices. I asked Holly, and she told us that Passionfish charges retail (i.e. winery list price) for every wine. And the selection was amazing. Check it out by downloading the pdf from their wine list page. I was drawn to the Dashe Cellars L’ Enfant Terrible, Potter Valley ’07 for $30. It was listed as an "Un-Zinfandel." Holly told me the "Terrible Child" was a very unique Zin that was light and would not overpower the fish. I was intrigued and ordered it, only to discover they had run out. We settled on the Gunn, New Zealand ’07 Unoaked Chardonnay for $20, and it was a rare treat for two of our party. They had never had a chardonnay that tasted like grapes instead of just vanilla and oak. It was so good (and so reasonable) that we had two bottles over the course of the evening.

We all ordered salads to start. Fish was the reason for being there, and our party of four chose one Sturgeon, one Sablefish, and two wanted Mahi-mahi. We also had San Pellegrino ($3.50) with the wine. The long day called for desserts for all and coffee for some. It was quite a feast, so without further ado...


What we had with menu descriptions...

Butter lettuce garden salad with mixed organic greens $8

Shredded Brussels sprout salad with Kurobuta ham and mustard dressing $8

Baked gorgonzola, golden chutney, candied pecans & curried butter lettuce $10

‘Quinault’ Sablefish crusted with pepper/wasabi slaw/ginger vinaigrette (pictured at left) $22

Sturgeon/coconut rice/zucchini fritters/red curry vinaigrette $23

Hand lined Mahi (pictured at right)/black pepper-rum sauce/cucumber salad/green onion rice $23

Fresh local berry ice cream $6

Mud Pie $6

Panna cotta $6

Creme brulee $6


As is the norm for the area, the salads are amazing - due to the readily available, fresh, local produce from nearby fields. Passionfish goes the extra mile with extra adornments (cheese, dried fruits, nuts, radishes, onions, etc.) and homemade dressings. All of the excellent salads disappeared quickly. One standout was the Brussels sprout salad. Warm and tender, the shredded sprouts blended nicely with the grainy mustard vinegarette to form the best cole slaw in the universe. The very rare an expensive Kurobuta ham made a wonderful accent.

The Sablefish was excellent - properly cooked with an herb crust, appropriately sauced, with interesting sides. The fish was tender, flaky and delicate. And the "slaw" was slivered Watsonville apples in a slightly spicy wasabe slaw dressing. I loved it, though I was the only one at the table who did.

The Mahi-Mahi must have been good as well, since both portions disappeared rapidly, before I had a chance to taste them. It was generously doused in a chopped tomato relish, which I might have thought would be overwhelming, but the diners had no complaints.

The Sturgeon (pictured at left) was the weakest of the three, moist and nearly overcooked, slightly mushy. Compared to the other dishes, even the colors were muted. Still it was quite passable, and the rice and fresh vegetables carried the day for this entree.

The coffee was passable, and the desserts were fresh and generous. The Mud pie was a tower of death by chocolate, offset with a delicious homemade vanilla ice cream. The other desserts were acceptable executions of the standards.

Locally there is an informal rivalry between Passionfish and Fish House. For creatively prepared fish and unusual, tasty side dishes, Passionfish is the clear choice. For plain, unadorned, fresh fish, the edge goes to Fish House. Throw in the retail priced wine and plethora of choices, and the tiebreaker goes to Passionfish. One note - all fish at Fish House is wild caught. Passionfish is vocal about sustainable resources, so most of their fish is farmed - tasty, but potentially less healthful than the wild versions.


Passionfish - RECOMMENDED for a fresh, fancy-preparation fish dishes and outstanding wine values

Highs: Wine selection and retail pricing, fresh fish fancy style
Lows: Room can be murderously noisy when full, aggressive with food politics

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Range - San Francisco, California


Range
842 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 282-8283

www.rangesf.com

Date of Visit: Saturday, March 7, 2009
Time: Dinner - 8:00 PM
Server: Jonathon S.
Number of Diners: 2

Ratings
Food Quality: 9
Service: 9
Ambiance: 7.5*

*To be fair, the ambiance is not quite comfortable and not at all quiet, but the place is very cool - in a good way.

And now for something completely different. San Francisco is not New York City, and despite the chip on the shoulder of some, that's a good thing. It's a microcosm of much that is good (and a little that isn't) about NYC. Sure, you can't get a decent bagel at 3AM within walking distance of most places in San Francisco, but who really gives a damn about that? If your answer is, "Anybody that IS anybody," please delete this blog from your list of things to read in order to save time for early morning bagel munching! But I digress... This blog entry is about great food in a fun city.

Our long weekend's itinerary had space in it for only two restaurants in "the City." We chose Range in the Mission District for our first evening. This area used to be unsafe after dark, but prices in blighted areas have attracted entrepreneurs, and the neighborhood has improved dramatically. While we hoped to arrive for an early dinner (which should have been easy even without reservations) our Saturday had not progressed as expected, having delayed us in Carmel past noon. A late lunch at In-N-Out and an afternoon visit with a friend in Morgan Hill, an aborted attempt at wine tasting at Guglielmo (doing quite well despite the economy), and a pre-dinner workout in the hotel fitness center had delayed our arrival into San Francisco until the prime time dinner hour. We were on a casual schedule, so entertaining ourselves for a couple of hours while awaiting a slot for a 10PM dinner was an acceptable workaround. One of the reasons I'd selected the place was that they were open late - until 11PM or later. We decided to park near Range to find nearby random sources of self-amusement. Luck of the Irish was in full force, and we found free street parking half a block from the place without hassle or incident. We walked past the front door at two minutes before 8PM, peak of dinner rush hour. The place was crowded as expected, but no line out the door or anything. I started to continue on, but my companion suggested checking inside just to see what was up.

We ventured in. The restaurant is very stylish - granite bar, stainless steel tables and chairs, black lacquered woods, glass shelves with chrome brackets, and retro fixtures and appliances. The cool color scheme added to the hip-cool ambiance. The place was noisy inside, fully of happy patrons, and a cheerful hostess greeted me. I led with my best foot forward, "I know you're jammed and we don't have reservations. Since you're open pretty late, can you tell me a good time to come back for a shot at a late dinner?" She smiled and told me that the dining room was pretty full for the evening, and that she had a waiting list for bar table seating. She added, "If you're hungry, you can try to grab a bar seat as they open up, but I don't feel that for you." I laughed and asked, "You're not FEELING it for me? How do you feel about the table wait list?" She quickly explained, "No, no - I don't FIELD that for you. But since you ask, I'm not FEELING it either, at least not any time soon." I assured her that we were not in a hurry, and asked to be added to the wait list. She apologized that it might be as much as 45 minutes as I gave her my cell phone number. I asked, "Dinner's worth the wait, isn't it?" and she assured me it was indeed. I thanked her, and we continued our stroll. I commented that 45 minutes was nothing - to which my partner fully agreed. We found an Irish pub across the street and used their restroom, after which we examined the appetizer menu and beers on tap. We had just decided to walk around a couple of blocks and return here for a beer when the cell phone rang. It was my friendly hostess, Amanda at Range, and she said there was a table open RIGHT NOW if we were interested. I assured her that we were, and by 8:10 PM we were seated at a high-top for two (pictured here) with a liter of San Pellegrino ($6) being poured for us. Whether it was Irish charm, Irish luck, or both, it was awesome - take THAT, New-Age Guy!

We sat at the last table toward the back of the bar area, at the opening of the hallway to the main dining rooms with its rack of coat hooks on the wall - all full. The hostess who seated us pointed out the coat hooks on the wall under the table, a welcome addition for our jackets. There was a tiny sideboard on the opposite wall of the hallway, and people congregated there while waiting to pounce on bar seating. My seat put me next to them and in the path of every server and bus-person dashing between the bar and the dining areas. I took it all in stride (as did the staff), and we became familiar with each other through the next 90 minutes of bumping and dodging each other. I was happy for the lightning quick seating and opportunity to sample the cuisine, as well as the new options of late night dessert that were now open to us, so I had no complaints. Range was opened in 2005 by Phil and Cameron West, a husband-and-wife team. Phil brings back-of-house experience from Bacar's kitchen and Cameron has front-of-house covered from her days at Delfina. It is worthwhile to note that Range already has a Michelin Star, putting it in company with some of the area's greatest eateries, such as Berkeley's Chez Panisse, The Dining Room at Ritz Carlton San Francisco, and Bouchon in Napa Valley.

Seated with a great view of the bar we were able to take in all the activity there. The center of the back-bar was dominated by an authentic, 60s-vintage, lighted, multi-tiered, glass-front refrigerator with rotating shelves - half with bottled beer and half with tall glasses. It turns out that this was a blood bank fridge in its former life - very cool and well suited to its new duties. The bartenders were quite busy making elaborate concoctions of which juice squeezed out of an enormous bowl of fresh fruits was the prime ingredient. A peek at the cocktail menu plus the labor input we were observing proved that these drinks might actually be worth the $9.50 price tag. I told Jonathon, our waiter, that we were starting with some "frou-frou" drinks. I was drawn to the Third Rail, but ultimately chose the Blood Bank. My companion picked a Vin de Pamplemousse, which turned out to be deliciously tart with a hint of mild spice. The Blood Bank was at once spicy, fruity, sweet, and tart - absolutely worthwhile. Someone has taken great pains to develop interesting concoctions with fresh and exotic fruits and liquors. There being no specials to contemplate, we consulted with Jonathan about the merits of menu choices and wine pairings. He advised us efficiently and impartially, asking good questions, and making specific recommendations. Since I settled on lamb and my companion wanted fish, he recommended the 2006 Jean-Paul Thevenet "Vielles Vignes" Morgon Beaujolais for $49, heading off my cocked eyebrow with assurances that it was in no way a Noveau Beaujolais. He was spot on - the wine had a light ruby color with mild raisin an cranberry aromas. It's mouth feel was smooth balanced with flavors of tart cranberry and the dark cassis. No tannin at all, but rich and mildly fruity - complementary to the lamb and not overpowering to the fish. It even added a little pop to the excellent appetizers.


What we had with menu descriptions...
(the menu is also very cool, including the deliberate failure to capitalize words)

Vin de Pamplemousse - square one vodka, arneis, grapefruit, vanilla, lemon 9.50

Blood Bank - gosling’s black rum, walnut orgeat, blood orange, lime 9.50

purée of asparagus soup with sour cream and breadcrumbs 8.00

parsnip purée with a poached farm egg and black truffle butter 14.00

petrale sole with shaved fennel, fingerling potatoes and a grain mustard sauce 24.00

pan roasted lamb sirloin with butter beans, radicchio di verona and lucques olive tapenade 24.00

cheese plate: crottin de champcol- pasteurized french goat’s milk cheese with housemade panforte 8.50


While the food was amazing, I must lead off with a word about the service. Amanda, the reservation hostess, the seating hostess, Jonathan our waiter, the bartenders, the bar waitress, and numerous bus-persons attended to our every need before it even became a thought or question. Glasses were filled and refilled, bottles and dishes brought and removed, crumbs swept, napkins folded, every nuance attended seamlessly by the entire team. There was no assignment of duties or egos - any passing employee who saw something that might need doing simply did it in passing, and would have done so invisibly had I not needed to bump and dodge most of them frequently due to my seating spot - a fact that frankly added to the sport of the evening. The front of house team was seamless and perfect. This was a special treat for denizens of Utah, where service with a scowl is an upgrade in many places, even high-end ones. Let's discuss each plate in turn:

Asparagus soup - Fresh pureed and warmed rather than cooked - it was like an explosion of green and cream in the mouth. The dairy added to the mouth feel and creaminess while the bread crumbs provided some delicate crunch. I felt my vitamin counts go up as my palate was teased with the freshness of it all.

Poached farm egg - The fact that many chefs are discovering anew some old world peasant foods with modern preparation techniques is a boon to society. The parsnip puree was something better than mashed potatoes could hope to be, providing a lovely cushion for the perfectly poached, fresh, organic egg. Truffle butter added a hint of earth to the dish, which was a blend of solid and liquid textures to delight the senses. Confessions of an egg lover - I could eat one of these every day for the rest of my life.

Petrale sole - As fresh as it cold Pacific nearby, it was delicate and flaky. I'm no fan of fennel, but the conservative application plus the grainy mustard contributed an earthy background that played into the fingers of the Beaujolais masterfully. A solid home run.

Lamb sirloin - The weakest of the players by the thinnest of margins, it was still excellent, fork tender, beautifully bold in flavor, complemented adequately with olive, arugula and beans. The latter were an experience all on their own, clearly fresh, local, and organic. I had no complaints at all, and the lamb did pop a little with the Beaujolais. I would order it again.

Cheese plate - The three cheeses were substantially different and all delicious. My companion had asked for regular coffee to accompany hers, while I had elected to stick with the wine. I was shocked when the coffee had not appeared within thirty seconds after the cheese, and quickly caught Jonathan's eye. Busy as he was, he was never more than 60 seconds out of range, nor too distracted to observe if he was being sought after by any patron. I simply asked, "Coffee?" and the man visibly winced. I know the look - it's the expression of someone who NEVER makes mistakes or forgets anything remembering that something was overlooked. I waved off his apology with a smile, and the coffee with cream and sugars appeared on the table within 30 seconds, and never appeared on the check at all.

This was as close to a perfect dining experience as I have had in two years.

We followed our excellent dinner and cheese course with something that would have been unthinkable ten years ago - a stroll around San Francisco's Mission District at 9:30 PM. The area is on the cusp of rediscovery, sporting an odd mix of bombed-out crack houses, boarded-up movie theaters, creepy discount and used-item stores, seedy liquor stores, and Popeye's Chicken equally peppered with cool clubs, upscale restaurants, many trendy retro decor and clothing stores, and a few Central American banks. With the rough economy, it's difficult to guess which direction the area will take - progression or regression. The street was populated with young, trendy club-hounds, couples of all types seeking food, drink, or other conventional entertainment, and a few (clearly well-fed) homeless types - all non-aggressive. On Mission Street itself we stumbled across a place called Foreign Cinema, at first glance an art film theater, but actually a restaurant that shows films. Being a fan of both, I had to check it out. Another very cool place, the entrance appeared to be a long hallway to the theater, but was actually an enclosed area between two buildings, the back rooms of which had been converted to the restaurant's use. At the farthest reaches is an open courtyard, partially roofed and canopied, with a movie playing against the whitewashed back of the building on the next block. Very cool, very secure, and completely fascinating. We did not have a chance to eat there, but it looked like a winner based on observation of the diners and the food on their tables. You can check out a good review of the space and brunch on Hass's excellent NSAaM blog on Foreign Cinema and an adequate review of the Foreign Cinema's food on Foodnut's ad-cluttered blog. I noted they were showing PI, an excellent black and white film by Darren Aronofsky that won a Director's Award at Sundance in 1998 (before they became completely full of themselves and useless). Since no sound could be heard, I asked the very friendly hostesses if it were even possible. They laughed and pointed out the obvious fact that the film was more for atmosphere than watching, and added that a few of the tables had drive-in type speakers for those who wanted to listen. An interesting concept, apparently well-executed and "cool." We may have to try it on our next visit to the area.

Though I rarely recommend other reviewers, Haas also likes Range and lists it as a favorite - a rare accolade from him. I did not read his review until after my experience, and it's very informative. Check it out: Haas on Range (unsubtle pun intended)

Range - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED for a worthy, inventive meals, excellent service, and unusual cocktails - all at reasonable prices

Highs: Cool place, people, and patrons; ever-changing, inventive food; top quality ingredients; stellar service; creative and refreshing cocktails
Lows: None, but you may get the worst table in the house if you don't reserve (at 8PM on a Saturday)

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Cafe Cruz - Soquel, California


Cafe Cruz
2621 41st Avenue
Soquel, CA
(831) 476-3801

www.cafecruz.com

Date of Visit: Friday, March 6, 2009
Time: Lunch - 1:00 PM
Server: Lisa
Number of Diners: 2

Ratings
Food Quality: 8
Service: 8*
Ambiance: 7

*Service is an 8 with elements of 5 for occasional visitors and 10 with elements of 5 for regulars - the place is so overwhelmingly friendly that frequent long gaps between server visits are easily overlooked, but it would be inaccurate not to mention them.

Time for an Ego confession before the review. This is my favorite restaurant in the United States, period. That said, it is far from the best restaurant in the U.S. How can it be my favorite if not the best? It's a lot of little things - fresh, local, often organic meats, produce, and the like. Comfortable, bustling atmosphere, unpretentious on every level. Consistently good (not great) food - American standards with a Northern California flair. Decent wine list, good beers on tap, and always friendly. When I lived in the area we would hit this restaurant nearly monthly - not enough to be called regulars, but as often as we could for a decent meal. It was always worth the 40 minute drive each way from Gilroy. Special occasions? Not here. We could go to San Francisco or other "special" places. Cafe Cruz provided us with reliable and consistent high-quality, food, beer, and wine at reasonable prices in a comfortable atmosphere. Any time I visit the area, this place is at the top of the list for "must-do" dining. Our schedule on this trip only permitted one visit for lunch, and it was like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. It just felt - easy. You can always count on Cafe Cruz to take great ingredients and combine them competently without damage.

Cafe Cruz is located in Soquel, which is just south of Santa Cruz. It's definitely a locals-only place, not near the water for tourists or downtown for the college and "cool" crowds. It's in an old building across the street from the local Super K-Mart. Parking is non-existent, half shared with a nameless Chinese place behind the building. The structure itself is a labyrinth of small dining areas, a bar and adjacent table seating, a featured gas-fired rotisserie with rotating spitted chickens and other fowl, an outdoor open-air patio, and a heated, covered outdoor courtyard. I have never counted, but I'd speculate there are at least 50 tables scattered about the place. The bar is small, noisy, and always jammed wall to wall with happy locals chattering about the workday while catching whatever game is on TV. Tables are set simply with tablecloths covered by white butcher paper. And it has an all-copper bar and showplace kitchen area with 4 seats, installed before such things were cool or commonplace. One or more of the chefs nearly always will ask about your meal when you walk past to visit the restroom or exit the front door.

Visiting on a Friday later in the lunch period, the main dining rooms were full, and the bar tables seemed overrun by people with small children, so we gladly accepted covered courtyard seating under the heaters. There was a large table set, and we took one of the five 2-person tables next to it. A couple with a (very sick) baby were behind us, and another couple a few tables down. The large table slowly filled with eight or nine women and one man. "Who invited HIM?" I asked softly, eliciting a giggle from my dining companion. We were pleased to see our server was Lisa (pictured here in a circa 2000 photo and unchanged today), who had been with the restaurant since opening, and had served us many times in the past. There was no reason for her to remember us, and she did not, but still greeted us warmly and treated us like long lost friends - the normal atmosphere for the place. I believe it was Lisa who told us many years ago that one of the desserts (the lemon bar) was prepared by one of the waitstaff and brought with her to work fresh daily. They discontinued the practice later, outsourcing to a local bakery, but it's that kind of place - where anyone would pitch in to make it successful.

We ordered our standard San Pellegrino liter ($4.25) and heard the specials. Learning that they had Seabright Brewery's Amber Ale on tap, we both ordered one of those as well - passing up Anchor Steam, Newcastle, Heinekin, Paulaner Hefeweizen, Guinness, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale also available on draft. I reminisced that Seabright, a local brewery in Santa Cruz, was one of our favorite post-beach hangouts in days past. The decent and affordable wine list (with 15 by the glass) also beckoned, offset by the fact of a 40 minute drive to Carmel for a meeting that had already started at 1PM. We had opted for the lunch and a late arrival at the meeting in order to work Cafe Cruz into the schedule! They had an interesting special of fresh ahi tuna organized somehow into a taco salad. It looked very tasty on the large table near us, but we were wanting lighter fare in smaller portions for our afternoon repast.

What we had with menu descriptions...

Happy Boy Farms Organic Baby Green Salad (Large) - Granny smith apples, crumbled Gorgonzola, glazed walnuts & raspberry vinaigrette $13.50

Organic Baby Green Salad (small) - balsamic vinaigrette or creamy Gorgonzola port dressing $6.50

Three Cheese Spinach & Artichoke Ravioli - roasted red bell pepper cream sauce $14.95

Each table is started with a sliced sourdough baguette served with herb-infused olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and fresh chopped garlic (prepared daily). The concoction makes a hot-spicy garlicky nectar readily absorbed by the excellent bread. Lisa brought us a second round of bread and garlic after taking our order. The salads were, as anticipated, prepared from fresh, local, organic greens. The Happy Boy salad was generous in size and perfect in presentation. The small salad really "popped" with the Gorgonzola port dressing. The pasta was also very good - warm, creamy, and redolent of fresh spinach and artichokes both procured from farms less than 20 miles away. The roasted bell pepper cream sauce was mild with a strong hint of sweetness. The hoppy Seabright ale made a great complement to the simple meal. It was a wonderful, albeit all too quick, homecoming for us.

We wanted to bring our friends back for dinner the very same evening, but the meeting in Carmel was scheduled to go until 9PM and likely to be later. I asked Lisa when closing time was for a Friday night. She went to check and reported that they planned to close around 10. I mentioned that we were hoping to bring a few friends back, but the schedule would be tight and late arrivals might not be welcomed. Lisa (without checking) assured me that if I called with a party of four or more at 9:30 for a 10PM arrival, they would without question stay open for us. Perhaps it's the rough economy, and perhaps it's also just that kind of a place. While we might ultimately have made it happen, the meeting was so exhausting that none felt up to the 80 minute round trip. So we all will have something to look forward to on our next visit.

Cafe Cruz - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED for a friendly and comfortable Northern California lunch or dinner experience if you are relaxed and unhurried - not recommended for the demanding, up-tight, or time-limited diner

Highs: Friendly environment, reasonable prices, reliable preparation, stellar ingredients - fresh meat, fish and pasta
Lows: Parking, occasional periods of absent service

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

First Awakenings - Pacific Grove, California



First Awakenings
125 Oceanview Boulevard
Pacific Grove, CA
(831) 372-1125

http://www.firstawakenings.net/

Date of Visit: Friday, March 6, 2009
Time: Breakfast - 8:30 AM
Server: N/A
Number of Diners: 2

Ratings
Food Quality: 7
Service: 6.5
Ambiance: 5


If you snoop around the web a bit, there is a very rare and clear consensus that the best breakfast in the Monterey area may be found at First Awakenings in Pacific Grove. This tiny, uber-wealthy community, called "P.G." by the locals, is where John Steinbeck lived while he wrote many famous works of fiction and non-fiction, including one about nearby Cannery Row. Often confused with Monterey, the town is sandwiched between the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Pebble Beach Golf Links. There are many fine restaurants and expensive Bed & Breakfast Inns located there, and it's a quiet place to hang out for locals looking for something upscale. It's a stunningly beautiful place - the image one brings to mind when thinking of Pebble Beach, so I decided that FA in PG would do for our breakfast this day. I was somewhat taken aback to discover the restaurant is located within the American Tin Cannery shops, a faux-restoration collection of designer label shops and other tourist traps. I decided to at least check it out before moving on to our second choice eatery. At this early hour on a Friday, everything in the mall was closed except this place, and it was packed to the rafters with locals - a very good sign indeed.

With the luck of the Irish we hit it just as several tables were departing, and we were seated immediately. It has about 20 small tables inside and a large patio outside, unused for breakfast even in the temperate PG late winter. The waitress brought coffee immediately and allowed me to use my own bottle of water, as they had only tap water available. We took quite some time perusing the extensive menu, which the waitress explained by pointing out real examples being consumed at neighboring tables. The crepes, skillets, pancakes, and huevos rancheros were well represented, with some pictured here. We opted for something more reserved to preserve room for at least one other meal that day!


What we had with menu descriptions...

Crêpeggs A thin, sweet crêpe combined with fluffy whipped egg. Served with homestyle potatoes and an English muffin.
Turkey Dill - Diced turkey, mushrooms, chopped spinach, onion and Monterey Jack cheese folded in our crêpegg. Topped with diced tomatoes, our award-winning hollandaise sauce and fresh dill 8.99

Our Omelettes We have devoted our lives to this art form. Served with homestyle potatoes and English muffin of course! If you like it hot, add jalapeños - 79¢
Veggie - Fresh seasonal vegetables, savory cheese, sour cream and chives 8.99

Vegetarian Sausage Links - Low-fat, low cholesterol 3.29

We both chose to pass on the home fries and their associated bulk and calories. The egg dishes and crepes were excellent, light, and fluffy as they should be. The veggies and fruits were fresh and delicious. Coffee was decent and plentiful, since a full pitcher of the stuff had been left on the table for our use. The veggie omelet had broccoli, spinach, onion, and chives. The turkey dill crepe was lightly seasoned with fresh dill and was both unusual and remarkable. The veggie sausage was passable, if a bit dry. Next time I might try the turkey version, available for the same price. We lingered over each bite, pausing only to dash out and feed the parking meters (which begin duty a 9AM). I even donated a quarter to feed the meter for a BMW K1100 motorcycle parked near me - my biker good deed for the morning!

First Awakenings - RECOMMENDED for a hearty and/or healthy breakfast - also open for lunch, sister location in downtown Salinas

Highs: Good ingredients, fresh food, casual upscale without pretense
Lows: Feeding parking meters from 9AM daily

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Fish House - Monterey, California


Monterey's Fish House
2114 Del Monte Avenue
Monterey, CA 93940
(831) 373-4647

No Website

Date of Visit: Thursday, March 5, 2009
Time: Early Dinner - 6:00 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 2

Ratings
Food Quality: 5.5
Service: 7
Ambiance: 5


In the interest of full disclosure, this is not my first visit to the Fish House, nor the second, or third. My previous visits number well into double-digit territory over the past 20 years. When we lived in the area (Gilroy), we probably ate here half a dozen times per year. So while I really wanted to love the place, the review is pretty neutral. Like the mole on Cindy Crawford's face, could it be the little flaws that give the Fish House its particular charm? For first-time visitors to the restaurant, we need to make clear which place is the subject of the review. The restaurant is a strictly locals-only type of place, called Monterey's Fish House, north of town, not close to anything but a bowling alley. It should NOT be confused with "Monterey Jack's Fish House and Sports Bar," an entirely different business located near Cannery Row, and one that caters to a primarily tourist crowd. What's the difference? Fish House is jam packed every night of the week with repeat-business locals. Monterey Jack's is jammed whenever the tourists are plentiful, with not a lot of repeat business needed. So the focus is very different, and clearly our Fish House has earned and sustained its loyal following.

The Fish House was a house at one time, but has been morphed into a tiny restaurant and grill for at least 25 years. It still feels like eating in someone's home, and it's run like a family business should be, with each and every employee from hostess to dishwashers greeting each customer like a family friend at every opportunity. Service is oddly impersonal despite the overt friendliness, perhaps because family needs no introductions. It's also by necessity, as the place is jammed to overfilling whenever they are open. It's also important to note that two things are a waste of time at the Fish House - reservations and the menu - the former because they never rush patrons despite the crowds, and they try to seat everyone that shows up somewhere if they can, reservations or not. The place opens at 5PM and closes when they start to run out of stuff, and reservations don't really guarantee you anything. The menu is nearly useless, as good as it is, because the fresh seafood is procured locally every day and varies based on the season, the catch, and the market prices. So the menu should be viewed as entertaining reading until a server comes and recites a dozen or more specials from memory.

All of this makes dining at the Fish House an exercise in patience and a journey into chaos. If you want prompt seating, fawning service, and a quiet meal with friends, this is NOT the place for you. While you may not be seated at a table with strangers, the tables are so tight that you are effectively together. We were seated at a table by the wall, about 6 inches from the next table with a single diner. When discussing the menu, it was natural (and welcome) for him to join in and discuss the finer points of what he had just finished eating. Shortly he paid his bill and left, to be replaced by a retired farmer from Hollister and his son-in-law. The older man had brought them there specifically for the barbecued oysters. Soon active conversation developed between us concerning the food, current events, and the younger man's plans to accompany a group of doctors to Central America to provide charitable medical services to indigent villages there, to be followed by a couple days of radical surfing. Only in California...

The raison d'etre for a trip to the Fish House is FRESH fish and shellfish, simply prepared, grilled over an oak fire. A few things are standard fare here: Cioppino, grilled baby octopus (when available), and barbecued oysters. Two of the three are pictured here (click on any pic in the blog for a larger version), and the oysters are indeed the stuff of legend. We are avoiding shellfish at the moment for health reasons, but have sampled all three in the past and can verify their excellence - for those who like to eat that sort of thing. If you have never tried barbecued oysters, this would be the place. They also have a selection raw on the half shell for traditionalists. Other "perpetual specials" include steamed clams or mussels and an amazing rack of lamb. The server's list of specials for that Thursday included a number of shellfish dishes and several fresh-caught fish.

What we had with descriptions...

Keep in mind that the menu is not the star here, and the specials are not written, so I have to go from memory for the dishes we ordered. Fresh fish was available oak grilled, pan cooked with veggies, blackened, or with a honey-walnut herb crust and white-wine/mushroom sauce. We decided on house salads, an antipasto platter, and two fresh fish choices.

1L bottle San Pellegrino $6

Mixed organic greens - house dressing $5.95

Antipasto Appetizer $7.95

(special) Fresh Ahi Tuna - blackened $22.95
accompanied by fresh vegetables and pasta marinara

(special) Fresh Mahi Mahi - with honey-walnut crust $22.95 (pictured at right)
accompanied by fresh vegetables and pasta marinara

Our server, whose name we never knew, was courteous and prompt, staring at the ceiling as he struggled to recite the specials at this early hour. He really never made eye contact with either of us, but his impersonal touch was more than offset by the busboy who came by every three to five minutes to refresh water, bread, wine, and to sweep away dishes and crumbs. We started with sourdough bread and butter to lead to the San Pellegrino and house salads. We had arrived a few hours earlier from Utah, and we were hungry. And we found that the salads were amazing. Not because of the variety or types of ingredients, but because of the freshness. Most of the salad greens in the Western US are grown in the Monterey Bay area and Salinas Valley. Everything on our plates was from less than 20 miles away and had been growing in a field a couple of days earlier. The difference is stunning. When we lived there, we became accustomed to it. Living in Utah, we are accustomed to week-old produce picked too early. Salads in this area should not be overlooked - they are on a different plane.

Thoroughly refreshed, I looked over the wine list, trying to guess which local, unknown vineyard would have that hidden gem. The waiter recommended Joullian Sauvignon Blanc ($30) from the Carmel Valley to my request for something dry. It was not at all dry, but went well with the fish. Having eaten here many times before, both of us decided to abandon our standard fare and branch out. Past visits opened with steamed mussels followed by fresh fish grilled on the open flame. Occasionally a rack of lamb. But this time we went with blackened tuna (on the enthusiastic recommendation of the single diner next to us) and fancy crusted and sauced mahi-mahi. They were quite frankly disappointing, and we should have known better. To take a perfect piece of fresh fish and "fancy it up" is something they do because locals insist on it, but it was a tragic waste - a needless dumbing down of good ingredients with superfluous extras. The wood-fired or pan-grilled choices are the only ones that should be considered for the fish, and next time we will remember that. The veggies were fresh and perfectly pan-tossed al dente, and the pasta was a tasty, if unnecessary side dish. We left a $20 tip for a $100 meal and waddled to our hotel to collapse for the night.

Locally there is an informal rivalry between Passionfish and Fish House. For creatively prepared fish and unusual, tasty side dishes, Passionfish is the clear choice. For plain, unadorned, fresh fish, the edge goes to Fish House. Throw in the retail priced wine and plethora of choices, and the tiebreaker goes to Passionfish. One note - all fish at Fish House is wild caught. Passionfish is vocal about sustainable resources, so most of their fish is farmed - tasty, but potentially less healthful than the wild versions.

Monterey's Fish House - RECOMMENDED for fresh, wild-caught fish or shellfish, simply prepared

Highs: Excellent fresh ingredients, intimate setting, friendly staff and patrons
Lows: Loud, chaotic, temptation to mess up perfect fish with fancy preparation

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Doolittle's Deli - Ogden, Utah


Doolittle's Deli
4282S 1650 West
Ogden, UT
(801) 627-4100

http://doolittlesdeli.com/

Date of Visit: Saturday, January 17, 2009
Time: Late Lunch - 2:30 PM
Server: N/A
Number of Diners: 1

Ratings
Food Quality: 6
Service: 3
Ambiance: 6


The Ogden Municipal Airport has been developing slowly into a decent location for businesses and associated support services. A couple of years ago a new terminal and fixed-base-operator area was opened on the south side of the airport. Located there is a decent restaurant, Rickenbacker's, and a decent deli, Doolittle's. This January afternoon I happened to be in the area in need of a lite lunch, so I decided to give Doolittle's a try. The deli is open from 7AM to 8PM Monday - Saturday, closed Sundays. There were a handful of folks lunching there, even at this odd hour on a non-business day. The setup is cafeteria style, where you order, pay, get your beverage, and seat yourself. Shortly after that someone runs your order out to your table. They have numbers to hand you for when it's busy, but not needed on this slow afternoon.

The interior is as nice as it can be for an industrial space. Bright, open, and airy with walls covered with pictures of airplanes and Jimmy Doolittle, the first man to fly coast to coast from Daytona to San Diego, and the man who led the first air raids on Tokyo in B-25s from more than 600 miles away on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. There are some very detailed large-scale models of a P-51, Spitfire, B-25, and B-29 suspended from the ceiling. Plenty of things for airplane lovers to look at, and a good thing with no view of anything out the windows except the parking area.

The young lady at the counter suggested a couple of sandwiches and a couple of calzones from the menu, when I asked what she thought was best. They all looked good, but I decided on a Thai chicken wrap and San Pellegrino. No beer or wine served, a Utah tradition! Total was $9.52. The wraps and sandwiches come with a pickle slice and choice of pasta salad, green salad, chips, or potato salad. A fresh baked cookie was also included, which I regretfully passed on - they did look good.

What I had with menu descriptions...

Thai Chicken Wrap $ 7.99…WARNING this contains peanuts
Whole grain tortilla, broiled chicken breast basted with our special Thai peanut sauce, sautéed portabella mushrooms, crisp spring greens, sprouts and gourmet mayo

The wrap was small, fresh, warm, and very tasty. The green side salad was small and had a sweet vinaigrette. The San Pellegrino made a nice complement. All in all a very decent meal, and a clean, quiet place.

Doolittle's Deli - RECOMMENDED for a quick breakfast, lunch, or early dinner

Highs: Good ingredients, fresh food, clean and attractive room
Lows: No beer or wine, prices slightly high

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Lugano - Salt Lake City, Utah


Lugano
3364 S 2300 East
Salt Lake City, UT
(801) 412-9994

http://www.luganorestaurant.com/

Date of Visit: Saturday, January 3, 2009
Time: Dinner - 7:00 PM
Server: Tanya L.
Number of Diners: 4

Ratings
Food Quality: 7
Service: 8
Ambiance: 7


In 2001 Chef Greg Neville opened this place away from the competitively-crowded Salt Lake City center. It received Best New Restaurant kudos that year, and has racked up awards every year since then. I have eaten Greg's food before, trucked across town and reheated on a kitchen stove (for 50 people!) and it was fantastic. Ever since I had been looking for an excuse to visit his restaurant. The website claims it's the best Italian restaurant in Salt Lake City - a bold claim that is somewhat suspect due to the presence of Cucina Toscana, but it is certainly the best Italian restaurant that's NOT in the center of Salt Lake City. It's received Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence for the past several years, and has Zagat Top 20 ratings as well, so one can expect good things. And it is conveniently located just south of Interstate 80, so it's easier to get to for out-of-towners than the city center. There is a bit of street parking and a modest lot (all free) behind the building that can accommodate most of the demand. Behind the lot is a ski rental shop and a few other outbuildings that Greg has acquired to make the Lugano "campus." The devastating economic times have (temporarily?) derailed his plans to open a breakfast/lunch place, so the rooms are now set for private dinner functions, culinary classes, and the like.

A need to get together with another couple provided the excuse to dine at Lugano. The main room is L-shaped and can seat maybe 75. Since others were involved I went forward with reservations - no problem at all for 7PM prime time just two days in advance. We arived right on time and were greeted and seated in less than five minutes, with an apology for not being quicker about it. The room was comfortable and almost, but not quite, crowded. The tables were all full, and a handful of folks were waiting hopefully for an opening. Our server did not introduce herself, but wore a large name tag with "Tanya" imprinted neatly. She made sure we had appropriate menus and tap water glasses filled, then left us to chat and peruse. At least 15 appealing appetizers were on the menu, and I noted two choices of wood-fired pizza (Margherita and Quattro Stagione) listed among the Entrees. The entire party greeted my suggestion of a Margherita pizza as a table appetizer, and Tanya overhearing as she approached the table, rushed to make it happen. Our companions had brought along a very nice Seghisio Old Vine Zinfandel 2006 vintage, which Tanya eagerly opened and poured for us (no corkage fee appeared on the check). With the fresh bread, butter and olive selection, the wine was young bold, and fruity. With the pizza it was an excellent complement. Our server described the daily specials, and at least one diner ended up changing a selection based on those. Lugano features a daily risotto, and this day's feature was pea and marscapone. Tanya also noted that the daily risotto could be substituted for the starch with any entree, and I elected to do just that. I also asked for San Pellegrino to avoid the chlorine in the tap water. They had another brand, temporarily sold out of sparkling, and still water was an adequate choice.

What we had with descriptions...

Appetizer - PIZZA MARGHERITA WITH FRESH MOZZARELLA, SAN MARZANO TOMATOES, BASIL & OREGANO 14.95

Salad - "BELL FARMS" ORGANIC MIXED FIELD GREENS, BLUE CHEESE CROSTINI & BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE 7.95

Entree - TAGLIATTELLE WITH WILD MUSHROOMS, PROSCUITTO "COTTO", WILTED ARUGULA, PINOT GRIGIO, TRUFFLE OIL & PORCINI CREAM SAUCE 16.95

Entree - SPAGHETTI WITH SHRIMP, MUSSELS, CLAMS, TODAY'S SPECIAL FISH, GARLIC, CHILI FLAKES, BASIL & TOMATO 18.95

Entree - Special - PUMPKIN AND MARSCAPONE RAVIOLI, FRESH VEGETABLE ASSORTMENT 17.95

Entree - GRILLED POUNDED CHICKEN BREAST, SAGE/LEMON MARINADE, PARMESAN MASHED POTATOES & RED WINE REDUCTION 18.95 (Substitute Daily Risotto for Potato)

Wine - Wishing Tree Unoaked Chardonnay 2004 (Western Australia) - $36

Dessert - Cappuccino - 4.75

Dessert - Tiramisu - 6.95

Dessert - Lavender Panna Cotta with Cat's Tongue Cookies and 12 year old Balsamic 6.95

Even though all pricing is a la carte, the prices are very reasonable, possibly due to the "suburban" location of the restaurant. The salads were fresh, organic, and very tasty. The pizza was very good as an appetizer, though some quibbles could be taken that an excellent tomato sauce was used instead of fresh tomatoes (though it is mid-winter, after all!), and there could have been a touch more fresh basil on it. The entrees were, for the most part, stunning. Fresh ingredients, lovingly prepared, and sauces cooked to perfection. Let's take each in turn... The tagliattelle was generous with the mushrooms and prosciutto taking front stage in the dish and the sauce application was discreet enough not to drown the whole thing. Even though she complained that the dish was "missing something" and "almost bland," our dainty dining friend left nothing on her plate save for a few drops of sauce. The ravioli special was sweet and creamy - a cross between ultralight cheese ravioli and pumpkin pie. While not to my taste, everyone else at the table raved about it. The chicken was moist and excellent, and the pea/marscapone risotto substitution was a delight.

Perhaps the only disappointment of the evening was the spaghetti. Easily the best looking of the entrees selected, the seafood was liberally doused in a red marinara MEAT sauce. The sauce by itself was bold, hearty, and seething with pork, lamb, and perhaps beef. Combining this sauce with mussels, clams, and shrimp was an odd choice. The delicate seafood was made messy to deal with removing shells, and the flavor was completely overwhelmed by the sauce. Meat-flavored clams, anyone? While the result could not have in any way been classified as bad, it was a strange method to add protein to the dish and wasted all the nuance of the flavors of the seafood. It also clashed with the diner's expectation of the dish, having been labeled as Seafood Spaghetti rather than Spaghetti with MEAT Sauce and seafood chucked in at the end. A couple of nice, New York style meatballs would have been more appropriate and more welcome. Though had that been the case, our diner would have selected something else. The fact that it was all eaten speaks to the quality of the dish, disappointments aside.

I am a big fan of unoaked Chardonnays, which taste of grapes rather than vanilla. Our Wishing Tree selection did not disappoint, and it made an excellent complement to everything except the surprising MEAT sauce. As is customary in Utah, paying $36 for a $10 bottle is generally acceptable, as it beats paying $175 for a $40 wine. Our practice of bringing along a $40 bottle that was not on the restaurant's extensive wine list is also an accepted norm. There were plenty of reasonably priced wines (for the area) listed to experiment with, but it's more sensible to experiment at retail than at restaurant prices! Our unoaked Chardonnay was a clear winner.

The service was excellent. Tanya worked several tables pretty much solo, with one unobtrusive bus-person working the same tables independently. The only half-slip was that I had to ask twice for the bottled water, and no charge for it appeared on the check. I do not know whether the lack of corkage and water charges were oversights, generosity, or driven by economic conditions.

The desserts were outstanding and paired well with the cappuccinos - especially the tiramisu, which was significantly better than a homemade version I'd tried two weeks prior - and that was homemade by a professional chef for his mother's birthday! The panna cotta measured up well, creamy, light and delicate. The "cat's tongue" cookies were also light and very crunchy, providing the perfect textural contrast to the creamy dessert. They may have been out of 12 year old balsamic, as the panna cotta was served with two delicious, colored sauces.

All in all the experience was a worthy one. Food and service were up to par, even on a busy Saturday night, and the prices were very reasonable given the quality of the ingredients and care in their preparation. In Utah the service is often a weak link, but Tanya did very well attending to us seamlessly. We happily left her a $40 tip for the $190 tab.

Greg Neville is a people person, and he works hard before service to set up the kitchen so that he can spend half the time during service in the front of the house. While he visits most tables seated during the dinner, answering questions and seeking feedback, he makes a point to thank each and every patron as they leave the restaurant. He clearly pours his heart and soul into the place, and I plan to revisit Lugano again. Local foodies praise the food at Lugano. While the food is adequate, Greg's presence and good service make the package complete, perhaps explaining the raves.

Lugano - RECOMMENDED if you order carefully

Highs: Fresh ingredients, creative risottos daily, comfortable atmosphere, reasonable prices for the quality of food, gracious host
Lows: Meaty seafood dish

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego