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

Mokka: Equator Coffee and Dagoba Drinking Chocolate

Mokka is an impressive new organic coffee and sandwich shop. This is a hard-core place.

Take coffee, for instance. Their house-blend is Equator coffee, the same coffee served at the French Laundry. You can order it brewed, or, for 25 cents more, ground to order and drip-brewed. rworange, compulsive chowhound that she is, ordered both side-by-side and found them utterly different. The brewed version is mellow and lovely. The drip version is assertive, and similar to Graffeo’s dark roast. Both are likeable, but the brewed version has a certain winning smoothness.

Mokka’s Dagoba sipping chocolate is intense and very true to the taste of Dagoba chocolates. It comes in two versions–sweet, and not so sweet. Be aware that this is nothing like your usual American-style hot chocolate. We’re talking pure, intense, nearly brutal levels of chocolate. You can savor a little cup over an entire day.

Also: gelato made by the Latest Scoop. The Mokka gelato flavor has a good coffee taste.

Mokka [East Bay]
3075 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley
510-848-8909
Map

Board Links: Berkeley – Mokka … Latest Scoop mokka gelato, Equator coffee (drip & brew), & Dagoba organic sipping chocolate

New Med Tasties at Ziryab

Ziryab is a new Middle Eastern place, a little more upscale looking than most of the other shwarma factories in San Francisco. The food is a mixed bag–some failures, but some truly excellent items.

Mezze platter, with hummus, babaganoush, dolmas, olives, tabblouleh, cucumber yogurt, and little hunks of feta, is truly delicious, each flavor fresh and distinct. Their various dips are, says pane, entirely unlike the usual muddleed-tasting mashes at other local Middle Eastern restaurants. Mezze platter for two ($13) boasts even more stuff, including first-rate falafel.

Truly delicious is their chicken shawerma wrap ($8); it’s even better than the version at Truly Mediterranean, says Robert Lauriston. Lentil soup is simple and good. Arales ($6), spiced ground lamb on focaccia, is very tasty, as is spinach sauteed with garlic confit ($7).

Lesser dishes include chicken kebab that’s pretty good–but not quite as excellent as Ziryab’s top-flight dishes. Vegetable tajine, a special, is a bit bland. But, notes Absonot, this is a new restaurant, still straightening out kinks, and each visit has yielded better experiences than the last.

Service is friendly, but a bit forgetful.

Ziryab Mediterranean Grill [Western Addition]
528 Divisadero St., San Francisco
415-522-0800
Map

Board Links: Ziryab

Food Shopping 101: Bad Apple

A mushy or “floury” apple is not easy to detect without biting into it, and by that time it’s too late! Here are some tips to guide you in buying the best apples.

Your best bet is to buy in season (i.e., in cool weather) from a grower or at a farmers’ market.

Look for apples that have some heft to them, and don’t yield when you apply pressure with your fingers. Check the blossom end (bottom) of the apple. It should be nice and tight with no signs of splitting, mold, or discoloration, advises Non Cognomina.

Note that apples packaged in “dimpled” cardboard, with a space for each apple, arrive in better shape, too.

Your supermarket, of course, sells apples year-round. Hopefully, the trucks that delivered them have ethylene gas filters. Here’s why: apples (and other fruits) produce ethylene as they ripen, which accelerates the aging process. In a truckload of fruit, the cumulative gas begins to age the fruit prematurely. Trucks with filters help extend shelf life.

Final note: Never hesitate to return bad fruit.

Board Links: floury apples.

Hot and Sour Soup

Trader Joe’s makes jarred hot and sour soup that’s nicely sour, with a bit of heat (if you want more, add some white pepper). A bit of white vinegar enhances the sourness.

The soup is nice on its own, but you can also use it as a base for adding more solid ingredients.

Board Links: Hot & Sour SOUP

Cold Eggplant Serendipity

A simple saute of eggplant with sweet onion and cumin seeds tastes absolutely spectacular cold the next day, reports Aromatherapy.

Heat oil until fairly hot, add cumin seeds and cook until they pop. Then add chopped sweet yellow onion and chopped eggplant, and saute until tender. Chill, and dress with with a good squirt of fresh lemon juice. Warning: your eggplant may turn an odd blue-green-gray color upon chilling, but it tastes great regardless.

Board Links: Cold eggplant serendipity

Fresh Lychees

Fresh lychees are great eaten out of hand, but here are some other things to do with them.

Pop whole unpeeled lychees into zipper-top freezer bags and freeze them. They stay fresh tasting and juicy for months, and each piece, when peeled, is like a burst of lychee sorbet, says Fleur.

Pitted fresh lychees are excellent added to a cold custard (fya-dub).

A recipe for lychee granita (courtesty of bolletje):

About 1 lb. lychees, shelled and seeded
1 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
juice of one lemon

Boil water and sugar for 2 minutes to make simple syrup. Blend syrup, lychees and lemon juice in a blender, then strain through a mesh seive and let mixture cool in the fridge. Put it in a shallow pan in the freezer, stirring with a fork to break up ice crystals every 20 minutes or so (more frequently as it freezes more), until it reaches the texture of coarse shaved ice. Champagne and elderflower syrup make good additions.

Board Links: Lychees

Talking Pizza from Ronkonkoma to Riverhead

For hounds who hang around Ronkonkoma’s LIRR station, Scibelli’s is a go-to pizza destination. The near-perfect balance of sauce, cheese, and crust puts its regular slice ahead of the pack in that part of Long Island, says AmityGuy1. Also good: grandma slices and moist, dense garlic knots.

Other local contenders include Aegean Pizza in Holbrook, Gino’s in Patchogue, and La Margherita in Medford.

Out in Riverhead, coll sounds an uphill alert at Carlo’s Pizza Oven, which wasn’t bad to begin with but now, under new ownership, has refined its once-thickish crust to perfect Brooklyn-style thinness.

Scibelli’s Pizza [Suffolk County]
90 Railroad Ave., near Ronkonkoma LIRR station, Ronkonkoma, NY
631-588-9898
Map

Aegean Pizza [Suffolk County]
5801 Sunrise Hwy., in Sun Vet Mall, Holbrook, NY
631-567-6066
Map

Gino’s Pizzeria [Suffolk County]
22 W Main St., between Ocean and Railroad Aves., Patchogue, NY
631-289-2028
Map

La Margherita Pizzeria [Suffolk County]
1229 Station Rd., near Horse Block Rd., Medford, NY
631-924-0048
Map

Carlo’s Pizza Oven [Suffolk County]
435 Osborne Ave., between Lincoln and Pulaski Sts., Riverhead, NY
631-369-2010
Map

Board Links: Great pizza at Scibelli’s at LIRR Ronkonkoma Station.

East Side Italian, Old and New: La Cantina Toscana and Antonucci

La Cantina Toscana, which has been around for some time without attracting much attention from hounds, cooks true Tuscan chow, reports Peter Cherches. “I’ve been surprised it is so under the radar,” he adds. Yet other low-flying hounds have sussed out its typically Tuscan game menu, which features hearty pasta with cinghiale (wild boar) ragu. Boar also turns up in a sausage appetizer with cannellini and long-marinated in a sturdy stew served with chard and polenta. Other first-rate pastas include gnudi with spinach and ricotta in sage butter.

“I liked its good Italian feel–meaning fresh simple ingredients, a menu set up as Italian, not American, and actual Italians cooking and running the place,” writes eduardo. Adds Captain, “It is not a restaurant at which one gets the feeling the owners are seeking to make a killing. Rather, it feels like this is what they want to do, and are trying to make a living at it. Also, it is quite common to hear more of the diners speaking Italian than English.”

A mile or so uptown, there’s promising early word of satisfying, minimalist Italian dishes at Antonucci, a six-month-old trattoria from the former owner of Midtown Venetian restaurant Remi. jordana reports fresh, flavorful gnocchi with peas and pasta with mushrooms, as well as superior focaccia, not overpowered by herbs. The short menu also includes salt-baked branzino, braised lamb shank, beef short ribs, seafood risotto, and small plates including octopus with beans and bottarga, and roasted vegetables with bagna cauda.

La Cantina Toscana [Upper East Side]
1109 1st Ave., between E. 60th and 61st Sts., Manhattan
212-754-5454
Map

Antonucci [Upper East Side]
formerly Pearson’s Texas Barbecue
170 E. 81st St., near 3rd Ave., Manhattan
212-570-5100
Locater

Board Links: great Italian on the UES
Out of Towners who used to live in Italy want some good Italian food. Suggestions?
Great Italian Uppereast

Move Over, Here Comes Big Papi

When Big Papi’s opened over July 4th weekend, without so much as a sign out front (a giant neon wurst still sits on the roof, a vestige of the previous tenant, the late lamented Atlas Sausage) it did a booming business simply on the strength of the aroma of smoke and meat from the barbecue pit outside, which perfumes the neighborhood for blocks.

The BBQ is the real deal, and the meats were excellent even dry. Says GVDub: “Their rub was superb–a hint of sweet, a hint of spice, a hint of salt, all nicely balanced by the kind of smoky flavor that only comes from the proper ‘low and slow’ cooking over a well-banked fire. The pork ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender and the beef ribs were appropriately chewy, but not overly so. The chicken was beautifully permeated with smoke, tender, and still juicy.”

The sauces were really good too, more vinegar-based than sweet (Memphis rather than Kansas City), setting off the meat’s natural sweetness nicely. The hot sauce doesn’t blast its way through your mouth, but lets its heat sneak up on you.

pizzafreak raves about the chopped pork sandwich, but wasn’t quite so keen on the mild sauce that comes on top. “The pork was out of this world, wonderfully charred on the edges, the meat just a bit pink, fabulous aroma, wonderful taste.”

Sides keep up the high standard–mustardy, herb-flecked potato salad; creamy, rich coleslaw; slightly smoky, not-too-sweet beans; and perfectly done greens.

It’s a classic family-run joint, and there’s pretty much always family hanging out there. Since the only furnishings are four picnic tables, eating in is naturally family-style.

OK, not everything is perfect at this joint–the beverage assortment is limited to Pepsi products and Mexican sodas. Still, the menu seems to be a work in progress–cornbread is coming, and the owner says he’s working on getting a larger pit. Dare we dream of whole barbecued pigs??!!

Plates come with choice of two sides. Small is $5-6 depending on the meat; large $8-9. “The Hookup” combo platter is $12, and you can also get meats by the pound.

Big Papi’s Rib Shack [East San Fernando Valley]
10626 Burbank Blvd., at Willow Crest, North Hollywood
818-506-7960
Map

Board Links: New Q in North Hollywood
Big Papi’s further review

A Nice ‘L’ at BLD

Well, BLD (from the owners of Grace) just opened, and Chowpatty was one of the first hounds to try it and report back on the L.

“Menu was a little less imaginative than I had hoped, but as you might expect from Grace, ingredients and preparation were first-rate all the way. My main quibble was the prices–I guess this isn’t the ‘90s anymore!”

Hemp seed-crusted tofu salad with Asian greens and grilled shishito peppers ($12) is light and flavorful with a soy dressing. The hemp seeds give a nice crunch. The menu could use some more salads–does anyone really want bean and bacon soup right now? Turkey burger with Gruyere ($12) weighs in hefty and looks mighty good.

Dinner is the same as lunch, plus grilled half chicken, hanger steak, or grilled salmon with two sides each.

Several of the sandwiches–Wagyu burger, short rib sandwich, and pork sandwich–are over $15.

The former Opaline, thrn former Cafe Capo space has been nicely updated–again–and now has an airy, open layout, with the former bar area serving as the entrance.

BLD Restaurant [Midtown]
formerly Cafe Capo/Opaline
7450 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles
323-930-9744
Map

Board Links: BLD for lunch review