Le Normandie

At Le Normandie in Pacific Grove for a quick weekend getaway. Jan made a reservation after doing some online research, and the dinner did not disappoint. I could have eaten only the amazing lobster bisque that started the meal, but luckily I saved room for wild sea bass and a bit of Jan’s filet mignon, plus the most delicious pear tart with almond paste. The daily handwritten menus are the norm, and we will most definitely be going back.

The Real Foie Gras in France

Traveling in our rental car from Switzerland into France, Jan and I spent our first night in France in the tiny village Gevrey-Chambertin in the Burgundy region outside of Beaune.  Our room at Hôtel les Grands Crus overlooked a beautiful vineyard, and in the early evening, we walked into “town” to tour the cellars at winemaker Phillippe Leclerc.  Sampling several wines (and buying a few to take home) and touring the extensive cellars brought us right up to our 8:30 dinner reservation at Chez Guy, a restaurant that came highly recommended by both our B&B host and Rick Steve’s guide book (and it also happened to be the only restaurant in town open for dinner).

While Jan and I didn’t understand much on the menu, we could pick out “foie gras,” and I did my best with some words I could make out from my knowledge of Spanish.  We ordered wine and picked a few other items in addition to the foie gras, figuring that we would just be surprised with whatever came out (though we realize this attitude only works with an open mind—and without a pre-set list of dietary and/or meat restrictions). Continue reading

The Original French Dip

The French dip sandwich is said to have originated at Philippe, the Original, a 100+ year old deli in downtown Los Angeles.  So when Jan and I found ourselves even in the remote vicinity of the place on a recent trip to Southern California, we had a pretty big item on our to-do list: eat a French dip sandwich at Philippe’s.  We had seen the restaurant featured on both the Food Network and the Travel Channel, and since both Jan and I are fans of the classic roast beef sandwich dipped in au jus, we were excited. Our friend David, who we were visiting while we were in L.A., had only sampled (and loved) the spicy mustard from Philippe’s, but had never been to the restaurant, so with three people hungry for roast beef, we hopped in the car and made our way. Continue reading

Out to lunch

You’ll probably notice that Jan and I don’t go out to dinner much, preferring to spend most of our evenings at home. But that doesn’t mean we never go out. What we really like is going to lunch, because for some reason, it just feels fun to us to be out and about in the middle of the day.

We especially enjoy trying out lunch specials because they’re the perfect way to sample a bunch of different dishes. At Chinese restaurants, this usually means ordering the “Imperial Special,” and running out of room at the table after pot stickers, soup, salad, chow mein, sizzling beef, sweet and sour shrimp, etc. While I enjoy the food, I find myself feeling overwhelmed and overly stuffed.

Lunch at Wassabi in Fig Garden Village is the perfect balance of lots to try, in the right amount. We were happy to take advantage of the $10 lunch special on Saturday (offered everyday except Sunday, when the restaurant is not open for lunch). There are several options for the special including bento boxes and sushi combinations.

Soup, then salad

I got the box and picked tempura and California roll for my two options. In addition to the items I chose, the lunch came with miso soup, salad, rice, and a Diet Coke (beverage options included in the lunch special are soft drinks or draft beer). Jan chose the sashimi, which also included miso soup, and of course he chose an Asahi beer to go with his meal.

It's obscured by the orchid here, but the sashimi looked beautiful and bright

The service was prompt and friendly, though we took our time as we were the only diners out on the patio that day. I preferred this calm atmosphere to Wassabi’s other location on Herndon and First, but perhaps I’m too old to appreciate sushi chefs in costumes and wigs. With lots of dishes on our plates to sample, everybody was happy.

Tired, happy, and full in San Francisco

Rosamunde's Sausage Grill

After a day of walking up and down hills, good food, great friends, and free-flowing drinks, I’m happily exhausted. I love how that’s the way things are on visits to San Francisco.

When Jan had a bachelor party to attend in the city and suggested I drive up with him and spend time with our friend Lucy, I quickly agreed.

After arriving at Lucy’s in Haight Ashbury, our first stop, before we could do anything else, was to get Jan some serious food. We walked to Rosamunde’s Sausage Grill, where Jan ordered the nuernberger bratwurst (savory pork). We waited in the small restaurant, which had a handful of barstools lining the counters at the front windows.

Two sausages were grilled and served with sauerkraut and peppers on a toasted French roll. This was the kind of gourmet hot dog Jan had been dreaming of. But we had to get back in time to head off for the picnic Lucy planned, so we tested the to-go qualities of the bun as we walked back to get the rest of the picnic ready. Jan might have had mustard all over his face, but he could now carve the chicken Lucy had roasted earlier without dying of hunger.

While Jan headed off to meet the boys at AT&T Park for a Giants game, Lucy and I caught the bus and headed toward the Presidio.

The multi-million dollar view

We met friends at the top of the Lyon steps at Lyon and Broadway, enjoying a beautiful view on a sunny day. Then we walked into the adjacent Presidio in search of a good picnic spot. Our map hadn’t told us of all the construction projects going on where picnic tables had been listed, but we finally found a table hidden away between rows of converted army housing.

Not your average picnic

Lucy was a picnic pro, and I was so impressed that she brought tablecloths, real plates, and silverware. I thought that was what had made Lucy’s backpack so heavy on our walk through the Presidio, at least until Lucy pulled out the 32 oz. bottle of Tapatio we’d gotten for her during our last visit! (See An open mind, and mouth, for oysters).

Zesty gazpacho

We feasted on roast chicken, sausages from Rosamunde’s, guacamole, cheese, pickles, dried fruits and several bottles of Pinot Noir. Though I’m not usually a gazpacho fan, Lucy’s gazpacho topped with avocado was excellent. I thought it would have also made the most delicious bloody mary.

But we stuck to red wine, and continued stuffing ourselves on tasty two-bite brownies and chewy peanut butter cookies from Whole Foods. We rolled ourselves to the bus stop and up the last hill back to Lucy’s place.

After resting our feet and several cups of tea at Lucy’s, it was time to continue work burning off our picnic. We met up with Jan on his way back from the bachelor party and all headed to the Castro.

The Mix bar on 18th street provided the atmosphere we needed. And it was conveniently located across from Nizario’s pizza, where Jan sampled a combination slice on our way into the bar and the California (chicken, pesto, spinach, and feta) on the way out.

Beautiful breakfast

In the morning, Lucy had prepared us a real Midwestern breakfast. (She’d asked me the day before if I preferred cereal and granola for a lighter option, and I heartily declined, saying I liked to use the vacation excuse whenever I could.)

Sausage, Canadian bacon, bacon, pancakes, berries, and more

We had breakfast sausage, Canadian bacon, and bacon served on the meat platter. There were also pancakes, strawberries, blackberries, and Greek yogurt. Then there was fresh walnut bread and butter. And Lucy even heated the maple syrup on the stove and put it in a mini-pitcher, the perfect combination of West meets Midwest!

Planter at Flora Grubb
Even the coffee was artfully arranged

We headed to Flora Grubb Gardens for some backyard inspiration, and Lucy enjoyed a beautiful cup of coffee as I took in garden ideas to duplicate at home (though I won’t be copying the car-as-planter idea).

Gravad lax: a taste of Sweden
Last stop: meatballs

After saying goodbye to our gracious host, Jan and I headed across the Bay Bridge. We already had our lunch in mind: meatballs at IKEA in Emeryville. It’s become the tradition that we’ll brave Saturday IKEA crowds for, even though we realize the meatballs aren’t the best. But, we did get to stock up on a staple in our household: Lingonberry preserves.

Finally it was time to head home, for some much-needed rest after our two-day vacation.

The tricky task of judging a rib cook-off

Aussom Aussie's ribs

Jan and I attended Fresno’s first annual rib cook-off this past Saturday, curious to witness a cooking competition outside of Iron Chef America and our own living room. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had one thing on my mind as my stomach growled driving toward downtown Fresno: ribs!    

We arrived around lunchtime to reasonable-sized crowds and weather temperatures nearing 100 degrees. As I got out of the car, I could smell the ribs cooking, and I was anxious to see what lie ahead. As we walked closer, we could see the competitors, crowds, and massive amounts of meat being smoked and grilled. From various parts of the country and the world, serious barbecue competitors had gathered to show off their skills. Each entrant had two-story-tall displays proclaiming all their awards in various cooking competitions.    

I could tell these guys were serious. Not only did they have their competition trophies lined up on tables, reflecting the light of the sun, they had giant smokers on wheels with teams of people cooking. I’d heard a little about the competitive barbecue circuit from Jan’s former neighbors and the owners of Clovis’ QN4U, (who were the local entrants in the cook-off and were recently featured on TLC’s Pitmasters), but now I could finally see for myself how competitive these things could get.   

Mountains of meat
Trying to choose

Since we were aiming for our own taste-testing, Jan and I each got in line at two different places. Swayed by their banners proclaiming “Featured on Food Network,” and “As Seen on the Travel Channel,” I chose Australian barbecue champions Aussom Aussie, while Jan went for the more traditional Johnson’s of Virginia. It was difficult to choose whose ribs to sample, since we knew we couldn’t try them all. I might have been willing to wait in line for a rib from each vendor, had I not been feeling like a barbecued pig myself on the hot asphalt.    

While the pace of the line moved just like the slow rib-smoking process, I anticipated my lunch, hoping I had chosen wisely. And as I neared the front of the line for a good look at the Aussom Aussie himself mopping ribs with barbecue sauce, The Fresno Bee captured me as I braved big gusts of smoke (link to the Bee’s gallery here). There was no way I wasn’t leaving without smelling like ribs. I felt like the girl in the Taco Bell commercial who carries around bacon in her purse in an effort to attract men. I smelled like barbecue perfume and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.    

Photo by John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Jan and I met up at the picnic tables under the trees, where we got a break from the heat. My first bite was from the Australians, followed by three more bites, one per accompanying dipping sauce. The ribs had excellent flavor, and the original sauce was a good balance of bold, sweet, and spicy flavors, and my top choice over the other two (hot! and raspberry chipotle).     

I sampled the Johnson’s rib next, which was also tasty, but I found the hickory smoke flavor  overwhelming. I know some people like the smoke, and even go to the lengths of adding artificial smoke flavoring to their own ribs to achieve it, but I find the taste of smoke distracting from the pork flavor that makes ribs such a unique treat. I was also disappointed by the sides, something I find a common problem at barbecue joints. With so much attention paid to “The Sauce” and “The Meat,” it’s sad when the simple dishes like potato salad and baked beans get ignored. I peeked into the mobile kitchens of several competitors, and saw that they were using salad from a tub and beans from a can. My take is, if you have a simple menu of basically meat and sides, everything on that menu better be a generous and delicious portion made from scratch. But I’m getting sidetracked from the ribs.  

Johnson's ribs

As we ate under the shade, Jan and I offered our own verdict. And the winner was…well, no one. We agreed that we prefered homemade ribs on the grill, not because we’re biased, but because neither of the ribs sampled delivered on the texture. Being barbecued by pros, I expected tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs, and while the ribs sampled weren’t tough, the meat certainly could have been softer.  

We stood in line once again, this time at Cowboys BBQ of Texas, so we could bring a promised plate of ribs to a friend unable to attend the cook-off. (We later got a report that those were excellent, but we didn’t taste them for ourselves.)   

We never found out who officially won the cook-off, or even the criteria for how the ribs were judged. Maybe that was for the best. After all, it seems like everyone has their own take on what makes a good rib, and even more so, a good plate of barbecue. Despite our nitpicking over the details, we had a great time, ate some good food, and would welcome a chance to attend any kind of cook-off in the future. Who knows, maybe next time in our backyard. 

Super Sushi Love Boat

Hosting friends for dinner at our home is a regular occurrence and one of my favorite pastimes. I also enjoy being a dinner guest. I love when our friend Nevin has us for dinner, as it often involves sampling many Trader Joe’s appetizers at her house, or her taking us out. Nevin’s philosophy is, if she bought it, that means she cooked it, and that works for us. This time, it was the Sushi love boat for two, which we realized, after the three of us devoured the whole thing, probably should feed about four. At Japanese Kitchen in Clovis.

Buffalo for dinner at the edge of wilderness

About a two hour’s drive away is a completely different world that I only just experienced for the first time. Last week Jan took me up to see Florence and Edison lakes, an area that he spends some time patrolling at work. After driving to Huntington Lake on Highway 168, we took the turnoff for Kaiser Pass. The road soon turned into a narrow, bumpy, one-lane road that Jan said is purposely kept that way by Southern California Edison to limit traffic. And lonesome it is, except for the marmots, lizards, and deer we saw along the way. I asked Jan, “Really? This is your cubicle!?” It was beautiful. 

Drive through Kaiser Pass = backroads bubbly

Both Florence Lake and Edison Lake sit at the edge of the John Muir Wilderness area, and offer services to backpackers either about to embark on a journey or need of more supplies. Both lakes have boats to ferry hikers to the other side of the lakes, and each has a small store, restaurant, or both. After a picnic lunch at Florence Lake, we checked out Vermillion Resort at Edison Lake, where Jan has eaten many times while fighting lighting fires in the area. 

We hiked through a muddy path to see some of the volcanic hot springs, but I had forgotten insect repellant and was getting eaten by mosquitoes and didn’t want to stay for a dip into the water. 

Homemade blue cheese dressing perfected

We stopped for dinner at Mono Hot Springs River Rock Cafe, and on a Tuesday night, had the entire patio to ourselves. After enjoying salads with homemade blue cheese dressing (yum!) we watched the sunset over the mountains and ordered two specialties of the house: Corned buffalo for Jan and a buffalo burger for me. 

Buffalo burger and rice pilaf

Both dishes tasted similar to their beef counterparts, but were leaner. Our server Lea offered a great finale to the end of an excellent birthday with New York cheesecake. And even though I’d previously made fun of Jan for celebrating his birthday for the entire month of April, I did have to admit that celebrating my birthday for a week and a half was far better than my previous attempts to simply pretend the day wasn’t different from any other. I had, by that time, completely forgotten about getting another year older. 

A tasty end to the birthday celebrations