Sunday, June 27, 2010

Recent Eats: A Little Culinary Jaunt

Funny thing... just as I'm vowing to have a monastic dietary life (and for the most part, I am), I seem to be eating out more. The eating out thing pretty much clashes with my intent to get my five-a-day veg fix, eat only lean proteins and whole grains, cut out refined sugars and simple starches... along with my always and forever rule of no fried foods. Not that you can't eat well while eating out, but damn... when you sidle up to the hottest new Southern restaurant and fried green tomatoes are on the menu, well hell. You go with it - life is too freaking short. Right? (Please say I'm right!)

Anyhows - I'd be remiss if I didn't share with you a couple of recent restaurant excursions to places both new and new to me. This quick culinary jaunt will take you from Napa to Marin to downtown Oakland... I get around. If you're making the rounds, you should visit these places too.

First up: Norman Rose Tavern here in Napa. A new-ish joint opened by the same folks that operate my favorite pizza place in town, Azzuro Pizzeria. It took a random Saturday a few weeks back with not much on the docket to finally get me and my DH to this hopping new local spot. We should have gone sooner - but then again, I knew that. It's got a great vibe - totally casual - and a fantastic menu, highlighting lots of local items (Fatted Calf hot dogs!). And I was thrilled - finally a place in town that serves a decent salad (it's amazing the lack of salad choices in the few casual eateries that exist here in Napa). The Norman Rose chop salad is now officially my go-to eating out dish: crisp lettuce and green cabbage, roasted peppers, grilled chicken... healthy, gorgeous, perfectly sized and rightfully priced. Not too bad for my healthy eating pledge, right? Wrong. I had to go and ruin it by sharing a heaping plate of truffle and Parmesan fries. Oh yes I did. But at least I can check that off my list and pass them over the next time. Been there, done that.

Another place I'm going to mention is the new Brick & Bottle in Corte Madera. Stopped in for lunch, and had a really, really good turkey burger (topped with roasted red peppers and avocado - just like I'd make at home); the downside: a really greasy bun. My friends had a club sandwich and chicken salad respectively, both of which looked awesome. If I go back, I'm definitely having the salad - chopped radicchio, watercress, grilled chicken... yum. I mention this place not because it was stellar, rather, because it's new, and I'm eager to hear feedback from anyone out there that's been. Let me know if you're experience was the same as mine: great food, but the prices seemed a bit steep, and our service was lacking. The staff was friendly enough - but our server was a little absent and slow. I also wonder if the location will be to its detriment as well - it's in a strip mall, down the road a bit from the hub of the dining action in Corte Madera. I wonder if folks will seek this place out. So... my verdict is still out. How about you?

And finally, the piece de resistance: Picán in downtown Oakland. Now, "fine dining" and "downtown Oakland" don't necessarily go hand in hand. But that is changing. If there is to be a renaissance in downtown Oakland, Picán is doing its part to lead the way.

Much has been written about this place that serves Southern comfort food with a California twist. Our group went after hearing the rave reviews about the fried chicken (we had to compare with our Ad Hoc fried chicken smackdown results). Alas, after reading the menu, I couldn't pass up the shrimp and grits... had to leave the fried chicken ordering up to Randall (he came through, of course!).

Everyone at the restaurant was really eager to please, which is fortunate. We arrived for an early reservation and were shown to probably the WORST table in the entire place - while the dining room sat mostly empty. Huh?? Of course we requested a change, and to their credit, seated us where we asked to be seated, no attitude given. Our server - who turned out to be someone who had been our waitress at another restaurant in Contra Costa County over a year ago (hey Jill!) - was amazing. It was freakishly weird that I recognized her, but she's great at her job and can spar with Randall like nobody's business. I don't forget folks who can hold their own against Ran! So once we got the perfect table, our night was off to a great start.

I loved everything that we ordered. Everything. For starters: hush puppies, fried green tomatoes, a peach/tomato panzanella salad. Cornbread slathered with butter. Awesome cocktails (it's a bourbon house - all the cocktails are made with southern whiskeys and my Kentucky margarita was amazing. I had two.). The collard greens- to die for; my shrimp and grits - just what I wanted. The fried chicken - the whole reason we were there - also very good. They serve it with a truffled honey on the side (or drizzled tableside if you prefer). Not my ball of wax, but I can see the appeal. I loved that they deboned the breast - great touch. It was delicious, of course. The raves are correct. However, I must admit, Ad Hoc's fried chicken is still tops in my book. The gouda mac and cheese that was served with the chicken (in the cutest little cast iron pot skillet you ever did see) - was amazing, and dare I even say it - almost too rich. For me to say a cheese dish is too rich is outrageous, but this mac and cheese was over the top. It took four of us to try and finish it, and we couldn't do it. It might be the first time in my life I left cheese at the table.

We ordered a couple of desserts to share between the four of us - and my bites of both the pecan tart and the banana pudding were yumm-o. I could have eaten the brown butter caramel sauce on the pecan tart with a spoon, and the buttermilk ice cream that it was served with could make even me an ice cream convert. Good stuff.

So there you have it. Some new dining choices here in the Bay Area. I'm done with dining out for a while, I think... unless, of course anybody out there has some suggestions. Anyone? :)

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