Friday, January 29, 2010

Oahu: We're off on vacation!

Vacation time!

This year's destination: Oahu, Hawaii. Nine days and eight nights at the fabulous Marriott Ko O'lina Beach Club resort. The last time we were here was in December 2005. An island visit was long overdue and this time, we're not messing around. Unfortunately, we won't be blogging while "on vacation" however you can follow us on our adventures on Twitter at @foodiefinder.

Here's the foodie itinerary:
Majority of these places will be covered in a few days so that we can explore the island and find hidden gems.

The one item we are looking forward to is...the Shrimp Trucks! We were very disappointed not to find them in Maui a few years ago.

Suck, Peel, Dip and Eat. Music to our ears!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rancho Santa Fe: Chino Nojo

Updated due to 92067 Rancho Santa Fe comments.

Last year, I got a taste of locally grown, farm fresh cuisine from Madison, WI and Berkeley, CA. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley has been credited for creating and developing California cuisine. Much to my surprise, a vegetable stand in Rancho Santa Fe has fancied the likes of renown chefs Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck.

Chino Nojo (aka Chino Farm) is world famous for their quality, high-value specialty crops and has grown a cult following from prominent chef's in the San Diego area. So where is this place and how do I get there?
Locals know, Rancho Santa Fe is essentially the 6TH most expensive zip code in the U.S according to Forbes (2009). After driving past the rolling hills of uber expensive estates and mansions of Fairbanks Ranch and Santa Luz, there lies a quaint farm stand called the Vegetable Shop off the corner of Calzada Del Bosque and Via de Santa Fe.

Chino Nojo has been family-owned since 1969 and the family keeps a low profile: No website listed. I've also noticed that there hasn't been much coverage of this place in terms of blogs or news coverage. The latest review I found was from the Del Mar Times back in June 2009 and ever so often mentions and comments on the Chowhound boards.

Given the low profile and secrecy of this farm stand, I too will keep the information on this food mecca at a minimum. Why? 1. I want to come back and 2. Remember that Seinfield episode about the Soup Nazi. Well, you better know what you want before standing in line and have cash ready.

Here's a glimpse of what you will find here.
The first thing I noticed was there was no prices listed and a few of the items had descriptions such as Italian parsley, bay leaves, sage, etc.

The vegetable shop had a number of items I've never seen before so it was a learning experience. But for all you food photographers out there, be careful with your DSLRs. This is Rancho Santa Fe and some folks get a bit testy when you point your camera toward their way. One of the owners gave me a fair warning since it seems it happens quite often. Stick to the vegetables.

So what did I end of taking home? Strawberries and Butternut Squash. The stand is known for their farm fresh strawberries, particularly the Mara des Bois strawberries which is a French berry from a Spanish plant.

Mara des Bois strawberries - $5.00

Butternut Squash - $ unknown

Size comparison: On the left, an American style strawberry and on the right the French berry Mara des Bois strawberry.

Afterthoughts: I never really understood California Modern cuisine in San Diego, but Chino Nojo does give San Diego hope that one day we can be a culinary hub. I guess as long as the city's budget is still in the red, it won't be happening anytime soon.

In the meantime, I can drive 10 miles to Chino Nojo and grab good quality produce and recreate dishes from my Alinea or Ad Hoc at Home cookbooks. For the first time, I see the silver lining.

Things to know:
  • The owners refer to the farm as Chino Nojo (see comments below) even though numerous sources have referenced it as Chino Farms, Chino Ranch Farm, Chino Ranch, etc. Apparently, we were all wrong and have no clue what the name of the farm is.
  • The Vegetable Shop is located on the left side right after you make the turn from Via de Santa Fe.
  • Hours: Tue-Sat. 10:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. Sun. 10:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. Closed on Monday. Arrive early for first dibs.
  • Price Range: $$$ (CASH ONLY). Prices are not listed, just bring a lot of cash. No ATM nearby.
  • Service Process: Before standing in line, scope out the produce. The line is located on the far right side (when facing the stand). Someone will gladly assist you and answer any questions you may have.
  • Food Photography: Ok to take photos of the produce; locals may not want their picture taken (ask for permission first).
  • Parking: A paved parking lot in front of the stand.
  • Popular items: The strawberries; both French and American.
Chino Nojo
6123 Calzada Del Bosque
Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067

Monday, January 11, 2010

San Diego: New Orleans Creole Cafe

When you think about creole/cajun food, the first think that comes to mind is gumbo. Almost anyone can make gumbo at home, but no one can make a muffuletta like they do in New Orleans.

So what's a muffuletta? It's basically a New Orleans sandwich which consists of marinated olive salad, layers of capicola, salami, mortadella, emmentaler, and provolone, all in a round Sicilian breaf loaf. The muffuletta is my ultimate sandwich. I was fortunate to try the real thing while visiting New Orleans a few years back.

Whenever Marc and I have a creole craving, there is only one place that we go to in San Diego, the New Orleans Creole Cafe.

This little cafe is located in the historic Old Town San Diego, considered the birthplace of California.

Warning: The cafe sits right next door to the Whaley house. According to the Travel Channel’s America’s Most Haunted, the Whaley House is the number one most haunted house in the United States.

The cafe's formal dining room is a restored landmark of San Diego's first drug store.

Visitors have the option to dine in the indoor dining room or outdoor patio. We think the best seat in the house is the single table located right next to the kitchen. This is what I consider, the chef's table (shown above next to the Open signage).

The table setting is simple with a Southern flare. We love eating here for its unpretentious atmosphere and home cooked meals. Literally, the cafe has a small kitchen with a staff of two maybe three people.

We start off with traditional iced sweet tea.

Loaves of sliced french bread with butter was served in a bread basket to go along with our first course.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo with Shrimp - $6.75

New Orleans richest soup made with a dark roux and savory spices.

French Onion Soup - $6.75
Beef consume and onions, a touch of garlic and provalone cheese over french bread.

Fried Shrimp Po-Boy Sandwich - $13.75
Golden brown shrimp, served with cocktail sauce on a French baquette.

Quarter Muffuletta - $10.75
In-house made olive salad, sourdough roll, honey ham, salami and provolone cheese.

Afterthoughts: Although service is limited, it doesn't deter us from coming here. It's basically the only place in San Diego to get a decent muffuletta. It may not be like the one from Central Grocery, but it's pretty darn tasty. Did you see the shrimp on that po-boy! They're huge. No skimpy shrimp used here. The gumbo is as authentic as you can get.

The food, the atmosphere was just the way we like it.

Things to know:
  • The cafe is located in the historic Old Town San Diego, next to the Whaley House. Free parking is located across the street on Harney St.
  • Hours: Monday & Tuesday, lunch only; Thursday - Sunday: 11:30 am - 8:oo pm, Closed on Wednesday.
  • Price Range: $$
  • This place can get busy on the weekends so call to make a reservation.
  • Service can be a bit slow but it's worth the wait.
2476 A San Diego Avenue
San Diego, CA 92110
619. 542.1698

Friday, January 1, 2010

Las Vegas: Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

The much anticipated debut dinner of 2009, Twist by Pierre Gagnaire.

For those who have been living under a rock last year, Twist is Chef Pierre Gagnaire's debut restaurant in the U.S. This Las Vegas outpost is the ONLY place in the country to experience the extraordinary craft of this French three-star Michelin chef.

Should I say more?

Chef Gagnaire's self named restaurant in Paris, France, Pierre Gagnaire, is ranked ninth on the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants (ranked third in 2006 and 2007). He is essentially proclaimed a pioneer of the fusion movement.

As a final hoorah of 2009, Marc and I experienced the unexpected senses of Twist. So here is our story.

Twist is located on the 23rd floor of the Mandarin Oriental at the newly opened CityCenter. After hopping into a swanky elevator that lends up to the lobby of the 23rd floor, we walked around the corner toward a narrow hallway. A few feet from the restrooms is the restaurant. Hanging over the restaurant is somewhat of a floating wine loft.

We noticed that the staff was friendly and attentive, even smiling. A host approached us almost immediately even though we arrived twenty minutes before our reservation time. In a matter of minutes, we were seated. As the hostess escorted us to our table, we see that the wine loft is indeed located upstairs with a glass staircase that can be seen toward the front of the dining room.

Toward my left was the bar area and on my right was additional seating. The restaurant was designed by Adam D. Tihany of Tihany Design. The interior is illuminated by 300 globes seeming to float across the ceiling while the surrounding wall art looked like cracked egg shells.

The table setting was modern with a touch of opulence. At each table was a glass sphere filled with water and a spotted purple doriopsisium orchid. The outer exterior was lined with 20 foot floor to ceiling windows that overlook the city lights.

When we received the menu, it was fitted inside a beautiful folio with a raised textured print. The 'cracked eggs' motif was also embossed into the folio. The menu for the evening was a special prix fixe menu that was created for the Christmas holiday. Translation: More expensive than the regular tasting menu.

We started off with cocktails. Pictured above is a lemongrass mojito. When in doubt with ordering cocktails at a fancy schmancy resto, get a mojito.

Before we start with the canapés, there is something to note. All of the canapes came out simultaneously along with the bread and amuse bouche which was a trio. Imagine the pre-courses of the pre-course all in one shot. There was so much food on the table that it was like a playground of bite-sized goodness. Overwhelming, yet twisted in a way that we didn't even care what direction we were going. Everything looked exquisite. Definitely different from other dining experiences.

Canapé #1: Holder Salad Mix

Canapés #2 & #3: Souffle Cake with Pecorino Cheese & Ginger Biscuit

Canapé #4: Sarrasson Cream and Organic Salmon

Amuse Bouche Trio:
- Foie Gras Custard, Turnips Soaked in Campari
- Braised Lettuce
- Toast Melba "5"

Bread Trio:
- Wheat Molasses with raisin and walnuts
- Country rye
- French ciabatta

Bread Butters
- Truffled Butter
- Unsalted Butter
- Fleur De Sel

Course #1: Zezette
Gnocchi, Langoustine Cake, Cuttlefish, Zezette Broth

The Zezette broth was served over the Langoustine cake, two types of gnocchi and cuttlefish.

Course #2a: Pumpkin Veloute
Smoked Pumpkin Veloute

Along with Braised Chicory with Spinach

Course #2b: Scallops
Foie Gras Soup perfumed with Amontillado, roasted scallops, montgomery cheddar.

Course #3a: Beef Sirloin
Truffled Antichoke Veloute, Roasted Potato and Brussel Sprout

Course 3b: Four Story Hill Farm Chicken Two Ways
Seared Breast with Ginger, Braised Salsify, Golden Raisins

Truffled Ballotine, Young Salad, Olive Oil, Lemon Honey Dressing

Special silverware was presented before the dessert courses. The three desserts were inspired by French traditional patisseries. Again, all of the desserts came out simultaneously.

Dessert #1: Christmas Chocolate Cake, Caraibe Ganache and Pure Cocoa Sorbet

Dessert #2: Exotic Fruit Salad, White Sorbet and Passion Fruit

Dessert #3: Almond Parfait, Fleur De Sel Caramel

When we thought it was all over, here comes the petit fours. A high-end meal is not complete with these tiny, bite-sized desserts.

Lemon Ice
Frozen lemon topped with Spanish oil

Almond cookies, green tea leafs with toasted pine nuts and assorted meringues

Even though this meal was prix fixe, it was quite delicious. The main courses (The Beef Sirloin and Chicken Two Ways) were quite large. It may look small in the photos, but in reality it was quite a large portion. We were both stuffed by the time the dessert courses came along. The highlight of the evening, the Zezette broth. While it was being poured into the bowl, I can smell its green'ish essence (I'm not sure what was in it) but it was amazing. A similar course is available on the regular menu but instead of langoustine its chicken.

Afterthoughts: Dining at a Gagnaire establishment is like sitting in the driver's seat of an exotic supercar and pushing its redline. If you can't handle the power, get out of the driver's seat and go ride a Geo Metro. Luckily for us, we drive an exotic sportscar and we know how to ride it hard. :)

Things to know:
  • Twist serves dinner nightly on Tuesday to Saturday from 6:00pm to 10:30pm.
  • Reservations are required. Book reservations by calling 888.881.9367 or online at OpenTable.
  • Dress code: Smart casual, jacket required. Coat check is complimentary.
  • The dinner menu can be found here. The dessert menu can be found here.
  • Price Range: $$$$, the Chef's tasting menu is $160.
  • Cocktails are at least $16.00.
  • The restroom is located a few feet outside the restaurant entrance.
  • Chef's table: Not that I'm aware of. Every seat in the house is as good as it gets. Tables near the windows will set a nice tone for a romantic evening.
  • Celebrating a special event? The staff will switch out the table centerpiece with a much larger arrangement.
  • Food photography: The resto was surprisingly well-lit. Not dim at all.
  • This place is not for the faint of heart. The craft of Gagnaire needs to be respected and those deserving need to take notice.

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire
3752 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109