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A Foodie Vegas Get-Away (or, Do You Want a Martini With That?)

I am a lucky girl. Very lucky. I have a beautiful home, a good job, cute kids (well, they are cute most of the time), and the best hubby in the world.  And he has a pretty amazing sister.  So when I hatched my brilliant plan of a few days away in Viva Las Vegas without the gremlins, er, kidlets, the Auntie took to my charms and cunning and agreed to watch them for us.

I *love* Vegas, especially in August. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t gamble.  I don’t go clubbing.  And I don’t necessarily have the need to melt under 112 degree heat.  But I do enjoy the lack of crowds in the late summer, the awesome resorts with their cool pools, the wacky people watching, and some of the most amazing food you can shake a wooden skewer at.

We normally take the prince and princess with us to the Big Bad Sin City.  There is plenty of G-rated fun to be had, and they are FITs (foodies-in-training).  Thankfully, they also know how to sit nicely and eat nicely at the nice places.  But there are some rules when traveling with kids — you gotta feed and water them regularly lest they ‘splode on you.  And you gotta sleep them, or they will ‘splode, wilt or just collapse; the latter results in the Olympic sport of kidlet-carrying.  Activities need to be semi-scheduled and, alas, they have outgrown naptime (although we adults have not!).

This trip, then, would be the anti-kid trip:  eat when *we* want, sleep when *we* want — and way into the morning hours! — and just enjoy each others’ company without cutting food, tying shoes, or wiping bottoms. (TMI?!)

Thai One On

Our long drive to Vegas ended in a semi-seedy strip mall off the strip.  Ok, so it is more downtrodden than seedy; as a resident of Master-Planned-SunnyVille, which has a certain look and feel everywhere you go, this place wouldn’t fit with our CC&Rs.   But it doesn’t matter what the place looks like on the outside — I’m going for the food.  Lotus of Siam, baby!!

About a year ago, before we embarked on our annual Vegas trip, I did some research to find unusual and out of the way restaurants and other good eats in Vegas.   Sure, we have our favorites, but we knew we were barely skimming the surface and it’s always fun to find a new gem.  When I stumbled upon Lotus’ entry in a blog, I was intrigued.  I am a HUGE fan of Asian cuisine of all sorts, so Thai food sounded good to me!  And as I read on (as any good OCD researcher would do), I grew more and more impressed (and hungry!).  Not only did it seem to be one of the best Thai places in Vegas, but professional food critics were saying it could be among the best in the country!  To boot,  it wasn’t break-the-bank-Vegas-expensive.  Perfecto!  Our first visit didn’t disappoint — the food was mouth-watering delish.

We arrived about 2:00 pm, just thirty minutes before they close for lunch for the day.  Nevertheless, they welcomed us in like old family.  The service is definitely good, but not the ultra-attentiveness you might find in some of the chichi places on the strip.  Cordial, respectful, happy to help, but not overbearing.  Inside, the decor is… well, cheesy at best.  The dark-colored carpet with its wild-colored flowers creeps up the wall, which is quite odd.  Lots of partitions throughout the place make it seem small and cramped, and the old wallpaper is reminiscent of your grandma’s (or great grandma’s) old apartment.  Tacky yellowed-glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling; and the mid-room linoleumed-square “designed” to house the lunch buffet carts add to the musty decor.  Nevertheless, it seems clean enough, and I’m not hiring them to decorate my house.  I want their food.

Hubby ordered a cold beer, but after our long journey, I was satisfied with a glass of iced tap water.  We started with Koong Sarong, or Prawn in Blanket.  Essentially, it’s prawn wrapped in wonton skins and deep fried.  They serve it with a plum-type sauce; it’s sweet not but not overly so.  The shrimp were plump, tender and well-cooked; the wrappers were crisp and a great addition to the shrimp.  They were fried to perfection and didn’t taste greasy.

For our main dish, hubby knew I needed my carb-fix, and we both were very excited about a fish dish. We finally selected Drunken Noodles with Sea Bass:  “Stir-fried flat rice noodles topped with deep fried sea bass and spicy chili mint basil garlic sauce serve on a bed of green [sic].”  They use a 1 to 10 scale to describe your preferred level of spice.  Hubby and I like our heat, but not to the point that it detracts from the flavor.  We dialed it to a 6.  And it was *perfect*.  The burn left their heat on our lips, but you could still taste the delightful flavors.  Fried Thai basil garnish added another level of flavor. The fish was sliced into thick sticks and lightly fried, giving them a slight crunch on the outside to contrast with their sweet soft interior.  Sauteed peppers accompanied the fish, which along with its light tangy sauce, sat lovingly on a bed of rice noodles.  The noodles were sweet, soft, and heavenly.  Oh.Yeah.Baby!  It was a symphony of flavors and textures that sang a happy, happy song in my mouth!

Whetting Your Whistle

After checking in, we became sickenly aware of the Martini-fest ocurring in Las Vegas.  Our second goal of the day, having gotten our Thai fix, was to find a nice place to sit, relax, chat and have a drink.  We wandered Mandalay Bay in search of a lounge and finally settled on a little place right off the casino floor.  It had some trendy name, but nothing memorable.  We looked at the bar menu.  Hmmm…. maritini this, martini that, more martinis than the Sex and the City gang could ever dream of consuming!  And at a whopping $18 a pop.  Hmmm…. No thanks.  Moving on.

We wandered around some more and then finally headed to the Verandah Bar and Lounge at the Four Seasons.  Filled with dark woods and cushion-y seats, it definitely was an upgraded, old charm feel as compared to those lounges found in Mandalay Bay.  The bartender was very kind and offered his recommendations of… MARTINIS!  Yep, they too had a big ol’ martini menu.  While in Rome, and during happy hour where martinis are half price, we thought, why not?!  Hubby had the pear martini while I went adventurous and attempted the bruschetta martini.  The pear drink was fruity and tasty, but the bruschetta martini only had the aftertaste of tomato and the full-bodied taste of unleaded…. lead.  Or vodka.  Your pick.  I did enjoy the tomato juice that the bartender gave to drink alongside it.

Service Without A Smile

Fast forward to dinner.  Again, this is an adult vaca. So we chose a place that isn’t kid-friendly — Joel Robuchon’s L’Atelier. (Although, there were a few very well behaved children with their parents. )  I read good things about it, and while it was an upscale place with upscale food, I loved the idea of sitting more casually at the bar.  Plus, they serve oodles of foie gras — a favorite of my adorable hubby.

First impression was mixed.  The place is dark, clean, modern with splashes of red.  The bar surrounds the open kitchen, with its clean well-dressed and OCD-ish chefs quietly hurrying to put out plates of perfectly coifed food.  On the flip side, the hostess and server immediately seemed like they were put out by their jobs.  Like they were doing us a favor by being there.  In other words, we were not treated like guests.

First, a look at the beverage menu.  Guess what they specialized in?? MARTINIS!  But they had other mixed drinks — or so we thought.  Hubby ordered what he thought was a mixed drink and it turned out to be a … martini!  Having been dissatisfied with my previous Vegas drink, I decided to play it safe.  And since the wines (even by the glass) required a mortgage application, I went with a safe and inexpensive bet — Hefeweizen beer with lemon.  Cold, light, refreshing with a taste that wouldn’t interfere with other flavors.

After you place your order, they bring out the bread.  Mini baguettes, freshly baked and probably the best bread I’ve had in a long, long time!  The crust was truly crusty — not just crunchy, almost flaky but hard and crisp at the same time.  The interior was warm and soft and melted in your mouth.  We also received an amuse bouche of a poached quail egg served in a parsley sauce and cream foam.  I have never had a quail egg, but I know how difficult it can be to poach a regular egg.  These were done properly — the whites were not chewy but were fully cooked; the yolk had some runniness toward the center but rested gleefully in the creamy cooked yellow.  Very well executed, great taste.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to order it, but it set the tone of the meal — we were going to experience unusual tastes in picture-perfect foods.  Yay!

The first dish to arrive was the foie gras, which was seared to perfection and served with cherries and blanched almonds.  I’ll be honest with y’all.  I am not a huge fan of foie gras.  I can appreciate the flavors, but I don’t yearn for it.  And when we order it, I’ll have a few tastes but pretty much let the hubby enjoy his guilty pleasure.  That strategy wasn’t an easy task with this one; after one bite I realized I wanted more. LOTS more.  The large piece of foie gras had a carmelized sear on it that left a slight crispness to the contrast of the creamy-silky interior.  It didn’t taste gamey at all; the cherries were a perfect sweet addition to the plate and the almonds left a little crunch.  Deliciousness!

Next on the menu for us:  La Cebette — a white onion tart with smoked bacon and asparagus.  If heaven was a dish, it might look and taste like this. The onions were sweet and surrounded with creaminess and sprinkles of bacon lying on a cloud of crispy, flaky tart. The asparagus were laid lovingly on top.  For such a simple dish, it was truly magnificent.

Incidentally, when I say lovingly placed, I should be saying painstakingly and perfectly placed.  We kept our eye on the sous chef at the cold/salad station and watched how she placed Each.Piece.Of.Lettuce on the salads, carefully spooned on toppings, gingerly handled the ingredients, leaning over the dishes to ensure each food item was exact.  Each dish she produced was identical to the previous and impeccable!

Next we had the sliders, but this ain’t your momma’s sliders! Their “Le Burgers” are prime beef topped with seared foie gras and carmelized peppers served on perfect soft and almost sweet, freshly baked buns.  Accompanying these little bites of love were fresh french fries and a homemade ketchup-like sauce.  I’ll be honest, the fries were just ok.  But the burger.  Oh, people, the burger!!

While savoring our burgers, we noticed a dish of oysters come out to the people sitting to the right of us.  And we were… intrigued to say the least.  Turns out, the people on the right were pretty darn nice, and in chatting with them, they mentioned that they thoroughly enjoyed the oysters.  We were sold and placed our order.  And out they came — baby Kusshi oysters poached in French butter and sprinkled with herbs.  They were soft, sweet and delicious.  Don’t tell anyone — we took some of our crusty baguettes and dipped them into the “love” left lying on the platter and in the shells.  Yeah, makes mommy happy!

Despite the small plate sizes, we were plenty filled.  Perhaps, if the prices were more reasonable for mere mortals, we’d order another round of sliders, but we are just regular folk.  So we finished off with a cheese plate.  To be honest, I know I enjoyed it — heck, I’ve hardly met a cheese I haven’t liked!  But it wasn’t overly memorable.  I believe it was four or five “slices” or samplings of various cheeses.  I wish I could say more, but I can’t.

The biggest disappointment was the service.  Here we were at a four-diamond restaurant, and the service was no better — and maybe even worse — than what you’d find at Joe Shmoe Chain Restaurant.  We waited what seemed to be an eternity for our drinks, while watching others get theirs.  In fact, we were beginning to think they lost our drink order.  When we wanted more of something, it was practically impossible to flag down anyone — not just our server, but any of the multitude of servers lingering around behind the bar.

Our server had no interest in discussing or suggesting.  Indeed, when the cheese course came, he hardly mumbled a few notes about each cheese and took off.  We’re no cheese course virgins. Usually, you get some background info about the cheese and suggestions on which to try first; you want to start mild and work your way to the more pungent cheeses.

But the indifference was the tip of the iceberg.  We were accidentally served someone else’s amuse bouche, and when the server realized his mistake, he pulled it away (it was already sitting in front of us) AND THEN SERVED IT TO ANOTHER PATRON. We hadn’t tried it yet, but it was right in front of our faces. Yuck!  I’d hate to think other people were sniffing and breathing in *my* food…  <shiver of disgust>

The design of the place also added to the clumsy service of the plates.  The way the bar is situated, the servers must reach over the bar to place the foods in front of you.  As a result, our servers almost knocked our drinks over and seemed a bit nervous about getting the plate down correctly.  Not the upscale experience at all.

Overall, the food was amazing and I am so glad to have had the chance to eat at L’Atelier.  For their excellent execution and presentation, we say Bravo! to the brilliant chefs, all of whom worked hard (we could see it!) to make our dining experience top notch.  Unfortunately, the apathetic service left a bad taste in our mouth, and we won’t be returning.

Voulez Vous Frangria?

What do you do when the kids aren’t around and you are on vacation?  Sleep in, of course!  So by the time breakfast had arrived, it was more like lunch. Sure, we could have grabbed a quick bite and headed to the pool, but we’re foodies and this is Vegas and we weren’t wasting a meal!  So off we went to Mon Ami Gabi, which I’d say was the home run winner of the vacation.

To our delight, the hostess happily obliged our request and sat us inside (to get the benefit of air conditioning on that very hot day), just under the arch leading outside, facing the Bellagio fountains.  Can you say “w00t” boys and girls?!

Next woot alert was the beverage choice. Yep, we were offered the martini menu, but hubby was intrigued by their Frangria — their French version of Sangria had red wine, white wine, Grand Marnier, oranges, grapes and rosemary.  I held my order pending his drink… the drink arrives on the mound, the taster takes a sip…. and IT’S OUTTA THE PARK!  Slightly sweet, tangy, cool, refreshing.  In the land of martinis, it was the perfect drink!

Mon Ami serves fresh bread and butter with their lunches.  As a bread-aholic, this is more good news.  The baguette was very good, but not nearly as crust-a-licious as Joel’s bread.  Still, I happily partook.

First course was Sea Scallop Gratinees, which was a platter of six shells, each filled with a scallop, caramelized fennel, onion marmalade and mussel cream.  It was baguette-sopping good!  The fennel and onion were sweet, soft with just the hint of licorice lingering in each bite.  The scallop was sweet and soft and perfectly cooked.

We split the Maison Combo as our main course selection.  The combo included a succulent short rib grilled cheese (you won’t find plastic, yellow  cheese in this baby!), a cup of Gazpacho, and frites.

Let’s start with the surprise — the Gazpacho.  I love hot bubbling soups (in fact, I usually partake in Mon Ami’s cheese-alicious French Onion Soup), but I generally don’t care for their cold cousins.  In fact, we had surmised it would receive the polite taste and then sit lonely and full to the top on our plates.  But this, dear friends, was delightful.  Smooth, a bit spicy, and filled with robust vegetable flavor.  I definitely enjoyed it, and we finished the whole thing.

The grilled cheese was fabulous — the bread was fried crispy-yumminess on the outside, but light and airy golden brown and delish, not heavy fried and greasy.  The sandwich oozed yummy French cheese — probably Gruyere — and was studded with melt-in-your mouth chunks of short rib.  With each bite I enjoyed it more, and soon grew saddened as I watched my incredibly shrinking sandwich.  (And thought to myself, “Why did I want to *share* this?!)

I love Mon Ami Gabi’s frites (aka French Fries).  They really don’t need to be *that* good.  They are strips of thin potatoes fried to creamy-crispy-salty goodness.  You could bring me a huge bowl of these babies any day, any time.  In fact, “Mr. Gabi” could teach Mr. Robuchon a thing or two!

Generally, I am not a huge fan of dessert.  I’m way happier with a hunk of bread and butter or meat or cheese or pasta or…  You get the idea.  This meal had been way too perfect,  and just we weren’t ready for it to end, so we checked out the dessert menu.  Before long we settled in with a pick — the Peach Parfait.  By no means is this a life-altering dessert or anything fancy or complicated.  It was, though, a truly delightful way to end a fabulous lunch:  A big ol’ scoop of fresh french vanilla ice cream, a scoop of fresh whipped cream, strawberries and peaches  piled on top and all around, with a sprinkle of slivered almonds thrown in for good measure.  We shared a lovely glass port with it.

All the while, we people watched, chatted, enjoyed the Bellagio fountains, laughed…   I like Mon Ami Gabi because it’s a classy but casual place.  You can sit back, relax, enjoy, and laugh out loud while enjoying some really good, tasty food.  The servers are great, too.  Happy to make suggestions, eager to help, attentive but not in your face/personal space.

And did I mention the Frangria?! People, trust me on this one — get the pitcher!

(Honorable mention:  Please use the restrooms around the corner before you leave… even if you don’t have the need.  The French lessons are laugh-out-loud entertaining!)

Steaking Our Claim

Our first dinner in Vegas was to be Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak, but when we got there sans reservations (that whole throw-caution-to-the-wind-we-don’t-have-the-kids thing in play), the wait seemed too long and we were too hungry, so we did L’Atelier.  (Oddly enough, we later learned that Bill Clinton was there that night — probably taking up *our* seats!  We heard he was incredibly kind, friendly, and a great guest.  Bummer.  Would have LOVED to had dinner the same time/place Bill was dining!)  So we tried again on Night No. 2, and promptly secured two seats at the end of the bar.

The bartender was a kind, chatty fellow, who acted as our waiter and our barkeep.  He recommended a red wine for us (although he noted his martini-making expertise),  served up some sweet soft rolls that just melted in our mouths, and showed us the menu.  I had been planning this meal in my head, having had the pleasure of dining there last year.  So I was quite disappointed to hear they recently changed up their offerings.  One of the victims of this slaughter was the soft polenta with blue cheese, and this darkened my heart.  If you ever have the pleasure of finding this gem on the menu, order it.  In fact, order two servings and send one my way!  The blue cheese polenta is creamy, sharp, deep, gooey, silky… it is the ultimate gourmet comfort food.  And pairs exquisitely with rib eye.  But I digress…

After using the brown paper bag to catch my breath, we narrowed down our selections:  Fresh Buffalo Mozarella as an appetizer, the rib eye steak, sauteed spinach, and roasted garlic and leek gratin.

A note about Craftsteak:  You won’t find fancy, fussy food here.  It’s all about simple dishes, simply yet perfectly prepared.  For instance, when you order a veggie, it’s that veggie with a few seasonings to bring out its essence.  And that’s it.  Plain and simple and yummy.

The mozarella was served with a drizzle of basalmic and some crushed hazel nuts.  It was very good, but didn’t change my life.

The rib eye was fantastic.  The chefs at Craftsteak know their meat, and this was cooked to perfection — medium rare, excellent grill marks, tender and juicy.  It was a bone-in, but the bone was tiny and, therefore, a disappointment.

The spinach was great and hit the spot — especially since we had pretty much skipped our veggies the past few days.  The gratin was a bit disappointing.  The potatoes were a bit firm for my liking (almost a raw-crisp), and it wasn’t very garlicky or leek-y.  In fact, the seasoning was bit off, even lacking your basic S&P.

My other Craftsteak obsession is their bread pudding.  Oh my, last year it was so sinfully delish that I wanted to dive into it and take a nap in its warm, yummy, softness.  Alas, that also had been recently removed from the menu.  But since I was jonesing for *something*,  I opted for their monkey bread with banana ice cream.  Bravo, Mr. Colicchio!  Well done!  Bits of pecans were sprinkled around the sweet (but not sickingly sweet) balls of dough. The sweet spheres were tender yet chewy on the inside with a slight sugary crispness on the outside.  The ice cream wasn’t overloaded with banana flavors, rather it had a hint of banana.  And it was a perfect cool and creamy accompaniment to the warm, cinnamony monkey bread.

Hubby, ever the chocoholic, opted for the mini chocolate souffle with pistachio ice cream. The ice cream was fabulous!  He enjoyed the souffle, but it was overly chocolatey for me.  (Yes, despite the odd looks from family and friends, I do believe desserts *can* have too intense of a chocolate taste.)

Overall, we enjoyed our dinner, but it wasn’t earth-shattering or overly memorable, as you can see by the comments.  I wouldn’t discount it’s worthiness, but I wouldn’t put it in my top 5 necessary stops during my next visit to Vegas.  Of course, if the polenta and/or bread pudding is on the menu, I’d at least stop by to say hello.  I mean, it’s the polite thing to do, right? 😉

Mangia, Bella! Ciao, Amore!

I’d be hard-pressed to say  I was a *huge* fan of Mario Batali.  I simply adore Italian cooking and food, and I’ve always been impressed with his respect for Italy and the food history there.  He tends to come off as being a bit too snobby for my liking.  I mean, it’s one thing for the French to seem stuck-up, but Italian is supposed to be accessible, welcoming family comfort food.

Nevertheless, I’ve wanted to visit one of his restaurants for a while, but never quite made it before.  All I can say is:  Shame on me!

Based on reviews,  we originally we going to try Carnevino Italian Steakhouse.  Unfortunately, we can only eat one dinner a night, and those slots were already taken, so we decided to lunch at Enoteca San Marco, the semi-casual place sitting in a main courtyard at the Venetian.  This was our last meal in Viva Las Vegas, and we couldn’t have chosen a better place for a farewell feast.

The people watching and oddness factor levels were high.  Flocks of tourists swarm the Piazza San Marco, exploring the expensive shops, awaiting their Gondola rides down the faux Venetian waters.  And then there are the “Venetian Living Statues”  — performers pretending to be statues, moving ever so slightly to pose with you, make a funny gesture, and the like.  Very amusing.

Service here was great!  The waiter was knowledgeable and helpful, attentive but not smothering.  He suggested a lovely red wine to accompany our lunch, and also guided our food selections.  For the antipasti, we selected three cheeses Robiola Bosina (a creamy cheese made from cow and sheep milk), Pecorino Fiore Sardo (a firm, slightly smokey and aged sheep’s milk cheese) and Baita Friuli (an aged, firm, mild cow’s cheese).  They were served with three plates of accompanients — honey infused and studded with truffles, cherries infused with liquor, and reconstituted apricots.  Unlike our L’Atelier cheese experience, our waiter chatted with us about the different cheese, explaing which was more mild, how they were prepared, etc.  It was a lovely (and by lovely, I mean sinfully delicious!) experience.

Interestingly, we did have some bread served prior to the arrival of the cheeses.  The bread came out fully wrapped in a paper,  which almost makes it seem like it was bought elsewhere, maybe even yesterday.  It seemed overly casual and odd for such a place. The bread itself was good — not heavenly, not jaw dropping, but good.

We knew we wanted a meat dish and a pasta dish, and after some discussions with our server, we narrowed our selections down to gemelli with house sausage and broccoli rabe and the braised pork shoulder served with averna apple reduction and a cucumber “salad”.

The pasta was outstanding.  I doubt the gemelli was made in-house, but it was cooked to al dente perfection.  The sausage was robust in flavor, meaty, almost spicy and very tender.  You know how sometimes you get a chewy piece in a sausage? Not here.  If a sausage could melt in your mouth, this would be the one to do so.  The rabe was probably boiled/shocked, as it was tender but not crunchy and still brilliantly green.  The sauce had a parmesan taste and a velvet-y feel in your mouth without feeling heavy, as so many cream sauces can do.  I could have  easily finished the entire thing myself, but we were sharing, so about half-way through we switched plates.

And then there was the pork shoulder.  You could taste the apple in the sauce, like you had freshly pulled a ripe apple off the tree and took a bite of it while eating the dish.  The sweetness came from the apple itself, not some syrupy-fake taste or added sugar feel.  The pork was tender and juicy, slightly carmelized on the outside and sinfully soft on the inside.  The cucumbers were incredible!  Dressed in just a bit of vinegar, tossed with a bit of mint chiffonade and incredibly thin slices of hot pepper, it was the perfect tart, acidic, spicy yet cool crunch to the warm, almost sweet and buttery meat.

If we weren’t facing four-plus hours sitting in the car, I’d probably would have tried one of the many gelato concoctions, which all looked fabulous.  But I was already filled to the brim of Italian yumminess, and I didn’t want to end my fantastic foodie vacation with car sickness.

So, with heavy hearts and  very satiated tummies, we said Ciao to our Bella Las Vegas.

… Until next time!

August 24, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SHRIMP-OR-PORK?!

Munchkin 1 – our firstborn – is a cute girl. She’s 4 ½  going on 14 ½. When she was a baby, food was NOT her thing. She loved her bottles, but chewing and gumming was beneath her station. Couldn’t be bothered. The princess has spoken. I remember when she was about 9 months old we went out for pizza. She tossed the crust we gave her to gnaw and munch on the plate. Go figure.

Fast forward, and we have a real foodie on our hands. She dips her chicken nuggets in “that green dip” aka pesto, orders shrimp scampi, turns her nose at American cheese but adores gorgonzola, and happily feasts wherever we take her. And we’ve taken her on cruises, to 5-star restaurants, diners, dives–you name it.

One day she turns to me and asks, “Can we go to that place where there are no menus?” Hmmmm…

“No menus?” I inquire.

“Yes. Where they just walk around with stuff. And have the boba dinks,” Munchkin 1 explains.

“OoooooooOOOooh. Dim Sum?”

 “YES!” she exclaims.

And “yes!” I think to myself. I’ve got her on my side. 🙂

—-

Earlier this this weekend, DH makes mention that “we have a dim sum trip in our future.” “Don’t tease me,” I reply.  Fortunately, he doesn’t. 🙂

In the land that is South Orange County, California, the restaurants can be pretty cookie-cutter, corporate and clean. As a result, the food is usually predictable, which sometimes can be a good thing. But when you want down and dirty or different and authentic, you make the trek.

We’re no strangers to trekking for good food. We’ve driven 40 minutes for good pizza. Heck, we flew across country to get some foodie fixes.  So we’ll happily spend 40 minutes in the SUV for dim sum at Seafood Paradise No. 2

OK, here’s what you won’t get there: Ultra cool ambience, super clean carpets and tables, uber-attentive wait staff. Here’s what you will get: Absolutely, freakingly fabulous, yummolicious food.  And an amusing show.

DH and I have a routine. We’re like hunters on the prowl at our table. We each are in charge of one half of the restaurant. Eyes peeled open, we look for our treasures: BBQ pork buns. Coffee and boba drinks. Chinese broccoli. Pork dumplings. Shrimp dumplings. Fried tofu. Duck. Mmmmmmmmm. …  If it isn’t too busy, if we get there early enough, you can stare ’em down, motion, and will those carts to come hither.

But when it is very busy, making eye contact isn’t enough. You need a seek and destroy mission. Capture the flag, er, the dumpling. One parent hangs at the table with one or both Munchkins. The other heads out hunting and gathering. This isn’t just a meal, it’s an adventure!  

And then, later that night, you get to creep into the fridge, open a little white box, and sample a little lovely leftover.

—-

On our first trek to dim sum, DH was a bit hesitant. A bit shell-shocked. An innocent boy in a foreign land. Strange women with carts yelling some sort broken english, shoving strange small tins in his face. It was overwhelming. I smiled. I reassured. I thought my dream of finding and enjoying awesome Chinese food in the OC was over.

A couple of months later, the PTSD had settled and all he had left were the memories of the food. He decided it was a small price to pay.

Yes! I got me my dim sum place!

Munchkin 1 had the goods delivered in utero. And when she finally was ready to consume food, she was hooked. Oh Yeah, dim sum, she is mine!

Now, Munchkin 2 has fallen in love with BBQ pork buns and sesame balls. Gotcha! … Mamma is sure to keep getting her fix.

Shrimp or Pork? You bet! Bring them both on.

 

 

 

 

 

May 20, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Sprinkless-In Search of a Cupcake

Hi, my name is H. And I’m addicted to Gimmee Jimmy’s Cookies‘ cupcakes. I need help. Badly.

The big problem is that I’m here in Southern California and Jimmy’s delightful goodness is about oh, 2,790 miles away. So what’s a girl to do?

Well, since I am a ruthless researcher, I start trolling the Web, reading foodie sites, comparing notes, and conducting follow-up interviews with various foodies in my circle. My pages of notes led me straight to one place: Sprinkles cupcakes in Newport Beach.

Hubby is a darling man. If I mention I have a foodie need, he’s right there with me. So Saturday evening we pack up Munchkin No. 2 (Munchkin No. 1 was busy with a birthday party), and made our trek.

As we pulled up, the strip mall seemed like a mecca. This is an upscale area, and the poshness added to our excitement. Park the car. Unload Munchkin. Head down the walkway. We see the sign! There’s a LINE! OUT THE DOOR! Wow, this has got to be good, right??

We get on line and begin entertaining Munchkin to keep him happy while we eagerly await our fix. As the line inches forward, we get our first glimpse of nirvana. Cute and quirky, modern and chic. The list of luscious lovelies goes on and on. I see words like “chocolate” and “peanut butter” and “lemon” … and then there it is!

“Red Velvet”

The anticipation initiates a saliva intensification process in our mouths. This is it! This really is it!!

Now, mind you,  I think in the back of our heads we both believed that this wouldn’t quite live up to our beloved Jimmy’s red velvet loveliness. But something close. That’s all we wanted. That’s all we needed.  …

The First Sign

We placed our order. First warning sign – pretentious – becomes apparent. Evidently, you place your order, step aside, and wait while they put the order together. Then, they call your name, you pay, and you get your cupcakes. We can see the cupcakes behind the window, all neatly lined up and waiting. How difficult is it to grab a few, let us pay, and commence consumption?

The Boxes – the Second Sign

At first the boxes seemed cute. I mean, four cupcakes will set you back about fifteen bucks, but they will package it up in a brown cardboard box. Good things come in boxes, right? Gifts, surprises, leftover chinese food…. On the other hand, anything that requires excessive packaging is trying to hide something. Meanwhile, the buzz around the store is overwheling: People telling others how they have waited for this, how the red velvets are the best, how good the cupcakes are…

Hubby, munchkin, and I load back into the car and take the 20 or so minute drive home. The anticipation is palpable.

Here Comes the Milk

Just like a fine steak dinner deserves a bold glass of wine, a good cupcake deserves a cold, fresh cup of milk. The cupcakes themselves look like pieces of modern art. The frosting on the red velvet has been heaped on top of the cupcake and rounded to perfection. In the middle is a circular confection, specifically indicative of this cake’s variety. All the cupcakes in the box seemed identically formed in terms of size and frosting amounts. That is impressive. But the taste…..

I sit examining my precious, and then I finally dig in. The cream cheese frosting is a huge let down. The frosting is much more of a butter cream variety, with not even a hint of cream cheese flavor. I’ve made cream cheese frosting, so I know if you don’t put enough in there, you miss that subtle twang. Too much, and it’s overwhelming. My frosting is pretty good. Gimmee Jimmy’s….. Well, let’s just say they are the gold medal! Sprinkles? Not in the ballpark.

The cupcake itself was pretty good. It has an intense warm buttery flavor; it’s rich  and moist. Not much in terms of chocolate flavor, but a subtle hint of cocoa. Again, nothing like Jimmy’s. The cupcake was much smaller in size, less rich, and Jimmy, the lil’ devil (or angel!) that he is, sprinkles mini-chocolate chips in his batter. Oh my. I need a moment just thinking about it!

 The Verdict

 Was it the worst cupcake I ever had? Nope. Was it worth the drive, the cost, the wait, the hoopla? Nopers. It was an ok to good cupcake, but not worth all that.  And, I think I can check off “Sprinkles” from my to-do list.

Epilogue: “Want Something Done? Do It Yourself!”

The above line from one of my favorite movies pretty much says it all. I can’t quite fly back to Jimmy’s, but I’m a decent baker, and so I took the task on myself.  I read all about the history of red velvet cupcakes, differing philosophies on baking, etc., and finally decided on Elisa Strauss’ recipe as posted on the New York Times (posted all over the web, but see this one, for example). And, because Jimmy is my hero, I sprinkled some mini-chocolate chips into the batter. Instead of the one noted online, I used Ina Garten’s cream cheese frosting, since I had tried it before and liked it a lot. (I did use a touch less sugar and omitted the almond extract and coconut.) I read in a few places you should put the cupcakes/cake into the fridge to help the frosting set a bit, and that worked out nicely. It “matured” the flavor of the cupcakes and the frosting looked better.  And they were delish. Ok, not as good as Jimmy’s, but it pretty darn fantastic! =)

Case closed.

 

 

 

May 19, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

The Trip That Started It All

My memories of Bill Hahn’s are a patchwork of sand, food, and family togetherness.

My parents first learned about Bill Hahn’s from my uncle–my maternal grandmother’s brother. He had stayed there several times, and was impressed with the service. Similar to the Catskills resorts, Bill Hahn’s served three sit down meals daily, all included in the lodging price. For the father of two young kids, I’m sure there was a lure of not worrying about where our next meal would be, how much it might cost, and if the quality and variety would be good. If you stayed in the main building, your next meal was as easy as descending the stairs at mealtime. And the food was good: lobster, steak, shrimp, chicken, pasta, fresh vegetables, pastries, ice creams…..  

Leaving for vacation is always fun, especially when you’re a kid. Packing is done for you. Arrangements are checked and rechecked without your notice. All you know is you’re going away–to someplace fun, new, and different. Both parents would be around to entertain *you*. Life is good.

Going to Bill Hahn’s was no different. My dad didn’t enjoy long car trips, and treated every drive that past the 45-minute mark as a looooong road trip, one to be entered into carefully and with great thought, care, and preparation. In my mind, Bill Hahn’s was hours upon hours away. We even planned stops along the way to break up the ride. In fact, in my mind, it was lucky that we could make it there in one day’s time. In reality, a recent Mapquest search revealed our long journey was just under two hours.

The resort itself was magical. Like a page from the history books and stories filled with country and beach adventures. The main building was more like an old large house or even mansion, and it had many nooks and crannies that filled my imagination with stories. One favorite area was a large sitting room with a pink/peach circular sofa in the middle. I can still recall the way the sunlight filled the room, slightly illuminating the particles in the air. It was always quiet and peaceful, as if it were waiting for something. Another favorite area showcased many different tea cups. I would imagine the kinds of people and parties where they might have been used, and my sister and I would take turns picking our favorites and telling stories.

The guest rooms were nothing like the modern decadent chain hotels of today. In fact, many didn’t have televisions, and most didn’t have telephones. But they were very big and comfortable and, if you were lucky, you would have an amazing view of the ocean.

There were several “themed” guest buildings around the resort, and a few bungalows tucked closer to the beach. My favorite building was the library. The small downstairs lobby had an amazing collection of very old, crusty- but important-looking books. Another featured local artists’ artwork. There was a small building where movies were shown on rainy afternoons. Lush gardens filled with flowers and vegetables surrounded the resort, and a walk around was like being in the “country.”

Most resort visitors were older couples, and it was rare that we’d bump into people my parent’s age, let alone my or my sister’s age. Once we found this very cool woman and her daughter who were also staying at Bill Hahn’s. They had the most amazing long, dark, straight hair. In fact, it reminded me of Morticia’s hair from The Addam’s Family. I think she partly reminded me of Morticia because of her odd talent – she would “clap” bees to their death. It frightened me, but I always felt safe from bees when she was around. She’d lift her hands and with a loud >CLAP<, those buzzers would drop to the ground. D-E-D. Freaky. She even taught my mom how to do so. And my mom became the talk of my friends when we got home!

Despite the older clientele, there was plenty to do as a kid. The beach, of course, was the highlight. I’m not a huge fan of sand, but sitting on a towel under a well-placed umbrella with a few Barbie dolls was a great afternoon. We also walked the shoreline and collected shells. There was a small (read: tiny) island off the shore. In low tide, you could walk there, as long as you were mindful of the jellyfish. In high tide, a row boat could take you there in about 5 to 10 minutes. There wasn’t much to do on the isle, except look back toward the beach and be proud of your accomplishment in making it there. Oh, and you could look for more shells. I remember we took off to the island a bit late in the day, and our trip back was in low tide. My dad wasn’t thrilled pushing the oars/dragging the boat in the sand to move our little family back to the beach!

There were also arts and crafts. My favorite was collecting Queen Anne’s Lace flowers and placing them in a bottle with some water and food dye. Part science, part art, we’d watch as the flower slowly changed from white to red or blue or green as they “slurped” up the colored water. Neat-o!

Tennis was also a fun activity. My parents tried to play tennis, and my sister and I would run gleefully around trying to collect the balls.  We also played a lot of card games and Rummy-O, took trips into town, and so forth.

Even back then, the food was the highlight of my trip! As I mentioned, Bill Hahn’s served three meals a day. My favorite was a dinner consisting of grilled baby lamb chops and a broiled tomato with parmesan on top. (I’d eat off the cheese and ask for more!) I also remember trying lobster for the first time. (The bibs were a hoot!) Much of the produce was grown on property, and so the tomatoes were so fresh and sweet and juicy, we’d eat them for snack.

Desserts were heavenly! One older couple seated nearby in the dining room taught us the “drawer principle.”  My sister and I innately understand the theory; my parents needed re-education. “No matter how full your stomach is from lunch or dinner, there is always an extra drawer for dessert.” So true. So true!

And, if you made it back from the beach at just the right time in the afternoon, they’d open up the kitchen and give out huge scoops of ice cream. Fresh-made, yummalicious ice cream.

The dining room was a multi-purpose room of sorts. On many nights they had entertainers, and they’d convert the dining room into a swanky nightclub. Well, I remember it as being swanky, because they put candles dripping with multi-colored wax into old, Italian-looking wine bottles. Hey, I was a kid. I was easily impressed. Evidently, some big names performed there – including Babs, although that was before my time.

My parents befriended Bill Hahn’s over the years we visited. Since we were one of the few young families staying there, we tended to receive a bit more attention. (Who can resist a cute kid?!) Mr. Hahn was like a literary character in my mind: very kind, but sort of eccentric. To dip into Addam’s Family pop culture again, he sort of reminded me of Uncle Fester, but mostly because I remember him being bald and funny. He babysat my sister and I one evening so my parents could attend a special show in town; the resort had arranged for transportation and tickets for those guests who were interested, and he knew my parents would enjoy it. He sat up with us, playing with dolls, and read us Amelia Bedilia books like the best straight man in town. We were in stitches! He was sweet, kind, and warm.

At the end of every visit, when we would reluctantly bring the suitcases toward the front door, he would have a picnic basket lunch waiting for us for our loooooooong ride (of 2 hours) home.  His staff made one mean turkey sandwich!  I remember the bread being perfection–crunchy on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside, and the smell of fresh yeast would fill the air. It was heaven. As much as we hated to leave, part of me looked forward to it, only to have that sandwich!

We’d pile into the car, laughing about the fun times we had shared, interesting people we had met, foods we had eaten, and my dad would say aloud,

“So that was Bill Hahn’s.”

 

May 6, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 3 Comments