San Francisco

After a chilling winter in the East Coast (it snowed in DC on the second day of my SF trip) and a two-year hiatus, I decided to spend my Spring Break holiday in one of my favorite cities, San Francisco.  It is definitely a big change of locale for me as its energy is totally different and refreshing from the East Coast vibe, who tends to get suffocating after a while. Besides the nicer weather and change of scenery, one thing I enjoy and look forward to is a wide variety of restaurants that can be attributed to the cosmopolitan feel of the city and the different culinary influences stemming from the various immigration groups that have landed in the Bay Area.  Without much further ado, here is a quick run down of places that I visited in one week.

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Since I was visiting my college buddy dating back to the first day of Graduate school in Maryland 24 years ago, he chose our first meal to celebrate his birthday at Cha Cha Cha in the Haight neighborhood.  This local chain has a few branches in the area and it serves up a menu that represents various Latino culinary traditions, or Pan Latino.  Our opener was the popular pickled seafood, Ceviche, that was brimming with small shrimp, bay scallops (the smaller ones), and squid.  The seafood morsels were sweet and tender, well pickled by the lime juice, and fragrant with some jalapeño pepper and cilantro.  A side of sweet plantains were as good as they get, accompanied by a smooth paste of refried black beans.  The seafood paella was rather decent with pieces of shrimp, tender pieces of fish and some mussels, embedded in some aromatic rice made yellow sans the pricey saffron threads.  However the Jerk Chicken was not close to any authentic version that I have savored – it was tasty but the name was a total misnomer.  Despite the last dish, this meal was a pretty good start to my gastronomic week.

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For his birthday dinner, my buddy chose Cafe Ethiopia in the Mission District.   Our orders arrived on a large enameled platter covered with the sourdough injera bread, topped by the various protein and vegetables.  I was quite impressed by the dishes since each was very tasty and held its distinctive flavor and character while setting themselves apart from each other.  The orders that impressed me most were the collard greens, the lentils, and the salmon dish that had moist chunks of the seafood covered by a tasty but not overpowering sauce.  An order of goat was a bit unfortunate as a bit more cooking would have made them less tough.  The extra pieces of injera bread were the perfect vehicle to scoop up the food and the accompanying sauces.  One of the guests exclaimed that this was the best Ethiopian food he has tasted in the Bay Area. and I must agree that it was as good as the ones found in the DC area replete with restaurants of this East African cuisine.

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Staying at the Haight district, I stumbled across this little dive serving Thai food – The Best of Thai Noodle.  I must say that such name tends to conjure up some suspicion, but I decided to give them a try for lunch.  I ordered the Combination Of Sliced Rare Beef, Beef Stew, And Beef Meatballs Noodle Soup since I was in the mood for such a noodle soup dish on a cool day.  The bowl arrived with strands of wide rice noodles swimming in a very rich fragrant soup filled with pieces of stewed beef pieces and beef meatballs.  With my first bite, I recognized the dish that I have had recently – Boat Market Noodle Soup.  Upon enquiring, the waitress confirmed my observation.  This bowl was as good as the one I had a few months back in Thai Square with the heady cassia and star-anise laced soup, the tender pieces of beef and meatballs, and the fresh noodles.  Looking at the menu, this small joint offers an amazing array of authentic dishes from this Southeast Asian tradition.  This establishment is definitely worth checking out despite its rather dingy appearance.

The Slanted Door

The Slanted DoorFor lunch the next day, I decided to go Vietnamese, and I stopped by the most reputed Vietnamese restaurant in the area located in the Embarcadero Ferry Terminal – The Slanted Door.  I had eaten at this establishment a few years back and I was looking forward to it again after the absence.  For the starter, I ordered some Chilled Wild Louisiana Gulf Shrimp.  Large pieces of shrimp came with sides of chili spiced cocktail sauce and a Thai basil aioli.  The shellfish were perfectly cooked and their sweetness in each bite was indicative of the freshness and quality, complemented by the irresistible sauces.  For the main course, I ordered the Grilled Pork Belly and Meatball Rice Vermicelli Noodles.  Basically this is the supped up version of the Bun Noodle Salad enhanced by large pieces of moist savory grilled meatballs, tender pieces of tasty pork belly, and pieces of the house Imperial Roll made with chunks of shrimp and ground pork- this was a hearty, satisfactory and flavor-packed bowl.

The Slanted DoorFor dessert, I couldn’t help but hone in on something whimsical listed on the menu despite feeling rather full after the above dishes – Lemongrass Cotton Candy.  A big cloud of this spun sugar arrived at my table that left me bug-eyed by the unexpected size – I guess I have not been to the local fair in a number of years.  When the dessert arrived, I slowly tore pieces away from it, with a bigger amount each time.  It is basically your typical cotton candy with a citrusy and slightly grassy lemongrass flavor that made this childhood favorite as irresistible to the now adult.  I literally had to stop myself from finishing the whole mass and I got the rest packed for home.  The meal at this Modern Vietnamese restaurant was worth every dollar spent with the high level of cooking, the artful presentation, and the authentic flavors that left me satisfied and dreaming of this gastronomic experience.  Btw, don’t forget the Lychee Ice Tea that made the perfect thirst quencher with the above dishes – exotic and refreshing at the same time.

Spicy Eggplant and Mushrooms.Golden Era Lemongrass "Chicken"

No where is better to try Vegan/Vegetarian cuisine than in the West Coast, and I returned to my and BFF’s favorite establishment- Golden Era Vegan Restaurant.  A vegetable dish that we have enjoyed and always ordered is Spicy Eggplant Mushroom.  Pieces of purple skinned Asian eggplant are paired with fresh button mushrooms, crunchy carrots, slivers of onion, and large pieces of green onions, all coated in a slightly sweet spicy sauce that brings all the different elements together harmoniously.  A must order is the house’s most popular dish, and rightfully so – Lemongrass Deluxe.  Pieces of mock chicken have been spiced up by a heady amount of shaved lemongrass and a dry spicy sauce, ringed by crispy bright green broccoli florets that make the perfect mild foil to the herbacious spicy “chicken” bits.  The platter comes with a generous amount of the protein, and this dish always delivers.  I have spent days dreaming before coming to the West to savor this vegan delight.  Word of warning: it is located in the seedy Tenderloin neighborhood but walking distance from downtown, hence the importance of having a dining companion with you for the walk.

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Suzu Japanese Noodle HouseWith a large population of Japanese descent, it would be amiss to not savor authentic Japanese cuisine in Japantown, located in the Fillmore neighborhood.  That is where I headed to for lunch one day to savor some Japanese Ramen noodles in Suzu Japanese Noodle House recommended by my college buddy.  Agedashi was the first order, consisting of tofu chunks that have been fried in a light batter, sitting on a pool of dashi sauce and topped with a piece of eggplant tempura, grated daikon and fresh ginger, and slivers of bonito flakes and dried seaweed.  This was a bowl of clean pure flavors that just left a serene contentment within.  For the main course, I ordered Spicy Pork and Egg in Spicy Broth Ramen. The bowl came with a mound of al dente egg Ramen noodles topped by a single sliver of roast pork (meat as a garnish, not main course), half a boiled egg, pieces of bamboo shoot pickle, raw spinach leaves, and topped by a mound of white leek strips.  The soup was a fairly rich meat stock spiced up by some slightly smoky chili paste.  The bamboo spoon to help slurp the soup added a level of authenticity in addition to the small diner that whisked me away to a cramped eatery in the Far East.  Be prepared to be patient for a table in this small establishment, but it is worth the wait.

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_6002278.jpgOne of my favorite parts of the city is North Beach where many Italian eateries can be found.  Caffe Greco is a spacious deli that serves Paninis, and my order made with Prosciutto ham, Mozzarella cheese, and Red Pepper was the perfect afternoon bite with the salty meat, mild and slightly creamy cheese, and the pickled red pepper slivers that added the acid touch and herbal oregano flavors to the airy pieces of pressed Foccacia bread that held the fillings together.  My companion’s sandwich made with turkey and large ribbons of zucchini was equally successful, albeit milder in flavor.  The accompanying side salad was well-made with the right amount of balsamic vinaigrette coating the healthy mix of a variety of lettuces, making the lunch complete. To chase the bites down, we ordered the house special, Grecco Sunrise.  A tall glass of Orangina is spiked with a shot of cherry syrup which turned it orangey red at the lower half, hence its name.  It was the perfect sip with our sandwiches in this part of town that evokes the Mediterranean.

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_6002353.jpgFor dinner, my college mate invited me for some raw seafood at Sushi Time in the Castro area.  Located in a small mall, this cramped space has only a few tables along with the sushi bar, and when we got there, a line was waiting for a table.  An opener of a Seaweed Salad and a Cooked Spinach Salad were simple but tasty appetizers.  The Avocado Tuna Tartar was delectable with pieces of spicy tune paired with creamy avocado punctuated by pieces of fresh asparagus.  The pieces of sushi tasted clean and fresh, as good as most good sushi joints, and there was a good variety for the diner.  What stood out for us was a serving of Butterfish sashimi which exuded clean yet a rich unctuous texture and flavor.  The set menus are reasonable and priced competitively. Like the ramen eatery, it is worth the wait and the cramp space has that Japanese urban feel.
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I was the honored guest of a brunch hosted by a Facebook social group that I am a member of, and we met at Catch in the Castro neighborhood.  This spacious space serves American fare with a heavy emphasis on seafood.  What caught my attention was the Salmon BLT which came with an option of a simple salad, Ceaser salad, or french fries – where else can you find a seafood BLT but in Cali!  My sandwich came with perfect sautéed salmon fillets with a crispy exterior but moist inside, topped by crispy bacon and spicy arugula leaves, moistened by a citrus aioli, enclosed by pieces of crispy french baguette.  I really enjoyed this sandwich with the well cooked and well matched ingredients.  The side Caesar salad was creamy with the rich tangy dressing and shards of Parmesan cheese.  Everyone in the group seemed to enjoy their pasta or seafood dishes.  If only I could have tasted someone’s seafood soup that looked very temptingly rich and brimming with pieces of the sea.

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For my last meal before heading to the airport, we walked up to Cole Valley to La Boulange (not Le Boulanger).  This is a local chain that has branches in many parts of town, serving up French pastries, meals, and drinks. My mini sandwich of Smoked Salmon was excellent with the quality fish paired with a slathering of cream cheese and bits of red onion and green chives sandwiched by the well-made roll.  An order of Almond Croissant hit the right spot with the short flakiness of its dough (not stretchy elastic) sweetened by the rich almond paste filling and accentuated by a plethora of toasted almond slivers on top – it is one of the best almond croissants I have tasted in a long time.  My friend’s French Toast was decadent, consisting of a round sponge cake dipped in an eggy custard (real eggs) and cooked gently to produce a light ethereal version of this breakfast staple, washed down by a decent “bol” of roasted Cafe au Lait.  For my flight home, I took out a Walnut Baguette with Prosciutto and Figs, which was an interesting tasty combination.  A dessert of Lemon Custard Turnover was the perfect flaky pastry with the rich sweet lemony filling that made me wish I had another order – it definitely sweetened the long-haul home.  Now, I see why reviewers give this chain an overwhelming thumbs-up, and deserving so.

Ah, San Francisco – The city of Beauty and Great Eats! Here is my photo essay of the city: San Francisco

Pasta Plus

Volterra over Villa IreneRecently I received an e-mail from my cousin, who resides in London, teasing me with her account of a trip to Sienna, Italy, filled with a touch of giddiness since she was visiting during the middle of the coveted truffle season. This correspondence brought back memories of two summers ago when my family and I spent time with her in her expansive villa in the middle of the Tuscan countryside overlooked by the walled Etruscan city of Volterra. On this trip, I learned three things: that time moved slower and less-rushed which made all of us take our experiences in at a leisurely pace, that life still goes on without having to stay in touch with all the world’s goings-on’s (this is attributed to the absence of cellphones, internet, and media), and there was sheer beauty everywhere, whether in the arts, the weathered buildings, the breath-taking vistas, or in the delicious food, which captivated me with its taste, freshness, simplicity, and creativity. The cuisine that I savored across waters opened my eyes to a new-found appreciation for Italian food, beyond the usual Italian-American fare that has become rather average and uninspiring to my palate.

Upon returning back to this side of the world, I was determined to find good restaurants that could replicate that same level of quality that I grew fond of, and I have written on a few Italian restaurants on my blog. Here is an addition to that list.

Pasta Plus lies in the middle of a dead mini strip mall in the heart of traffic-busy Laurel, MD, a suburb off a major highway connecting Washington DC and Baltimore. Located in the middle island dividing the north and south bound lanes of busy Route 1, it is hard to imagine that there is any commercial life there besides an Arby’s and a muffler shop. Walking past its plain-looking glass door, you immediately encounter quite a vibrant life within its four walls, a rather bustling dinner crowd and a brick oven within your line of sight that is exuding the smell of baked yeasty dough and tempting you with crusty pizzas topped with colorful ingredients. Crates of wines hanging above in the walls and the woven rope seats in the dining area immediately transport you to a good Trattoria that is inviting, and it builds up a sense of anticipation for something worth tasting. For this review, I made a several trips to get a good sampling of their offerings.

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In addition to a standard menu, Pasta Plus offers daily and seasonal specials that change according to what is available. For the starter, I ordered the seasonal specials of Sautéed Mushrooms and on another visit, Fresh Mozzarella and Marinated Artichokes. Thick slivers of Portabello mushroom have been cooked with lots of garlic, which makes it the natural seasoning partner to this fungi. Pungent pieces of toasted garlic enhanced the woodsiness of the mushroom which made them very tasty. The thick pieces had a rather firm texture and robust flavor that made the dish satisfying, especially paired with pieces of the house-baked sourdough bread. The second appetizer arrived in a beautiful arrangement, all replicating the colors of the Italian flag. Wedges of mozzarella tasted very mild and smooth with its slight creamy freshness teasing the tongue. The artichoke halves were marinated in tangy red wine vinegar (judging by its red tint) and they equally exuded freshness while lacking any tin-flavor found in pre-packaged versions. I marvelled at how the tangy vegetable enhanced the mild cheese, and they made good complementary partners in this dish. Good starters indeed.

DSC_2312.jpgOn one occasion, a dining companion decided to order the seasonal special of Zuppa di Zucca, or Butternut Soup. When I saw it on the menu, it was not a dish that was exactly screaming for my attention since I’ve tried many versions of this recipe. When his bowl arrived at the table, I was curious by the yellow-tinged soup. With the first spoonful, my friend was marvelling how good the sips were, and I knew I had to partake in his bowl. After a taste, I was amazed by the flavors and the first thing came to mind was “butternut chowder”. The hot liquid had the distinctive squash flavor without overwhelming the tongue with its natural sweetness. But what makes the soup delectable is a level of savoriness brought by the use of a good stock that is aromatic and has body, and the use of a touch of cream that brought some smoothness and unctuousness to the humble ingredient. I couldn’t stop at just a few spoonfuls, and I must have drunk at least a third of that bowl.
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DSC_2733.jpgEvery entrée at this eatery comes with a complementary salad that is proper and made with a variety of enticing lettuce leafs and slices of vegetables. To break the mould, I decided to order two types of salads. The first is Arugula, Radicchio, Mushroom and Parmigiano Salad. A plate of crispy arugula leaves arrived with slivers of mushroom and Parmigiano ribbons strewn on top. The bitterness of the arugula, a flavor that I enjoy in vegetables like many Italians do, was balanced by the mild button mushrooms and the creamy saltiness of the fresh Parmigiano that tempered the other flavors. As its dressing, the Creamy Italian had the right amount of acidity and sweetness to tie the disparate elements together in a forkful. Another salad on the menu is a favorite appetizer of mine as well as my friends – Seafood Salad. Pieces of whole shrimp, calamari rings, and scallops sit on a mound of red and green oak leaves, surrounded by a ring of mussels in shell. What is truly amazing is the kitchen’s skilfulness in cooking the seafood perfectly – the sweet shrimp not rubbery, the calamari fork tender, the scallops moist and flaky, and the mussels still plump and juicy. What brings these elements together is a marinate of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil that adds some fresh fruitiness to the salad along with a good hit of fresh Italian parsley. This dish brings back wonderful memories of all the wonderful seafood dishes during my Italian trip, and it definitely ranks up there with those dishes. For an appetizer, it is packed with fresh seafood and it is worth the order – Buonissimo!

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DSC_2747.jpgNo reputable Italian restaurant will have its breads and pizza missing from its menu, and the restaurant’s strength can be found in the Pizzas and Paninis that they make. A friend’s Vegetarian Pizza arrived with the dough cooked just right with some singed marks from having spent only a short time in the searing wood-burning brick oven. The thin crust had lots of flavor from the yeast fermentation, a tinge of salt, and a faint aroma of the wood, while the tomato sauce tasted fresh and not paste-like commonly found in other versions. The slices of eggplant, zucchini, mushroom and pieces of broccoli still had their textural integrity but without the raw flavors due to the high heat cooking. In true Italian fashion, cheese was absent from the pizza, which I found to be the case in all the pizzas on the Continent, to which a bowl of shaved Parmigiano was left for the diner’s discretion. On another occasion for lunch, I ordered Grilled Panini with Prosciutinni and Mozzarella. Pieces of house-made Foccacia bread sandwiched thin slices of fresh Prosciutinni and fresh Mozzarella, moistened by a red-pepper coulis spread. The spongy bread was yeasty and faintly herbal from some rosemary and oregano, the spread naturally sweet, encompassing the mildly salty Italian ham and the mild-tasting fresh cheese. The grilling under a weighted press compressed the elements together while heating the sandwich up and giving it an outer crispness. Amazingly, the compressed sandwich still felt light to the bite, and the flavors were rather mild with all the elements holding their distinctive characteristics.

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DSC_2742.jpgThe true litmus test for an Italian restaurant is its Risotto and Pasta dishes. For the seasonal special, I honed on Shrimp and Asparagus Risotto. This dish was a true delight with the medium-grain rice cooked slightly creamy while holding its integrity and tasting very savory from the use of a good seafood stock and some Parmigiano cheese. The pieces of shrimp were moist and tender, devoid of any rubberiness, and the pieces of asparagus cooked well without being mushy. All the elements were in perfect harmony, and this dish is a true Italian classic combination of ingredients which sang beautifully in my mouth. For lunch, a friend ordered Linguine Frutti di Mare. A nest of dried egg pasta cooked al dente (Continental al dente, which is a bit too firm for most Americans) sat under a heaping mound of calamari rings, scallops, clams, and shrimp, surrounded by opened mussels. The sauce was full-bodied and savory made from garlic, white wine, seafood stock, spiked by a pinch of dried red pepper flakes, and finished with a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Again, we see the kitchen’s skilful treatment of every ingredient especially the seafood elements that were perfectly cooked and tender. The good quality dried pasta and its al dente cooking are what I really appreciated as it added the necessary satisfactory body to the dish. This dish is quite pricey for dinner but worth a splurge; the lunch order is a better deal though. As with all the other meat and seafood entrees, a side dish of fresh egg pasta is served with the light tomato sauce, which again points to the restaurant’s high standards.

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After a few visits to Pasta Plus, my friends and I have become fond of a specific dish served in this eatery: Lasagna. Now, you may cringe and wince at the thought of a stodgy and heavy layered pie that most of us have grown up eating in this country. But this version is quite the opposite of what we are accustomed to. Layers of light fresh egg pasta are interspersed by a thin coating of ricotta along with layers of minced beef Bolognese sauce, topped with a coating of fresh tomato sauce. What makes this slice different is the lack of mozzarella and Parmigiano cheese that would weigh the dish down. Furthermore, the use of fresh pasta brings a delicate and light touch to the dish, and you can literally cut it like an airy layered cake; no knife is needed here, just the fork and a hungry mouth. On another visit, I decided to order its vegetarian counterpart – Lasagne Verde or Spinach Lasagna. Sheets of egg spinach pasta alternate in between thin layers of ricotta, with bits of fresh peas studded in between that provided some textural interest. The ricotta had a slight sponginess due to some egg mixed into it, thus there was some structural integrity that was devoid of mushiness. The pasta sheets were slightly green from the use of spinach leaves but it was a bit too thin and soft in certain parts. The fresh tomato sauce was just as good as the meat version, and it added the acidic tanginess to cut through the rich cheese – this is a worthy meatless dish indeed. In addition to this offering, there is a handful of other vegetarian dishes worth ordering.

Torta di ZabaglioneTartufo Gelato

No decent Italian meal is complete without a sampling of the Dolci, or desserts. During most visits, I was rather stuffed from the wonderfully delectable dishes, but on the rare occasion, I ordered a taste of their sweet offerings. For a special, I was curious when Torta Zabaglione was listed on the menu. The cake arrived with layers of sponge cake that has been layered with some Zabaglione sauce made from egg yolks and Marsala wine. The slice was fragrant and quite light, enriched by the rich yet light sauce carrying some sweet oakey notes from the spiced wine. This was an awesome combination, and my friends and I wished we had ordered another slice – a truly inspiring cake, albeit made for the adult. Another occasion called for Tartufo Gelato as the sweet ending. A dark chocolate and vanilla ice-cream ball is studded with a maraschino cherry and shards of slivered almonds, encased by a thin layer of dark chocolate. I enjoyed the good quality ice-cream especially its chocolate intensity, complemented by the crunchy fragrant almond pieces and the sweet cherry center. The thick outer coating echoed the ice-cream’s chocolatiness with its slight bitter tannine like qualities that cut through the rich creaminess, which I appreciated since I’m a chocoholic. What amazed me was the delicate and not over-powering sweetness, which reminded me of the gelatos and desserts in Italy that we inhaled daily. For my friend who was celebrating his birthday, this ice-cream “truffle” was truly a happy ending for him even in the middle of winter!

Pasta Plus is truly a hidden treasure offering an amazing variety of authentic Italian dishes that you may not find in most Italian restaurants, serving up dishes that are refined and tasty due to a skilful and well-seasoned kitchen. What I most appreciate about this establishment is its honoring of what good authentic Italian cooking is about: fresh and top-quality ingredients, creative and seasonal dishes, and a true understanding of its culinary tradition to produce time-tested top quality authentic dishes. The service is congenial and efficient, the rope-woven seats a bit passé and not always comfortable, and the space a bit cramped when the place is packed full. In addition, the restaurant does not take any reservations. But it is worthwhile putting up with a few inconveniences because a meal here will erase the wait for a table, and it will make you dream of the gastronomic delights for the next few days, course by course, and in my case, also bring back wonderful memories of sun-filled Tuscany. Now, that’s worth dreaming about, day and night.

Pasta Plus on Urbanspoon

Ristorante Piccolo

After spending nearly a week on the West Coast (see blog on LA/Pasadena) and battling an excruciating sinus infection on the way back on the plane the night before, I mustered enough energy on a beautiful spring day to trek down to Georgetown in order to use an online coupon for an Italian restaurant before it would expire a few days later.  Having such an affinity for Italian cuisine, I could not help myself but purchase another coupon to sample the different eateries that could offer dishes as authentic as those I savored in the Tuscan region last summer, much like searching for a definitive interpretation and recording of a piece of music.

Visiting Georgetown has some serious challenges, mainly finding and paying for parking.  Ideally, street parking is the best since they are much more reasonable (free on Sundays) than the flat-rate garages that jack their rates up knowing that the public will have some serious challenges finding a space.  Since Georgetown is not metro accessible, one has no choice but to drive and park there, wishing that the Parking Gods are working to his favor.  And they were when I paid my visit.  I had to make one circle around the area before a pedestrian waved his keys to me before getting in his stretch limo and pulling out.  Even better, the restaurant was just the next street over.

DSC_7044.jpgRistorante Piccolo is the sister restaurant of Tuscana West (see blog), and it occupies a quaint converted row house along with many other restaurants on that row.  Immediately, you notice the upstairs balcony with a few tables jammed in that rather narrow space. Upon entering, I was told that by the young hostess that there were no tables available, except for those in a dark cavernous back room.  I requested a table close to the window so I could take some decent shots.  An older man, in chef’s garb, told me that the upstairs was only for reservations.  Being Easter Sunday, I did not protest and made my way to the bar as the holding area.  After 30 minutes, the young hostess told me that a table on the balcony was available – Yay! While I was waiting for the table to be cleared, the same older gentleman started to interrogate me on why would I want to take pictures in his restaurant stating that customers were already complaining about my photo-taking – I was puzzled as I had only taken a shot of an inner dining room with no-one in it.  After explaining that I wrote a food blog, he relented and showed me to my table.

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After waiting for quite some time, I placed my order, which was taken by Mr. Chef himself.  I decided to start with a plate of Italian cold cuts and cheese.  When it arrived, slices of Prosciutto ham, Sopressata, and Salami decked the plate along with a few unpitted olives (which I prefer than pitted), a couple of slivers of pickled peppers, and a couple of slices of Pecorino cheese.  The Prosciutto was a bit too thick, dry, and past its prime judging by the slight brown coloration on the meat, whereas the rest of the meatcuts were fine but nothing extraordinary.  The Pecorino was a bit too dry and perhaps has been sitting around a bit too long.  Nothing beats fresh pieces of sliced dried ham and sheep cheese that retain a fair amount of moistness along with its flavor.  A request for another piece of tasty sourdough bread never materialized, nor did I see much of my waiter. An OK Opening Act but I was not feeling too optimistic, and I was still reeling after “the interrogation.”

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DSC_7056.jpgFor the next course, I decided to try out the restaurant’s signature dish – Porcini Agnolotti.  These are Northern Italian style raviolis that have been stuffed with chopped Porcini mushrooms that exude a rich woodsiness while having a meaty texture in each bite.  The covering pasta was a light semi-translucent sheet that was more akin to wanton skins than fresh pasta.  The sage butter sauce provided the slight resin-like mintiness and the light creaminess in the sauce.  A hint of pecorino cheese added the further richness along with some nuttiness to these light heavenly pillows.  I must admit that four of these agnolottis for $18 was short on value for money but they were worth every bite.   Better Second Act.

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Seafood Pasta in Parchment Paper arrived as my main course, which was served by Mr. Chef himself.  Strands of al dente Spaghettini were covered by a tomato sauce that was made aromatic by fresh basil leaves, spiked with dried chili peppers, and enriched by seafood stock.  My dish had pieces of juicy and plump seafood – scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams.  This Sicilian classic is usually baked in a parchment paper until the pasta has absorbed the sauce and the seafood cooked.  I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed this restaurant’s rendition with its tasty sauce and fresh seafood.  However, the parchment paper lacked any burnt marks thus making this critic wonder if the dish ever made it to the oven.  Good Third Act, no doubt.

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Mr. Chef came up and took my plate away and asked me for my dessert order.  Since the restaurant offers the ever-present Tiramisu in half orders also, I decided to try a small portion of it.  He came back later apologizing that it had sold out, and he was really being super nice with me – hmmmm.  Using my newly found trusty Yelp application on the smart phone, I decided to order the Mango Mousse cake that many reviewers had raved about.  And rightfully so.  It was a light mousse that was still slightly wobbly (not too much gelatine), and it packed that rich yet unmistakable exotic mango flavor sitting on a layer of sponge cake.  Not being much of a sweet-tooth person, I was uncharacteristically diving into this with full gusto and savoring every forkful and morsel.   I feel that most desserts do not warrant my attention unless the calories are worth eating, and at this point I was not counting a single one.  Great Finale – Bravo.

Despite a faulty start and slow service, I enjoyed the dishes that I had savored at Ristorante Piccolo that day. Just like any relationship, if you can overlook an overbearing personality and slow response to one’s needs, things can warm up and get better with time or in this case, with subsequent courses. If you are patient enough, the experience may result in hitting the jackpot, like the Mango Mousse that won me over at this Italian Tratorria. If I happen to be strolling in Georgetown and battling hunger pangs, I will make another stopover to savor some of their tasty and well-made dishes, making sure I have room for that heavenly dessert.

Ristorante Piccolo on Urbanspoon

Tuscana West

Ever since my last summer’s trip to the Tuscan region of Italy, I have been on a gourmand’s mission to find veritable Italian cuisine similar to the dishes that I delightfully savored on “the trip worth a thousand bites” (a play on words from the expression “a painting worth a thousand words”).  A couple of weeks back, I posted a write-up on I Ricchi (see review) that was a delightful culinary experience but at the same time quite damaging to my pocketbook.   Some of my friends asked me how could they get the coupons that I used to visit these restaurants (easy, sign-up online), or whether I would write-up on an authentic Italian eatery that was more accessible and affordable.

I think the answer to the latter request lies in this review of Tuscana West.  I had heard of this Italian restaurant for a number of years now, but it did not make it on my culinary radar due to its location in the financial district of downtown DC, which makes getting there and parking a logistic nightmare most of the time.  However, a couple of coupons (yes, those again) popped up on my computer screen, and I decided to give it an opportunity.   A number of federal holidays falling on a Monday the last couple of months made it possible for me to drive downtown, park for free (after circling the block a number of times), and pop into their doors on two occasions.

The restaurant is located across from a grassy sloped park and on the ground floor of a nondescript office building.  Once stepping into the foyer, you sense the restaurant’s efforts to change the ambience of a utilitarian space into one of casual opulence consisting of a large wooden bar area, draping curtains to separate the dining areas,  a white stucco pizza oven, large painted frescoes on the walls, comfortable banquettes, and mood lighting to settle the customer into his or her chair.  The menu is quite extensive with the dishes listed in the usual separate courses, much like in the Continent.  I decided to focus on a variety of meat and seafood choices, some recognizable and others new to me.

Crabmeat Portabella Gratinata
For the antipasto, I ordered Portabello Gratinate, a large portabello mushroom cap that has been stuffed with a heaping amount of fresh crabmeat mixed with breadcrumbs, and topped by a savory mushroom sauce.   This is a creative take on the usual stuffed mushrooms that can be quite pedestrian in most places.  Its initial impression on me was not too favorable as it looked like a brown hockey puck that landed on the white tablecloth.  But once I cut into it and saw the flakes of sweet moist crabmeat, I knew I was in for a treat.  And it sure was.  Great start with this seafood appetizer, and especially for around $8.

Fennel, Apple & Walnut Salad

On my second trip, I decided to order the starter from a different angle.  While in Volterra, I paid a few visits to the cooperativo (regional supermarket) to get our ingredients for our meals, and I was impressed by the variety and freshness of the fruits and vegetables which Tuscany is renowned for.   With this reminisce in mind, I ordered the Insalata di Finocchio, Mela, e Noci on the second visit.  It is a salad made up of finely sliced fresh fennel bulb, cubed crisply apples, and whole walnuts.  The fennel slices were slightly crunchy with a hint of anise (could have been sliced a bit thinner), along with the sweet cubes of crisp apple, and the crunchy walnuts pieces (a few too many) that exuded a slight bitter note.  All the disparate elements were liasoned by a light and tangy salad cream – exciting, flavorful, and refreshing.

Four-Cheese Risotto

Four-Cheese Risotto
The day’s special of Risotto ai Quattro Formaggi was my second course on one of the visits.  Fat grains of starchy rice have been slow cooked with broth and enrichened with a handful of creamy Fontina, pungent and tangy Gorgonzola, and both nutty Parmigiano and Grano Padano (the younger Parmigiano) cheeses.   This was indeed refined comfort Italian food, and I have not tasted risotto this good in a long time as I did with this bowl.  The rice was cooked just right, slightly al dente without its chalkiness, smooth and all’onda (“wavy” looseness) from releasing its starches as a result of proper stirring and sufficient stock, and finally enriched by the rich and flavorful cheeses.  I literally had to force my hand to put the fork down halfway through the portion as I had to save room for the next course.  Buonisimo.

Beef braised in Red Wine & Couscous

Beef Stewed in Red Wine and Vidalia Onions on Cous-Cous, Carbonade di Osso all’Aostano, was my selection from the day’s specials on the first sitting.  The tender and slightly sweet winey pieces of beef were paired with the grits-like pasta grains.  Here we see the combination of Northern Italian influence in the wine-stewed beef and the Southern in the use of cous-cous due to its proximity to Northern Africa.   The beef tips were fork-tender while the bed of pasta soaked up the meaty sauce, thus making quite a flavorful pair.   The creativity in this dish points to the kitchen’s knowledgable hand in the daily specials, and they are worth paying attention to.

Scallop & Fish Pizza

My BFF, Kevin, had his eye on another daily special, Pizza Rustica di Mare, or Seafood Rustic Pizza on the first trip.  It is a hand-made pizza, slathered with red sweet pepper sauce, and topped with scallops and fish chunks.  The dough had a nice yeasty flavor, enhanced by the slightly sweet sauce (not as sweet as tomato, which can be a good thing for a change), and dotted by moist and sea-sweet pieces of seafood.   Most of us would find this pizza rather odd, beyond our perception of the nature of pizza.  However, my trip to Italy opened my eyes of the possibilities of this dough concoction, and this restaurant’s version is completely up the alley of creative modern Italian cuisine.  My friend ate it with some gusto to which I could not resist a couple of slices myself.

Grilled Squid and Squid Ink Pasta

Grilled Squid and Squid Ink Pasta
Tagliolini Sepia was high on my list when I perused the menu during one of my meals.  The plate arrived with black hand-made pasta (colored by squid ink), coated with a fiery fresh tomato sauce with pieces of grilled young squid nestled on top.    The pasta had a slight sea-breeze scent from the ink, along with a lip-singing kick from the well-made and light sauce, which only added flavor to the tender mild pieces of squid.  This dish definitely pays tribute to the Southern Italian treatment of its seafood, and my taste buds thoroughly enjoyed it as a contrast to the milder and richer fore mentioned Northern-style dishes.

Panna Cotta

Walking into the dining room, one cannot help but pass by the dessert tray sitting on a server, working its charm like a scantily clad person winking from an Amsterdam display window.   My waiter recommended that  I order the Tiramisu or the Limoncello (lemon liquor) layer cake.  However, I have a slight weakness for the Italian version of flan, Panna Cotta; it is basically cream cooked with gelatine.  This restaurant’s version had a topping of orange marmalade and blueberry compote, which added their fruitiness to the white canvas.  The side of Zabaglione custard-like sauce was made with enough booze, most likely sweet Marsala, to make me lick every drop of it.  However,  it overshadowed the cream timbale, which proved to be just fine but overstiffened by too much gelatine.    I think my waiter had every good reason to make his recommendations and I should have listened to him, at least for this final course – Limoncello cake for me on the next visit!

Tuscana West offers true authentic cuisine with touches of the Northern and Southern Italian styles in the well-prepared dishes.  The dishes that I enjoyed on my visits have convinced me that I must muster some courage to brave the traffic and parking issues to make it to this wonderful restaurant.   More importantly, the prices are just right, especially during lunch when I managed to order four courses for around $50 (the price of blogging for you guys!).   Even without coupons, I will be coming back with my friends to savor its tasty authentic dishes with some frequency.   This place warrants more visits as it has now become a large red spot on my radar beeping away loud and clear.

Tuscana West on Urbanspoon

I Ricchi

Living in different countries and continents, my family has always had a challenging time figuring out a city for us to come together in order to spend time with each other. The last time that all my siblings and parents managed to convene in a single place was 2006 in the most central point between Australia, Malaysia, and the USA – Hawaii. Ironically, it took less time for my folks in Australia to get there than my travels from Washington DC; a missed connection even further extended my trip to around 18 hours long!

So, last year, when my cousin, living in London, invited the family to her summer home in Tuscany, Italy, most of us jumped on the invitation without any hesitation. It was a great opportunity for my sisters’ families, me and my parents to catch up with each other, and for us to savor the Italian experience. This has always been a dream of mine to travel to this part of the world for its amazing scenery, architecture, fine arts, and culinary arts. The 11-day trip through the Tuscan countryside and stay at Volterra exposed me to its glorious cuisine that gave me a new perspective on Italian food. It was this foodie’s dream come true and a trip worth a thousand bites.

Being an online restaurant coupon junkie, I sometimes am tempted to buy as many offers that show up in my inbox. But when two sites advertised such discounts for the upscale restaurant I Ricchi, I did not have the slightest hesitation in clicking the “buy” button as I had heard about this reputable place for many years but had never visited it, despite both of us arriving in DC at the same time in 1989. With a newfound appreciation for authentic Italian cuisine, I knew I could not forego these opportunities, and it was time for me to visit the Italian restaurant to re-live my Tuscan trip.

House-made Foccaccia
Entering a high-end restaurant with impeccably looking staff such as I Ricchi can sometimes be a bit unnerving and maybe intimidating. But upon stepping into the foyer, there is a slightly relaxed charm about the place that is quite devoid of stuffiness. The front desk staff were nice and amenable to me, especially after I requested a well-lit table for my photography. My waiter, Justin, was professional, warm, and personable, and he was quick to put me to ease with his charm and knowledge of the menu. Right then, I knew I was in good hands and ready for a wonderful culinary journey. A basket of house-made slices of rosemary-topped and tomato-topped focaccia with large sea-salt granules immediately transported me back to Levanto where I stood in line for 30 minutes for this freshly-baked bread (which was truly divine), and this restaurant’s version was superb. The journey had already started with the first wonderful bite.

Truffled Polenta and Balsamic Mushrooms

I decided to “travel” on these Tuscan dining experiences (two visits in a week) the Italian way by ordering my meal in various separate courses, very much like how it is done on the Continent. On my first visit, for the antipasti course, I ordered the day’s special of Truffled Polenta with Mixed Mushroom (Polenta Tartufata ai Funghi Farciti). The heady scent of truffle oil in the soft rich polenta cake was delightful from the first mouthful, which quickly brought me back to Volterra where I had a heavenly dish of Ricotta gnocchi topped by a tall heap of truffle shavings.   Surrounding this cornmeal mound was a melange of sautéed portabello and porcini mushroom that had been deglazed with Balsamic vinegar. It was a very satisfying dish but after some time, I could not detect the delicate truffle scent once it was overwhelmed by the sweet and oaky vinegar. I had wished that its dark glaze was drizzled around the dish which would allow the diner to control its level of intensity in relation to the truffled polenta. However, such detail did not deter me from wiping the dish clean.

Orange, Fennel, Arugula & Pecorino Salad

A Salad of Arugula with Orange, Fennel, and Pecorino Cheese (Ruccola con Aranche e Pecorino) was the opener on my second trip. The peppery arugula leaves were tempered by the sweet orange segments and slivers of shaved pecorino cheese that added a smooth nuttiness to the biting greens. It was a well-made salad that was balanced by the different strong elements on the plate. I nearly forgot about the very thin fennel shavings that seemed to be missing the anise-like flavors for I suspect they had been macerated in lemon juice, which mellowed them out – this missing flavor dimension would have given the dish that extra touch. Nevertheless, it was definitely worth ordering this classic Tuscan Salad.

Ricotta Spinach Tortelloni and Sage Butter Sauce

For the pasta course, I ordered the Tortelloni in Sage Butter Sauce (Tortelloni al Burro e Salvia). This is another classic with large-size tortellini made from thin fresh pasta filled with a savory mixture of Ricotta cheese and Spinach. The sage scented butter sauce was the perfect accompaniment to the delicate pillows. The hint of lemon juice in the sauce was the right amount of acid to cut through the rich butter and Ricotta. The pasta was cooked al dente the Italian way which tends to be firmer than what we over here prefer it to be. Maybe a minute more in the boiler would have been perfect for my taste, but the stuffed tortelloni dish was just the right pasta course.

Papardelle with Rabbit Ragu

On the next visit, I decided to go for a dish that was similar to a wild boar pasta dish I had eaten throughout my Tuscan trip – Fresh Pasta with Rabbit Sauce (Pappardelle Sul Coniglio). Wide ribbons of egg pasta were covered with a tomato-based sauce, which was cooked with aromatics of sweet carrots, mellow onions, and pungent celery. Chunks of tender rabbit meat enrichened the ragu that was paired with the wide and delicate pappardelle, whose broad width added to the dish’s heartiness. I could not help but relive the sense of satisfaction similar to eating the Italian wildboar version as this restaurant’s offering did conjure up the same flavors on my taste buds – another successful classic pasta dish that I could eat more of!

Grilled Steak, Red Onion Rings & Truffled Spinach

The Tuscan countryside is reknowned for its high quality meats that end up on the table as main courses or cold cuts. With this in mind, I focused on such offerings during my two visits. The day’s special offering of Grilled Steak with Onion Rings and Truffled Spinach (Bistecca al Ferri con Cipolle Fritte e Spinaci al Tartufo) caught my eye on the first visit. The steak was perfectly cooked (medium-rare) and it was juicy due to its heavy marbling. Its stay on the firewood grill gained a level of smokiness that reminded me of the humongous Bistecca Fiorentina that I savored in Volterra. The choice of red onions for the Onion Rings added an unexpected sweetness in this obligatory side order. The truffle oil in the sautéed spinach added a nuttiness and je ne sais qoui that elevated the dark greens. This steak may not be the superlative Chianina beef that I tasted in Italy, but it sure was close to it judging by what was left on the plate.

Lemon Rosemary Lamb Chops

Costolette D’Agnello a Scottadito was my meat course on the second trip. It is grilled lamb chops marinated in lemon and rosemary. The thick tender pieces of lamb had a rosemary scent that cut through any “gaminess” that this meat could sometimes exude, while the hit of lemon juice further mellowed the rich lamb. The first bite took me by surprise with a citrus jolt that hit the taste buds first. But upon chewing the meat, the various elements mixed rather harmoniously into a tasty bite.  A fried polenta cake and some broccoli with shiitake mushrooms were satisfactory sides to the meat.  Another successful meat course on the menu with this dish.

Walnut crusted Cheesecake

An Italian dining experience would not be complete if one did not have a few bites of Dolci or Italian dessert. The menu has the recognizable offerings of Tiramisu, Biscotti, and Gelatos. Even though there was not much room left for this final course, I ended up with the house’s version of Walnut Crust Mascarpone Cheese Cake (Torta Di Formaggio). It is a lighter cheesecake whose crust, made with bits of walnut, sets it apart from others. A light sauce made up of pieces of strawberry macerated in lemon juice was the right partner that provided enough sweet citrus hit to cut through the cake’s richness. It was difficult to put my fork down despite the level of satedness I was already feeling.

I Ricchi serves a clientele that comprises of DC bigwigs and members of the diplomatic and politico communities. And such clout and the restaurant’s well-established reputation are reflected by the not-so-modest bills that I received at the end of my meals. But this restaurant offers, in my estimation, an excellent authentic Italian culinary experience that is worth your money. This is not your everyday eating joint, but one which is worth visiting once in a while, especially when the urge to travel, either first time or a subsequent trip, to Italy is itching within. This foodie’s restaurant visits were quite worth the money spent, and they sure beat the price of a round-trip ticket to Europe, if only for a short moment, until the sense of wanderlust for Italia returns again.

I Ricchi on Urbanspoon