Restaurace Kulový Blesk – Praha, CZE


Restaurace Kulový Blesk
Sokolská 13, Praha 2
Czech Republic
Tel: +420 721/420 859

Beer is central to the lives of Czechs to a degree that few, if any, countries can match.  One recent study shows that per capita, Czechs drink the most beer in the world, and it’s not all that close. They consume 20% more beer per person than the second place country, Ireland, with Germany a close third. I’ve always liked Czech pilsners that is far and away the most popular style with their dry, bitter clean flavor.  I still remember the revelatory experience of trying Staropramen on tap for the first time at the outstanding pub Lucky Baldwin’s in Old Town Pasadena in the mid-90s. I finally understood what the inspiration was for all these American beer giants whose main purpose appears to be selling lifestyle or image rather than flavor.

Like in many European countries, however, the beer industry is dominated by a small handful of national (to international) brands such as  Pilsner Urquell, Budweiser Budvar, Krušovice, Gambrinus and Staropramen  (I prefer Budvar and Staropramen from the above list).  I knew from a past visit that there are smaller, local breweries. Years ago I had visited the generally well-regarded tourist trap U Fleků which showed to me a different side of Czech beer, and on a recent visit I figured I’d try to learn more about the small artisinal producers in a country with a rich brewing history. A quick search led me to Restaurace Kulový Blesk, which is a fairly easy 15 minute walk (or one metro stop ride) from Wenceslas Square in central Prague. They pride themselves on a fairly extensive selection of beer only from small Czech producers.

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Chez Mamane – Paris, FRA


Chez Mamane
23 rue des Cinq Diamants
75013 Paris
+33 1 45 89 58 87
Metro: Corvisart (0.1 km); Tolbiac (0.5 km)

The many immigrant communities that make up Paris have brought cuisines from all over the world – some of which are poorly represented in major cities in North America. My favorite discovery during my time there this summer was couscous, a typical north African dish that has regional subtlties (Moroccan vs Algerian vs Tunisian vs…) that I didn’t have nearly enough time to explore and decipher.

I started digging in before remembering to take pictures!

My favorite couscous spot was Chez Mamane, a small Moroccan style joint in the generally tourist-free and very cool little neighborhood of La Butte aux Cailles (“quail hill”) not far from Place d’Italie in the 13th arrondissement.  There are plenty of bars (Le Diamant was my favorite, but those with more experience recommend La Folie en Tête) and restaurants (among others, Chez Gladines is a very popular budget Basque restaurant) in this area, with a crowd that was decidedly local.  Chez Mamane was recommended to me by a friend who grew up in this neighborhood as having the best couscous in Paris and it sure seemed plausible to me.

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Pizzeria Delfina – San Francisco, CA


Pizzeria Delfina – two locations
3611 18th St, San Francisco, CA.  (415) 437-6800
2406 California St, San Francisco, CA.  (415) 440-1189

[Note: Foodosopher's previous post on Pizzeria Delfina here]

The San Francisco Bay Area is usually considered one of the top cities in the country to eat pizza.  Of the many well-regarded pizza places (A16, Piccolo, Pizzaiolo, Tony’s, Pizzetta 211, Dopo, et al.) Pizzeria Delfina is considered amongst the best, with a style that is typically described as Napoletana-inspired.

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La Posta Vecchia – Santa Cruz, CA


La Posta Vecchia
538 Seabright Ave.
Santa Cruz, CA 95062
(831) 457-2782

California has a long tradition of Italian immigration beginning in the 19th century.  Although New York is probably more closely associated with this wave of newcomers, in the mid-1800s California had the most Italian immigrants of any state.  In Santa Cruz and elsewhere along the coast, northern Italians quickly became very prominent in the fishing industry.  They also played important roles in developing California’s vegetable, fruit and wine industries.

Even today, one can see the imprint of this immigration (e.g. Del Monte foods, Ghirardelli chocolates).  Perhaps this explains this state’s strong ties to Italian cuisine – indeed, California cuisine in my mind is primarily rooted in Italian sensibilities with French, other European and some Asian techniques and ingredients thrown in for good measure.  Despite this, it’s only been in the last decade or so that authentic regional Italian food has been widely available.

Russian River Brewing Company – Santa Rosa, CA


Russian River Brewing Company
725 4th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
707-545-2337

A few years ago, I unwittingly developed a taste for American IPAs.  From years back I enjoyed the IPA from Bridgeport, the rather enjoyable brew pub in Portland, OR whose killer app is the aroma from its non-stop pizza ovens combined with a variety of decent beers.  But for whatever reason, a couple of years ago, I went from occasionally enjoying an IPA to suddenly finding it to be my favorite style of beer – well, provided it’s a west coast IPA, which I find to be cleaner, more focused and stylish than its Pacific-removed brethren.   The recent evolution of IPA (as the story goes) took a step forward when Vinnie Cilurzo, then at Blind Pig in San Diego, jacked up the regular IPA with even more hops, and balanced the extra bitterness with more sweetness from malt, which inevitably led to more alcohol. And thus the double IPA was born.  <Cue the manna from heaven sound effect.>   Now Mr. Cilurzo is co-owner (with his wife) of the Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, CA, smack in the middle of California’s touristsorry, wine – country.

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Borda Berri – San Sebastian, Spain


Borda Berri
Fermin Calbeton 12
20003 San Sebastian – Donostia
Spain
+943425638

I’ve been eating pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”)  all across Euskadi, which is what the Basque people call their region in their own language of Euskara.  There will be a long pintxos rundown at some point, but for now here’s a quick hit from San Sebastian.  Pintxos generally are one to three bites in size and range in price from 1 to 3.50 euro.  In San Sebastian in particular, however, these (very) small plates have been elevated into a high-art form in some kind of game of culinary one-upmanship amongst the countless pintxos establishments.  Needless to say, it’s the customers who win in the end.

Borda Berri, located in the Parte Vieja (“Old Part”) of San Sebastian, is one of the places held in great regard by many, and it’s easy to see why.  Every single dish here was remarkable in both concept and execution.

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Lucky Strike – Portland, OR


Lucky Strike
3862 Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 206-8292

I’ve always been more than a bit suspicious of Chinese restaurants whose appearance doesn’t scream “Chinese,” – meaning the divey dumpling joint with specials written on the walls only in Chinese characters or the slightly-tacky upscale Cantonese seafood palace/aquarium – as if compromise in decor suggests similar in the kitchen.  Lucky Strike is a Sichuan restaurant with an unfortunate name and a decor which screams “Portland” despite the Chinese theme. Portland oozes hip from seemingly every pore, and no number of dragons is sufficient as camoflage.  Countering my normal skepticism were a number of strong reports of real Sichuan food.

Balance is certainly one of the hallmarks of great food no matter what price point or region.  Cantonese food seems to balance the sublest flavors like a game of Jenga in a windstorm – the smallest wrong move and the whole thing comes tumbling down. Sichuan food balances flavor Jenga blocks the size of entire buildings, with flavors almost bigger in scale than appropriate for humans. It’s no wonder that some Sichuanese (apocryphally?) wonder why all other cuisines taste so bland.  Two of the key flavors are ma, usually translated as “numbing” but to me has a strong hint of “tingling” as well, and la or spicy/hot. The former comes from huajiao or Sichuan peppercorn (among a whole list of names).

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Han Sung BBQ – Santa Clara, CA


Han Sung BBQ
2644 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95051
(408) 246-7799

The stretch of El Camino Real in Santa Clara, CA, is a few miles long and home to one of the densest regions of Korean restaurants in North America.  Here, critical mass has been reached and an entire ecosystem of supermarkets, bars, clubs, video stores as well as countless soon tobu and Korean barbecue places (and much more, I’m sure, if I could only read Korean) has evolved.  This handily solves the question of where one goes to get Korean food in the Bay Area south of San Francisco or Oakland. The harder question is which place to choose?

Han Sung BBQ is one of many non-descript store fronts in Moebius strip mall land.  What distinguishes it from the other barbecue places is simple: real wood charcoal.  Not that gas nonsense, but the real deal.  The whole place is perfumed with this scent despite the fierce ventilation system (note: I’ve read that HSB has recently completed a re-model which most people seem to give a big thumbs up, so I imagine a few strata of soot have been scrubbed from the walls in the process).  The wonderful aroma of the charcoal when it arrives at your table… well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Ristorante Avanti – Santa Cruz, CA


Ristorante Avanti
1711 Mission Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

(831) 427-0135

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.

I recall that the brilliant food writer Jonathan Gold once wrote that he’s been to Campanile in Los Angeles hundreds of times.  When I read that maybe 10 or 15 years ago, I couldn’t even fathom such a concept.  But now the combination of steady employment and living in one place for a good chunk of time has conspired to generate a small handful of places that I’ve been to so many times and with which I have such a relationship that it’s less a business and more an annex of my own home.  One of them is Ristorante Avanti, owned and run by Cindy and Paul Geise for over twenty years and still going strong.

What leads me and the many other regulars to return so often? I suspect it’s the combination of well-executed food with a menu that has both dishes that I know will be available when I’m in need of something tried, true and delicious, and a rotating list of daily specials that ensures there’s always something new and exciting to try.

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Dio Deka – Los Gatos, CA


Dio Deka
210 E. Main St.
Los Gatos, CA 95030
408.354.7700
Open 11:30am-2:00pm, 5pm-10pm Mon-Fri. 5pm-10pm Sat. 10:30am-2:00pm, 5pm-9pm Sun.

www.diodeka.com

As a 15 year old (more years in the past than I’d like to admit), I went to Greece as part of a high school trip. While I had travelled abroad a number of times before, this was my first visit to Europe and the history, people and food (yes, even then), perhaps predictably, made a lasting impression. While I’ve done quite a bit more travelling since then, I’m not sure I’ll have such a strong memory of Europe as the first night at our hotel on Parthenonos street, with the namesake monument lit up and viewed perfectly from our room’s balcony like a floating home for the gods. Our late dinner comprised of rather exotic fare for a young Canadian lad – moussaka (delicious!) and baklava – helping to take some of the sting out of a long and delayed trip.

Fast forward to a recent trip to Dio Deka, a rather well-received, modern and pricey Greek restaurant in upscale Los Gatos, CA. Instead of the sloppy, primally satisfying street food served nightly in the Plaka, the owners wanted a place where Greek cuisine could be experienced through a highly refined lens. The tzatziki appetizer resembles not so much Monet – broad-brush impressionist tzatziki such as that I make at home (a handful of this, a pinch of that) – and much more Ansel Adams, made with great clarity, executed with precision, and carefully calculated to hit doubles (if not home runs) with American diners.

The aforementioned tzatziki had clearly been made with yogurt painstakingly squeezed of all water, leaving behind a very thick spread that more than slightly reminded me of herbed cream cheese. It was very tasty, but was clearly lacking garlic (as the foodosopher pointed out about two milliseconds after it hit his taste buds) and the normal yogurt tang that one would otherwise expect. The popular lamb meatball appetizer, each skewered on a small stick of rosemary, were similarly well-executed, though the sauce was a bit non-descript.

The terrific grilled calamari salad, produced from the mesquite grill which constantly belched smoke into the large ventilation system, had beautiful char marks while being impressively tender.

This same grill produces the famous Dio Deka lamb chops, three to a plate and cooked, after some negotiation, to a tip-top perfect medium-rare (which required asking for it rare-to-medium-rare). Some have criticized these lamb chops for lacking “flavor”, by which I think they mean that characteristic lambiness that causes some to shy away. I’m not in that camp, as I prefer it when the meat expresses its origin sotto voce, rather than yelling in my ear, so I found the subtle flavor rather delicious. The double-thick Berkshire pork chop was similarly flawlessly executed – it was cooked exactly to the knife edge between underdone and overdone that is often so elusive with pork. The accompaniments with these dishes were exactly that: no more, no less. One entree, a braised lamb shank with orzo, didn’t come from the grill. The meat itself was braised lovingly to falling-apartness, but the orzo was far too rich with butter and cheese that made the meat seem lean (not an easy task). We did not opt for any desserts, but they certainly looked to be great crowd-pleasers. The “Greek beignets” seemed to appear at every table, although I’m not so sure they would be ten percent as popular if the menu read “Greek doughnut” instead. The wine list was quite strong, even by Bay Area standards. There are a good two to three dozen wines available by the glass, with a handful of interesting wines interspersed among the sea of populist choices.

The owners have succeeded – wildly, by all appearances – in their quest to bring updated Greek cuisine to the well-to-do masses. However, this success comes at the expense of the Greek-ness of the whole experience. If one wanted to be cynical, one might even claim that Dio Deka is really an American steakhouse with a definite but carefully-measured Greek twist. The menu seemingly explores a rather small fraction of Greek cuisine in order to ensure that the food retains a familiarity for American palates (although further visits might be needed to fully confirm this – the restaurant for some reason has taken the menu off their website, at least from what I can tell). This populist path means that it is a very useful place for parties with less-adventurous eaters who nevertheless want to experience something different. The noise level was a bit high, though, so don’t take the grandparents from Iowa unless you’re sure they’re up for it. The strength of the restaurant are the dishes from the grill station which were all executed with GPS precision and are the reason to go back. It won’t replace in my heart my first late-night lamb souvlaki, however imperfect it was, but not for a lack of trying. It’s not so much food that has been dumbed-down as food calibrated perfectly by their shrewd business plan.

Dio Deka on Urbanspoon