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Southern Cafe - Oakland - anyone?

I'll do a full review soon, but the basic deal is that the Southern Cafe is back and doing well. Under new management the fried chicken is awesome. They are also doing some creative neighborhood things (buffets on special days, etc.) that is really bringing in the people. Alcohol is coming as soon as permits are arranged.

Oakland – Sushi – Shogun

It's tables. Not sure about a happy hour.

Oakland – Sushi – Shogun

Really Short Review – Best sushi joint I’ve been to in Oakland, but weird!

Rest of the story: I can’t think of a great metaphor, so I’m going straight-in here. Shogun serves grade-A fish at grade-B prices in grade-C ambiance. I have never seen this level of disparity between the food and where they serve it to you.

Shogun’s proprietor and chef is a perfectionist with his sushi. He cares that you receive his dishes in as great a presentation as he can, using the best fish and other ingredients he can buy. He is a talented and creative artisan who really wows the diner. I had his chirashi, which is a selection of fish over a bowl of sushi rice. A nice touch here is an ama-ebi (freshwater shrimp) including the fried bit next to the shrimp in the bowl. My wife had a sushi-sashimi combo, presented beautifully with a tropical leaf in a bed of ice as an accent. I also had a Kirin (there is a nice selection of saki available). The beer was served with a chilled glass, a touch I appreciate.

I don’t know where he buys his fish, but it is a grade above what I’m used to at these prices. Let me contrast Shogun with where I used to go most often: I’m a huge fan of Sushi House in Alameda (, because they are fast, cheap and serve pretty good fish. My wife and I leave Sushi House after a chirashi, a samurai roll (huge) and a shared bottle of saki for about $50. I consider that Grade B. Sushi Ran in Sausalito is a no-holds-barred sushi phenomenon and that’s A+ fish, but we can’t get out of that joint for less than a couple of hundred. Shogun serves A level fish for the price of Sushi House. I should be in sushi heaven, right? Close, but here’s the weird part.

The place on Grand Avenue doesn’t smell very good. Something about the disinfectant they use in there. The décor looks kind of like a ramen joint threw up in a tiki bar. The menus are old and spotted. The check comes in one of those Amex nauga-hide folders where the nauga has split and separated from the cardboard.

I would guess that the staff is related to the proprietor. They are great. Attentive and accurate on the orders. They aren’t pressed, though, because the joint’s been empty, or nearly so, every time I’ve gone in there. I think that people take a look through the door, get a whiff and walk away. What a mistake!

Ooooh, I found a metaphor…. Think of an ascetic craftsman who makes clay pots. They are the most beautiful pots in the land, but he makes these pots inside a tannery. No one can get past the smell and the craftsman doesn’t know how special his art is… Shogun is like that. Go anyway and be amazed. This craftsman should be the busiest guy in Oakland.

Final tally:
Food: 9 (great quality, brilliant presentation)
Service: 6 (attentive and courteous)
Price: 2 (lowest prices for some of the best fish in Oakland)
Ambiance: 2 (yuck… just, yuck)

Shogun Japanese Sushi and Grill
3417 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA 94610

Murray Circle recently? [Sausalito]

Sausalito – Fine Dining – Murray Circle

On most days Murray Circle restaurant is top-notch. The food is locally sourced and prepared with care and artistry. And the view is the best in the bay.

The restaurant let me down on Valentine's day, though, and badly. Only one aspect was less than their normally high standards, but it was the food! The quality of the dishes weirdly got worse as the courses came.

The amuse-bouche was a cheeze ball, a wonderful pastry with a nice mild and melted cheese inside. We were now ready for great things.

Then came my romaine salad and my wife's leek soup. Both good, not great. Then a tall thin bowl of papardelle and mushrooms that seemed a little undercooked (pre al dente) and my wife's scallop which was perfectly cooked and of all things over-salted. Then came the real disappointments; the entrees.

I go to conferences around the country frequently. This gives me the experience to recognize a dish that was prepared in advance and reheated. If my beef loin and my wife's chicken breast were not preheated, then the chef went to more trouble than these boring throw-offs were worth. I've honestly had better at the Gaylord Opryland Resort, a Hyatt ballroom in Dallas and most recently at a Churchill Club dinner in SF.

Why do I care enough to write my first bad review? I've got plenty of good ones on under the moniker chewchewchew. My wife loved the ambiance and thought the evening special, so why bitch?

The bill, omg, the bill. $318 before tip (with wine pairings). And: They didn't say that it would be a prix-fixe menu on OpenTable, and there were no prices on the menu. On Valentine's day what am I going to do, ask? Or go have a quiet conversation with the server, find out it's a rip-off and tell my wife to "get up, honey, we're leaving"? It turns out that holiday prix-fixe menues are money-maker schemes at a ton of places, however I didn't expect to get screwed this badly, especially at a place I thought was a no-brainer for a special occasion.

Last Point for those Still Reading... :) I went from regular Army (2/75 Rangers + 3/60 Infantry) to the Army Reserves stationed at what's now known as Cavallo Point. I worked in the building where you check into the resort and the one next to Murray Circle.

I _so_ want this to be my spot in the Bay Area to take my wife so I can show her around and generally remember a nice part of my life. So when I received what felt like a willful act of rip-offery it hurt. One more of these experiences and I'm not going back at all, and that would be a shame.

(Out of ten, adjusted for what they charge for it)
Food - 3
Ambiance - 10 (best views in the bay area - eat outside)
Service - 8 (good and professional)
Noise - 6 (music too obtrusive)

92-y-o ex-pat uncle, back from Europe!

Harris' is too $$$$ for welcome dinner for 10 (don't rec. House/PrimeRib -yuck!) Need: not loud + cushy seating for geezers; 4 local foodies, + 2 cousins from the hinterlands...Maybe Dixie? Whaddaya think?

Oakland - Burgers - Park Burger

They dumped the onion rings in favor of sweet potato fries. I liked the onion rings, but I the SPFs are better for me and taste great!

Oakland - Burgers - Park Burger

Really Short Review: Best hamburger I’ve tasted in two years, full-stop.

The rest of the story:
There are few restaurants now that don’t have some form of the burger. There’s the high-end burgers from places that specialize in something else, but have to have it on the menu to satisfy those who got dragged there and who don’t want the frisse salad with lardon avec this ‘n that. There’s the diner-style burger joints (Glenn’s in the Laurel, Sparky’s off of highway 13) where they do a professional job of griddling up pre-formed meat. I won’t mention the Supersize Me Oligarcy of Grossness (SMOG). Then there are the joints where the burger is the point, and focus of pride, like Park Burger in the Glenview district of Oakland between Bellanico and Marzano’s.

Park Burger is a shining example of the burger done right. Locally sourced meat, cooked right with a good set of sides and condiments. They also serve a nice selection of beer and wine.

I ordered the egg and bacon burger because I hadn’t seen that combination offered before. I paired it with onion rings and a beer.

If you take a bite of any really great sandwich, it’s hard to tell what made that bite perfect. You talk about how good the bacon went with the meat, or that the bread was perfectly toasted, or that the lettuce gave it that great crunch, but you can’t really explain how it all works together to create an experience you’ll tell others about the next day (like I’m doing now, for instance…).

The Marin Sun Farms meat is not factory raised, filled with hormones, etc. I’ve actually gone to see the Marin Sun Farms herds in Tomales Bay and if I were a steer, that’s where I’d want to grow up. It makes the burger better, and the egg and bacon on it made for a heavenly combo.

The décor is dead-simple. It’s a rectangular box with metal chairs and unadorned diner tables. My wife thinks a row of banquets would improve the ambiance, and I agree. There is a nice pixelated mural of a map of Oakland on one wall.

There's no table service. You order from the counter and someone brings you your food (like Jimmy Beans in Berkeley).

Final Tally:

Food: 9 (Truly awesome burgers)
Service: N/A (The staff is nice)
Price: My burger was $10 (I’ve rarely been so happy to pay slightly more for anything)
Ambiance: 4 (Very basic. The bathroom is clean and spacious.)

4218 Park Boulevard, Oakland, California 94602

Kerala Brass Pans (Re Anthony Bourdain No Reservations)

By the way, the packaging was exquisite! Cotton covering a box and padding. Better than an iPhone.

May 31, 2012
ChewChewChew in Cookware

Kerala Brass Pans (Re Anthony Bourdain No Reservations)

My pot came in! I got it a couple of weeks ago. It is exactly as pictured on the Website. I can't imagine cooking in it as it would likely discolor quickly, no?

May 31, 2012
ChewChewChew in Cookware

Kerala Brass Pans (Re Anthony Bourdain No Reservations)

Here's a direct link to the episode on Netflix:


Mar 29, 2012
ChewChewChew in Cookware

Kerala Brass Pans (Re Anthony Bourdain No Reservations)

Like most of you, I saw the cookware on Bourdain's show and loved it. I just bought one from:

Price was $199 (which is _well_ inline with pricing for La Crueset/All Clad/et. al.

Be warned, they say it'll take many weeks to get to you. Knowing me, I'll have completely forgotten that I ordered it and it will be like an unexpected XMas gift when it does arrive!

Mar 29, 2012
ChewChewChew in Cookware

San Jose – BBQ – Jon Jon’s

Really Short Review: Best ribs, chicken and brisket in the greater Bay Area.

The longer bit:

I’ve been to Clint’s, T-Rex, Everett and Jones (the good one on Fruitvale in Oakland before it closed) and plenty of other places. Each of them has their own take on BBQ and I’ve enjoyed most of my meals there. Jon Jon’s is at a whole different level.

The restaurant itself is a _very_ basic shack with a few chairs and tables inside and a few scattered outside. If feels like the proprietors came upon the perfect slow-cooker and grill, built a make-shift building next to it and started doing business.

You order at a table from a lady who takes your cash (only) and yells the order to the other lady who very quickly fills your Styrofoam container with heaven-sent BBQ and a couple of meaningless sides. Drinks come from a refrigerator between the two stations.

Your order consists of picking a combo number from a grid of choices. The combinations look like: Two ribs and a piece of chicken, a hot link and a rib and a piece of chicken, brisket and a rib and a piece of chicken…. You get the idea. Your only real choice beyond the combo is wheat or white sliced bread to go with it.

The ribs are the star with the chicken a close second. All orders come with a portion of potato salad and beans, which you can cheerfully ignore as you take your first bite of ribs. Slow cooked then finished on the grill, everything is absolutely tender, juicy and very slightly spicy. The sauce (indiscriminately ladled over your meat) is on the sweet side, but with a depth that adds to the flavor of the meat, rather than covering them up.

They give you a wet-wipe, which is woefully inadequate to the job. However, you won’t care because you’ll be in hog heaven.

Final tally:

Food: 9 (Best ribs in the greater Bay Area)

Service: N/A (There isn’t any)

Price: All lunch combos are $9 (comes with sliced bread and two sides)

Ambiance: 7 (bathroom is scrupulously kept clean and you’re eating al fresco, who cares about the rest?)

1305 Old Oakland Road, San Jose


Jon Jon's
1305 Oakland Rd, San Jose, CA 95112

Alameda - Casual Thai - House Royale Cuisine

Really Short Review: Great lunch place on Park in Alameda for a plate of Pad Thai and a Thai Ice Tea.

The longer bit:

Let me start by saying that there is nothing royal about the House of Royale Cuisine (HRC). It’s family-style Thai, served fresh. It’s my favorite funky lunch joint in Alameda because I know what I’m going to get, every time.

I love Thai food. At its best, it’s one of the world’s great cuisines, but more importantly, when I’m in a place I don’t know and I am presented with a bunch of strip-mall choices (fast food, Chinese, Korean-owned sushi, etc.), I go for the Thai joint. It might not be great, but odds are good that I’ll be fed a good, tasty, nutritious meal. HRC fits into that profile of being much better than you expect at a modest price.

HRC is in what was a slot-car track, now moved next door. The chairs are the folding type and the décor is pretty much what was left from the track days. It’s not a romantic getaway, in other words. To me it puts the “home” in homely. You feel like you are being welcomed into someone else’s passion and offered a meal to go with it.

I found this place a couple of years ago because my buddy and I had a 60’s flashback and got into racing slot-cars. Back then, Harry ran the track, his wife ran the kitchen and his kids served the food and put cars back on the track. Now Harry has moved down the block and Mom has the entire space to run the restaurant.

HRC offers a complete menu that I cheerfully ignore, because the chicken and shrimp pad Thai is so tasty. Crispy veggies are served on the side (sprouts, etc.) and you incorporate them into the noodles at the table, insuring they retain their snap. There’s plenty of biggish shrimp (no tails!) and the noodles are saturated with that yummy peanut sauce, without making a sticky mess.

Final tally:

Food: 7.5 (Order the pad Thai, it's the bomb)

Service: 6 (the kids get the order right, but it feels a tad amateur hour)

Price: Along with a big-gulp sized Thai iced tea, the bill was $11 and change.

Ambiance: 5 (it's a 7 if you like racing cars)

1307 Park Street
Alameda, CA


Glenn's Hot Dogs - Found a really good diner in the Laurel

Across from the Farmer Joe’s under the Laurel sign on MacArthur boulevard is a true surprise, a real diner. It is spotless, the food’s good and the service is right-on.

Outside it’s a disaster. In the 60’s, someone put up this place to sell hot dogs and back then it was probably a nice sign with neon, etc. It looks like no one has touched the outside since. The old façade (kind of like a cross between Kaspers and Giant Burger) is what kept me away for 5 years. Then the nice folks at the Laurel Ace Hardware said that Glenn’s was worth a try, whch gave me the courage to enter.

Inside it’s really nice! First thing I notice is that it’s spotless. It’s got a diner-style counter along it’s width with comfortable stools, and the little islands of ketchup, mustard, S&P, hot sauce stand out because they are completely clean, as are all the surfaces. Even Mel’s doesn’t do this nice of a job. The walls and ceiling are made of wide lightly varnished paneling, which lends a homey feel to the joint. There’s a regular sit-down section in the back which I didn't see.

The counter faces the kitchen, which is all business. There’s a griddle and a flame broiler manned by the owner (Mom and daughter organize and serve). The food is all diner classics. I ordered the ½ pound burger and fries, with a cup of coffee on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

The real reason I’m writing this is how really good the burger was. It was the size of a in Salisbury steak on a roll that fit it properly. The fact that he uses a grill, rather than the griddle improved the flavor and elevated it past most diner burgers. The fries were cooked perfectly (so easy to do wrong) and the coffee was smooth and strong.

Final Tally
1 = Bad, 10 = Outstanding

Food: 9 (no BS diner food, done properly)
Ambiance: 6 (awful exterior, really nice interior)
Service: 8 (really great, but it was a slow Sunday)
Price: $9 for a great burger, fries and a coffee

Glenn's Hot Dogs
3506 MacArthur Blvd.
Oakland, CA

Oakland – Soul Food – The Bay Leaf Restaurant

Oh, what a find in the Dimond district of Oakland! I am not someone who can critique the authenticity of soul food. I can only tell you what I like and the Bay Leaf is it.

The physical plant isn’t impressive, but it’s clean and simple with tablecloths and cloth napkins on the twenty or so 4-top tables. The KBLX-style music is unobtrusive.

The staff is friendly and their recommendations seemed genuine to someone who isn’t an aficionado. The menu is concise and eclectic at the same time. You can chose from a jerk chicken, a crab and shrimp po’boy, or any number of other delicious-sounding items. I went straight for the fried chicken platter.

I came in during lunch hour and the lunch menu version of the fried chicken was wings with a side of slaw, a cornbread biscuit and a large portion of beans and rice on a separate plate.

Most of my experience with fried chicken in California is from the Colonel. Bay Leaf’s rendition of this classic couldn’t be farther from that greasy batter-fest. I got a clue from the complimentary dish of fried okra that was light and airy: Really tasty without that bitter okra taste. The chicken was even better. The fried chicken crust was very thin, not oily at all, and lightly seasoned. The meat on the wings was juicy and perfectly cooked. I can’t wait to go back and get the dinner version with more variety in the cut.

The beans and rice dish was great. I don’t usually like that combination because it’s either tasteless, or worse, weird from the additives that the cook puts in to make it not tasteless. In this case you can see the meat (pork) used to cook the beans with and the flavor is awesome. You can definitely eat this on its own and be really satisfied.

Oh, and not for nothing, the cup of coffee was strong and not bitter. This is emblematic of a place that pays attention to the little things.

My suggestion to the owners is to change the door! The current one looks like you are entering a doctors office and just isn't inviting. The easiest fix would be to get a brightly colored metal sign and put it over that wooden monster.

Final Tally

1 = Bad, 10 = Outstanding

Food: 8.5 (Terrific fried chicken and an unusually good beans and rice)
Ambiance: 6 (Simple and clean)
Service: 8.5 (Attentive and friendly)
Price: $16 for one with a coffee and no dessert

Can they make a decent martini? No liquor license, but they serve a really good cup of coffee!

2000 Mac Arthur Blvd.
Oakland, CA 94602

The Bay Leaf Restaurant
2000 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland, CA 94602

Oakland Laurel - Italian - Trattoria Laurellinos

Oh man, are I and my wife happy. We found good Italian in the Laurel district of Oakland.

The place isn’t a fashion statement, but it is just fine in this working class neighborhood. There’s fresh paint on the walls new furniture. There are a few small round tables outside and maybe 8 tables inside. It’s pretty much a bare rectangle inside with cheap fixtures beaming light from above. Some wall-sconces or other diffused lighting would have helped.

The menu is organized Italian-style with the dishes offered ala-carte and in distinct courses. I started with the aptly named “Vongole”, which is your standard group of clams in a garlicy-buttery-clam broth. The broth (always my favorite part) was heaven. I order this a lot in other joints and this was the best I’ve had in a year. The herbs and garlic are right up front where they should be, with the clam liquor providing a good bass note. The little-necks were overdone, but I soon forgot this as I sopped up the broth with the nicely toasted crostini accompanying the dish.

My wife’s bruschetta was also wonderful with flavorful tomatoes mixed-in with herbs and garlic on top of more pieces of the same crostini. The chef-owner Terrell Santiago is _not_ afraid of using garlic, raw or cooked. My wife and I revel in it, but be warned…:-)

I moved on to a Liguria – “Large shrimp, fresh tomatoes and spinach fettuccini tossed in a white wine-lemon cream sauce with dill”. The shrimp were large and were cooked to perfection, which isn’t easy when incorporated in pasta! The sauce was rich without being cloying and quite tasty.

My wife’s Glorioso – “Sautéed mushrooms and asparagus with lots of garlic, chili flakes and gemelli tossed with extra virgin olive oil” was also nicely done with the sauce perfectly covering the pasta and the veggies were clearly fresh.

Both portions of pasta were HUGE. We both finished about half and took the rest home. I would actually have preferred a smaller portion of pasta with the same number of shrimp. We both thought that the amount of the pasta would have served more than one person. At any rate, you sure get your money’s worth.

We both chose an off-dry Riesling from a local vintner. It was really complex and lovely. I wasn’t going to have any (being a weeknight and all), but relented after trying a sip of my wife’s.

Final tally:
Food: 7.5 (If the clams weren’t overcooked it would have been an 8!)
Service: 9 (Attentive and informative – our waiter felt like he was the owner, terrific!)
Price: $70 before tip on two appetizers, two pastas and two glasses of wine
Ambiance: 6 (OK – Nothing special, but if you are running an Italian joint, play Italian music!)

Trattoria Laurellino
4171 Macarthur Blvd, Oakland, CA

Montclair - Grinders Submarine Sandwiches - the sandwich Nazi and "delicatess-sins"?

My wife and I have each made "saved" sandwiches. Mine's a hot roast beef with cheese and onions (a West coast phillie steak). Really yummy. My wife's order is too healthy to contemplate.

Montclair - Grinders Submarine Sandwiches - the sandwich Nazi and "delicatess-sins"?

Grinderman is a great guy, you just need to follow some simple guidelines. First, step boldly to the cash register and ask, "Do sell sandwiches?" Then, as he's asking you what you want, accept a cell phone call holding your hand up to him. This will confirm that you are a busy person, worthy of his respect. Then, check in with him frequently while his staff is making your sandwich. Don't be concerned if he is talking with another customer. He'll admire your "go getter" attitude. Finally, when your sandwich is made ask if they take credit cards. Then, as you are in a parabola that is taking you beyond Montclaire, and contemplating whether you are going to clear Highway 13, think about how good the sandwich will taste after you are out of intensive care.

Sacramento - Mexican - Tres Hermanas [moved from SF]

Reviewers shouldn’t be allowed to go to restaurants alone and then review them (I’m going to go on in this weird vein for awhile, so if you just want the details, skip to the numericals at the end). Half or more of a diner’s perspective is tied up with the reflective opinions of their eat-mate(s). Eating alone let’s you dwell on details that wouldn’t matter to those who have a social life. So, in breaking my new rule, let’s talk about the three sisters (Tres Hermanas).

The joint feels like a converted house and has much of its seating outside. The inside has a woven mat ceiling over mis-matched fans over wavy-backed banquettes and diner chairs. I liked the eclectic feel of the place, although the Mexican Love Boat background music has got to go.

I was a single, and they put me right up front and facing the entry. The hostess was begging with her eyes for me not to make her try her three words of English and simply pointed at spots until I nodded. Perhaps the effort wore her out because I didn't see her after that. My waiter, however, spoke perfect English although he took over the hosting duties and was often distracted.

I ordered the fajitas (carne) and hoped for the best. First came a complementary salad w/blue cheese that would have been the last full tray on a $1.99 all U Can Eat buffet: dark green fibrous lettuce with diced tomatoes and bottle dressing. I then wondered if I could cancel my order. When I say cancel my order, I’m really talking about throwing 10 bucks on the table and bolting. But, I stayed, if for no other reason than to have a complete meal to talk about here.

Because I was seated at the front door, and I was alone, I watched customers come in and sit down on a bench following “please wait to be seated” orders. The smart ones got up and found someone (usually my waiter) to seat them. One pair of ladies was there for 5 minutes and seemed startled when someone asked them if they wanted a table.

To fortify myself for the next course, I ordered a Patron Anejo (for $9). I’m pretty sure that they didn’t give me what I ordered. Really good tequila doesn’t have you reaching for salt and lime, and this one did. How do you fix a problem like that, though? “This isn’t what I ordered.” “Yes, it is”. Blah.

After reading the previous paragraphs, you would expect me to use this one to describe how much I hated the fajitas. I was really ready to. But they were _excellent_. The carne (a medley of beef, green peppers, onions and spices) was moist, the beef marinated perfectly and tasty. The accompanying guacamole was spicy and fresh, with the right tang of citrus. The flower tortillas were warm, slightly toasted and had a nice flavor. I’ve eaten fajitas in Mexico City, Los Angeles, Texas, New Mexico and in my braver moments made them myself. This dish was right up with the best (certainly better than mine).
So what’s my verdict? I’m really torn. The service was ok, the ambiance was ok, the salad and drink weren't right, but the fajitas were lovely. I'd come back with some colleagues, I suppose. A good entree makes up for many sins.

Final Tally

1 = Bad, 10 = Outstanding

Food: 6 (this would have been a 3 but the fajitas were awesome)
Ambiance: 6 (Eclectic with plenty of patio space - yucky music)
Service: 5 (They refilled my water glass, but not great)
Price: $30 for one with a $9 drink and no dessert

Can they fix a decent martini? I don’t know, but the tequila didn't taste like $9.

2416 K St
Sacramento, CA 95816
(916) 443-6919

Sep 10, 2008
ChewChewChew in California

Zachary's Pizza

UPDATE: Since my enthusiastic, but qualified, review...

I've been there three times since I wrote this, and I have to say they have LOST it. All the original negatives are there: expensive, cash only, cramped tables, slow service, a zoo at the counter for pick-up.

These used to be the eccentricities that were sort of cute. Now they are the annoying attributes of a place I once loved (cue the music). The problem is that the Zachary's deep-dish pizza is no good anymore. The tomatoes are way too acidic to be fresh, the cheese now turns into spackle if less than piping-hot, and the spicing is bland. Instead of a symphony of taste, it’s just a cacophony of empty calories.

By the way, I tried the Solano store this last time to see if it was location specific, but no joy.

ChewChewChew says noNoNO to the restaurant that was once my favorite vice.

Sacramento - Sandwiches-Deli - Mr. Pickles

Would you choose a restaurant for lunch called “Mr. Pickles?” I wouldn’t, but at a strip mall in Sacramento, I had the choice of dicey Mexican, fast-food, worse fast-food and Mr. Pickles Sandwich Shop. Boy am I glad I went into Mr. Pickles.

First off, it’s exactly what it says it is: sandwiches. Proclaimed in a 9 foot by 6 foot board behind the sandwich makers are a couple of dozen ready-made combinations with names like “Blat (a BLT with a wonderful sprout and avocado kicker)” and the “Big Easy (chicken salad with swiss cheese and avocado).” However, if you don’t see it, ask them to make it. The sandwich components are top-notch and that-day fresh. There are tons of varieties of meats, veggies and bread-types to choose from and many are heated up for you.

There is more room here than the other chains. In the two Mr. Pickles I’ve been there were high ceilings, fresh paint and plenty of places to sit. The restroom was immaculate.

The other key feature to both of the shops I was in were the employees. Remember the early days of Starbucks when everyone was happy to see you, treated you with respect and were detail-oriented? Same at Mr. Pickles. Either they are paying a living wage or they are putting something in the workers’ soft drinks, because it’s a pleasure to do business with them.

Mr. Pickles is the definition of a business run with pride by people that care. Ignore the funny name and the “Mr. Hanky” looking mascot and go in. You won’t be sorry.

Final Tally:

1 = Bad, 10 = Outstanding

Food: 8.5 (Fresh ingredients, well proportioned and prepared)
Service: 9 (Enthusiastic and professional. They actually seem happy you showed up for lunch!)
Price: Varies by location, but my “BLAT” BLT was $6.50 in Sacramento
Ambiance: 8 (Clean, nice ambiance, open-feeling)

Locations and Menu:

May 08, 2008
ChewChewChew in California

Pork-a-rama Walnut Creek: Chopin Cafe and Polish Wine (from Burgundy)

Just ate there with 3 other folks. Great service; personable and accomodating. Kielbasa was great, without being too spicy or making my breath smell like death. The natural (cold) sauerkraut was awesome. My (I hate everything) nephew was sized up by the waiter and offerred a chicken cutlet that he loved.

I highly recommend Chopin.

Near SFO (Burlingame) - Italian - Kuletos

I've been going to this joint once every couple of years for the past 15 or so. Between visits I forget the bad and remember the good so it's time to write it all down for the next time!

Kuleto’s was among the first modern Italian restaurants. It sports an open kitchen that allows you to see what’s going on in there, an eclectic wine list and the dishes have a flair that isn’t a slave to traditional ingredients.

Because it’s pretty much alone out there in Burlingame, or because it’s getting long in the tooth, or perhaps it’s been reading its own press, the shine is off. The food is good, but a slow accretion of negatives are creeping in.

Let’s start with the service. I personally hate the “Do you want to pay us 3X retail for water, or do you want to roll the dice with Burlingame tap?” routine. It shines out as a check inflator and at Kuleto’s was particularly obvious. Immediately asking for a wine order as you are handed a wine list is also a pushy maneuver.

To top it off (after we tell him nicely to let us exhale first), he comes back in less than two minutes to ask us if he can “start us off with a bruschetta or …” Strike three and I’m put off of this guy for the rest of the night.

The food is good, no question.

My wife ordered the Burrata: Creamy Mozzarella, Toasted Bread, Chestnut Honey, Arugula, "La Quercia" Prosciutto, Truffle Salt. The mozzarella was particularly flavorful and the honey contrasting with the arugula was quite nice.

She followed it with Salmone: Wild Salmon, Buttermilk Golden Yukon Puree, Cherry Tomatoes, Prosecco-Mascarpone. I go to Alaska most years to catch king and silver salmon and I can attest that Kuleto’s fish-monger knows what he was doing. Good flavor, not overwhelmed by sauce. Nice.

I felt unadventurous (possibly because of the off-putting service experience when I sat down), so I stubbornly stuck to a salad and meat motif.

I started with Caesar: Hearts of Romaine, Parmesan, White Anchovies, Focaccia Croutons, Caesar Dressing. This was an excellent interpretation of the original. The garlic didn’t slap me in the face, the anchovies were quite subtle and delicious and the romaine was devoid of the fibrous leaves that lesser chefs sneak in on you. I was feeling better now!

I moved on to the Bistecca: Sliced Angus Hanger Steak, Tuscan Frittes, Curly Spinach, Red Wine Sauce. Ever have fajita’s done at a joint one step-up from Chevy’s? Same thing. The steak was what looked like to me a marinated skirt steak, sliced into bite-sized pieces and covered in an Italian version of a teriyaki sauce. The “Tuscan Frittes” are garlic and salt covered steak fries and the spinach was completely forgettable. Now after saying all that, it was just fine to eat. On the other hand, it was definitely not up to the standards of a fine Italian joint.

The deserts looked like the usual suspects (gelato, tiramisu, etc.) and we weren't tempted.

In the end I was reminded of why I keep coming back to Kuleto’s: It’s an oasis of decent food between SF and the peninsula. It’s easy to find (try and miss the 50 foot lighted sign from the 101), they park your car for free, and they feed you well. I just wish it wasn't so obvious that they are trying to squeeze extra cash out of you.

Final Tally:

1 = Bad, 10 = Outstanding

Food: 6 (not inspired, but good)
Service: 4 (retrain the waiters to be more gracious and less mercenary)
Price: 2 people, martini, wine, tip and taxes = $120
Ambiance: 5 (I still love the open kitchen, but it’s all dark woods and getting threadbare)

“Can they make a decent dry martini?”: Yes, they can.


1095 Rollins Road
Burlingame, California 94010

Herndon, VA (Near Dulles) - New American - "The Ice House Cafe and Oyster Bar"

My company forces me out of my comfortable home in Oakland and sends me to Sterling, VA for a week. So what's to eat? I poked around Chowhound and found a buried entry about "The Ice House Cafe and Oyster Bar" in Herndon.

My wife and I trundled down (it's really close by DC standards) and were seated immediately by a very nice staff. The ambiance is nondescript American tavern upgraded with white tablecloths, candles and a fake rose. It works, though, because it gets you ready for good eats vs. haute cuisine.

We ordered strictly from the appetizer menu, because I have found that it’s the best way to get a feel for a place’s chef. We didn’t have a bad bite. My wife wasn’t transported, but she found everything to be good. I am more enthusiastic about the dishes I had.

Here’s what we ordered:

6 Blue Point Oysters on the Half Shell
Really tasty, clearly fresh and served nicely with lemon and a red sauce

Steamed Clams
Huge clams, really plump, surrounding a small tureen of melted butter and shallots

Smoked Duckling Quesadilla con Carnitas
My least favorite, actually. It should have been more duck-ey. The salsa and guacamole that came with it was lame (lame duck, get it?). Remember, though, I’m from California and I expect those sides to pop.

Delta Salmon Roll
Yum. Tasty, fresh and the fish sauce was the perfect dip. It had smoked salmon, shrimp, lettuce and avocado wrapped in a mushu-pork style rice paper sheet.

Charbroiled Chicken Skewers
Outstanding! I was expecting dry chicken strips with an attempt at a thai sauce. Instead there were nice chunks of moist chicken coated in a spicy rub and interspersed with onion. The red curry peanut sauce was nicely paired with it.

Grilled Spinach Seafood Salad
The shrimp and scallops were nice, but the spinach wasn’t wilted, contrary to the menu description.

All in all? It was a nice experience in a simple setting with good food cooked by a chef who cares.

Final Tally:

1 = Bad, 10 = Outstanding

Food: 7 (My wife gives it a grudging 6.5)
Service: 6 (Just fine)
Price: 6 (2 people, martini, wine, tip and taxes = $94)
Ambiance: 5 (Unpretentious and homey. They have live jazz and blues on the weekends, but the canned stuff was weak. The air was smoky from too many smokers and not enough separation.)

A new entry in my reviews called “Can they make a decent dry martini?”: Yes, they can.

760 Elden Street
Herndon, VA 20170

San Anselmo (Marin) - Fusion – “Fork”

A direct quote from my wife...:)

Excellent review – except: you never mentioned my ethereal scallops on risotto with porcini & summer corn fresh off the cob (!?!) - you made it sound like all I had to eat was a thimble-full of Gaspacho…

San Anselmo (Marin) - Fusion – “Fork”

Ever been to Kraft in New York? Me neither, but Fork delivers on what everyone says are Kraft’s strengths: Simplicity, Über-freshness and style.

Normally, style doesn’t enter into my thoughts about good eateries. I equate people who talk about how stylish restaurants are with idiots who pay more attention to their car’s paint-job than to how it runs. In this case, the style I’m referring to is more than how the joint looks (a clean and simple, space with low-key art and room between the tables).

Here’s what I mean: The guy who meets you at the front is friendly and helpful. The wait-staff achieves that awesome combination of answering all of your questions, clearing used dishes, keeping the water glasses full and not intruding into your dining experience any more than they have to. The bathroom has real cloth napkins to dry your hands. The silverware is changed based on the course that you are about to enjoy. And the food is presented simply and beautifully. All of this adds up to a wonderful style that even penetrated my anti-pretention shield. The owner has thought through all of the details and it shows.

Sometimes I describe a good meal by saying that there wasn’t a single bite I didn’t like. In this case I have to say that there wasn’t a single bite that wasn’t great. I continued my wont of eating a series of smaller dishes in order to get a feel for the place.

I opened with the Crostini (Goat Cheese, Roasted Red Peppers, Prosciutto di Parma, Caper Berry) and the House Cured Salmon (Rősti Potato, Red Onion, Capers, Chives, Caviar). The prosciutto on the great bread combined with the red peppers was delightful, crunchy and rich. The salmon was the best thing of the night. The fish combined with a few caviar eggs was exquisite.

I followed this with the Romaine Hearts (Garlic Anchovy Dressing, Parmesan Reggiano, Crouton) and a Cheese Plate (Mt. Tam Triple Cream, Redwood Hill Chevré, Point Reyes Blue). The “Romaine Hearts” was clearly a Caesar. It was a really great Caesar, but still, why dress it up on the menu? The cheese plate was outstanding. I knew the cheeses, but it was the right combo of them presented (again) simply with just the right type of bread and sides.
My dinner companions’ highlights were an awesome Three Meat Meatloaf (Spicy Glaze, Smoked Bacon, Potato Purée, Broccoli Rabe) and my wife’s tea-cup sized Organic Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho.

I finished the evening with three really decadent home-made truffles and a pot of tea (presented in a very nice pot with a loose-leaf infusion and a small Chinese cup – a small thing, perhaps, but still, that’s _style_).

Oh, before I forget, they offer wine in a “flight”, which is three different half-glasses of wine for $13. Everyone at the table got one and it’s a great way to contrast different styles around a theme. I definitely recommend this, unless you already know everything about wine and can laser focus on what you want.

Final Tally:

1 = Bad, 10 = Outstanding
Food: 9 (Tasty, well presented)
Service: 9 (Unobtrusive, helpful, available)
Price: 7 (3 people, wine, dessert, tip and taxes = $200)
Ambiance: 8 (understated, elegant) for directions and reservations.

198 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, San Anselmo, CA 94960

Woodminster Cafe - Home cooked Persian food in the Oakland Hills!

It's Persian.

Berkeley - Indian - Chaat - "Vik's Chaat Corner"

I've taken your advice on the $$$$$ thing. Thanks for the tip!

Manhattan - Romantic Continental - "Cafe des Artistes"

I would go back and try it again. They have changed their chef and improved their menu.

Jan 08, 2007
ChewChewChew in Manhattan