delicious discourse

chocolate transcendence

Posted in restaurants by delicious:discourse on February 24, 2009

A rare and dreary Monday about two weeks ago I found myself thankful to be inside my little car as the rain came down and I watched the outskirts of Austin turn into the somewhat green and definitely rolling Hill Country. Frankly, where I really wanted to be was back in bed, but there happens to be this little thing called work. And for some reason, it never goes away.

I was headed to a little, sleepy town, Northwest of Austin called Calvert, Texas. From door to door, Google Maps informed me I would drive 101 miles. Not too bad considering El Paso is closer to Los Angeles than it is to Houston. Calvert recently named itself the chocolate capital of Texas thanks for the recent opening of a cafe and chocolate factory by the name of Cocoa Moda. Opened by Houston-based chef Ken Wilkinson, who was born and breed in England and has a wonderful speech to prove it, Cocoa Moda sits in a restored 1874 former bank building on the historic Main Street in Calvert.

Ken who apparently is not only a genius in the kitchen, has an eye for carpentry and architecture and did the restoration work himself (and actually lost half finger to a saw in the process). The interior is simple, warm, inviting, and the perfect place to arrive on a cold and rainy day.

Leaning against the bar at the back of the restaurant and chatting with Ken about life, living, and the act of being alive, he looks up from fixing his coffee and says to me since I had politely declined a cup, “I know what you want.” I hesitantly replied, “Oh, you do?.” And he said, “Yes, hot chocolate.” When he said those two words, I knew he was right. As he headed back to the kitchen behind a swinging door he says, “I will be back in 2 minutes.” A few minutes later he reappears with a tray of a white teapot of hot chocolate, a bowl of fresh whipped cream, another bowl of sugar, and one teacup for me. A whole pot of hot chocolate? For me? I felt like royalty and after one sip, I knew it was going to take restraint from every cell in my body in order to prevent myself from finishing off the entire pot and begging for more. The thick, warm, rich liquid tasting of chocolate and cream, was unlike any hot chocolate I’d ever had. I felt sorry for myself and all those times I thought what I was drinking was hot chocolate and it was only a poor shadow of the real thing. When Ken later told me, and emphasized, that quality is never compromised, I didn’t think for a second not to believe him.

Quality and authenticity are what Cocoa Moda is made of. And of course, art. After studying and playing with chocolate for years, Ken says that he knew when he turned “blonde” he would start his chocolate business. For Ken, the chocolates, as he refers to them, are the highest expression of the arts.

Several cups of hot chocolate and many conversation topics later, Ken grabs a large plate, heads to the truffle counter, and proceeds to place one truffle of each flavor onto the Wedgewood porcelain plate. Twelve truffles, chocolate-covered candied ginger (that takes two weeks to make), and chocolate-covered orange peel are placed in front of me. Ken insists I try every flavor, even if it is just a bite. The first bite, white chocolate filled with a coconut confection and rolled in flaked coconut, takes me straight to the Caribbean, and the second bite secures me in the tropics – chocolate filled with key lime and dusted in a key lime sugar. White chocolate filled with passion fruit blissfully reminded me of my Hawaiian home. My favorite, was a dark chocolate filled with a white chocolate ganache with traces of anise – it was complex, unexpected, and divine. The others were a variety of truffles filled with caramel, espresso, praline, raspberry, orange, casis, a chocolate on chocolate made exotic with a pure cacao nib bit resting on top and one inside swimming among the creamy filling.

After the tasting, Chef Ken sent me on my way with a warm individual portion of his cassoulet. As I drove out of Calvert, I was almost surprised to find myself in still in Texas. For the past two hours I had been whisked worlds away to some small European town, sitting in a cozy cafe with a talented and enchanting patisseur.

When I finally arrived home and sat down to a bowl of cassoulet, the rich depth and flavor of the soup took me right back to Calvert. As it turns out, chocolate and cassoulet are the perfect antidote to a cold, rainy day—and I know just the place for both.

Cocoa Moda

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california dreaming

Posted in Uncategorized by delicious:discourse on February 6, 2009

The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Hello there. It has been quite some time. My apologies, but I’ve been busy dreaming and adventuring. The Holidays were filled with Hawaiian sun, salty ocean air, fresh fruits, lots of fish, and the leisurely pace and passing of time on the islands. My latest adventure, or should I say our, took us up to San Francisco and Big Sur to celebrate a very special 3-0 birthday. (Not mine of course. Take another guess.)

Arriving Wednesday morning, after meeting up with two friends (B and R), checking into our Union Square hotel, and freshening up (which was hardly necessary with cool, infinitely sunny, clear as far as the eye can see, weather, which is refreshing all on its own), we headed to North Beach in search of a cozy cafe for some cappuccinos and some breakfast food. With impatient rumblings, we walked into Boulangerie. Any skepticism I may have had walking into a random cafe disappeared when they brought R’s large cappuccino in a bowl the size of my head, followed by my granola with fruit and yogurt proportioned to feed three. The homemade granola was fresh, nutty, and with big chunks of oat clusters and the yogurt was clearly Greek and so thick, creamy, and slightly sweet I contemplated painting the walls with it.

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Cappuccino & Croissant fron Boulangerie, North Beach

Granola w/fruit and yogurt from Boulangerie, North Beach

Granola w/fruit and yogurt from Boulangerie, North Beach

Later that day, Tartine Bakery in the Mission District proved the perfect restoration after a day of site-seeing (Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge). Small and packed, the place came recommended by a friend of a friend who knows his stuff after working in the Bouchon Las Vegas kitchen for a year. Deciding on hydration over caffeination, I skipped the coffee menu, which R, a connaisseur of sorts, opted for and I believe thoroughly enjoyed. The banana tea bread proved satiating with a thick and nutty crust. Matt and I shared the Jambon Royale & Gruyere pressed sandwich with Niman Ranch cured smoked ham and Dijon mustard, which arrived cut into three pieces and served with a whole, pickled carrot. Famous for their bread, the sandwich proved out of this world, with its thick crust and combination of flavors. For dessert, R, who diligently does not eat fruit of any kind, ordered a slice of the Passion Fruit Lime Bavarian cake, which is topped with coconut. The sponge of the cake was light, as was the sweetened cream frosting, all laced with the flavor of the passion fruit, and the flaked coconut adding texture. He does eat fruit after all. Needless to say, there was not a crumb left on that plate. Tartine, I will be back.

Tartine Bakery in the Mission District

Tartine Bakery in the Mission District

Jambon Royale & Gruyere, Tartine Bakery

Jambon Royale & Gruyere, Tartine Bakery

For the big birthday dinner we dined at Nopa for a casual, loud, energetic atmosphere and killer cocktails. Before I left for the trip, a wise colleague told me to stay away from the wine list, not because it wasn’t good (I am sure it is) but because they are known for their cocktails. The favorite among the several we tried was the Pirata, a brilliant concoction of tequila blanco, galliano, blackberry, creole shrub, lemon juice, and black pearl bitters. Boy, were they good:) The meal started with the warm goat cheese, pickled beets, frisee and crostini—a warm pot of goat cheese served with crostinis and pieces of beautiful pickled beets. Matt decided to celebrate achieving 30 (we are staying positive) with a grass-fed hamburger served with pickled onions and impressive french fries. However, it was evident that he was crazy with jealousy at the housemade cannelloni R and I both ordered, stuffed with sausage and cheese and smothered in a creamy tomato sauce. B swore by the Moroccan vegetable tagine she ordered accented with almonds and lemon yogurt, claiming she would eat it at least once a week if she could. Appropriately arriving with a single candle (to celebrate life instead of years), the pecan tart with “smoke and whiskey” ice cream proved comforting and intriguing. I had never had smoky ice cream before and it was oddly, with the combination of the pecan tart, like a take on a very different and much more complicated s’more.

The next day, 30 plus 1 as we were calling it, took us on a road trip to Big Sur and an inaugural sunset at Point Lobos. The following day after an 8-mile hike in the warm sunshine unusual for the time of year, we sought solace in another mesmerizing sunset and cold libations (a.k.a. painkillers) at cliffside-Nepenthe. I don’t know if it was the long day or if the bartender has major margarita talent, but the one I had went down just right and took all the aches and pains away.

Big Sur sunset from the patio at Nepenthe

Big Sur sunset from the patio at Nepenthe

Saturday sadly took us away from the big, serene beauty of Big Sur and back to the City, but not without a much needed stop at In-N-Out. My first fast-food burger proved to be a good one, maybe because I knew to order it animal style (grilled onions and special sauce), but I was more in awe as R downed two claiming he needed to stock up (they don’t have In-N-Out in Hawaii).

In need of a lite afternoon fix, at the recommendation of B’s sister who lives in the City, we took a walk up the Haight  to Coco Luxe, a hot chocolate bar. Thinking I was ordering just a regular latte, I accidentally ended up with a white-chocolate-hot chocolate with an espresso shot and I am glad I did. It provided rich warmth in the waning sunlight and its sweetness was pure and addictive. The Peanut Butter truffle was surprisingly not filled with just peanut butter, but a delectable blend of milk chocolate and peanut butter.

Truffles from Coco Luxe in the Haight

Truffles from Coco Luxe in the Haight

For our farewell-to-San Francisco meal, we drowned out sorrows at Mexico DF with good margaritas and strawberry mojitos. To accompany our drinks, we welcomed the Classico guacamole served with thick tortilla chips. Feeling adventurous, Matt and I split the Cabrito (goat) tacos made with Marin Sun Farms barbacoa-style, grass-fed goat. Never having had goat before, the flavor surprised me and I struggle to compare it to any other meat I have had. It is not sweet like lamb, gamier than beef or pork, and it has a very distinct flavor. The tacos were delicious and very unusual. Such a nice change form the Tex Mex we get around Texas.

The trip was filled with images, tastes, smells, joy, and freedom I will always remember. We did so much in four days, but there is still so much to do, discover, and inhale. I may be back in Texas, but for the time being, my dreams remain in California.

Big Sur, California (a.k.a. my current desktop background)

Big Sur, California (a.k.a. my current desktop background)

DD in NYC – The Fig and the Olive, 808 Lexington Avenue

Posted in restaurants by delicious:discourse on August 21, 2008

With a name like The Fig and the Olive I feel as if I am about to read you a children’s story rather than blog about a Mediterranean Foodie Oasis in New York City. Matt and I stumbled across the F&O on previous trip. Overhearing us voicing our need for a really good cup of coffee, someone walking by told us we need to go to the F&O. So after sleeping in until noon and taking a jaunt in Central Park before the rain came down, Matt and I headed out in search of the F&O and whatever it might bring. We were desperate for a good light meal radiating sunshine, yet simultaneously cozy before we headed to the airport to be delayed hours on our flight back to Austin. Anyway, we had a wonderful meal and excellent coffee. I remember you could almost taste the grass on the sun-washed hills of Italy in one of the bowls of the olive oil trio served with your bread. Each one was so different and took you to a different place. I had never experienced olive oil like that before.

So, on the last day of our most recent trip to NYC it seemed fitting that we dine at the F&O for our last meal in the city before we headed to Newark to be delayed hours, once again, on our flight back to Austin. Once again, we were also escaping the rain outside, although rejuvenated from the meal we returned to the world outside to sparkling clear sunshine. This time however, we brought company and as far as I can judge, they were equally impressed. With its white walls, quiet and soothing interior, and pleasant wait staff, the F&O is a much needed escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Time slows down within its walls. The food, like the ambiance, is serene yet surprising and interesting, light yet radiating warmth.

With dreams of the Indian food we had had the night before, I ordered chicken samosas for munching before the main course. They were flaky, soft and delicate, filled with chicken, Greek yogurt, cilantro, bell peppers, scallions, and sundried tomato olive oil.

R, on a soup kick, opted for the Gazpacho over the Cucumber and Pink Peppercorn soup. Chilled, with tomato, bell pepper, onion, basil, and pine nuts, he savored every bite, alternating with the bowl of olives. B went for the Provencal Vegetable Salad and did not stop to talk until every bite of the grilled eggplant, zucchini, asparagus, purple onion, tomato, baby arugula, parmesan, avocado, toasted pine nuts, and 18-year-old balsamic dressing was gone. Unusual for me, I decided on the Jamon y Manchego salad. Ham, jamon, is not usually something I order, but I have been hooked on Manchego cheese since I made a pizza with it and the combination sounded too good to pass up. With jamon serrano (which is almost like proscuitto), Manchego cheese, tomatos, crushed marcona almonds, fennell, figs, scallions, over warm goat cheese toasts, it was everything I thought it would be and more. Not knowing when his next meal woul be, Matt devoured a chicken dish stuffed with goat cheese, fennel, crushed almonds, and placed on a mound of creamy polenta.

Oh, and I almost forgot, for dessert we ordered an apple tart a la mode. It was a deserving end to not only the meal, but the weekend as well.

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DD in New York City – Five Points

Posted in restaurants by delicious:discourse on August 20, 2008

After much research, contemplation, and many no availabilities, K secured a reservation at Five Points Restaurant for our Saturday night in New York. I have to admit Freemans and Blue Ribbon Bakery were our first choices, but Five Points turned out to be just what we needed, with a split-log running through the center holding running water, providing a babbling brook like zen. Accommodating our party of ten, the service was just right, not overly attentive and not MIA. We were seated in the back, actually at the table pictured below, which was comfortable and tucked away for all our conversation. We arrived starving, devouring the bread and ordering cocktails. Some of the memorable dishes from the Mediterranean-American seasonal summer menu were the oven baked pasta R ordered, surprising me due to its lack of protein. Apparently the layered pasta, slow cooked plum sauce, teleme, and grana cheese goodness hit the spot because there was not a bite left from the round dish about a foot in diameter. K in a comfort food mood chose the buttermilk chicken served with paprika potatoes that I kept sneaking bites of. A pork chop served with apricots was another favorite that was left no trace. I had a wonderfully buttery, yet light, pasta dish and I cannot recall the name. The pieces were smaller and harder than gnocchi, but equally delicious and warming.

After returning to Texas I glanced at their brunch menu online, I saw they have lemon ricotta pancakes (which I fell in love with in Australia), something to look forward to the next time I hit the City.

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DD in New York City – Cafe Habana

Posted in restaurants by delicious:discourse on August 20, 2008

It has been a whirlwind past two weeks, starting with an amazing trip to the Big Apple. Not only was the food delicious and varied (I can’t believe I now have to resign myself to Austin’s limited options), the company was unprecedented, the weather was fantastic minus a few showers, and the energy was vibrant. Here is the gist of my culinary adventures in the City, I recommend them all, and I hope there will be much more to come.

Cafe Habana – Starting off the first meal in NYC with a bang, my savy NY friend, K, took Matt and I to Cafe Habana. After being in hot hot Texas for way to long and getting up way to early for our 6am flight, the cold cold mojitos were just what we needed at precisely 1pm, and for the record, they were the best mojitos I had ever had. If there had not been so much to see and do, I could of sat there all afternoon, drinking mojitos and drooling over corn. Which is not exactly very like me. Located at 17th Prince in the very hip SOHO, Cafe Habana is a self-proclaimed eco-eatery (their web site is ecoeatery.com) meaning their practices are earth-friendly  in design, construction, and day-to-day operations. The cuisine is home-style Latin with Cuban and Central Mexican influences. Small and cozy on a winter’s day or warm, breezy, and oozing summer, Cafe Habana could be either, but we experienced the latter. You cannot get away with not ordering the corn appetizer—ears of grilled corn heavily sprinkled with cotija cheese, chipotle seasonings, and served with a lime wedge to be drizzled for perfection. I ordered the Omlette Caribe—an omlette with plantains and served with a green tomatillo salsa (divine), K ordered the Chilaquiles Verdes con Pollo —corn tortilla, shredded chicken casserole, tomatillo salsa, crema, and cotija cheese (divine), and Matt devoured the Molletes—toasted Cuban bread topped with refried black beans, chorizo, and salsa (divine, surprised?). I am counting down the days until I can go back.

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Counter Cafe

Posted in restaurants by delicious:discourse on July 28, 2008
Counter Cafe, courtesy of flickr.

After a morning of cooling off at Barton Springs, Matt and I were hungry and faced with where to eat. Oh, the dilemma. It really never ends. The answer always alludes me and I end up going to one of my tried and true favorites. Driving north on Lamar, for once, I knew where to go, Counter Cafe, which has long been on my list but always slipping through the holes (figuratively speaking) in my brain.

We found a parking spot right up front (this never happens to me), and looking like we had just come from the Springs in wet bathing suits under our clothes, we walked into the cool slice of heaven that is Counter Cafe. A woman greeted us with a wide smile and a friendly hospitality. She insightfully noted we had been at the Springs, and insisted that after a swim in that 68 degree water, one would stay cool for 5 hours. Yes, she is right.

Seated right away, in one of the tables (the cozy restaurant consists of a long counter with seating and one row of tables along the wall) we decided to go for the blueberry pancake special andthe pimento cheese sandwich. After deciding on the food, I observed the restaurant, reminding me of an old-school diner. The patrons were a mix of college students and  random regulars.

The pancake was loaded with fresh blueberries and the pimento cheese sandwich was a gourmet grilled cheese delicacy. Oozing with real pimento cheese holding together two thick slices of bread, half was enough to to satisfy. My only regret is I could only try two things on the not-to-large menu. Next time one of the two will have to be the migas.

Counter Cafe (Courtesy of flickr)
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El Chile: Taking away the pain

Posted in restaurants by delicious:discourse on July 27, 2008

After a long day of moving in he high Texas summer heat-yes, I am crazy–Matt and I were in dire need of some a margarita or two, and some serious cooling off. With our entire bodies hurting and exhausted from squat-thrusting and bench pressing furniture all day, and then rearranging all my stuff to fit in his house, it took us hours to decided where to go to make the pain go away. We wanted margaritas, we knew that much. We had both been to El Chile before, but honestly I had never been that impressed with the food. So, after seeing “Quesadillas de Chorizo – Grilled flour tortillas filled with Chihuahua cheese, chorizo and potatoes” on the menu and a call to see how long the wait was – zero minutos – for two people, our decision was made.

Immediately seated, we informed the waiter we needed margaritas—Perfect Margaritas made with Herradura, Cointreau, and fresh lime juice on the rocks—two please. They really were perfect, exactly as margaritas should be, limey and not too sweet. The pain instantly lessened as the strength of the tequila worked its magic in my blood stream. Armed with margaritas, we perused the menu, deciding to go straight for main dish, even though those quesadillas sounded scrumptous. Before the waiter came to take our order, minutes after dropping off the margaritas, Matt has already downed the entire thing. “You must be thirsty”, the waiter inquired. “Yep”, said Matt, “it has been a long day. I’ll have another.”

It was no surprise Matt ordered fish tacos since he had been talking about them since he had fish tacos at Polvo’s Friday night. I on the other hand suprised myself by ordering the Enfrijoladas-chicken enchiladas, topped with a black bean puree, pico, queso fresca, and strategically drizzled with crema. When they arrived, I had an out of body experience, and the next time I looked down they were gone. The chicken filling was perfectly spicy and the black bean puree added a comforting salty earthiness, with the crema pulling it all together. The white rice, I prefer to typical Mexican rice, proved a perfect vehicle to sop up the extra black been puree. Matt was impressed with the fish tacos, I am assuming, because nothing was left on his plate either. Served in double corn tortillas, a generous portion of fish, was topped with a large avocado slice and a cabbage-lime slaw.

The Perfect Margarita and deicious sustenance combination took all the pain of a long hard day away. It was the perfect pain killer. I will be putting this one in my medicine cabinet.

(I forgot to mention this salsa—smokey goodness with a chipotle-adobo taste. A welcome variety from the typical salsa served at Mexican food joints.)

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Blue Dahlia, Take Two

Posted in restaurants by delicious:discourse on July 2, 2008

So, I dragged M to Blue Dahlia last night. I couldn’t even wait a week from my last visit. At first he claimed there was not enough animal protein on the menu, spoken in true guy fashion. He surprised me with an order of the hummus tartine with tomatoes and avocados served on whole wheat bread, which he adored (and no, he did not use that word) once he got past his blind hunger. I ordered the porcini ravioli with basil pesto and parmesan. Seved al dente, it was simultaneously earthy and heavenly.

I already have a lunch scheduled there three weeks from now—a girl has to have something to look forward to.

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Your vino. My vino

Posted in restaurants by delicious:discourse on July 1, 2008

So, unfortunately I am not a big “drinker”. I can already hear you cringe. How can you be a foodie, and not love love wine? To be honest, I just haven’t gotten into it for no particular rhyme or reason. But last Friday, I found the perfect place to “get into” wine….drumroll please….Vino Vino in Austin, Texas.

From the unassuming restaurant front, I had no idea what to expect. But walking into the cool, dim, dark- wood restauarnt with cream walls from the opressive Texas summer heat was a simple slice of heaven. The space is actually of impressive size; a deep, but wide rectangular room, with wine balls decorating the high wall space.

Walls of wine.

My two friends and I sat at the bar, which allowed us to interact with owner, Jeff, who is onevibrant character. His perogative, it seems, is to express his love of wine so much that it rubs off on you, even just a little bit. When I promptly informed him that I wanted some “bubbly” he directed me to a sparkling wine from Valencia, Spain—torre oria, a cava brut rose. I was skeptical, could this guy really be directing me to the cheapest class of bubbly??? That was until I tasted the darker than a rose-lighter than a red liquid in my glass. Desrcibed on the menu as “lush & lively red-pink bubbles all full, fleshy & spicy with oodles of ripe red juice. like deeply kissing a spice-soaked raspberry”. I couldn’t agree more, even if I have never kissed a spice-soaked raspberry.

To munch on, we ordered the sliced gravlax–cured salmon served with dill cream cheese and baguette. One word–divine. I felt so sophisticated. A special avocado soup, caused C to claim it was the best thing she has ever put in her mouth.

Even though only one glass of wine per person was comsumed (expcept for A who is quite the little connoisseur), we did not feel the need to leave until 3.5 hours later. Vino Vino provides a little haven, while the world spins on around you.

vinovinotx.com

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Blue Dahlia: Keeping it deliciously simple

Posted in restaurants by delicious:discourse on June 30, 2008

I have long been searching for a restaurant like Blue Dahlia: simple and delicious food, laid back, comfortable, inodoor and outdoor seating, not at all a scene, and a place I could go for any meal any day of the week. I often dislike eating out because the food is so overdone at many restaurants. The bread needs tons of butter, asparagus does not taste like asparagus, fish is covered with cream sauce, etc, etc, etc. Good quality ingredients should be able to stand alone as well as accompanied by other high-quaility ingredients.

Located on East 11th Street in wonderfully quirky East Austin, Blue Dahlia has a home in a house-turned restaurant, with outdoor seating on the front porch as well as a courtyard in the back. Inside, the tables are of heavy wood, some short and others long with stools for seating.

Sitting outside and braving the Texas summer heat, my friend and I ordered the bell pepper and cheddar fritatta served with an assortment of breads and the brie with walnuts and apricot preserves tartine (open-faced sandwich).  Condiments for the bread are a trio of rasberry jam, nutella, and another, which I cannot recall. I could have eaten the wheat bread of the sanwhich, the brie, walnuts, and apricot preserves all separately, but together it was simply divine. The frittata was tasty with big chunks of zucchini squash, bell pepper, and cheese. Oh, and everything was so reasonable.

I will be going back soon. By soon, I mean sometime this week. bluedahlia.com

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