East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

40 favourite songs of the Nineties, #40: Sonic Youth, "Karen Koltrane"


All the reasons I had for not making Sonic Youth my New Favourite Band seem daft now, so I'm declaring them my new New Favourite Band. (Sorry, Klezmatics.) Look, no band besides Ellington's has been non-stop brilliant for longer. Though they're an albums band, they can't help but produce the occasional standout track, and this, their sagest Karen konsideration, is a fitting farewell to their Youth. Noise as meditation.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Escaping burgertory

That Guy From Incubus organised dinner at the downtown outlet of Barney's, the Bay burger minichain, on Friday, and the regular crew turned out to warm up before an evening of Wiiing. At my usual Barney's on College, the meat is bland (too lean for a start) and requires a kick, so my standard order is the Caribbean. I requested the beef version of this medium-rare, and it came out much closer to this degree of doneness than I'm used to at Barney's: there was a lot of pink in it, though there still wasn't much taste, and the lashings of jerk sauce can only go so far in compensating for this. Fortunately the fried stuff, which is the real reason to go to Barney's, can go further.

On Sunday I headed to Cafe Rouge, a (literal) meat market and restaurant famed for their quality red meats. Here, when I bit into my burger, blood spurted out: ah, bliss. The beef actually tasted like beef, though it was compromised by a weirdly stiff bun. Burger with cheddar, onions, fries and beer set me back $20.50 all up, a lot, sure, but only a couple of bucks more than a similar order at Barney's, which really makes Barney's seem overpriced.

As often happens, I got a little obsessive, and went to 900 Grayson today, intending to see how their burger matched up. But something else on the menu tempted me more: the Demon Lover. Like the rest of the menu, it has a cutesy name but is anything but: buttermilk fried chicken with gravy on a waffle. Nicely spicy with excellent quality meat (Fulton Valley), it's the tastiest non-Chinese food I've eaten in the last couple of weeks. Of the other ranking fried chicken places around here, one is in a borderline sketchy area (Nellie's) and the other has other dishes I really really like that are much cheaper (Pizzaiolo), so hopefully I can prevent a fried chicken obsession from developing.

Barney's Gourmet Hamburgers
1600 Shattuck @ Cedar, Berkeley

Cafe Rouge
1782 4th St @ Virginia, Berkeley

900 Grayson
900 Grayson (duh) @ 7th St, Berkeley

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Monday, May 28, 2007

TGEL: China Village and Great Szechuan

Been on a Sichuan tip lately. China Village is the ranking restaurant in the category, and last week I blew twenty bucks on a late lunch there. Started with the home style chicken, which came in a thick, ridiculously spicy sauce. Barely made a dent in the "bacon-cut" (this is the local euphemism for "so fatty your arteries will hate you for the rest of your short life") pork with preserved mustard green hearts, but the dish was good from the lunch until today, when I threw the remainders into a lima bean stew.

Six of us had dinner at Great Szechuan yesterday: Dicko, F's friends Flobert (semi-chilliphobic), and Shankiwack (demi-semi-vegetarian). We cobbled together a hodgepodge of a menu, but it was mostly wonderful. We started with excellent sliced chicken in a homemade spicy sauce much thinner than China Village's, but almost as hot; and agreeably salty jellyfish salad in green onion sauce. We were served our sizzling rice soup without spoons; when Dicko asked for them, he was told they were being washed. The soup was eventually surprisingly good, with lots of shellfish in it, and perhaps some MSG.

The soft, gingery vegetarian ma po tofu was a highlight, maybe the best tofu I've had in this country. The spicy garlic eggplant was extremely hot but had no eggplant taste -- I'd like to try it again in season. The crisply battered salt and pepper prawns were pretty good, with more salt than pepper. We also had some nonconfrontational scallop thing that didn't leave much of an impression. Bill worked out at $13 each.

Different meals, so comparisons might be unfair, but the quality of the cooking was very similar, maybe with a slight edge to Great Szechuan. On the other hand, the service at China Village was excellent, while at Great Szechuan it was abominable even by Chinese restaurant standards, with the spoon shortage merely the funniest of our problems, and hardly the worst. I'll overlook a lot of bad service, and even the kind that actively wastes my time, like we experienced at Great Szechuan, isn't fatal: I still want to go back there to try an all-chilli meal. But I'll return to China Village first.

China Village
1335 Solano Avenue @ Pomona, Albany

Great Szechuan
3288 Pierce St, Pacific East Mall, Richmond

EDIT: Whoops, possible food poisoning alert from one of our table at GS. That tips the scales.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

The fish list: King salmon

Last weekend I bought my first fresh wild Alaskan king salmon of the season for the astronomical but fair price of $20/pound. Of the three species of gourmet Pacific salmon, king (chinook) is the oiliest and most expensive; coho is a not quite as good version of king; while sockeye (red) has a noticably different taste: more gamy. (Chum and pink salmon, for their part, are great out of cans.) Fresh salmon should be wild, since farmed salmon is high in PCBs, and probably Alaskan, as that state hosts most of the remaining healthy stocks in North America, although a few others are dotted along the west coast.

I split my half-pound fillet and cooked it two ways. I sauteed a piece in butter and served it with morels ($16/pound) and sugar snap peas, also sauteed. Despite the morels being of better quality that the last lot I bought, this wasn't quite as great a combination as I hoped -- partly due to slight overcooking, but mostly because I don't think it was the right way to cook king salmon. The other piece of salmon I steamed with diced shallot, a little vinegar and dried tarragon in aluminium foil, this time undercooking, and it turned out much better. None of the flavour of the fish was lost, and the acidity was a fine complement.

My proposed rule of thumb is to use king salmon for dry, oil-free cooking, and to use the cheaper sockeye otherwise. Is it worth paying a few bucks extra for the fresh stuff? Maybe: I think the average difference between fresh and frozen is less than the variation within each group, but I'm sure the difference exists. Nevertheless, I'll hope for the price to come down before I buy fresh wild king salmon again.

King salmon
Heathiness: A for wild
Environment: A for Alaskan, C otherwise
Taste: A


Monday, May 21, 2007

TGEL: Daimo

Sauteed pea greens
Three-egg spinach and mushrooms
BBQ duck
$16 p.p.

I had been whuppin' The Brazilians at NBA 2K7 for several hours, building sixty point leads via the simple strategy of having Magic Johnson on my team. By 10 p.m. G-Roc was getting sick of this, having nothing better to do than to see if he could get all his players fouled out. (It didn't work: once he was down to his last five players, the computer wouldn't kick anyone else out, despite Marcus Banks having ten fouls.) Clearly it was time for a food break, and Daimo is the best open-late (till 3 a.m. daily) carpark restaurant near the El Cerrito-Richmond border.

64KB is a vegetarian, always dangerous in a mostly Cantonese restaurant (plus he thought the soon-to-be-steamed fish looked sad), but we took the server's word that the three-egg spinach and the much-ballyhooed pea greens were meat-free. Strangely, the pea greens were unevenly heated, though this didn't detract much from their freshness. G-Roc was a little put off by the richness of the other, more oily dishes, but 64KB and I preferred the spinach and mushrooms, braised in a very thick sauce. The pidan and hamdan (xiandan) retained an egg taste through their preservation. The duck was also just how I like it, with crispy skin enclosing mounds of fat -- I don't eat them, but I think they help infuse the BBQ sauce.

So now I'm annoyed that it took me four years in the East Bay to get to this place: it's exactly my idea of comfort food, just like the neighbourhood Cantonese dives my parents, uncles and aunts would take me to before their endless mahjong sessions (the New Asia in Otahuhu!). It might just be because I rarely have this sort of food now, but Daimo seems a little better. To make sure, I'll have to go back here with carnivores to put a fish out of its misery, and pay attention the next time my parents take me out. Ah, now I'm homesick.

3288A Pierce St, Richmond (in the Pacific East Mall/99 Ranch carpark)

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The Old, Weird America: Now 50% less weird

Friday, May 18, 2007

House of Prime Brad: Apparently, one can get satisfaction

I advertised the dinner as a chicken party, but really it was all about two Bay Area institutions: Zuni Cafe and Acme Bread. Although the Zuni chicken recipe is online, I checked out Judy Rodgers's cookbook anyway, and immediately felt I had to make her other signature dishes as well. This required a lot of bread, so I picked up four loaves of three kinds of Acme -- an Italian for bread salad, a herb slab for burgers, a levain for Caesar salad and another for luck -- from two different supermarkets.

I made two Caesar salads: a wussy version (neither anchovies nor raw eggs) and a stinky, salmonella-risk version. I only tried the latter, which was excellent (6.5/10), though it wasn't through any brilliance on my part: it was just because I used Reggiano parmesan instead of the pseudo stuff. I deviated most from the Zuni standard in the mini-burgers; sorry, I don't have a meat grinder. I cooked them to a safe medium-well, and they turned out bland (5/10), despite the addition of Dicko's bagna calda. The chicken was brilliant (7/10), the first time I feel I've lived up to my Mum's standards, albeit employing a different style: pre-salted two days in advance, then cooked at very high heat (500F). To nitpick, the distribution of salt was wrong -- should've put more on the breasts and less on the drumsticks. Plus I put too much chicken grease in the accompanying bread salad (5.5/10). In addition to Mikea's ipso facto Guinness cake, dessert was a stupidly simple espresso granita (6.5/10), which meant I only got four hours sleep but was almost worth it. The one hitch was when I tried to whip the cream with a fork; fortunately the Stargazer had a whisk. Booze was generously provided by Mulder and Shankiwack, with Mulder's Yalumba South Australia Chardonnay besting my private collection.

  1. Buy 2 triple espressos at the Beanery.
  2. Mix with half a cup of water.
  3. Stir in 4 tbsp sugar.
  4. Put in freezer for eight hours.
  5. Cut up and serve with whipped cream.
  6. Let previously consumed alcohol put you to sleep.
  7. Wake up at five the next morning.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Top ten: Rain in the pouring sunshine

I'm even more behind the times than usual this month, with the pick from 2005 sounding more dated than the one from 1920. At least I made Rihanna number one before Billboard.

1. Rihanna, "Umbrella": This is the song you'll be hearing all summer; it's clear Def Jam are giving her the push, complete with Hova intro and gold-bodysuited video. It couldn't have happened to a better song: "Umbrella" recycles the melody of "Hotel California" into a buoyantly minor tune. And the bassless beat is sparer than Beyonce would dare.
2. Wolfgang Muthspiel & Brian Blade, "Gnadenwald": Muthspiel, the best jazz guitarist around today, sounds different from most of his peers -- his interest is in harmony; his underdubbed beds are as carefully laid out as his lead lines. He's released two excellent recent albums: the trio record Bright Side, and Friendly Travelers with drummer Blade. On "Gnadenwald" in particular, his wide array of tones are all gentle, conjuring a Europe endless.
3. Fujiya & Miyagi, "Ankle Injuries": There are two good lines on their album, one of them being this song's "Fujiya, Miyagi, Fujiya, Miyagi". (The other: "We were just pretending to be Japanese".) The singer, Fujiya or Miyagi or whoever, is one of the few to correctly employ the drone, i.e. to sound like an insect, not a robot.
4. Timbaland ft. Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake, "Give It to Me": You would expect a song by this trio to be the greatest of all time. Disappointingly, this only scrapes into the top 3000.
5, 6. The Gothic Archies, "Freakshow"; "We Are the Gothic Archies": The Tragic Treasury, Stephin Merritt's funniest project since 69 Love Songs, collects his work from the Lemony Snicket audio books. "Freakshow" is a series of unfortunate insults: "Real people question how/Someone took a lobster's face and put it on a cow". The nonstandard grammar in "We Are the Gothic Archies" is just as freaky.
7. Monroe Silver, "Pittsburgh, PA": Ah, ethnic humour -- so many Jewish names end in "-berg"! Hilarious! Don't encourage me to write a Korean version.
8. The Ponys, "She's Broken": So I got to their second album just as they were releasing their third. Jered Gummere is the major talent, but Melissa Elias is a much better singer.
9. Hank Williams III, "My Drinkin' Problem": More ethnic humour.
10. Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, "Rabbit Fur Coat": Narrative -- the opiate of bohemians, not that they don't want mansion houses too.

Ten more: The Game ft. Junior Reid, "It's Okay (One Blood)"; Girls Aloud, "Biology" (yes, it took me two years to understand this one); The Hold Steady, "Stuck Between Stations", Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, "Happy"; Wolfgang Muthspiel Trio, "Etude #2"; The Ponys, "Glass Conversation"; Scritti Politti, "Dr. Abernathy"; Thione Seck, "Ballago"; The Thermals, "Here's Your Future"; Tom Ze, "Abrindo as urnas".

Better politics than song: The Gossip, "Standing in the Way of Control".


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Fonda: N-less love

Spicy Fonda wings
One small duck taco
Some guacamole
Flor seca
Miscellaneous stuff from other people's plates
$30 (inc. birthday contributions)

Half the Brazilians in Berkeley celebrated their birthday over the weekend, so I took a break from preparing a presentation for 9 am the next day (after writing precisely one slide) to head to Fonda for a quick one. I turned up at the no-man's-land time of 8:20, 40 minutes before the start of happy hour. The question: order now, or try to hold out for the happy hour menu?

I compromised, by getting a drink and stealing other people's food while waiting for the hour to strike. My flor seca (gin, Chartreuse, hibiscus, orange bitters) tasted garden-fresh, but for nine bucks I would've hoped they'd throw in SAPPHIRE~! instead of regular Bombay (although maybe that would have unbalanced the cocktail blah blah blah). Of my thefts, I particularly liked the cured salmon served with fava beans.

Finally nine rolled around, and we saved a buck on the guacamole, which combined well with the chipotle salsa. We also saved $2.50 on a pair of duck tacos, which also came with a bit of guacamole and a spicier salsa, which were SO GOOD~! but two-bite tiny. The wings I ordered were also excellent and more substantial, if conventional.

A good time was had by all, especially when the Portuguese-speakers were dropping the "n" from Fonda. Would mostly recommend the place for after nine: it's out of my price range otherwise. Have to try the five buck late night cocktails (sadly not including the flor seca) some time when it isn't finals week.

1501 Solano Ave @ Curtis, Albany


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Think globally, eat locally: Shanghai Restaurant

Sizzling rice soup

One of the many things for which I'll be eternally grateful to my ex-girlfriend is introducing me to this establishment, and to the xiaolongbao (henceforth XLB). I'd never been back there without her, since the English of the staff there is nearly as limited as my Chinese. But finally my desire for those not-quite-dumplings got the better of me, and after a quick memorisation of the characters for "little basket buns" -- more foolproof than learning to pronounce them -- I headed to the restaurant.

I don't know much about Shanghainese food (other than stinky tofu, which I wasn't in the mood for), so after some attempted dialogue and restrained gesturing, the hostess and I agreed on the sizzling rice soup, which I think is the sort of dish my ex wouldn't let me order. The brief attention I got from the next table when my besweatered server crackled and popped the rice squares into my broth was nice, but it was my second shrimp soup of the day, and the one I made was better. But the XLBs, hidden away on one of the three menus as "steamed buns", more than made up for it. The goal is to make the wraps so that they fall apart in your mouth, not burst between your chopsticks, and this was achieved admirably. Inside, the soup was agreeably meaty and the pork was agreeably sweet. All they needed was a quick dip into some sour soy sauce to put me in XLB heaven.

I've had other good stuff here on previous visits -- I think I recall a nice hot and sour soup -- but it's the XLBs that make the place. Note, though, I've never them from anywhere else so can't compare (unlike this guy). Still, this dish is the best (and possibly only) evidence that it's not impossible to find good Chinese food near campus.

Shanghai Restaurant
2517 Durant #D @ Telegraph, Berkeley

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Pizzaiolo: Margheritaville

Fritto misto of artichoke, fennel & spring onion
Margherita pizza
Some strawberry pastry thing with OLIVE OIL GELATO~!

Two problems with dining with other people: (i) other people never want to go out; (ii) when they do want to grab a bite, they want to go to In-N-Out.* After too many attempts to get my friends to go anywhere better than "suprisingly not terrible", I decided to enter the world of semi-fine solo dining. So eager was I that I put on a buttoned shirt.

I needn't have bothered. The place was ostensibly casual, with plaster half-peeled off the walls to reveal brick and staff dressed any which way. The food had the same unsophisticated vibe, which didn't obscure how good it was. The aptly-salted fritto misto made me despair at my own attempts to cook those vegetables, until I realised while biting a remarkably tender artichoke heart that they were using much better ingredients than I ever have. The ingredients of the thin-crust pizza were similarly superb: I regret the praise I've lavished on, say, Zachary's tomatoes, because this was that much better. After the pizza I was stuffed, but since this was a meal of the decade contender, I couldn't forego a third course.

Two epiphanies while ordering dessert: (i) wow, this meal I'm loving doesn't have any meat in it; (ii) I could eat a so-called meal of the decade contender like this, if not every week, then every other week, without driving myself to bankruptcy. Either my carb-filled state or my dislike of epiphanies meant that I didn't really appreciate the pastry, but the OLIVE OIL GELATO~! lived up to the hype, less for the flavour than for the smoothness. As I waddled back north to throw balsa wood airplanes off the tenth floor of Evans Hall, I wondered where else I could get a meal this good at this price**.

5008 Telegraph @ 50th, Oakland

*Nothing against that fine chain, but c'mon.
**Besides at Cafe Bastille in Wellington, New Zealand.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The East Bakery Project: Bunning the bun

- When we first got funding to put on seminars a couple of years back, I proposed we blow our budget on a ninety dollar rum cake from Crixa. I've still yet to try that cake, but I finally managed to get Crixa into the department, bringing a bunch of pastries to the last meeting of the class I'm helping to teach. The Fatima's Thighs ("tender, flaky pastry filled with almonds, currants, rose and orange-blossom water") were pretty good. But the revelation was the bulochki. It seems so simple -- after all, it's just a bun -- but it was SO FLUFFY~! SO MILKY~! The kids took all the rugelach before I got to it, so I need to go back. Bonus points: the cashier complimented on my Sleater-Kinney t-shirt. The first time that occurred in the U.S. was on my orientation day in 2003, and I then thought it would happen all the time. Crixa was the second time.

- Thanks to a couple of people's successful advancement to Ph.D. candidacy, I've had more of Masse's pastries. They're beautiful creamy things, and they do taste good, but I think I get a bigger kick out of more robust flavours (like Crixa's).

- Freshness matters: picked up a loaf of Acme levain at Andronico's. Not quite as good as the kalamata straight from La Farine. Will visit Acme HQ soon. I also tried a loaf of Vital Vittles 9-grain from the farmers' market. It's not in the same league tastewise, but it might have the best tastiness-healthiness product I've ever encounters: it's whole wheat, organic, even kosher, and it actually tastes like bread.


In Stylus's Non-Definitive Guide to Character Actors, I get a blurb on my current man-crush, Chiwetel Ejiofor.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

The TV Set: Channel Zero

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Fresh for April '07... you suckas

Final count of things I cooked in April 2007 that I'd never cooked before :

Vegetables: artichokes, endive, tomatillo, fava beans, fennel, sorrel, snap peas, turnips, morels, shiitakes.
Seafood: scallops, halibut, snapper, anchovies, cod, ling cod.

I may never cook so many new foods again.