Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Next stop: Nantucket

From New York, we flew to Nantucket to stay in an appropriately named back cottage and eat and drink almost nonstop for the next two-and-a-half days. Details soon...

Day 2: Rice to Riches

Walking into Rice to Riches ignorant of the name, you might think it was an ice cream store, a gelateria, maybe a new-fangled frozen yogurt shop. It's got the playful decor, the small tables, the colorful array of delicacies shielded by glass and guarded by young women offering little plastic-spoon samples. But what they're serving isn't cold, and it certainly isn't smooth.

You know, because it's rich pudding.

But it's good rice pudding. And in flavors it had never occured to me to imagine. And it's not like I haven't experimented with rice pudding before.

Cheesecake (yum), tiramisu (didn't sample), coconut, hazelnut chocolate, banana, and of course, sex-drugs-and-rocky-road. As it turns out, since rice pudding is all about texture, and rocky road is largely about texture, this one really works.

The portions are generous, but you can also pick up smaller versions of many of the most popular flavors in little to-go cups in the refrigerator case at the back of the shop.

Day 2: Cafe Habana

The next day, we met up with Riba for lunch at Cafe Habana to-go. I had fond memories of the grilled corn-on-the-cob there, and Riba promised good sandwiches and fine limeade as well.

Riba ordered and got us

a chicken diablo torta (blackened chicken with roasted red peppers, chipotle mayonaisse, and a black bean spread),

a mole chicken torta (shredded chicken with the same black bean sauce), and of course,

the grilled corn coated in cheese, lime, and chili powder.

Eating all of this sitting on the bench outside the shop was as messy and chaotic as it was fun and delicious. We were all hungry, and so the passing around of sandwiches, corn, limeade, and hibiscus iced tea was frenzied and giddy. Afterwards we sat talking for a while, satiated and sticky handed, before heading off for the rest of our day.

The dessert truck

For the better part of the last year, I've been reading with interest articles about dessert trucks. I've wondered: fad or wave of the future? Delicious or just novel? And also: why not on my block, why not in my town? Would a dessert truck work in Berkeley, or do people want seats with their sweets?

When I was researching things to do in New York, I looked up a few dessert trucks but then gave up trying to pinpoint them, figuring there was no way to plan a meeting with so little time available, it would just either happen or not. And frankly, I didn't hold out much hope.

But, just as afternoon was starting to give way to dusk, we crossed a street, either tired (me), thirsty (Riba), or in need of a pee stop (Alexis), and it was there, just sitting on the corner, bathed in delicious aromas and ready to make my dream come true.

Riba and Alexis made fun of me after the fact, because apparently I saw it, made a sharp turn towards it and said "Dessert truck. We're eating more," and then got in line. Riba and Alexis, as you know by this point, take declarations like that seriously, so they got in line too and we started discussing our options. Panna Cotta? Bread pudding? Most things seemed a little dense and warm for the humidity still in the air, but god, it smelled so good, so we ended up sharing a chocolate bread pudding with creme anglaise.

Even before the first bite, I was totally won over by the novelty. Handing over $5 in exchange for a hot foil ramekin heavy with dense chocolate and warmed sauce? A fine moment of commerce. The bread pudding was good, but tasted more like a dense custard than a bread pudding. I expect more variety in textures in my bread pudding, but as a warm chocolate dessert, it was rather good. Even though I always think I like creme anglaise, when it comes down to it, I think the taste is rather dull, but the variety was nice and it made the bread pudding look pretty. If I was making this, I'd swap it out for a creme fraiche sauce or a marscapone sabayon, or, if there were some way to make it not too sweet, a white chocolate and bourbon sauce of some kind.

Drinks: Verlaine

We paused our tasting tour to take a walk through the Tenement Museum, which was really interesting and manages to pretty compellingly capture the mottled spirit of old New York, the tail end of which colored my dad's childhood experiences there (and made him move to California and never want to go back, but that's another story).

Afterwards, we walked to Verlaine for a few of its $5 lychee martinis. It was about 5:30 pm on a Sunday, so the place was mostly empty, though a lumbering and slobbering but very cute dog did insinuate itself into our group and flirt its way into the heart of Alexis.

I wish there was another word for martinis with fruit flavoring in them. They are so unlike actual martinis (and I say that as someone who doesn't have the grit or the dulled tastebuds or whatever it takes to savor a true martini) that it feels a little like riding a tricycle around and calling it a motorcycle.

In any case, the lychee martini was good, as they often are. They're not too sweet and the flavor has a lot of surface area. That is to say that lychee is a taste I like because it's got a lot going on. It's both forward and subtle. And, when combined with cold alcohol and served in a pretty glass, is just the thing for a hot sunny vacation Sunday afternoon.
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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Dessert 2: il laboratorio

Ciao Bella is a common sight around the Bay Area. There's one just down the street from me in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto and another at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. As it turns out, our next stop was the latest cold/creamy venture of the guy who started Ciao Bella.

According to the clipped-out news article on the door, il laboratorio del gelato is the shop he has opened with his mother. It's a tiny sliver of a place with a window to order at facing the sidewalk. The flavors were interesting, and included an olive oil gelato that pretty successfully brought out the fruitiness of good olive oils.

However, olive oil wasn't an option since it reminded Alexis of the time I dragged her with me to Sonoma while I was researching a story about farm-to-table travel and made her sample olive oils. You're supposed to take a small mouthful, swish it around in your mouth, and then, in the tradition of wine tasting, either spit it into the nearby small, shiny bucket or swallow it. But unlike wine, it's hard to clear the palate after a sample of olive oil. Everything in your mouth is coated, and even if you don't end up drinking it, it's difficult not to leave with the feeling you need to scrub your mouth out with the most absorbent bread you can find.

So instead, we settled on a refreshing double scoop of fresh mint gelato and strawberry gelato. It was delicious, a combination that I'd like to replicate soon. I was particularly curious about the fresh mint, and how it would taste when made in large batches meant for commercial consumption. Except for the first time I had fresh mint ice cream (at the ice cream shop Christina's in Inman Square in Cambridge), I've always made it myself, so I've gotten to control the type of mint I choose and how long to steep it. Il laboratorio's was good, but I think for fresh mint ice cream or gelato, nothing beats making it yourself and eating it fresh.

On to dessert: Babycakes

Last year, Riba was diagnosed as celiac, which meant no gluten. Since then, the diagnosis has been revoked, but during that time she got wise to all the gluten-free options within eating range. This is how she knew about Babycakes, which specializes in gluten- and refined-sugar free vegan (I know, unless your last name is Goodman, your hopes for this place are plunging with each adjective, but hold on!) baked goods.

Riba is on their mailing list, so she knew that they were giving away free frosting shots. Around the same time she mentioned this, she also told me that the ice cream sandwich I was eyeing was filled not with ice cream, or even sorbet, but with frosting. I began to have my doubts about this stop on the tasting tour.

But I didn't have to marry it, I simply had to sample a few items, and everything looked pretty, so I persevered. After five minutes of deliberation (there was a lot of deliberation at all these places since we were sharing everything), we settled on a carrot cupcake, a chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich, and frosting shots all around.

Perhaps unwisely, given that it was pure sweetness with nothing cakey to mellow it out, we had the frosting first. The frosting was purple. I don't know why, I don't think it tasted like any sort of purple food. And it was sweet. But not too sweet, not headache-in-a-jar, needs-no-refrigeration, suspiciously-long-shelf-life pre-fab sweet. And not even tastes-so-good-even-though-I-know-how-much-butter-went-into-making-this buttercream icing sweet. I won't go so far as to say it tasted like a stand-alone dessert, but it tasted pretty good, and the texture was amazing: creamy and unusually smooth.

Riba and Alexis were sad to see it go so fast:

But they found consolation quickly:

The carrot cupcake was good, though a little dry. But that seems to be a pretty common cupcake issue, regardless of ingredients. It's hard to make cream cheese frosting without cream cheese though, so it lacked the deliciousness that comes from expectation and familiarity.

Even though it was a hot day, we saved the "ice cream" sandwich for last. But only about two minutes had passed since we paid and left the shop, so it hadn't had time to thaw, let alone melt.

Chocolate chip cookies are one of my favorite foods, and ice cream sandwiches rank pretty high up there too, and though this was novel and tasted pretty good, it paled in comparison to the real thing. However, say I had to go gluten-free or could no longer eat refined sugars for some reason, you can bet I'd reverse engineer the crap out of this recipe and make them at home.

The chocolate chip cookie was thin, almost like a lace cookie, and very very crispy. I now better understand the purpose of butter and eggs in the usual recipe. The frosting was cold, held the cookies together, and was creamy and smooth. But the frosting lacked that depth of flavor that you get from ice cream. Luckily, our next stop was the gelateria around the corner...

Next stop: dumplings

As we were walking the few short blocks from the Lower East side into Chinatown (site of me almost getting crushed by the Sunday-night-to-Boston crowd while trying to get on the Fung Wah Chinatown bus years ago), Riba told a story about a historic synagogue in the neighborhood that, to celebrate it restoration and reopening, had a party for the neighborhood and served egg creams and egg rolls.

We were heading to Vanessa's for some dumplings, and we missed it the first time down the block because Riba was looking for a slightly dingy hole-in-the-wall but since she last visited the shop had expanded into the space next door and added tables and a long bar to stand against and watch them cook your order.

In this photo, Alexis is on the right, but I really took the photo to remember the insane woman on the far left. She was in line behind us, and was one of those crazy old New Yorkers (I'm related to enough to spot them) who spent the whole time in line complaining about the last time she had been there, and then took her first two minutes with the cashier relating the riveting story of how the dumplings had been lukewarm by the time she'd gotten them home the week before, and then when the cashier tried to get her to order, decided that the cashier must not speak English so she repeated her complaints, this time shouting slowly. Finally she ordered, and then hovered around the people making the food telling them to make sure the food was hot.

Watching all this was a good way to pass the time until our food came up. Here's what we got:

Starting at 11:00 and moving clockwise, it's pork buns, fried dumplings, and some seriously delicious wontons in a spicy sauce. Alexis ordered the wontons, and frankly I wasn't expecting much from them, but the spicy sauce, the chives and green onions on top, and the filling of vegetables and little shrimps was a winning combination.

First stop: Guss' Pickles

Until a few years ago, I hated pickles. In high school, I almost threw up when I saw a guy on the side of College Avenue in Oakland chugging pickle juice from a jar.

But I do love vinegar, and so slowly I came around. Cornichons really paved the way for me. So when Riba suggested first stop pickles, and Alexis was across the street and sort of hungry-speedwalking towards the barrels set out under the awning on the sidewalk at Guss' even before Riba had finished her sentence, I happily followed.

It was pretty exciting. There were all sorts of pickles as well as other sorts of pickled vegetables, and once we agreed on our selection, the guy behind the barrel reached in, bagged them up, and traded us some small change for some good pickles.

First, we tried the sour pickle:

As you can see, it lived up to its name. As did the spicy pickle, which was next in this particular pickle flight. They were bright tasting, slightly cool, and very crunchy.

We finished those standing on the sidewalk, and were ready for more. So Alexis shelled out the thirty cents or so it took to procure a pickled tomato:

Okay, the face was a bit gratuitous because it wasn't very sour. In fact, it didn't taste like much. Maybe pickled tomatoes is one of those acquired tastes, or perhaps it's a food whose actual time has come and gone and which is drifting along on the nostalgia of another generation.

Lower East Side tasting tour

When my sister Alexis and I were in New York, we visited my friend Riba.

Riba and I have a long history of mutual food obsession. In high school and college, we worked in the same restaurants, and when we traveled together the summers after my first and fourth year of college, we'd fall asleep every night talking about food- reliving the food conquests of the day and fantasizing about still more foods we wanted to eat.

So really, it makes total sense that when we went to stay with her, we'd end up turning the day into a roaming food festival. It started simply enough: sleeping in after a late flight in the night before; a breakfast of waffles, eggs, and homemade jam; and the decision to walk across the Williamsburg Bridge and go to the Tenement Museum, which I'd been wanting to go to for years.

When we got to the Tenement Museum, we discovered that the tour we wanted to go on (it's not really a "museum" so much as a gift shop where you buy tickets to one of the many building tours they offer) wasn't for an hour and a half. So we had some time to kill. Or to eat. So we embarked on a whirlwind tasting tour of the neighborhood.

The tasting team:

Riba, our fearless leader

Alexis, aka Frosting Shot

And me, "have spoon, will travel"