Saturday, January 30, 2010

Comfort Me with Samosas

I can't remember the very first time I had a samosa--probably in my grad school days, foraging for cheap eats around Central Square and Kenmore Square--but I knew on the first bite I instantly fell in love with it.

Recently I went into a samosa hunt. The samosa at the famous Amber India is good but didn't satisfy me--a little too grand with the chickpeas and pricey for this great humble snack. I heard Vik's Chaat Corner's is the best but the trek to Berkeley is a bit out of the way for me.

Finally, I read about Rajjot Sweets and Snacks deep in suburban Sunnyvale. The eatery was elusive to spot, sitting next to a corner gas station. Normally, I don't associate the two together. Thank God for the large window signage, "Fresh Indian Fast Food", I found the place after criscrossing half of Sunnyvale.

As soon as I walked in I knew this place would have great samosa. On the wall menu above the counter it said "Samosa order $.60 each". Proper samosa should be less than a buck. I ordered a bunch and ate one there together with my lunch plate of chicken curry and basmati rice with slivers of red onion, all washed down by refreshing mangolassi in a clear plastic cup. I must say, lunching in plastic and styrofoam ware has a certain je ne sais quoi. Everything was fantastic! I spent about $10 for the whole thing, including my precious take-out samosas.

Later that night, I wolfed down the rest of the samosa with glasses of wine. Fried in ghee, its thick, buttery crust and dense, spicy filling really constitute a meal--a real samosa must weigh about a pound each. Just kidding, but that's how it felt in my tummy. Anyway, with a sparkling Cava from German Gilabert it was heavenly, really like having tapas. And with a glass of a firm Marsannay Rouge from Regis Bouvier the samosa went down like butter, or should I say ghee.

Rajjot Sweets and Snacks
1234 South Wolfe Road
Sunnyvale, CA

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lunch with My Motorola Cliq

My Motorola Cliq phone has a 5-megapixel camera, which is kinda fun to play with when I'm lunching alone. Quality is surprisingly good, but the big downer is it still takes hours to email photos out of the phone.

Banh Mi at Out the Door in San Francisco

Pho with raw beef fillets at Out the Door in San Francisco

Half-plate of Spaghetti Carbonara at Caffe Roma in Millbrae

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Château Falfas: Glorifying Elegance in Bordeaux

The unassuming couple who owns Château Falfas in the Côtes de Bourg area of Bordeaux visited me several years ago. I've never had the pleasure of knowing or tasting their wines before, but after our meeting I became a fan.

Côtes de Bourg is on the right bank of the Gironde River, a fringe appellation as opposed to the big-time communes of the Medoc, where the great, pricey classed growths come from. Yet, Côtes de Bourg wines are not only unpretentiously priced, the quality can be very good as well. Its hilly terrain with gravel and clay-limestone soils suit not just Merlot, which is the prevalent grape varietal on the right bank, but also the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon.

Humble appellations like Côtes de Bourg are where small family vignerons still thrive in Bordeaux. Many still make wines in the older style claret--more rustic, leaner, and lighter, exhibiting less of the dense, dark, gobs of fruit prevalent in the hyped-up Bordeaux today.

With limited finances, small family vignerons can't afford to make international style wines anyway. What with the costs of hiring a renowned consulting oenologist, pruning and sorting heavily to lower yields, operating concentrating machines, and purchasing new barrels. Yet, a few ambitious ones, like Château Falfas, go native rather than international.

Château Falfas is a 17th century estate situated on the favorable hills of Côtes de Bourg, with clay over limestone soils. John and Veronique Cochran took over the property in 1988 after Veronique's father, an expert on biodynamic farming, scouted the place for them. They converted the vineyards to biodynamic viticulture from the outset, one of the earliest Bordeaux estates to do so. Winemaking is totally natural--indigenous yeast, no concentrators, no chaptalization, and no filtration. The resulting wines are light, upright, juicy, and particular.

Amidst the backlash hurled at Bordeaux by serious wine geeks these days, I bring up Château Falfas not only because it reminded me of Bordeaux of yore--even geeky wines of the Loire, Jura, and the upper reaches of northern Italy--but I also thought about Eric Asimov's New York Times article on Bordeaux under $20 this week.

Château Falfas makes a second wine, Les Demoiselles, that doesn't even break $15. It's made from the estate's younger vines, and is fermented and aged in stainless steel tank. I like the light, austere flavors of this wine; the acidity is not hidden and the juiciness of the fruit keeps me coming back. I don't need a big steak with this wine, a simple roast chicken or banh mi sandwich would do; or if I want something grander, a roast quail or duck.

Gems like Château Falfas keep me interested in Bordeaux.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sweet, Salty, Bitter, Spicy, and Sparkling at Grain

I was back at Grain last night, bringing with me two bottles to enjoy with the minimalist, eclectic menu. The Golden Star White Jasmine Sparkling Tea was a hit. Even Richard Ju, Grain's chef, enjoyed it, though he looked like he can use a stiffer drink as he was slammed this night.

Three simple, natural ingredients in this sparkling tea--organically-farmed silver needle jasmine tea, organic raw sugarcane juice, and carbon-filtered California Sierra mountain water--brewed and fermented together result in that elusive umami flavor. Pale and slightly frothy, its scent is intensely fragrant as brewed jasmine tea with a dollop of honey. Effervescent, light on the palate, and slightly sweet. Though no fruit was used in the blend, it shows not just complex tea flavors, but tart pear and apple as well! What a terrific drink with the biting, crunchy appetizers that Richard laid out.

Charred brussels sprouts in a sweet, citrusy fish sauce vinaigrette

Crisp oyster crepe in coconut sauce, topped with baby oysters, bean sprouts and sriracha

Chicken in turmeric and curry with pickled cucumber and onion

Baby back ribs with braised cabbage and fried potatoes

With the baby back ribs I drank the magnificent 2007 François Chidaine Vouvray Clos Baudoin, made from over seventy-year-old Chenin Blanc vines in the historic Prince Poniatowski estate. During Poniatowski's time he crafted this either in sec, demi-sec or moelleux, depending on the vintage. Since Chidaine I've only seen it dry.

Drier and purer than the 2005, and showing no trace of the exotic or of botrytis, this 2007 Vouvray exuded scents of white fruits, straw, and ginger candy. Bright, austere, very persistent flavors that highlight the wine's elegance and minerality. Its very vibrancy swallowed every bite of the ribs without resistance, making me reach for the glass with increasing frequency. A surprise pairing!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Grain Restaurant and Noodle Bar (shades of Momofuku!)

This is a first glimpse of Grain Restaurant and Noodle Bar in Daly City.

First of all, I can't think of an eatery in the Bay Area remotely resembling the radically new Grain. The closest parallel is Momofuku in New York City, which is apparently an inspiration for Richard Ju, the chef and proprietor of Grain. But, as Richard says, he is definitely heeding the advice of Momofuku honcho, David Chang, to "go do what you want to do". From the looks of his place alone that's exactly what Richard is off to.

Grain is deep in the gritty Asian enclave off King Drive in Daly City, next to the Manila Oriental Market and a host of Filipino and Chinese mom-and-pops. One usually treks in this strip mall if there's a hankering for dim sum, fried lumpia, or Hongkong DVDs. But Grain is discreetly tucked in a corner, with its minimalist name and signage. It's Asian, alright, but it's definitely a destination place in this setting.

I started with the lunch special starter of Deep Fried Silken Tofu ($3) in a puddle of soy vinaigrette with ginger shavings. The skin was crispy, the tofu inside soft and silken, and the vinaigrette and ginger pungent. I scarfed it down in a minute.

Next up, compliments of the chef, as he probably eyed how I made that appetizer disappear, was an amuse bouche of something totally unexpected. Fried yukon gold tater tots and slivers of chorizo in a chipotle-lime aioli dressing. It was like a deconstructed hash brown sausage. One bite was a mouthful of crunchiness and spiciness binded by the creamy, citrusy aioli. Crazy world food, dude!

My lunch was developing into a grazing session now. The bowl of the house specialty Spicy Pork Noodle Soup ($8.50) arrived replete with floating chicharron. Though the bright chili red color of the soup was daunting, it started out quite mild. I squeezed a lemon wedge and added a few drops of patis (fish sauce), then the spiciness started to build and I was slurping with gusto.

Finally to dessert. How can I pass up Mitchell's ice cream? Of course I ordered the trio of mango, ube (taro root), and macapuno (coconut) ($5).

But wait...! The chef asked me if I still had room for a new dessert he just created and would I like to test-drive it? Um, okay (hooray!). It was a slice of Port-poached pear, leaning on a block of goat cheese with a sabayon sauce. A beautfiul dessert that taste just as lovely.

I promised I'll be back Friday, and I'll lug some wines with me. Hey, care to join me?

Grain Restaurant and Noodle Bar
950 King Drive
Suite #125
Daly City, CA 94015
Tues-Sun for lunch
Tues-Sat for dinner
Closed Monday

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Binondo Christmas

To my late father-in-law, who knew Binondo well and inspired me to discover it.

I was in Manila for barely four days last week--Christmas week--called back for an unexpected and sad journey with my wife. Fortunately, I still found a few hours in the day to escape and put my sad feelings aside for the brighter side of life.

On my second day in Manila, just two days before Christmas, I invited my youngest brother and his family for lunch in Binondo, where my father-in-law, during one of my infrequent visits to Manila took me to the original Mañosa, famous for take-out Maki. This fried pork cutlet, drowned in thick broth-infused red sauce, is irresistible over steaming rice or noodles.

Located on the north side of Pasig River in Manila is the old district of Binondo. Founded in the 16th Century, this teeming, crowded section of narrow streets and canals that feed into Pasig has been a settlement for traders and merchants for centuries. Since being settled, Binondo has been an enclave for Chinese-Filipinos or Chinoys, hence the place is also referred to as Manila Chinatown.

The district's epicenter is the landmark Binondo Church, which was built in 1596, and is also known today as the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, after the sainted Chinese mestizo, Lorenzo Ruiz.

Aside from being a haven for the religious, Binondo was for centuries the Philippines' trading center. And until the 1960s, it was where the dominant bourse, the Manila Stock Exchange operated.

In Binondo, the Pasig may occasionally overflow, but that's nothing compared to swarm of people that constantly flood its narrow, crowded streets. To feed this teeming humanity are the numerous eateries and street-food vendors.

At Panciteria Lido I find the essence of Binondo in the food it serves. A panciteria is the equivalent of a tea house or a café. Though pancit is erroneously referred to by Filipinos as a noodle dish, the Hokkien (my father-in-law's Chinese dialect) word actually means food cooked quickly. Mee, is the Hokkien word for noodle. Hence, a panciteria would serve all sorts of noodle dishes, dim sum fare, and a slew of wok-fired and clay-pot dishes.

Panciteria Lido is an institution in Binondo (recently it branched out in Ortigas and Fairview in Quezon City). It was opened in 1936 by a Chinese cook named Lido, who started a huge following by serving a combination of Chinese and Spanish-Filipino dishes--noodles, steamed buns, roast pork, braised beef and potatoes--washed down not just by tea, but by excellently brewed coffee. How's that for Filipino fusion!

Aside from local folks, the eatery is frequented by celebrities and powerful politicians. Many come for its unique brewed coffee, made from roasted beans grown in the Philippine provinces. And as early as 1994, Lido installed very expensive Siphon coffee-makers, fifteen years ahead of San Francisco's Blue Bottle Coffee!

After lunch, I walked the streets of Binondo, with its vendors spilling on the narrow sidewalks, hawking their wares to Christmas shoppers. I snapped photos as I wondered at the craziness of the scenes. The streets were clogged with vehicles and hawkers, including locals who find it a conducive place to repair a tricycle. A pedicab passing by with a Chihuahua atop its roof. And my favorite--castañas (chestnut) roasters blocking the street corners!

In my mind, I wished my father-in-law could still show me the Binondo he knew.