Happy Salads

On my last official day living in Berkeley (or Oakland, if you want to be a stickler for accuracy) I had lunch at one of my standbys, Intermezzo. I have been coming to this place at  least once a month with E, so it was great to have her come along before she moves to Santa Barbara for school. I’ve been eating a lot of salad, my good mood food, since right now my brain’s mushy from job and apartment hunting. Here is my tossed green from Intermezzo in Berkeley, Niçoise from Caffe Centro in San Francisco and a Roncado (which is actually an open-faced sandwich) from Cafe Delmarette in Santa Cruz.

Be back with a real post soon!

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Lunching and Gathering

Since the locally sourced, seasonal and very Californian restaurant Gather opened a year ago, I’d wanted to try their ultra-modern veg food. Until today, I hadn’t been able to either because of the budget or the ever-lengthy waiting list during dinnertime. Then the brilliant idea of going for lunch occurred to me, and the rest was gastronomic history.

From the building it lives in to the interior decor that screams "Napa County," Gather's conveys a rustic yet elegant vibe that makes me feel very comfortable.

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The gloomy weather called for soup of the day, which was a Puree of Brassicas with creme fraiche and cilantro. With lots of pepper to compliment the spicy vegetables and the creamy drizzle to balance the heat, this hot soup hit spots I didn't know I had.

The lunch combo (11) included the soup and half a sandwich, which in my case was a Spicy Chickpea Summer Vegetable open face sandwich with Hen of the Woods, olives, chicory and Mozzarella. I got the cheese on the side in case it was too much, but ended up eating most of it. Though the sandwich didn't feature any unique flavors, it was the best healthy comfort food I could have asked for. Probably because every component, from the bread to the greens, were of utmost quality and freshness. My biggest complaint is that the dish was almost too salty, especially those mushrooms.

We completely wiped our plates, which were portioned perfectly. Gather’s the gem of Downtown Berkeley that makes delicious food that I feel good about eating, on all accounts. I’ve gotta get back there for the dinner menu, where they offer a vegan charcuterie among other curious delicacies.

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Nojo, No Joke

In continuation of our Saturday smorgasboard, S and I met another friend at Nojo that evening. Guys, I cannot emphasize the gravity of this dinner enough. This was probably the largest quantity of impeccable food I have ever eaten, all thanks to my roommate who works there and hooked us up like rockstars.

After receiving several rave reviews, Nojo's been swamped nightly. We arrived to Hayes Valley early to beat the rush, and to check out the lovely shops in the area.

Nojo=Farm. Part gastropub, part izakaya, and nearly entirely locally sourced, Nojo is Japanese food done with a Californian flair. The employees even go on field trips to visit the farms. New menus are printed every night, based on what's in season.

We gave A a few ideas but ultimately asked her to decide what to bring us. This avocado salad reminded me of the deconstructed sushi I brought to class every day in high school, minus the rice and cucumbers.

Gem lettuce, cauliflower and katsuobushi (or bonito) salad was simply dressed, allowing just-picked veggies to steal the show with their natural flavors.

The Shiitake mushroom and English pea gyouza came highly recommended. I thought it was alright--perhaps because I don't like pork (none was mentioned on the menu) or because I've eaten enough amazing dumplings to build a bridge to China (where most of those dumplings were eaten). I do wish that they could always come with a great broth like this, though.

A has told me about this sauteed squid and potato dish numerous times and my lord it was all that she claimed it to be, and more. Buttery, chewy potatoes, zingy herbs, and the most tender, sweet squid I have ever had. I have never tasted squid like this before, and apparently that's what everyone says when they eat this. My favorite dish of the night. If I could eat fresh seafood every day, to hell with vegetables.

White miso glazed trout with forest mushrooms and purselane. My friend's favorite dish. As a shroom lover, I wanted to try all the dishes with exotic species. This is another one that should be served with a side of singing angels. It has the flaky texture of fish, and the taste of pure butter. I'd believe it if someone told me it was poached in a vat of cream or something. I loved the "meaty" veggies and mushrooms which complimented each other perfectly.

Tempura of maitake mushrooms, green beans & Meyer lemon slices, with ponzu mayonnaise. Fried stuff dipped in mayo was basically the theme of this week for me (four times). This dish took that theme to a gastronomic level. Another delicious mushroom crossed off my to-eat list! And the lemon slices proved that one can make anything delicious by way battering and deep frying.

With so many exciting dishes to try, and much to my relief, we didn't taste many skewered meats. This chicken breast with avocado and wasabi leaves was impeccably grilled. I'm very curious about the chicken skin with matcha salt and lemon

Couldn't decide on dessert, so the natural default was to get it. Out of several crazy choices, we were presented with the Nojo Sundae, which included black sesame ice cream with kumquats and peanut thunder crackers. Sometimes they have miso ice cream as well, but not on this night. This was a unique combo, and I'd love to try their others, but Asian desserts just aren't as enticing to me as a piece of cake. Something to do with the lack of sugar, dough and hot fudge.

I will never forget how welcoming A made me feel at Nojo, introducing me to the staff and ordering all of us her favorite dishes. Customers have said that she is the best server in San Francisco, and I obviously concur. I’m super excited that she’s thinking about her own food soon, as well. This whole meal was on the house, and even though we tipped her over 70%, I still feel indebted to her amazing generosity.

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Herbivoracious

I should get paid to write blog titles.

Twas a rainy night and A and I had one final dinner before she moves to Russia indefinitely. The original intent was to try Cha Ya (you have no idea how excited I was at the prospect of finally blogging about "vegan sushi") but it's closed all month for renovations. Luckily, Herbivore was down the street and always a nice backup...or is it?

Finding a public bathroom on Shattuck Ave. that doesn't remind me of the one in Trainspotting is challenging, but Herbivore's is possibly the nicest there is. Therefore I took photo documentation.

The ambiance is fairly straightforward modern. Maybe I have spent so long in other filthy, dark restaurants on this street that I really appreciated the airiness in here. Is it wrong of me to describe it as very "socal"?

Before our main entree was ready, our cute waitress brought us the ubiquitous side salad. Lightly dressed, gingery and slightly creamy. I always enjoy this.

Three years ago, my friend had moussaka at a very authentic Greek restaurant in Chicago and I was super curious. Finally, I could try the vegan version (~10) with alternating layers of eggplant and potato, stuffed with soy protein, tofu ricotta, mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, and spinach all bathed in marinara.

I loved the crostini with a hint of garlic olive oil on the side, dipped in marinara. Unfortunately, the moussaka was not what I expected. The potatoes were a little undercooked (but maybe some people like a little crunch). Maybe this is culinary blasphemy but I was expecting something like mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes with marinara...why don't people eat this?! I am going to try it one day and make a fortune. It was dull dish all around, though plenty salty. Since there weren't enough herbs or standout flavors, I would've loved to sprinkle on some chili flakes, had it been available. Sometimes I love Herbivore for the extensive menu, but the trade off is that there are no Super Special dishes to wow you.

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Three In One

A couple weekends ago we took a few jaunts around Sonoma county, with a pit stop in the Castro. As far as I’m aware, all incriminating photos of being a total fag-hag in da clubz have been eradicated and what’s left is a nice collection of the eats we enjoyed. Aren’t we lucky for such an advanced filtering system nowadays.

Because I wrote ten Elfster posts yesterday, because the lighting in the restaurants were horrible, and because Groupon just told me I wasn’t the best candidate to work for them even though I submitted a kick-ass application, I’m consolidating three meals in one post today.

First up was the Italian joint called Poesia. G used her impressive trip planning skills to choose and reserve all these restaurants, by the way. Anyway, Poesia was a classy but casual place that was situated above a fortune teller or a porn shop (too many to keep track) in the Castro, which seemed to only employ Europeans. At least, our waiter had an accent and they all dressed with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi.

best bread of the weekend

This was the first of many bread baskets, but my absolute favorite. It reminded me of the no-knead homemade bread I try to make once in a while, with an impossibly soft and warm center and chewy, oilve-oily crust. Half the pieces had olives studded in them, and for an olive overdose you could dip it in the fruity plate of oil nearby. I wish they’d had some balsamic, but truth be told I ate most of the bread plain because it was that good.

without parm, this soup was surprisingly vegan

It was, as usual, a cold foggy evening in San Francisco. I went with a chunky tomato soup (~8) that had pieces of bread. (Thank God, more bread) cooked into the soup, almost like they were dumplings. Instead of cream, the bowl was almost drowned in olive oil, which was like my dream come true. No tomato soup is too acidic for me, so it was probably one of the best bowls I’ve had, but probably not for the faint-of-palette.

When pressed for vegetarian options, I seem to get beet salad a lot lately.

S and I shared a beet salad with greens on endive. I know beets are supposedly delicious with goat cheese, but I can’t really stand the stuff. (More on this later.)(Edit: actually, I didn’t get a photo, but I subbed parmesean for goat cheese at the CIA.) S likes it so I figured I’d eat around it, but it was actually more of a sauce mixed into the beets. Luckily this was one of the mildest goat cheeses I’ve ever tasted, so I rolled with it. Sweet beets can never go wrong. One of my favorite restaurant standbys.

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The real CIA.

On another day, we kicked off a Napa trip with lunch at the Culinary Institute of America. We got there a bit early, which gave us free time to browse their museum of wine-openers and extensive gift shop (where they sold a “Bean Slicer”, which G proceeded to kill me with).

We peeked into their fancy lecture halls, which look just like the ones in school, but with a huge kitchen and presentation area in the front!

At lunch, where all the employees seemed to be students, we had another never-ending bread basket.

The butter stole my heart.

I preserved the chicken though, because I was too busy discovering one of the most delicious foods known to man.

Fried green tomatoes, chow chow(?) and burrata with chives.

For once, a cheese I don’t hate! I’d heard of burrata before, but didn’t expect anything because it’s just a milder mozzarella, whipped with cream. However. Goodness, it was the most creamy, soft, texturally strange food I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating (with lots of bread). It looked and felt like a poached egg white, but it also sort of broke apart like Gak. (Remember Gak?). I know it’s the grossest comparison ever, but trust me that sweet, creamy cheese Gak is the best invention ever. It’s nothing like brie, which I can’t really stand. The “chow chow” provided a nice crunch and some mystique to lunch, as we read the menu and wondered what the heck it meant before being served.

Oh yeah, and the whole reason we got this dish was because E (a fellow veg) and I had never tried fried green tomatoes. These were what I expected, which wasn’t much. Deep frying always sounds appealing but the super sour tomatoes had the common problem of falling away from the batter, which was the actual tasty part. With this, I also had a salad that was so unremarkable, I forgot to take a good photo of it. The meal consisted mainly of me stuffing my face with bread and burrata, trying to wave the waitress down for more bread, and stealing everyone else’s bread. But other people ate nice-looking dishes.

A comforting meat loaf sandwich was the day's "Green Plate Special".

Spaghetti with scallop meatballs.

The CIA was entertaining but the food was pretty expensive, and had very few vegetarian options and zero vegan. I asked if they were open to making substitutions or changes for vegans, and it seemed pretty difficult to do so, unless you’re just taking off the cheese or something. They did say they were developing a full vegan entree though…Overall, not the best place to eat adventurously because everything is pretty strict in order to best teach the student workers.

But I thank it for introducing me to burrata.

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Tru dat.

Okay, we’re close to the end! That evening, after stopping by various Napa food landmarks such as Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery and The French Laundry, we ended at Mustards Grill, made famous by Bobby Flay who said it cooked his favorite pork chop. This menu looked promising and it took me forever to decide which dish to get, unlike at the CIA.

Who needs a basket when you have perfect French bread?

This bread was nothing like Poesia’s but so tasty in its own right. I can’t stop looking at this photo.

The waiter accidentally dropped our plate of fries and half of them flew across the table, one into my drink. He brought us more fries later. I kind of love when these things happen.

E and I were in the mood for more fried goods so we got a plate, with watercress dipping sauce. These fries didn’t meet my standards, though. Rather mealy inside (I don’t care if you’re not Belgian. Twice-fry! Always twice-fry!), under-seasoned, and soft. I was jonesing for ketchup but the service was less than attentive. The place looks casual but the people and the vibe is kind of uppity. The decor and cramped space felt like a Marie Callendar’s but the prices did not reflect.

However, I did relish watching the middle-aged Cantonese couple to our left eat plate after plate of food like their lives depended on it. They had at least two apps, three entrees, dessert, and coffee between the two of them. Gloriously gross.

Tamales are one of my new favorite foods. I had a kick-ass vegan one two days earlier, which I kick my ass for not documenting.

Everyone agreed that my tamales (10.50) were delicious. Two pillows of sweet corn and mushrooms drenched with butter and topped with avocado-tomatillo salsa, pepitas, and greens looked small, but definitely started getting to me towards the end. It’s meant to be an appetizer so I’d split this with someone in the future. E’s mushroom burger, which I’d debated getting, was fantastic, if not also too rich to enjoy in mass quantities.

Done dealin'.

I think everyone else was still eating as I scraped my husks clean like a plebian.

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Salads in Santa Cruz

This weekend C and I took a day trip to SC which is the only vacation I’ve had so far, but I’m planning another trip there at the end of the month! As usual, I was behaving like the bad blogger I am and missed two avocado photo moments. I’ll explain later.

I should've gotten a slice just to try all of these spices

I should've gotten a slice just to try all of these spices

Once we picked M up from UC Santa Cruz, we drove to the downtown area and immediately I was beckoned by entire streets of booths selling vintage clothing and antiques! The SC antique fair is only held once a month and of course with our karmic powers combined, we stumbled upon it! I wanted to go at once but M and C didn’t eat breakfast so they wanted nourishment or some rubbish like that. Now I remember why I shouldn’t have children, or pets, or plants.
So we went to the chain Pizza My Heart which has a cute name but obnoxious Hollisteresque vibe inside. Where are the hearts and disgustingly cute decor, I kept wondering. I wasn’t that hungry but the salad was under four dollars so I had to get it.

your standard greek (3.75) with olives, feta, onions, artichokes

your standard greek (3.75) with olives, feta, onions, artichokes

As the day went on I realized most food in SC is insanely cheap compared to SF. I chose a honey mustard dressing because I felt rebellious. I never get that one but it was delicious and I possibly saved it to use later in the day. I carry around my own salad dressings/toppings, ok?
based on lack of remarks i'm guessing it was unremarkable

based on lack of remarks i'm guessing it was unremarkable

Then I got a Nutcracker iced coffee at the SC Brewing Company and it was the most delicious hazelnutty, cinamonny coffee I’ve ever had. As the weather gets hotter, I’m cultivating a bad iced coffee addiction but finding nothing as good here in Berkeley.
I’m not rating the food I ate in SC because it was too sporadic, but I do give their antique fair the guacamole. Not too big, not too small, cheap, and all the vendors had impeccable taste. I loved every single stall.
who cares what all this stuff is. it is cute

who cares what all this stuff is. it is cute

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why didn't i get this again?

why didn't i get this again?

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I left four dollars poorer and with a gorgeous woven purse and cigar box. The clothes were nice but I’m in a style rut currently. Anyway, moving on to food!
boring salad with cilantro lime dressing

boring salad (5) with cilantro lime dressing at Saturn Cafe

I know, I was craving more salad. I will soon lose all my readers but at least I will have my roughage. Why am I a disgrace to blogging? Because I added my own avocado and also my leftover dressing from “lunch” on top of this salad and didn’t even take a picture. It was totally justifiable to whip out an avocado from my purse because they had NO avocado in the establishment.  This place really was like Saturn. But for the most part, SC has a great variety of vegan/veg restaurants. I was also saving myself for this cute food stand in downtown called Alfresco that had an amazing vegan menu with customizable wraps, grain bowls, etc. When we got there for dinner, it was closed 😦 so I got dinner at a fancy grocery store. It may or may not have been salad…

While eating outside, some hippie sitting behind us was snacking on a plain avocado with a spoon. Strike two – I didn’t ask to get a picture of him or take out my own avocado so we could have a moment. This is 55% why I’m going back again to do it right. Next time there will be more avocado, Alfresco and coffee!

Cafe Mattina, best known as Intermezzo

Oh, the ‘mezzo. There’s no better way to show how much it means to me than the twenty or thirty times I’ve returned for tossed green salad with poppyseed dressing. I defended it when elitists complained that it was unfresh, sloppy and low quality. And also when they raised prices from 3.75 to 4.50, because who can even compete with that addictive dressing, not to mention the massive portions and thick, squidgy honey-wheat bread they’re constantly sliding out of the oven? 

presentation's a bit better when you dine in. a bit.

presentation's a bit better when you dine in. a bit.

This was the first restaurant I went to in Berkeley when I moved three years ago, though I don’t remember it making a huge impression on me. But sometime soon after, I started jonesing for that dressing. I don’t care if they put opium in it (no proof) or about sanitation horror stories (no proof) or that there are junkies outside asking for money/salad (proof, but it’s fun to watch through the window). Also, they have a tree in the center of the dining area! I love foliage indoors and can not get over how brilliant that is. Every sandwich I’ve tried there is wonderful, though the pie and soup aren’t stellar enough to distract me from the other items.

also: sobs! this was my last meal together with G and C  as roommates. best i’ve ever had.

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