Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Springtime in San Francisco (and Napa for a little while)

SF Ferry Building Tower
You might think I've been going to San Francisco a lot lately, and you'd be right - but I've had some good excuses. This one was one of the best - my oldest friend (in terms of the time we've known each other) Moira, is having a baby boy, and I wanted to be there for her shower.

Moira and I met in a swimming class when we were four years old, and grew up around the corner from each other. We weren't always the very best of friends - in some ways we were almost more like sisters - with that same rivalry and need for independence. At some point though, after getting back in touch when I moved to the Bay Area in the mid-90s, we realized the intrinsic value of having known each other for twenty-some odd years - and started to really relax around each other. We still sometimes go for months at a time without talking, but it always feels like it was yesterday when we do see each other. I don't think you can ever know anyone as well as someone you knew as a child.
Copia - Mustard Festival
The shower was scheduled for Sunday, and since I hadn't been up there in a while and felt up for an adventure, I conned talked Tommy into going up to Napa on Saturday after I flew in. We weren't going to get up there until about 2 PM, so we didn't really have time for wine tasting - instead the plan was to go to Copia and have dinner at Ad Hoc, in Yountville. I had checked out the Copia website earlier, but somehow missed the fact that the Mustard Festival was taking place there that day - until the day before I was set to leave. It still seemed like a fun thing to do, so we stuck with the plan. After picking me up at the Embarcadero Bart Station, Tommy drove us up to the wine country.
Mustard Festival - Napa
After winding our way through the newly-sophisticated downtown Napa, we arrived at a crowded intersection with a huge parking lot on the right side, and a large market complex on the left side - just past that we saw Copia - looking like the venue of a major sporting event with the big tents and thronging crowds everywhere.
Mustard Festival - Napa
Admission to the festival was $35. including ten tasting tickets - with additional blocks of tickets available. The tastings were generally at least three to five tickets apiece, meaning the food tickets went faster than you might have thought. When we started exploring the venue, we realized it wasn't really a restaurant tasting event - I had some tacos from Compadres and Tommy had a Niman Ranch burger - and after we walked around for another hour or so, we picked at slices of Filippi's pizza and some Ben and Jerry's ice cream. It wasn't exactly bad, but it certainly wasn't worth the price of admission. Most annoying was the fact that about 50% of the booths were selling merchandise. Call me crazy, but I don't really think I should have to pay to buy something.
Copia Interior - Mustard Festival
The wine tasting was inside Copia, and several of the tables were already abandoned - apparently they had run out. We tried some mead that tasted like mold, served by a surly man who wouldn't talk to us, and a really mediocre red wine, served by a guy who wouldn't even look at us. At least on the plus side, they didn't ask us for tickets. I finally gave up and took some St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc. There were also some desserts by Whole Foods - some key lime tarts and eclairs.
Cookbooks at Copia
We went in the Copia bookstore, which stocks scads of cookbooks, gift items, cookware and wines - a great place to find a gift for a foodie back home. After that, we wandered over to the new market complex just to the west of the Copia center, called the Oxbow Market.
Oxbow Market in Napa
The market is sort of a mini Ferry Building - it just opened a few months ago, and is not even yet fully occupied. There is a Mexican restaurant, a chocolatier, an ice cream parlor, a culinary antiques vendor, a coffee bar, and a few other vendors - you can find a full list and description here. Next door is a building housing a Taylor's Refresher, a Fatted Calf retail outlet, and a Model Bakery, just like the one in St. Helena.
New Taylor's Refresher in Napa
While we were at the Copia event, we had checked the night's menu for Ad Hoc on my phone, and we weren't too impressed. Green salad and steak - it sounded like something I could make at home. Based on the menu, our tasting afternoon, and our mounting level of exhaustion, Tommy and I decided to cancel dinner and head back to the City. Even though it was Saturday night and we didn't have reservations, we figured in a city of a thousand restaurants we should be able to find something to eat. Luckily we weren't disappointed...

Next up - Spork and a North Beach Moroccan Baby Shower!

Monday, March 24, 2008

North County Three-fer, Part II - Blanca

Luis at Blanca
First off, my apologies - this write up is almost as overdue as our visit to this restaurant! After nearly two years, we finally made it to Blanca for restaurant week - yes - in January. (It's coming around again in June, though so think of this as the halfway point!) I had been hearing good things about Blanca for a while, but I'd also heard it was very expensive, and while we like to try new things, we have to really work up some courage to take a chance on a new restaurant where the entrees reach into the $40.+ range. (Hence the reason we still have not yet been to Addison.) We visited Blanca with our good friends and dining out partners Lisa and Luis, and it was their first visit as well.
Restaurant Week at Blanca
Having just dined at Market just a few days earlier, we were of course primed for comparisons. The first thing I noticed about Blanca is how much more pleasant the room is. Like night and day, literally. Though they are equally busy and roughly the same size, the noise level and lighting are lower at Blanca, and the room has a softer, more intimate feel. I love the glowing lanterns that hang over the dining room, and the striped wood bar and white patent club booths in the bar area lend a chic, big-city feel.

When we opened the menu, I immediately noticed that the Restaurant Week menu had changed. When we asked about it, it turned out some of the promised ingredients were not to the chef's liking, so he had decided not to serve them. I was a little annoyed at first - but you can't really argue with that - so we consoled ourselves by venturing off the Restaurant Week menu. It was fairly easy to do, since their prices have been lowered considerably. Many entrees are now in the mid to low twenties, and the starters are mostly in the mid-teens. You can view the current menu here. While it doesn't change as often as Market's, it is also focused on local produce and humanely raised meats - featuring Crow's Pass, Niman Ranch and Chino's Farm products on the menu.
Hamachi post-sauce
We started with the Hamachi, pictured above. Pristine slices of the raw fish were draped over "caramelized watermelon" with avocado, and a citrus ponzu was poured over as a flourish at the table. The fish itself was perfect, and I liked the whimsical little "cones" made of pickled ginger, cucumber and radish - but I was hoping for a little more punch from the rest of the dish. I actually had a similar dish in San Francisco this weekend at Spork - where the ponzu was spiked with jalapeno. It gave the fish the bite it needed - echoing Nobu's hamachi served with paper thin slices of jalapeno.
Carpaccio with Caesar at Blanca
The Niman Ranch Filet Carpaccio served with a Petite Caesar Salad was a coup. The lush yet sharp flavors of the capers, cheese, lemon anchovies and mustard were perfectly complimentary with the raw beef and everything about this dish just worked. I couldn't stop stealing forkfuls off of James' plate.
Lobster Corn Dogs
The lobster corn dogs were also a hit - mostly because they were crisp fried in a lovely cornmeal batter - though given the size they were more like lobster hush-puppies. The creative mustard and ketchup were delicious too. I noticed that on the current menu this has been changed to a "seafood sausage" corn dog - but that's probably just as well since the lobster doesn't really have a chance to shine wrapped in a batter and deep fried.
Resto Week Scallop Entree at Blanca
This was my scallop entree - one of the Restaurant Week dishes. This was very good - but it reminded me so much of a dish I've had several times at Roppongi that I couldn't help compare the two. The scallops were seared and served on top of small potato cakes and topped with a delicious lemon butter sauce, just like the dish at Roppongi topped with hollandaise. The flavors in this dish worked really well, but it was incredibly rich - I could only eat two of the scallops. On the minus side - the scallops were overcooked by just the teensiest smidge (I bet they were perfect when they came off the heat - it was that small of a difference) and the potato cakes were not quite as crisp as they could have been. Resto Week Short Rib Entree at Blanca
Both Lisa and Luis ordered the short rib, which was served in a large hunk over potatoes with a red wine reduction. (On the regular menu, this is priced at $26. while Market's version is nearly ten dollars more.) I didn't try much of this, but they seemed to like it. My impression was that it might not have been sauced quite enough for Lisa's taste. Interestingly, the two Restaurant Week entrees were in some ways the weakest dishes we had.
Veal Ravioli at Blanca
This dish, on the other hand, was phenomenal. So good I can still taste it. On the menu it's billed as "Housemade Semolina Ravioli" with veal shoulder and caramelized root vegetables. The raviolis were filled with a very soft rich melting cheese - possibly mascarpone - and served over a ragout of veal shoulder and the root vegetables. It was sauced with a demi glace and a foam that may have been parmesan, garnished with some shaved parmesan and a little chive oil. It was very rich in flavor but savory enough that it wasn't too overwhelming.
Butterscotch Pot de Creme at Blanca
The Restaurant Week desserts were a little lackluster - above is the butterscotch "pot de creme" which was really pudding. The cookies alongside were good, but I didn't really enjoy the pudding much - not only was I already full - I was too busy staring at James' cheese plate.
Cheese Plate at Blanca
If there were any doubts about his favorite restaurant, they were immediately removed when this was placed before him. James is a "cheese guy" and these were right up his alley. He was the only one of us who ordered entirely outside of the Restaurant Week menu, and he had by far the best meal.

Overall, our enjoyment of this meal had very little to do with the fact that it was Restaurant Week. I'm glad we took a chance on it, and I was gratified to see that the lowered prices made it easier for us to explore. If we had all stuck with the soup and salad starters and two entree choices, I'm not sure we would have been so happy.

Another thing I need to mention, especially given the focus of the last post about Market - is the service at Blanca. It was absolutely perfect in every way - focused and professional, without being stiff or pretentious. Our questions were answered, our wine was poured promptly, the timing was perfect - everything worked. Given the comfort of the room, the level of service and the whimsy and creativity of the food, I was willing to forgive them for the slight mis-steps. I suspect if you went back without the hoopla of Restaurant Week, you'd find a more focused kitchen turning out some excellent, creative food. In fact, I hope to test this theory for myself very soon.

Blanca
4378 S. Highway 101
Solana Beach, CA
(858) 792-0072
Reservations available on Open Table

recommended dishes - the Carpaccio, Lobster Corn Dogs, Semolina Ravioli with Veal, cheese plate.

They also serve a bar menu that looks very good (though the inclusion of PBR in a can might be a bit much!)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Far from the Barnyard - Friday Lunch at The Farmhouse Cafe

Farmhouse Cafe in University Heights

The Farmhouse Cafe has discontinued Friday lunches since the time this post was written - they serve Saturday and Sunday brunch, and Dinner six nights a week. They are closed on Mondays.
The title of this post is a little nod to the title of Maria Hunt's review of Bud's Louisiana Kitchen - "Far from the Bayou." In her case the title was intended to be critical, but here it's just the opposite. In my view, the simple yet refined food coming out of the Farmhouse Cafe earns it a place among the best new casual restaurants in town.
Farmhouse Cafe

French Chef Olivier Bioteau has cooked at several restaurants around town, including the "old" Laurel, the now defunct Vignola downtown, and Avenue 5, which he left just a few months ago to open this place. His wife, Rochelle, is an attorney here in town. If you used to frequent Laurel, you'll recognize several of the servers from the old incarnation - and if you're lucky you may even spot Billy - possibly San Diego's only celebrity fine dining waiter, though he's now employed primarily at Parallel 33, I'm told. (Another reason to go back there sometime soon!)
Farmhouse Cafe

The purpose of my visit was not only to check out this new place that I'd heard good things about, but to meet up with Marcie Rothman, who writes Food Buzz SD "the good, bad and ugly about San Diego's Food Scene." Marcie's not afraid to tell it like it is, and she's a great resource for juicy tidbits and gossip about the San Diego food scene - not to mention good company. (And she knows Ruth Reichl! How cool is that??) We started our lunch at the bar with a shared order of the chicken liver mousse and a couple of glasses of wine. The mousse was a daily special that day, but Olivier has since put it on the regular menu.
Farmhouse Cafe Chicken Liver Mousse

I haven't tried the country pate that it will replace, but I can't imagine it's a bad idea, given that the mousse is a perfect specimen, smooth and rich with a light texture and rich creamy flavor. My only "complaint" if you could call it that, is that it would be nice to have more pickles and bread. It was a very generous serving of the mousse though, so perhaps I shouldn't complain too much.
Farmhouse Cafe Burger

For the main course, I chose the burger, and Marcie chose the daily special mushroom risotto. The burger is a classic rendition, with a large Meyer Ranch beef patty, cheddar cheese and housemade remoulade on a soft seeded bun. It comes with a herb remoulade and the accompaniments you see pictured, and I asked for some mustard on the side. The fries were crisp and fresh - and the pickled red onions and marinated tomato provide a nice counterpoint to all the richness. I actually noticed some similarities between the Avenue 5 burger - same bun, same basic set up with pink pickled onions - but this one was fresher and better put together, and came with the fries - instead of having to order them on the side.
Farmhouse Cafe Risotto special

I had a couple of bites of Marcie's risotto. It was deliciously rich with good balance of flavors. You can just see all that nice sharp cheese melting into it - it tasted as good as it looks.
Farmhouse Cafe

About the time we were finishing our meals, we were joined at the bar by the lovely Diva Barbarella and her husband David Fokos. We stuck around drinking wine and chatting, and we hit it off so well that I suspect we'll be eating together again in the near future.
chocolates at Farmhouse Cafe

Having had a rich meal, Marcie and I shared a flight of the housemade chocolates for dessert, just to have something to nibble on. The chef makes these by hand himself himself. The flavors included passionfruit, caramel, nuts, salt, black pepper, and raspberry and they're all delicious, with nice gloss and a great snap. A plate of them made an excellent sweet bite for sharing after the meal. If you like coffee with your chocolate, they also serve it with a cup of coffee, which makes for an adorable plate.
Olivier Bioteau's chocolates at Farmhouse Cafe

The word is they are jam-packed at brunch and in the evenings, and the dining room is quite small, so reservations are a good idea. Friday lunch seemed a little less hectic but still lively. Prices are moderate - in the $10-20 range for lunch, and a little more for dinner. The wine list is reasonable as well, with a nice by-the-glass selection.

The Farmhouse Cafe
2121 Adams Ave
San Diego, CA, 92116
(619) 269-9662

Thursday, March 13, 2008

North County Three-fer: Market, Blanca and Cavaillon - Part I

Market in Del Mar
Yes, it's true - between Restaurant Week, a birthday and a long overdue dinner with friends, we hit all of these places within thirty days. (Not the last thirty days, I am a little behind in posting this!) This much fine dining in such a short time span is a rare occurance for us - as evidenced by the fact that I'd never been to Blanca or Cavaillon before this adventure - but I'd been wanting to try them both for a long time, and I'm glad I did.

The first of the three meals was at Market, where I have dined on two prior occasions. I do know the pastry chef there, James Foran, from the classes I have taken from him at Grossmont's Culinary program, but the restaurant was not aware of this, so it had no affect on our experience. (My husband) James and I actually arrived early for dinner (another rare occurrance for us) so we decided to have a drink at the bar. There we experienced something I've noticed on prior visits. Somehow, there's an attitude about the place. It's not exactly a bad attitude, and I've never had neglectful service there - it's more of a casualness that comes off as arrogance. Not everyone we've dealt with there has inflicted this on us, but it still seems to pervade the place somehow. The transparent, gracious service that I've experienced in other fine dining restaurants (even in San Diego) just isn't in evidence here.

At the bar, we sat a little longer than we should have without having our order taken. It wasn't that busy and it just felt like we were being made to wait. Since we were early, along with our cocktails we also ordered a sushi roll - one of their house concoctions that sounded good - with hamachi, as I recall. The cocktails were excellent, but the sushi never arrived. Twenty minutes went by, and it was time for our reservation. Our dining companions arrived and our table wasn't ready yet, so we moved to a table in the bar area and ordered another round of cocktails. Still no sushi.

Finally - about forty minutes after we ordered it, our lone sushi roll arrived. The first thing I noticed was that it was covered with slivers of fresh cut onion. Raw onion on sushi? Wondering if we had received the wrong order, I walked over to the bartender and nonchalantly asked to see the menu. To me, this encapsulates what is wrong with the service at Market. Rather than simply handing it to me, he asked why I wanted to see it. Maybe he already suspected my reason, but I thought it was odd that he challenged me. I explained to him that I thought perhaps we had received the wrong roll, since it had onion on it (which was not, incidentally, mentioned on the menu.) His response? "That's the way our chef does it." Okaaaay. I went back to the table, and we picked off the onion and ate it. Literally as well as figuratively though, the incident left a bad taste in my mouth.

A few minutes later at our table, the first thing our server did was tell us that the chef, Carl Schroeder, goes down to Chino Farm right down the road every day to get the vegetables. There seemed to be an expectation that we should just be wowed by this information, and consider ourselves incredibly lucky to be there. I might have actually rolled my eyes, I can't be sure.

Don't get me wrong - I am all in favor of supporting local farms and I think it's great that they are patronizing Chino's - but I also happen to think Chino's is more than slightly overrated. It's extremely expensive and not organic - and I have had some negative customer service experiences there - as have some others I know. It is what it is, and I can accept that - but it grates on me that this information is presented as some sort of epiphany at the start of the meal.

For the first course, we ordered two servings of the foie gras tasting and the ahi tartare and shared them. I loved the foie gras, especially the seared version with the bit of french toast. The ahi was a little ordinary but certainly fine - it was exactly what it was supposed to be. My main dish was a duck confit - which I was disappointed to find contained five spice. I can't abide five spice and avoid it if it's on the menu - but it wasn't listed. You could say this wasn't the restaurant's fault because it's a matter of personal taste and it was otherwise well prepared, but it really should have been listed on the menu since it is such a strong flavor. (The last time I was there I had a phenomenal duck confit dish with marmalade and grapefruit - maybe the best I've ever had.) For dessert, we split a few things that were all pretty good. James however, ordered a single cheese (you can get one, two or three at increasing price intervals) and was disappointed with the small serving. He describes it as a stick of gum. Really, it was more like a BB Bat. We were the last people to leave - the restaurant cleared out around 9:00 PM, which was kind of sad for a Saturday night.

All in all, I do think Market serves some very good food. It's not transcendent or tremendously imaginative - but they have an appealing menu, they use high quality ingredients, and they don't over-reach or over-complicate things. Somehow though, the service and atmosphere just don't create the kind of well rounded, pleasant dining out experience that one (or at least I) would expect at this level. The problem is partly the room, which is a converted office space, but it's just as much the vibe - made up of the attitude of the staff, the clientele, and the location. I'm afraid they don't have much incentive to fix these issues since they are swamped every night with business (our boastful waiter also informed us that they were sold out for all five nights of Restaurant Week) but I really wish they would. Until then, with so many other appealing dining options around town and so many new ones yet to be tried - I'd be hard pressed to go back anytime soon.

Coming up - Blanca and Cavaillon.

photo credit - I had one of those "d'oh!" moments when I pulled my camera out of my purse, and realized I had forgotten to put the battery back in after charging it. Hopefully my good friend Jack doesn't mind me poaching this one from him!

Jack has more photos and a detailed description of the food he ate on his post. I also wrote about my first experience with Market here and a blurb about the second experience (which was much better) here.

Market
7330 Via De La Valle
Del Mar, California
(858) 523-0007
reservations available via Open Table

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Suzanne Goin's "70's Mom's Double Chocolate Bundt Cake" with Candied Kumquats

Suzanne Goin 70's Chocolate Bundt Cake

Being a child of the 70's (and a mom who still makes bundt cakes) I knew I had to try this recipe when I saw it. It's been knocking around in my "to-make" list for a while now, so when I heard there was a bake sale last week at work (to benefit our "Green Office Committee.") it seemed like the perfect chance. Except that - as it turned out - the bake sale is next week.

Oh well, so my co-workers got some free cake. But I did make them promise to come back next week and buy something!
Candied Kumquats

To go with the cake, I candied some kumquats I had on hand - inspired by a tangerine "confit" I had a few weeks ago at Cavaillon. I thought they'd be the perfect foil for the dark rich cake, and I wasn't far off. I actually thought the cake was a little under-sweetened when it came out of the oven, so I glazed it with the syrup from the kumquats, and served them alongside. This wasn't suggested in the book - but Suzanne does suggest de-seeding candied kumquats, slicing them thinly and mixing them with softened butter for a "kumquat marmalade butter" - which sounds to me like a great idea for a fancy brunch.

I was out of AP flour, so I used King Arthur's "White Whole Wheat Flour" in this recipe. It worked fine texture-wise, but I think the extra bitterness of the whole wheat called for a little extra sugar. I also doubled the recipe, and didn't have enough creme fraiche for two cakes - so I also used a little yogurt cheese (like thick sour cream) thinned with milk, and that seemed to work fine. I imagine you could also use half a cup of oil instead of melted butter in this cake - you might even be able to get away with a little less - it was extremely moist.
Suzanne Goin's 70's Chocolate  Bundt Cake

I made my cakes in two pans, one bundt pan and one tube pan. I actually preferred the tube pan because it was easier to get out and I could line it with parchment. I have yet to turn a bundt cake out of a pan and not have at least a little piece stick to the top. The flat top also looks a little cleaner, to my eye.
Suzanne Goin's 70's Chocolate Bundt Cake with Candied Kumquats

I've experimented with quite a few chocolate cakes in the past several months, and I liked this one - but it's not my absolute favorite. It's super moist and a little heavy, and I think I prefer something a little more brownie-like. I'd make the Bouchons from Thomas Keller's recipe before I'd do this again, in fact - I just might make those for the bake sale next week!
Making Suzanne Goin's 70's Chocolate Bundt Cake

Suzanne Goin's "70's Mom's Double Chocolate Bundt Cake" with Candied Kumquats
adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques

5 ounces dark chocolate, 60-70%, plus 2 oz thinly shaved chunks
1 stick butter or 1/2 cup oil, plus enough to grease the pan
2 tsp vanilla extract

1/3 cup Valhrona cocoa powder or other good quality dutched cocoa
1 1/4 cups unbleached AP flour or light whole wheat flour (or half and half)
2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt

3 extra large eggs
3 extra large egg yolks
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar (might take this up to 1 1/3)

1/2 cup (4 oz) creme fraiche or sour cream

Candied Kumquats:
About 2 cups of kumquats
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water

For the kumquats:
Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil
when the sugar is dissolved, add the kumquats. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer until the kumquats are translucent. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

For the Cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 and butter your pan

Melt the chocolate and butter or oil together in the microwave on a low setting, over a double boiler, or in an oven proof saucepan in the oven (as Suzanne suggests)
Whisk together 3/4 cup of water and the cocoa powder and bring to a boil, whisking constantly - when dissolved, remove from heat and set aside. Allow to cool slightly and combine with the melted chocolate and butter mixture.

Sift together the flour, baking soda and baking powder - stir in the salt.

In a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs a few seconds to combine, add the sugar and whip until they reach full volume (watch the edge of the mixture climb the bowl until it stops.) Add the vanilla and beat until the mixture forms a wide ribbon when the beater is lifted out. ( Make sure you don't add the sugar to the eggs before you start mixing, or the eggs will curdle - sugar will cook egg yolks slightly if allowed to sit undisturbed.)

Gently fold the chocolate and creme fraiche into the eggs and sugar, and fold in the flour mixture in thirds. It might be easier to do this in a wide shallow mixing bowl if you have one.

Pour half of the mixture into the pan and add the shards of chocolate. Fill the pan, and bake undisturbed until it is completely set, but still moist. A tester will not work - just jiggle the pan VERY slightly, and see if it moves. Be careful, it will collapse if underbaked!

Cool about 30 minutes on a rack, and turn out of the pan.

If desired, glaze the cake with the kumquat syrup, using a pastry brush. Garnish with candied kumquats.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Sunday on Convoy with Candice, Kirk and Friends - Nijiya, Izakaya Sakura and Sage French Cake

This past weekend, I had the privilege and pleasure of spending some time with a distinguished group of foodie friends - including Kirk K of mmm-yoso!!!, Candice Woo - a friend and the food critic of SD Citybeat Magazine, friends Donna, Dominick and Jen - whom I've met through Chowhound and Slow Food, and Raffo, the owner of Lupi Italian Restaurant in the Birdrock area of La Jolla. (Which is excellent, by the way.) The purpose of our gathering was lunch at Izakaya Sakura, a Japanese restaurant in Kearny Mesa. If you're a Chowhounder you've undoubtedly heard about this place - I had been reading about it for a while and wanted to try it, so I jumped at the chance when Candice emailed.
Nijiya Market on Convoy
Before lunch, we met Kirk at Nijiya Japanese Market in the shopping center next door for some shopping and a tour. I'd been to the Farmers' Market already, and was planning to pick up some Brandt beef from Donna later in the day, so I had brought a cooler with me in the car. It came in handy for the Japanese pickles and a few other treats that I picked up.
Kurobuta Pork Belly at Nijiya
I was really impressed with Nijiya, I must say. I can't believe I'd never been there before. They carry high baking products - including organic extracts, Bob's Red Mill flours, and other items similar to what you'd find at Whole Foods or Peoples. Much of the produce is organic, and the meat department was amazing. Block Kurobuta pork belly, ground pork, prime beef, organic chicken - all at very reasonable prices. The fresh fish looked good too. Tuna loins ready for slicing at around $10. caught my eye as did this gorgeous ready-made sushi (with organic rice!)
Sushi made with Organic Rice at Nijiya
It's probably a good thing this place isn't too close to my house, because I saw way too many tempting snack products. They had Pocky galore (Giant Pocky! Men's Pocky! Pocky Crush!) and more "beer snacks" as Kirk called them than you can shake a stick at. I just love those peanuts coated in the crunchy shell mixed with wasabi peas - so much so that I ate a whole bag between yesterday and today. (I didn't feel quite so bad when I saw that it only contained three servings!)
Cookies Galore at Nijiya
Kirk is incredibly knowledgeable and just the sweetest guy. Between him and Alex (who posts on Chowhound as Kare Raisu,) you'd be hard pressed to figure out which one of them is the nicest most humble guy you've ever met in your life. Everyone else I've met has been great too - now that I think about it - but these two are just special.
Sake at Nijiya
Kirk walked us through the store answering questions and giving us tips and hints, like which brands of Sake and Mirin to buy, and identifying packages in the deli case (luckily a lot of the items were pretty clearly marked.) Candice also picked up a fried potato pancake like snack which we shared - it was made with shrimp and onion, freshly fried and delicious.

After the shopping we headed over to Sakura. The place was packed with families and young people, most of them Asian. I kept hearing that this place didn't serve California rolls, but it appears they've relented - they were on the menu. I ordered the Chirashi - a selection of sashimi arranged over rice with traditional sushi accompaniments. This was served on a tray with a couple of pickled salads, a bowl of miso soup and a salad.
Bowl of Chirashi at Sakura
The service was a little problematic in that our dishes came at completely different times. Probably because it came from the sushi bar, my meal arrived about 20 minutes ahead of everyone elses. I sipped my soup and ate my salad until it started to become ridiculous for me to sit there with that beautiful plate of food. There comes a time when it makes everyone more uncomfortable for you NOT to eat. The uni was just as I've heard it described, with the flavor of an oyster but a custard-like texture, and the fish was utterly fresh and jewel-like. Really a fantastic meal. The only part I wasn't crazy about was the roe - which was a bit too fishy and salty for my taste.
Chicken Karaage at Sakura
I also wanted to try the chicken kaarage - a fried chicken snack that Kirk has written about a few times. It's essentially marinated deep fried chicken. I ordered a side and shared it around the table - it came out crisp and piping hot, and made for a good snack with the beer, but there really wasn't anything unusual about it. Kirk and several others at the table ordered a bento box special with traditional Japanese hot foods including Japanese meatloaf and crab croquettes.
Kirk's bento box
I personally wasn't crazy about the items I tried on the bento plate, but I was awfully full by the time Kirk's lunch arrived and he asked me to share it with him so I might not have been the best judge. I was glad to have the chance to try it, but not sorry I'd ordered the sashimi.
Napoleon at Sage French Cake
After lunch, we strolled back over to the Nijiya shopping center to Sage French Cake. It looked like the stock was a little low - but Dominic and I picked out a couple of things to try with some coffee (double espressos, actually.) The Napoleon was very good, with dark crisp buttery puff pastry and vanilla pastry cream with a generous dusting of powdered sugar. My one complaint about Asian pastries is that they tend to overuse the gelatin. The caramel cake square we picked had that problem. Their cheesecakes and chocolate mousse desserts looked good - I'll have to swing back through here on my next trip to Nijiya to see how it looks when they're not all bought out. Incidentally, the coffee was good, made with Cafe Moto beans.
Caramel cake and Napoleon (with espressos) at Sage French Cake
It's always a treat to see Candice, Donna, Dominic, and Jen - and I was thrilled to finally meet Kirk and have a chance to visit these places. If you're looking for me anytime in the near future - be sure to check the line at Nijiya - I'll be there with a cart full of Pocky, beer snacks and sushi. I have a lot of lost time to make up for!

The rest of the photos from the day's adventures can be viewed here.

Nijiya
3860 Convoy St.
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 268-3821

Izakaya Sakura
Kirk's posts about Izakaya Sakura can be found here
3904 Convoy St.
San Diego, CA 92111
858-569-6151

Sage French Cake
A recent post about Sage from Cathy of mmm-yoso!!! can be found here.
3860 Convoy St #112
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 571-3484
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