Thursday, July 31, 2008

An Evening at Chez TJ

Foie Gras at Chez TJThis was going to my first visit to a Michelin two-star restaurant. When expectations are high, it is easy to be disappointed, but I am happy to say the restaurant more than lived up to its hype. Thank you, Mark & Deb for making this a memorable evening for me; while the food and wine were really nice, the company was especially so!

Only seven restaurants in the entire Bay Area have two Michelin stars or more. Chez TJ was awarded these stars in this year's updated Michelin Guide, after chef Christopher Kostow put Mountain View on the culinary map of the Bay Area. Within months of getting the award, Kostow who is young and ambitious decided to move on; he's now in charge of Meadowood in St. Helena. Who says only software engineers are mercenary!

Anyway, Chef Bruno Chemel, a Frenchman and much older than Kostow, seems intent on keeping the culinary flag flying high here. Having worked in Japan for a few years, Chemel does borrow some ideas, but the cuisine is very contemporary French.

The restaurant is located in a beautiful Victorian house on Castro Street that was built in the 1800s. Large glass windows look out on surrounding gardens, and rooms have been tastefully furnished to provide an old-world charm.

Amuse Bouches at Chez TJWe decided to choose our own courses with wine pairings. The breads and amuse bouches arrived almost instantly. There was some cheese thing with caviar, melon sushi, and dried carrot on toast with some more caviar. Between courses, I also remember bits of sashimi in a tiny spoon that exploded with taste on the palate.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras Trio at Chez TJOur first course, the Hudson Valley foie gras trio set the stage for what was to come. The dish pairs foie gras pâté with leeks, summer truffles, a foie gras torchon and sautéed foie gras with small chunks of peach, carmelized morel, and candied strawberry. So buttery-soft delicious, rich and luxurious it left me quite overwhelmed. The pale gold 1998 Chateau La Grave, St. Croix Du Mont, France was like a dessert wine but paired well.

Day Boat ScallopsTwo preparations of Day Boat Scallops were combined into the next dish: a creamy scallop mousse with asparagus puree that was topped with a lemon foam, and a seared scallop with lemon confit accompanied by fresh corn and morel mushrooms. This dish was amazing: the mousse melted instantly in the mouth and the seared scallop was squeaky fresh. Very subtle flavors but ones that will linger in my memory.

Elysian Farms Lamb Four CutsThe lamb "four cuts" looked interesting and tasted even more so: the fatty striated belly, the confit on a piece of focaccia, the saddle with black olive crust, and the leg and tongue molded into a round. Alongside were three preparations of artichokes: a heap of crisply fried artichokes, a swatch of puree, and a baby heart on a small heap of fava beans and baby carrot. This dish was paired with a 2004 Dolcetto Diano D'Alba from Piedmont, Italy.

Meyer Angus Sirloin-Mishima Ranch Kobe Short RibCalifornia Duck SalmisI have included pictures here of the other entrees: Deb's Meyer Angus Sirloin and Mishima Ranch Kobe Short Rib with a zucchini melange and cabernet reduction, and Mark's California Duck Salmis with roasted morels and apricot sauce.

Palate CleanserPinapple Carpaccio and MoreThey sent us a citrus palate cleanser before the desserts. Pastry chef Ryan Shelton's creations complemented Chemel's main courses. I had ordered the Pineapple Carpaccio, Spiced Cake, Vanilla Nougat, and Rum Gelee. However, the other desserts on the table looked even better. Especially the iced watermelon with lime cheesecake and licorice marshmallow. The orange mocha Trifle with mudpie and chocolate gelato looks amazing too, doesn't it? (Note: Hover your mouse over the pictures if you can't figure out which is which). My dessert was paired with a Kir Royal cocktail made of elderflower liquor and sparkling wine.

Summer Iced Watermelon and MoreOrange-Mocha Trifle and MoreThat was followed by a few other surprises, such as a little spoon of lychee 'sashimi' followed by bite-sized fruit tarts and sweets, which concluded the meal on a high note.

TartsThe waitstaff was prompt, friendly and helpful throughout. All in all, I must say that there indeed is a difference between the single-star restaurants I have visited and this one. I look forward to being back here again.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

Tasting Menu at Ame

Grilled Pork at AmeI have blogged about my earlier visit to this excellent restaurant in downtown San Francisco. Ame is owned by Lissa Doumani and her Japanese husband, chef Hiro Sone. Ame means rain in Japanese and the menu here is a creative meld of Californian and Japanese cuisine. Ame also has a very interesting sashimi bar and an extensive offering of sake.

This time I decided to try their Umami celebration tasting menu. Umami is the Japanese word for 'deliciousness', also known as the fifth taste, after the four basic tastes of sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness.

Ame San FranciscoDinner began with a sampling of their excellent sashimi bar: Ceviche with Yuzu Sauce, Halibut Sashimi with Ume Plum and Vinaigrette, Kampachi Carpacciao with Nuka Pickles and Ponzu. I liked the Halibut the best, but they were all very good - to look at and to eat! In fact, here you can't go wrong with the sashimi. Always a good place to start your meal even if you are ordering off the menu.

Sashimi at Ame San FranciscoCorn Bisque at AmeNext came the Corn Bisque with Lobster Tortelloni and Pesto Sauce. Creamy and mildly sweet with an occasional crunch of corn, this soup was a very good too. However, I am not a big soup person, so I was already waiting for my next course.

Broiled Sake Marinated Cod at AmeThe Broiled Sake Marinated Black Cod in Shiso Broth was another winner! Flaky, very flavorful and every morsel a delight. I slowly savored this dish happy I had decided to eat here tonight. Actually, I had meant to try The Fifth Floor (in the nearby Palomar Hotel), but that restaurant is not open on Sundays.

Finally came the Grilled Berkshire Pork on Carolina Golden Rice and Tomato Ricotto with Vadouvan Sauce (picture adorning the beginning of this post). The dish was topped with a fried calamari and a batter-fried pepper. The pork was extremely tender and delicious, and the combination of textures and flavors was perfect on the palate.

Dessert at Ame San FranciscoThe dessert was pretty good too: Nectarine ' Panzanella' - pieces of crunchy bread - with caramel icecream and dried Shoyu. All of this with glasses of Chikurin 'Karayaka' sake, which was light and floral with subtle notes of cherry. Oh, I love this restaurant!

Fellow foodies will probably know this restaurant got a coveted Michelin star last year. Hiro Sone and his wife also own and run Terra (another Michelin starred restaurant in Napa Valley).

Reggae Outdoors in downtown San FranciscoAnd yes, I did get to see The Dark Knight. I thought the movie was extraordinarily good - and different from the usual superhero movie. Also, I don't think I have watched a movie in a cinema so crowded. I was at the hall 15 minutes early, and yet had to sit in the fourth row from the screen. Outside the Metreon, in the gardens there was much merry-making as a band belted out Reggae and families with their kids stopped briefly to enjoy the singing and the warmth of the sun.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Kakori Kababs and Sambal Kampachi

Kakori Kababs at Dum PukhtAs I started off on my trip to California, I noticed there has been some progress in the remodeling of Pune and Mumbai International airports. Everything is either ripped apart or spanking new. But far from complete. Oh well!

I was back at Dum Pukht for dinner before my flight to Singapore. This restaurant at The Grand Maratha boasts of refined Awadhi cuisine of yesteryears. I selected their specialities: kakori kabab and dum gosht biryani. If you have not tasted the kakori kabab, you have to! Read my post on the many legends on how this amazing kabab came to be.

Dum Pukht MumbaiThe saffron flavored kakori kababs melted in my mouth. The biryani was very good too; lightly colored but very fragrant with succulent pieces of mutton and creamy raita on the side. But the best tonight was the multi-textured pista kulfi that was truly awesome! The kulfi was accompanied by the traditional falooda - both the vermicelli and the tapioca seed versions.

Biryani Dum Pukht Mumbai
Kulfi Falooda Dum Pukht MumbaiSingapore Airlines has taken care of my (only) pet peeve! Their newly designed cabins are now available in the Mumbai sector too. My flights were uneventful which is exactly how I like them to be!

Singapore Airlines Business ClassI took some pictures from the sky before we landed in Seoul en route to San Francisco. It seemed to have rained hard here and there were pools of water everywhere. This was a different terminal and I was directed to the Asiana Airlines lounge, which was nice with a old-fashioned library ambiance. After another long flight, I landed in San Francisco on a bright and sunny day. My bag took a long time to make its appearance on the belt and I was off to my hotel in downtown San Francisco.

Seoul from the skySeoul from the skyI saw Wall.E at the nearby multiplex on Saturday. While the movie was pretty good and very different from the usual animation movie, the vision of a garbage-laden Earth made me wince. I also bought tickets for The Dark Knight which is having a record weekend here. Tickets were sold out for the IMAX screen; I could only buy tickets to the regular THX screen for Sunday.

Bong Su San FranciscoBong Su Mekong MartiniI returned to Bong Su for dinner, this time armed with my camera. The only thing new this time was the much discussed backless slinky dresses of the Bong Su hostesses; they now show less skin and won't distract you from the great food on offer here! :)

Bun Rieu Crab and Egg Dumpling Soup Bong SuSambal Kampachi Bong SuThe North Vietnamese Bun Rieu crab and egg dumpling soup was very good with crispy Vietnamese greens, tomatoes and very fresh clams. The Sambal Kampachi from the South was crisp and interesting. The pan-seared fish had been drizzled with sambal sauce and served on a heap of sauteed spinach. The Empress Rice was very good; it was made of sticky rice fried with garlic, leeks, ginger and topped with a poached duck egg.

Empress Rice Bong SuVietnamese Desserts Bong SuThe dessert - again - was the highlight of this meal! I had ordered a Traditional Vietnamese Desset Sampler that had a cassava cake with pandan jelly, a Vietnamese coffee flan, and a tapioca pudding with jackfruit granita. The Mekong Martini I had ordered with my meal had kai lychee vodka, mango nectar, pandan syrup, lime, and black tea tapioca balls. Exotic!

Bong Su San FranciscoAll in all, this is a very classy restaurant. Both restaurant and bar areas have been thoughtfully designed with a contemporary but oriental ambiance. They have very friendly waiters and the service here has always been excellent.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Expats in India

Cow in VaranasiSome of the more fascinating accounts of ancient India were written by foreign travelers.
They came from lands afar, stayed here for a while, and returned with detailed accounts of the land and people of India.

The current breed of foreign travelers interest me too - or rather the India they see through their foreign eyes. I regularly read books and blogs by expats and others who have made India their temporary home. Through their eyes I see an India that is sometimes intriguing and sometimes shocking. It is interesting to see them react to things we take as ‘normal’ and hardly spend time thinking about.

Here are links and excerpts from some blogs I have enjoyed reading in the recent past. Check them out! Please note: All pictures in this post have been sourced from the blogs reviewed here.

The Loud Americans, a blog authored by an American family who have been living in Bangalore since late-2006:

What do you like the most? This one is way too easy. The people, followed by the food! The people we have met, both through work, the OWC, school and our neighborhood are incredible. They are smart, flexible, open, helpful, friendly and welcoming (ten-fold when discussing our cook, maid and driver!!). The food is fantastic and we have each just naturally lost weight here. Yippee! What is the hardest part? Huh... How to answer ... the lack of convenience? (i.e. not being able to drive, cook, have a reliable source of electricity or Internet?) But.. this is probably where we have learned the most in terms of patience and going with the flow instead of against it. The other really hard thing is the poverty. You just don’t get used to it. Its gut wrenching and a daily struggle to see how a good portion of the people in the world live.” more...

Angela got a great photo on the way to work yesterday... a tiny calf riding in between 2 guys on a motorcycle. The best part, the calf was completely complacent and looked very relaxed. Not sure where he was going, but he definitely didn’t mind. Other interesting animals on the highway have been the donkey riding in the auto rickshaw, his head out one end his butt out the other, a camel wandering down the 4 lane highway pulling a cart and the ever present bull carts pulling loads of construction equipment.” more...

Our Time in India, another blog from an expat family who have been in Chennai since Jan 2008:

I discovered that our maid has 1 hen with 4 baby chicks on our property. That was an awesome discovery! If only I could find her eggs…oh well, maybe I need to get a few more hens! There are goats right across the street and a few cows as well. We discovered we had coconut trees (the gardeners shinnied up the tree and picked one for us yesterday), papaya, and banana trees. So far no snakes have been found!more...

There are many dangerous jobs in India. I ran across one occupation this past weekend that just must be electrifying...a man fixing electrical lines.” more...

Our Delhi Struggle, from an American couple who moved into New Delhi some time back:

Varanasi, on the bank of the Ganges. We walked by the yoga class just after sunrise. On the high ledge at the upper right of the picture below, the guru instructed the dozens of white-robed boys in breathing exercises, exhaling ferociously into the microphone as the children attempted to do the same. “That’s not yoga,” said Jenny disdainfully. “That’s just breathing.” more...

The stereotype of India is true: cows wander the streets with impunity…. The prevalence of cow poop as a fuel becomes clear the moment you leave the city. Lining the roads in the countryside — in fact, lining any available space not already given over to crops or housing — are row after row of circular foot-wide cow pies drying in the hot Indian sun.” more...

Michael’s India, a blog from an expat American who takes great photographs everywhere he goes:

Through my travels within the cities of Bangalore, Mysore, Delhi, Agra, and other areas of the country, I have had the opportunity to meet so many warm and friendly people--but the warmest and most sincere are the childrenmore...

And finally, The Englishman in Mumbai, a blog which - unfortunately - is no longer active, but amongst the most humorous:

"Within weeks of my arriving here, it became clear that, in public, Mumbaikers generally like to behave modestly. Women wear pants, very rarely skirts; they wear sleeved blouses, rarely showing bare shoulders; very few couples hold hands or kiss when out strolling (though men-friends do hold hands – but that’s another story). What’s more, those who break these norms get stared at quite hardmore...

Imagine me, fresh off the plane. A security guard at the airport is staring at me, but with no expression (friendly or otherwise) on his face. Now, a stare in England is an invitation to an interchange of some sort, or, if prolonged a few seconds, a sign of aggression. I lock stares with him, but he doesn’t look away or change his expression. This is now becoming (for me) a serious standoff. Angered (I’d had a long flight…) I challenge him: “Do you have a problem of some sort with me?” Only then does he look away, saying nothing. Moment over.” more...

India attracted travelers from everywhere in ancient times. Fa Hien, Huen Tsang, Alberuni, and others took back stories about India to their peoples; a lot of what we know today about ancient India is built upon their detailed accounts. Are these expat blogs going to be an equally important source for historians many years from now?

Other useful Expat blogs and websites:


Friday, July 11, 2008

Mauli Hills

Mauli Hills PuneThe monsoons are always the best time in Pune, especially if you like the outdoors. Pune is surrounded by hilly ghats. These hillsides - dusty and brown during the summer months - undergo a completely transformation with the onset of rains. Everywhere you look you see lush green landscapes. Little streams that spring up overnight trickle down distant hills, and a variety of birds seem to make Pune their home during this time.

Mauli Hills PuneMauli Hills PuneAbout nine years back, when I was still unsure of accepting the job offer in Pune, my future employers offered to fly me and my wife here for a week so we could see the place. It was the rainy season and we were captivated. Coming from Delhi, the greenery, the clear blue skies, and the hills in the distance seemed like paradise. While nine years later, the skies are a little less blue, and the greenery within the city has given way to ugly buildings, we still have large tracts of forests and hills within an hour's drive in any direction.

Mauli Hills, PuneMauli Hills, PuneMauli Hills, PuneLast weekend we drove out to the hills near the Khadakwasla backwaters. A friend owns a holiday home here in a hill-top vacation township called Mauli Hills. Up we went on a winding road from Kothrud and Karve Road, past Peacock Bay. We marvelled at the splendid view of the lake, the forested hills that disappeared into rain-heavy clouds, and quaint villages that dotted the land far below. Lush green vegetation surrounded us everywhere. We also realized Peacock Bay is thus named because this area is full of peacocks, every sighting of which sent the kids on a frenzy.

Maharashtrian Thali at Mauli Hills, PuneBhajis or PakorasBhajis or PakorasIt was wonderful to spend the day together with our families in the fresh outdoor air (a rare commodity now for urban Indians). It kept drizzling throughout, but that only added to the charm. I even got to fly a kite after ages! Food was simple but we loved it after having worked up an appetite with the long walks. And nothing like some pakoras with hot tea on a rainy evening.

Flying Kites in Mauli HillsFlying Kites in Mauli HillsPlanting Rice near PuneInto the Jungles near PuneOn the Peacock TrailOn our way back, we saw villagers planting rice in their field. We also stopped to see if we could get close to some peacocks which ran across the road and into the dense jungles. It was a lot of fun, especially for the kids!

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