Saturday, June 25, 2005

ramblas, happy hour!

now doesn't just looking at that make you happy?

let me just say it outright and be done with it. i generally don't like tapas. they're full o' meat and cheese and eggs and sometimes even intestines. i don't like picaro. i don't like esperpento. when i was travelling in spain, granted the northern part known as galicia where you can see such un-spanish things as actual red-heads, dairy cows and the bread comes with butter, it was difficult to find stuff to eat. my almost non-existent spanish language skills coupled with a vegetarian diet led to many, oh so many comidas of fried eggs and french fries. every time i tried to order something radical like ceci beans or some other non-egg non-french fry dish, it always came floating in a pile of tripe. my health took a sharp nose dive from sucking down too many glasses of cheap red wine, too many french fries, at least three dozen hen-houses of eggs, and packet after packet of the cheapest cigarettes available, smoked to the stinking filthy blackened filter in order to quell the gnawing hunger. next time i head to the southern climes.

but as usual, i digress. the point is that i don't usually like tapas joints. but i like ramblas. this place gets some pretty mixed reviews. you can check them out here or here or here. pretty much everyone gives the paella the thumbs down and the sangria the thumbs up. but if you follow my advice you will not be disappointed. go during happy hour. from 5-7 monday thru thursday you can get draft beers for two bucks a piece and well drinks and sangria for three bucks. order one or two small plates and make good use of the bread and you can walk out before the place becomes a noise and chaos bomb. you can walk out slightly tipsy and onto your next dining or drinking destination. and you can do all of this for around twenty bucks for two.

and be sure to order the mushrooms ($7.50). a giant plate of juicy, succulent, perfectly browned assorted fungal deliciousness such as these pictured below await you. they are utterly, unapologetically tasty. which often makes me suspect meat juices. but i've never asked.

other items i've sampled are the patatas bravas. cubes of fried potatoes perfectly fried - golden crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. they are accompanied by a little bowl of red sauce (the bravas part, perhaps?), but it is lame (watery and flavorless) and i usually shunt it aside, in much the same manner i was shunted aside during junior high school dances. and high school dances. and college parties. and...oh nevermind. also sampled were the grilled asparagus spears. fat, succulent, juicy they are excellent. so juicy, in fact, i squirted my dining companion in the eye when i bit into one. they come with bacon but i had that put on the side for the omnivore.

i can't vouch for the meat-y dishes but if you hit ramblas during the happy hour when it's: (1) not crowded (2) there are some delicious beers on draft for two bucks...three for sangria, and (3) and you order any of the three aforementioned small plates, you will not be disappointed.

557 valencia street
san francisco
565 0207

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

takara at lunchtime

last weekend my moms came into town to stock up on her supply of japanese grocery items and, as always, we had lunch in japantown. for years, strictly out of habit we'd grab a quick bite at osakaya in the kintetsu mall's western wing. really mediocre. sub-mediocre actually. i don't recommend it. then someone from chowhound turned us onto kansai, which is now our favorite lunchtime spot. great food. great service. sadly however they were fully booked with some private event on that day. "hmmm", i thought to myself, "i've been meaning to try takara. maybe the fates are telling me that today is the day". at about 1:00 pm on a saturday afternoon we headed over to the eastern wing of the mall.

fist off, it was packed with lots of japanese. we waited for about five minutes for a table and i took this to be a good sign.

the lunch menu was quite extensive with a variety of confusing lunch specials options. between the three of us we ordered the "lunch box" (5.95, i think), the lunch combination with sashimi and tempura (12.95, or something like that), and the sansai soba (7.50 or so).

the lunch box was a great deal. for that day it consisted of chicken teriyaki, california roll and tempura. it came with miso soup and rice. for the price it was a good value but nothing stood out as being much above average except the tempura. the chicken came covered in a very runny soupy teriyaki sauce and the other items were, well, average.

the lunch combination was considerably smaller than the lunch box. again, it came with rice, soup and some tsukemono (really just lightly salted and wilted cabbage). the sashimi was good and fresh but the portion was smaller than usual. the tempura was pretty good - vegetables thinly sliced and well cooked (not crunchy, as sometimes happens), with a light, delicate and lacey batter that just clung to the sliced vegetables. it consisted of two pieces of shrimp and four vegetables (pumpkin, carrot, eggplant and green bean). sadly the rice that accompanied all the dishes was mushy. the rice is, for me, a true measure of the attention a japanese kitchen is putting into it's food. my mom liked her order okay but her comment was that kansai was way better.

i went with the sansai soba, being a real noodle soup freak. on the plus side there was a very generous amount of sansai vegetables in the soup and the noodles were not overcooked. on the minus, well, the broth was black. moms called it tokyo style, which i guess is saltier than kansai style, but it was just way too salty, even for me, and i've been known to eat salt straight, i kid you not. it would've been more appropriate for dipping. definitely not for drinking. it made me sad.

i'm a little baffled since i've heard such good things about takara. granted the positive reviews have been for dinnertime dining experiences, but should a restaurant really be so different between lunch and dinner? considering the mediocre food and the brusque service (didn't i mention the service was brusque) i don't think i'll be returning to takara again. at least not for lunch. maybe i'll check it out at dinner and see if it improves. if you want a reliable lunch in japantown, check out kansai. review to come.

takara restaurant
22 peace plaza, suite 202
(eastern building of kintetsu mall, 2nd floor)
san francisco, ca
415 921 2000

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

the window restaurant

i finally made it over to the newly reopened (in it's old space, plus the adjacent shop formerly known as friend's cafe) "the window" restaurant. years ago, before they shut down and i moved away to the badlands of mexico, i used to frequent this tasteful little space for some very decent lunch specials. when i returned to san francisco i was saddened to see that it was gone and wondered what the heck happened. soooo i was pretty excited to see the signs on the old shop front announcing the return of the window (although somehow i remember it being called windows, maybe that's just my creaky-old-age-addled-memory, though). joined by my lunch-special seeking friend "the clown" (not a derogatory term for in fact he is a professional clown and can twist a pretty mean balloon sculpture to boot) we readied ourselves for a walk down culinary memory lane. many a leisurely afternoon has been spent lingering over rice plates and hot tea here.

it's still a very warm, relaxing and light filled space. two pots of towering bamboo flank a small gold buddha that greets you as you walk in the front door. the walls are covered with warm colors and the furniture has a shiny dark wood look. i am of that camp that thinks particle board looks "ok", so i'm no judge of authenticity. it has the same look and feel as the old "window" except that it's bigger.

at 1:15 pm on a tuesday afternoon most of the smaller section (the original space) was filled with diners, both solo and in small group of two or three. it looked like most people were ordering from the lunch menu.

a pot of hot tea was served as soon as we were seated. i always like it when i get a whole pot of tea, especially when it's one of those sunny but freezing-cold and windy san francisco afternoons. we each ordered rice plates: the mixed vegetable tofu in curry coconut sauce and the mixed vegetable with black mushroom (5.95 each). to start we were served cups of soup (vegetarian, the server informed me as i suspiciously sniffed at it like a truffle hunting hog) which seemed to be some sort of corn egg-drop concoction. i found the soup to be bland and overly thickened with cornstarch. while not horribly offensive it had nothing to recommend it.

my rice plate, the mixed vegetables with black mushrooms was a mixture of baby corn, bean sprouts, baby bok choy, celery, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, carrots, black mushrooms, straw mushrooms, fried tofu and sugar peas. cooked tender crisp in a light sauce that struck just the right note, supporting the vegetables without standing out. it was neither soupy nor gelatinous nor greasy. when i saw how plain (yes, code word for bland) it looked i immediately requested an arsenal of flavoring backups (hot sauce, soy sauce, salt, pepper, pumpkin pie spice) just in case. as it turned out nothing but the hot sauce (i like things spicy) was needed. yet another example of looks misleading, although most of my experience has been with beautifully presented food tasting so-so.

my friend the clown ordered the mixed vegetable tofu in curry coconut sauce. this was also very good. the sauce was rich and velvety with a strong curry body that, while not spicy, did leave a little warmth on the tongue afterward. the curry tasted a bit like japanese curry or the burmese curry dish called poodhi. having been raised on japanese curry rice (or cully lice, as some call it) i found it extremely comforting. fried tofu, broccoli, carrots and what seemed to be bits of (fried!) potato bobbed in the sauce. there might have been other vegetables in the pot but i only tasted a small amount. you don't want to anger a clown by hogging all his food. if you do, the red nose and big shoes come off and you're in big trouble.

after finishing every last grain of rice on our plates and complaining about how full we were, we requested a second pot of tea and ordered desert. fried bananas with coconut ice cream. pieces of banana wrapped in wonton wrappers and deep fried until the banana is creamy-smooth and the wrapper crispy light. i don't know how they do it but despite the deep frying, these little artery stopping babies were neither greasy nor soggy. the wrapper was light and crispy, the banana creamy-dreamy. drizzled over the top was, uh, i'm sure of it, aunt jemimah's imitation maple-flavored pancake syrup, in other words, high fructose corn syrup with artificial flavorings and colorings. luckily there was very little of it and easily pushed off to the side and pointedly ignored. there was a selection of a few different flavors of ice cream to choose from: coconut, green tea, and hmmm maybe ginger? our choice, the coconut, had a deep mature coconut flavor (macapuno, they call it at mitchell's) and it had an airy texture, almost whipped (which i really like) with a few bits of dried unsweetened coconut laced throughout. this mound of coconut heaven was crowned with thorns. pure horror. an unsightly blob of reddi-whip and a canned maraschino cherry that trailed a distressing bloodstain of artifically colored high fructose corn syrup in its wake. again, easily shunted aside but an inexplicable choice. moral of the story: never over-accessorize. especially with cheap costume jewelry. unless you're a gum-smacking truck stop waitress named flo.

with twenty nine different rice plates, four noodle dishes and three fried rice dishes on the lunch special menu at 5.95 a pop i'll definitely go back to the window for many a leisurely lunch. hold the maraschino cherry.

window "southeast asia cuisine"
211 valenica street, san francisco
415 626 7750

UPDATEd (1/06): i've been to this place for lunch at least a dozen times and it is consistently very good...have yet to experience a mis-step in food or service. still highly recommended.
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