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Rockridge Bungalow Blog

Michelle's Rockridge Bungalow Blog

Thursday
Mar152012

Ah Yeah for Amba

I have always had a thing for Middle Eastern food. Could be that I am part Lebanese, could be it's largely vegetarian or could be that I'm just mad for the mezze platter.

Whatever the reason(s), it doesn't have much bearing on what makes this place so great. Because what makes it great is LOVE; love of only the best, freshest ingredients, love of technique and love of good, simple food.

If, as a general rule, you're under whelmed by falafel or hummus or baba ganouj or even pita bread, I promise you one visit to Amba will change that. The falafel is cooked to perfection - crunchy on the outside and almost creamy on the inside (that's where the love of technique shines through).

The hummus is fresh and delicious because apparently they make it in small batches several times a day. And the pita bread is in a class all its own - warm, soft and fluffy vs those cold, hard cardboard-like impostors. Unless you are a baker - or you are very cozy with one, I seriously doubt you have access to pita like this. These people promise it's easy to bake good ones at home. Maybe. I think it's easier to order a bag full and take them home.

Put all of these things together with a tangy, crunchy cabbage slaw, fresh tahini and a few house-made pickles and you have the best falafel sandwich this side of the Jordan River.

I love the hummus bowls too. They are big enough to share and include tasty toppings like fava beans, roasted eggplant and fried mushrooms. There's a vast array of salads and dolma made fresh everyday - great fodder for that top-shelf mezze platter I mentioned and/or a fresh catering option.

Now you notice their logo says, Amba - Falafel/Hummus/Salad/Fries. If you crave, I mean appreciate, great fries the way I do. You have been warned. Try these once and now you are the junkie and Amba the pusher.

If this is as close as I get to the Promised Land - well then, so be it.

Monday
Feb272012

Plum Bar

If you saw my earlier posts on Haven or Plum, then you already know I'm a huge Daniel Patterson fan.

So no need for me to go on and on about how all of his restaurants seem to deliver on the delicious handcrafted cocktails, mouthwatering menu and perfect atmosphere that effortlessly and simultaneously infuse you with energy AND a relaxing sense of ease.

Oh wait - I'm going on and on again. Well, whatever. After 3 visits to Plum Bar, I think I have decided it's my favorite out of the 3 (in the East Bay anyway) and here's why. Mainly, I like how "approachable" the menu and the atmosphere are by comparison.

Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy 4 - 5 - 6 course dinners but sometimes the thought of sitting ANYWHERE for 2-3 hours makes me restless. And just because I'm on the go, doesn't mean I'm looking for "fast food".

I love that you can breeze in and out of Plum Bar - they're open until 1:30AM on the weekends, so you have all night. There's no guilt about lack of commitment and no concerns about lack of quality. Come for a drink before dinner, or come for one after, or for dessert. Heck, camp out the whole night and have drinks, dinner, dessert and drinks again. Whatever you decide, you will revel in the goodness all-round.

All of the cocktails are impeccable - I like the Ol' Saint Fashioned with Templeton rye, brandied cranberry, candied orange and orange bitters. Try the Chicken Wings & Skins with hot sauce & cilantro - it's not what you think - remember who we are talking about here. The Double Burger with Gruyere is amazing and so is the Poutine - a delicious concoction of fries, gravy and cheese.

If you order all of that, don't eat all of it. If you do, you will not have room for the Brioche Doughnuts. Which will mean that you'll have to come back - again and again perhaps, and that will be a tragedy.

Wednesday
Feb222012

Tracking Down The Best Fried Chicken Sandwich - A Quest

I've been stalling on this post for awhile. Mainly, I was thinking that it's the start of a new year and with that comes lots of amped-up ideas about exercising more and eating less - less "bad" stuff at least. So I thought no one really needs to read about my quest to find the best fried chicken sandwich.

But I don't often write about what you "need" because it's more fun to write about what you "want". And sometimes what you want is to suspend any ideas about good vs bad food and just simply enjoy a delicious sandwich. 

I grew up in the South, so I know a thing or two about good fried chicken. But what I've learned here in the SF Bay Area, is how quickly good becomes great with the addition of fresh, top-notch ingredients.

All 3 of the sandwich makers listed here understand that concept and they are on my favorites list because of it.

Say BakeSale Betty out loud and everyone within earshot will moan and for good reason. Their tender chicken fillets fried in olive oil and served on a big, chewy roll with a vinegar-based, jalapeno-laced coleslaw ensures there's always a line out the door. 

Gregoire makes so many yummy sandwiches you'll be hard-pressed to choose just one. But trust me, you'll want to try the fried buttermilk chicken with spicy coleslaw on a sweet roll at least once. And while you're in there tossing dietary caution to the wind, order the crispy potato puffs too! They are basically deep-fried mashed potato balls, but there's nothing "basic" about the taste. They are light and fluffy and delicious and you are going to hate me for telling you.

The problem with this place - other than non-existent parking of course, is they don't offer fried chicken every day. They do publish a menu on their website so you can check it out before you make the trek. If you see the Dogpatch Millionaire - Indian-inspired fried chicken sandwich, with garam masala honey, spicy cabbage and coriander, I suggest you hustle on over to SF because that is one of my top favorites.

Tops so far at least. I don't really see a reason to rush to declare a winner - not yet.

Tuesday
Feb142012

TrueBurger

I can hear all the screams of protests from other burger joint lovers - and Burger Joint is actually the name of a top-contender and Sparky's is another, but I do not care. I still declare TrueBurger the best burger joint in town - hands down!

If you like a hearty, perfectly-cooked burger with no fancy garnishes or accoutrements, this is your place. Call me crazy but I'm such a purist when it comes to burgers, I don't even order them with cheese. If the beef is outstanding and cooked exactly the way you like it, you don't need no stinking cheese.

What you need is certified Angus beef, ground on-site daily, atop those delicious toasted egg buns - also made on-site daily, with a touch of garlic mayo, lettuce, tomato and onion. Absolute heaven.

I could not figure out what they did to that patty to make it so mouthwatering - apart from actually listening to you when you order it medium rare, until I watched the YouTube video on their website. Apparently smashing the patty on a hot griddle will produce a perfect crust on the outside while preserving a super juicy inside. That technique makes me want to sell the BBQ and invest in a gas range with a built-in griddle.

The fries are spot on too. I know the cheesy fries are a big hit with some people but again, my preference is no funny business. If fries are cooked right, all you need is salt - maybe a little ketchup.

There are lots of other enticing menu items that made their way to my table, including the Bacon Cheesy Trueburger, Spicy Cole Slaw Dog, Chopped Caesar Salad and Whole Spiced Dill Pickle - all with a resounding two thumbs up! There's one thing I missed and need to go back for - the milkshake with TOASTED marshmallow. What could be wrong with that?!

Here's my one warning. The only libation available is beer but they do have an outstanding one if beer is what you like. If you want to make a budget-friendly night of it, with that minor limitation in mind, you might want to try this Grand Avenue crawl:

Start at Room 389 for cocktails - a cozy neighborhood bar with stiff drinks. Head to TrueBurger for an amazing dinner. And then depending on your mood, you're off to Plum Bar for an after dinner drink and/or those incredible donuts or you're kickin it up a notch with a DJ and dancing at ERA Lounge.

Either way, TrueBurger is sure to make a true believer of you too.

Thursday
Feb022012

Haven

Daniel Patterson is raising the culinary bar in the East Bay so high that pretty soon there will be little reason to pay that bridge toll. His flagship restaurant might be in San Francisco but he's steadily building a very worthy fleet right here in Oakland.

First there was Plum and then Plum Bar. Now, his latest venture, Haven, located in Jack London Square will leave you awestruck in every way. The décor is at once hip, contemporary, cozy and warm. The attention to detail is crazy and everything they place on the table screams supremely tactile - from the monogrammed felt coasters, to the Heath ceramics, to the air plants in place of flowers, to the sea salt that's so tasty it must be worth it's weight in gold.

Notice I haven't even gotten to the food yet, which can only be described as over the top. No, maybe decadent redefined is a better description. They say "technique-driven food" - yeah, I'll say. The list of techniques is long and varied including sous-vide, foams, reductions, firelit - all producing combinations that are as incredible to look at as they are to eat.

We ordered five different dishes from pasta to scallops to chicken to cauliflower to dessert and they were all so painstakingly prepared and presented that I cannot pick a favorite. 

The handcrafted cocktails featuring concoctions like the Clipper Ship with gin, elderflower, lime, and fresh fennel juice clearly require the same dedication to quality and technique as the food.

Then there's the music which is edgy, loud and unexpected - especially for a "fancy restaurant". You'll likely hear something from The Vines or The Big Pink. And even if you don't normally listen to their music, you will like it because it keeps you on your toes and fully engaged in a full-sensory experience.

I've saved one of the the best features for last and that is the top-notch service. Yes, the wait staff is prompt, friendly and professional but that is not what ranks as over the top. Their true skill lies in their deep knowledge and enthusiasm for each and every item on that menu. Like a captain needs a crew, they make navigating this restaurant so much more rewarding.

 Yes, Heaven - I mean Haven indeed.

Wednesday
Jan112012

Uptown Crawl

Not just another flash-in-the-pan addition to Uptown's flourishing hip and trendy bar scene - Dogwood feels like the real deal as they serve up the stylish ease.

They say - "An intimate spirits-driven sanctuary specializing in cocktails and charcuterie by the pound". I say it's instantly timeless and comfortable, part speakeasy, part hunting lodge, yet current and a bit sexy.

The cocktails are handcrafted, stout and reasonably priced. Try the Hen House - a delicious concoction of gin, ginger and lime. And what's not to like about a joint with bacon chutney on the menu?

Now back to the notion of an Uptown crawl. Try this:

Start with Dogwood - ease into the night with their cozy atmosphere, retro music and a cheese/charcuterie plate and don't forget the bacon chutney.

Next move on to Make Westing - order something from the "Things in Jars" list and elbow your way on to the bocce ball court.

If you're still hungry, go to Flora and order most anything on that menu. Now you're primed and ready to end the night at the kooky Cafe Van Kleef - the "epicenter of the Uptown renaissance". Here you must order the signature drink, The Greyhound, in hopes the generous slice of vitamin-packed fresh grapefruit atop this cocktail will help stave off any ill effects of this long crawl.


Monday
Nov282011

Make Westing

Yet another great addition to the ever-burgeoning bar and restaurant scene of Uptown Oaktown and I love everything about it!

The genesis for this unique spot, with the clever reference to a Jack London tale, goes something like this...

"Make Westing - the result of a life-long friendship between co-owners, Glen Kaplan and Chris Foott, and their shared affection for booze and bocce. After traveling to faraway lands, Brooklyn and Oxford, the pals have returned to "build something rad" in "beautiful and badass" Oakland. Enter non-Olympic sport bocce and an accessible cocktail menu inside an industrial steampunk man cave." sf.eater.com

And based on what I saw, they succeeded with the "rad, beautiful and badass".

Throwing down that edgy, bustling Oakland vibe in a perfectly preserved AND enhanced industrial space, including an outdoor patio and full-size bocce court - all while serving up gourmet bar bites and handcrafted cocktails to appease the super selective foodie in all of us. 

I recommend this cocktail - Williamsburg Lemonade with bourbon, bointreau, xanté pear liqueur, lemon, club soda accompanied by a selection from "Things in Jars" - like the Cioppolini and Shallot Jam with garlic, black pepper and figs. This stuff is so melt-in-your-mouth delicious, it will make you turn down butter. And things "Outside the Jars" -  like the Roasted Chicken Sandwich with bacon aioli, romesco, arugula and red onion will make you forget everything you know about sandwiches.

I've saved the best part for last. It's only 1 block from this incredible venue. Yes, make westing, make westing indeed. 

Wednesday
Nov092011

Wine Nirvana

I just returned from an incredible weekend in Healdsburg with a group of girlfriends - a couple of which I've known since high school or an unmentionable number of years, all coming together to celebrate a birthday and celebrate we did.

This particular area of the wine country is arguably one of my favorite places on earth, so I'm a bit biased. But when I stumbled upon this place, I found a new reason to celebrate and I definitely agree with this headline in Food & Wine Magazine -  Medlock Ames Winery IS nirvana in Sonoma.

Everything about it is über hip but with a small-town vibe firmly intact. A virtual feast for the wine/food/design lover that I am. We had the pleasure of a private tasting in the "speakeasy" portion of the tasting room, the original location of the century-old Alexander Valley General Store, and by the time it was over I was ready to move in.

A low production winery, fewer than 5000 cases per year, deep-seated in organic and sustainable practices with style and good taste at every turn. A few of the highlights include: they pair their tastings with Bellwether Farms cheeses and homemade chutneys, they churn out 50+ hand-crafted pizzas from their wood-burning oven every Saturday, they make good use of the fresh ingredients from the breathtaking grounds and gardens in artisan cocktails, oils and preserves and the wine is good, very good.

I'm a new fan of their 2009 Chardonnay - "Balanced by minerality, this is a wine of great structure and poise."

Here are a few more reasons to love this place. You have not lived until you've tried the hot Chicken Gruyere sandwich at Oakville Grocery - grilled chicken, prosciutto, hot and gooey cheese, caramelized onions and Dijonnaise on a toasted, sourdough baguette. If you're out wine tasting at lunchtime, swing by Jimtown and try one of their hot signature sandwiches with prosciutto, blue cheese and this fig & olive spread.

I blogged about this place last year and it's still hopping - especially our very capable and cheery waiter Joe. He introduced me to this wine - my second new favorite chardonnay.

The shopping just gets better and better - unique jewelry, clothing and housewares shops line the square. Studio Barndiva was open for browsing rather than closed for a private event - love that gallery and the restaurant too.

And luckily the treatments at the Spa at Hotel Healdsburg have a way of getting better. I discovered some yummy new products on this visit that "extend the spa experience" - the Meyer lemon and sage shampoo and lavender, jasmine and blood orange conditioner are to die for.

Ahhhh...nirvana indeed.