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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Gifting 2006: New York Reprazent!

Chocolate and pork are what New York magazine is fronting in terms of foodie-friendly holiday gifts. Chocolate’s a safe bet, and it’s pretty much unofficially the Year of the Pig, so the obvious bases are covered.

The chocolate sampler ranges from the familiar and indulgent (Scharffen Berger dark chocolate–covered champagne grapes) to the less familiar and indulgent (CocoaVino fig caramels), but generally does an excellent job of picking out sophisticated offerings perfect for gifting the fussy Upper East Sider in your life.

The award for ballsiest chocolate gift idea goes to Vosges Haut-Chocolat, whose $75 holiday assortment “commemorates the African-American influence on music through bonbons like the ‘blues,’ which melds hickory-smoked bacon and milk chocolate.”

This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, when Robert Johnson sang

Every time I’m walkin’ down the streets

Some pretty mama start breakin’ down on me

Stop breakin’ down, yes stop breakin’ down

The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby

Ooh, it’ll make you lose your mind. I can’t walk the streets…

he was probably secretly hoping that 75 years later, white people would spend the equivalent of a week of his wages to exchange bacon-flavored chocolates with one another.

The Joyous Leaping of Uncanned Pumpkin

Melanie Wong loves the made-from-scratch pumpkin pie at Water Street Bistro. It’s coarse in texture with some pumpkin fiber and barely sweet, with a deep roasted squash flavor, and a hint of brown spices in the background. The filling is nicely set without being too firm or too wet, and the crust is beautifully flaky. Even the bottom crust has flaky layers; the touch of a fork breaks off a shard of crust and a blizzard of short, buttery crumbs.

Water Street Bistro [Sonoma County]
100 Petaluma Blvd. N # 106, Petaluma
707-763-9563
Locater

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Pumpkin Pie Tour de Force @ Water Street Bistro (Petaluma)

La Palapa Restaurant

La Palapa is exactly the sort of restaurant Chowhound is all about. Located in a dingy building that used to be an A&W, it looks messy and uninviting–so use your nose (and your taste buds) instead of your eyes. Eat_Nopal says the proprietress was originally a homemaker from Michoacan province in Mexico. She opened up the place a few months ago, and the burrito-for-lunch crowd has made the place successful. However, the traditional Michoacan dishes (often off-menu) are what makes this place special.

Take, for instance, the mixed molcajete–a dish of shrimp, thin beefsteak, chicken, cactus strips, and green onions, seared together and served in a complex, multidimensional sauce, seasoned with intense garlic, thyme, Mexican oregano, black pepper, and chili peppers. Served with rice, beans, and (unfortunately) commercial tortillas, it’s $14. Or the “sweated” Mexican zucchini ($3)–humble but perfectly executed, and ordered off-menu.

Apparently, the proprietress is considering introducing a sort of daily prix fixe menu, common in neighborhood eateries throughout Mexico and known as Comida Corrida. She plans to showcase regional specialties, rather than just serving the same old wet burritos. Eat_Nopal can’t wait, and neither should you.

La Palapa Restaurant [Sonoma County]
590 Lewis Rd., Santa Rosa
707-569-9210
Locater

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La Palapa (Santa Rosa)–Report

Rendezvous: Russian Revelry in Manalapan, NJ

Solid Russian chow and a hopping weekend party scene are the draws at Rendezvous. Chicken Kiev and potato vareniki (boiled dumplings) are top-notch, says RGR, who figures beef stroganoff or Ukrainian borscht with sour cream will also hit the spot as winter nears.

Much of the menu is devoted to small plates (crepes, cured meats, smoked fish, etc.). There are also special set menu deals for groups–a popular order on Friday and Saturday nights, when there’s dancing and live music. “It’s Brighton Beach comes to Manalapan,” writes RGR, “except here, in order for the vodka to flow, attendees have to BYO.”

Rendezvous Restaurant [Monmouth County]
520 Rte. 9 N #1, near Covered Bridge Blvd., in Home Fashion Center, Englishtown, NJ
732-972-5959
Locater

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Dining suggestions in Monmouth County

Unbeatable Muffins from Buttercup Bake Shop

Buttercup Bake Shop is best known for cupcakes that some chowhounds adore and others don’t. But its muffins are can’t-miss, declares tbear (who finds the cupcakes ordinary). Blueberry and apple-cinnamon varieties both rock, especially when warm from the oven in the morning.

Buttercup Bake Shop [Turtle Bay]
973 2nd Ave., between E. 51st and 52nd Sts., Manhattan
212-350-4144
Locater

Buttercup Bake Shop [Upper West Side]
141 W. 72nd St., between Broadway and Columbus Ave., Manhattan
212-787-3800
Locater

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Dire need of great muffins

Loco for Loroco, and Other Kinds of Pupusa

Pupusas should always be made fresh to order, says ozzygee–otherwise you’re just getting a stale tortilla. Fortunately, plenty of Salvadoran places pat ‘em out the old fashioned way.

Sarita’s pupusas are a bit more expensive than most ($2), but they’re bigger, and there are almost 20 choices of fillings (like shrimp, jalapeno, or potato) as opposed to the usual three (cheese, beans, or pork-cheese-beans, a.k.a. revuelta). They’re really good, fresh, and pretty much the only problem is that it takes forever at lunch, and you’re unlikely to nab one of the six counter seats.

To order pupusas at La Paz, a little Spanish vocabulary helps–they don’t speak English. (Cheese = queso, frijoles = beans, and pupusa = pupusa.) Despite the language barrier, the ladies who run this place are really friendly, says lil mikey.

On weekends, he adds, there are half a dozen pupusa carts over by Olvera Street. lil mikey likes the one at Spring and Cesar Chavez run by a lady who looks about 90. It’s not for the finicky, though: “She makes ‘em up and stacks them on her grill. When you ask for one with frijoles y queso, she methodically digs her finger into the already prepared pupusas to determine which one fits the bill. When she finds the right one, she plops it onto a paper plate and gives you one napkin.” A little grungy, but good.

El Buen Gusto is great for Salvadoran food, including pupusas. Note that the San Fernando Road location has moved to Fletcher.

El Salvador Caf

Wine, Jazz, and Maryland Crabcakes

Red White and Bluezz is a wine bar featuring live jazz music (hence the reds, whites, and blues), and audience member AquaW gives a cheer for the food and wine.

The menu is full of familiar foods with interesting twists, like fried mac ‘n’ cheese with sun-dried tomato fondue; maple-mustard glazed halibut with grilled pineapple; and pasta carbonara with craisins, pine nuts and applewood-smoked bacon.

But of course the main focus is wine. There are eight flights, $12-18, that come in cute mini wine glasses–good luck trying to smell your wine in them. With tasting notes on the place mat, the experience seems geared toward folks less experienced with wine. Still, the “full-bodied blondes” flight is good, with nice peachy and pineapply flavors.

Maryland blue crabcakes are lightly seasoned, with barely any mayo or filler, and accented by mango-papaya chutney and passionfruit aioli. The restaurant’s signature salad is watermelon and Maytag blue with balsamic-tossed baby greens and Tahitian vanilla honey drizzle. Lots of different tastes here, making up one fine dish.

For dessert, the Black Forest cube reinvents the classic cake as a block of dark and white chocolate mousse with devil’s food cake, chocolate sauce and maraschino cherries inside and out. It’s just rich enough, and very chocolaty.

D

Stuffed Celery

Stuffed celery as an hors d’oeuvre means no peanut butter and plenty of sophisticated, savory flavors, like these: Cream cheese mixed with lots of sliced green olives and walnuts. cream cheese and smoked salmon. Hummus and a little chili oil or harissa. Egg salad with cornichons and smoked paprika. Buffalo style: 4 oz. blue cheese and 2 oz. cream cheese stuffed into celery stalks, sprinkled with cayenne pepper.

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What to stuff in celery..

Does Your Stomach Really Expand if You Eat More?

Does Your Stomach Really Expand if You Eat More?

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Using up Leftover Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce is a popular condiment in sandwiches, of course, but not just turkey sandwiches: hounds love it in cheese, pork, and peanut butter sandwiches, too.

Cranberry sauce is good for breakfast, too, mixed with yougurt and granola, or as an oatmeal topping.

Many like to use leftover cranberry sauce in desserts or baking. Warmed cranberry sauce, perhaps with a splash of Grand Marnier, is great over ice cream or pound cake. bolivianita uses it in muffins, adding a middle layer of cranberry sauce between two scoops of muffin batter. Others recommend recipes for apple-cranberry crumb pie, cranberry swirl coffeecake, and cranberry almond coffeecake.

On the savory side, sixelagogo makes a cranberry vinaigrette with cranberry sauce, red wine vinegar, and olive oil that works well with peppery greens. zorra browns chicken or pork chops with some chopped onion, then simmers it in cranberry sauce and red wine or orange juice until done. Jpan99 makes a cranberry burgundy sauce she says goes great with ham: Mix about 2 cups cranberry sauce with 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1 1/2 tablespoons mustard and about a cup of burgundy. Cook and reduce until thickened.

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ideas for leftover cranberry sauce