Tag Archives: food

Wine Vault & Bistro

For a long time, I’d been hearing about Wine Vault & Bistro (which can get confusing since I’ve also had people tell me about Wine Steals, WineSellar, and some other wine place/bar/eatery). I’d kind of just written it off, since I didn’t get how they could put together a 5-course meal for $30 that would be worth eating. I’m also very skeptical of places that are constantly being raved about. This is probably due to my experience with the now-closed The Better Half, which certain sources couldn’t get enough of and when I finally tried it I thought I was eating food that came from those heat-and-serve lunch kits you find at Trader Joe’s.  Utterly disappointing.

You have to sign up for the newsletter to get the Saturday night menu for Wine Vault (as well as their wine pairing menus). I guess you have to go in person to see what’s on the regular bistro menu? I finally signed up and then the stars aligned where we had plans that got cancelled and pork belly was on the menu. Reservations were made and I started getting excited. I don’t know if you always need reservations – we were there at 6 pm and the place wasn’t full at all. By the time we left after 7 pm, I’d say it was 75% full.

Travis didn’t like that you had to go to the bar to get your drinks. He did like that you could do a beer flight for $9 (5 tastes, to match the 5 courses, I’m guessing). I had planned on splitting a wine pairing with him, because I am a lightweight and fall over easily, but since he was set on trying to match beers to the food, I had to drink all the wine by myself. And it was a lot (for me). I agree it would be easier (for us) if someone would just bring us our booze tastes, but I also understand how it’s easier (for them) to have it all at one station and then people go up at their leisure. I’m guessing if you have too many people falling down on the way to the bar, you could also make the decision that they’ve had enough to drink.

Each plate is a few bites, which means you won’t leave stuffed. We did leave full, though, or at least not hungry. And I’ve heard that the first few bites of anything are the most satisfying, so at least you won’t get bored with anything.

Salad Nicoise: Haricot Vert | Slow Poached Quail Egg | Olive Oil Poached Big Eye Tuna | Potato Confit | Wild Greens | Olive Vinaigrette

The salad nicoise was like some deconstructed salad. So, while it was tasty, it didn’t really all come together as a complete dish. But each component was delicious. My last bite was egg yolk and a crispy potato, which was better than Travis’ last bite of egg yolk and green bean.

Artichokes a la Barigoule | Baby Carrots | Caramelized Shallots

This was my favorite dish of the night. The sweetness of the artichoke heart (I love artichokes like crazy) with the sweetness of the shallots was perfect. I could have eaten a bowl of this.  There was also a tempura-fried squash blossom, that was delighfully crispy.

Herb Roasted Pork Belly | Grilled Onion Soubise | Hen of the Woods Mushrooms | Arugula | Ramp Gremolata

The pork belly was not falling apart tender, but it wasn’t tough and chewy, either. And it had a crispy, salty, porky top crust which pretty much made us love it no matter what.

Prime Flatiron Steak | Eggplant Fondue | Brussels Sprouts Leaves | Cipollini Onions | Fresh Garbanzo Beans | Marjoram

We had no idea what eggplant fondue was, and even now I’m guessing it was the creamy blob on the plate. The brussels sprout leaves were tender-crisp (does that make sense?) and makes me want to make a salad of just-blanched leaves. I don’t know if you can see it, but the steak was pretty rare in the middle, which made it a little chewy. This was actually my least favorite bite of the night, but the flavors were all spot on.

Yuzu + Cherry Blossum Sorbet | Local Cherry Mochi | Candied Cherry Blossoms

Travis was surprised that the candied cherry blossom was salty, but I seem to remember eating salted cherry blossoms. So, either these were salted cherry blossoms that got candied but weren’t sweet, or they were never candied. The cherry ice cream was perfect and creamy and full of cherry-flavor. The cake as a whole was light and fluffy and a nice way to end the meal. Even though we also got gelato later.  And I just realized there was no mochi.  Now I’m sad… homemade mochi would have been a fun treat.

WINE PAIRING FLIGHT $20
2008 Pascual Bellier Cheverny Blanc
2007 Tandem “Van der Kamp” Pinot Noir
2005 Hall Merlot
2005 Two Hands “Bad Impersonator” Shiraz
Prunier “La Lieutenance” Orange Cognac I just noticed that instead of cognac, I had some tequila/coconut/fruit blended drink.

I would have paired the Cheverny Blanc with the artichoke and the Pinot Noir with the pork belly, but the Shriaz went well with the steak and I thought all the wines were fine overall. Nothing outstanding, but I also wasn’t expecting outstanding wines at these prices. I didn’t drink the tropical margarita-thing because I don’t like tequila and I was already a little boozy by then.

I’d like to go back on a Thursday or Friday to see what the bistro menu is like, and I’m also keeping an eye on their Saturday menus since I do think it’s a pretty good deal and we did enjoy the food a lot. I don’t necessarily need the wine pairings (I like food more than booze) so that makes future visits cheaper, I guess. If it was closer to home, I’m sure we’d be there much more often (driving down from Poway when you’re all comfy at home on a Saturday takes some effort). Plus, I still have a very long list of tasty places we have yet to visit.

Wine Vault & Bistro on Urbanspoon

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weeknight staples

The current chatter I’ve been reading (mostly tweets) has been dealing with the idea that cooking “real food” doesn’t have to take a lot of time. That you can put a wholesome dinner on the table (often local/organic/sustainable/whatever) in 30 minutes or less. Hmm… no, that’s not quite right. The chatter is responding to Michael Ruhlman’s claim that average, working people do, in fact, have time to cook and make dinner and not rely on processed, packaged foods and the resulting fallout of his statements. Some people agree, some think he’s being arrogant, and some can see both sides.

I am of the camp that it does not take a lot of time to put a good dinner on the table. However, I can see how non-frequent cooks can get that impression. I think a lot of the meals and dishes highlighted in food blogs are a tad more complicated than your everyday weeknight meals. Personally, I rarely take a picture or think about writing up the fast, easy meals I make for dinner. One reason is because they usually aren’t photogenic.  Another is that there’s rarely a recipe.  It’s more like one part veggie, one part protein, sometimes a carb underneath: heat, eat, throw in dishwasher.  The main reason is probably this: if I’m rushing around and have to whip up dinner in half an hour, I don’t have time (or rather, don’t want to make the time) to make the plate look pretty, take a good photo, and sit down to write a post. The ones I take pictures of and write about are the ones I’ve spent a lot of time to prepare, so I want the four people who read this blog to see it, appreciate it… and then move on. Fried egg with veggies over quinoa? It’s cooked and eaten before the thought of a camera even pops up. Plus, if I’m squeezing dinner into 30 minutes, it’s because I have more important (to me) things to get done with the rest of my night.

However, I agree that the attitude of weeknight dinners needs to change. Weeknight dinners do not need to start with bags or jars to be fast. [Full disclosure: there is a box of Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese in
the pantry and a box of frozen mac n’ cheese from Trader Joe’s in my
freezer. For desperate times when we’re home and I’m so hungry I can’t even think of putting a meal together. If we’re this desperate and not home, we go to Luc’s Bistro.] I do think you need to rely on the pantry and freezer to pull together last-minute dinners easily, if you aren’t one of those people who plans their week of cooking in advance (I am not one of those people). I don’t think relying on your freezer means stocking it with (homemade) frozen lasagna, casseroles, soups, etc.

Travis doesn’t really cook, and I think a lot of it is because he isn’t really sure what goes with what.  Plus, he’s equally happy eating pork & beans, lentil dal, teriyaki chicken, and sauerkraut.  It’s an eclectic taste, I guess.  He’s mentioned putting together a “weeknight dinner” card box.  It would have index cards of various things (pork chops, chicken, Italian sausage, steak, etc) and then a list of what you could make with them.  There would also be a section for veggies and starches, the idea being he could grab one card from each section and match them up to make a dinner.  To me, it doesn’t make sense because all that info is already in my head and because the veggies and starch components will depend on what we actually have (although, I guess if we did this for the week, we could go shopping for those things).  But, for him, it probably would be a great idea because all the tidbits of cooking prep I take for granted would be detailed for him in black and white.  He also doesn’t like recipes, so having him learn just some basic stuff would probably go a long way.  I suppose this applies to a lot of people out there.

I am in awe of the bloggers out there who churn out recipe after recipe, post after post, all with pretty picture collages and witty phrases. Maybe that’s what they do all day; maybe that’s their job. I don’t know how they fit it in with all the other things I’m sure they have to do in their busy lives, but they do. They just make it their priority. Blogging is not my priority. The moment it starts feeling like a job or obligation, I’ll probably get sick of it. But, I do like good food and I do like sharing it (both on the table and online), so I’ll just keep going for now.

So, here’s a little bit of “I’ll show you mine if you show my yours”. Here are some of the things I keep around to make dinner when I haven’t planned ahead. What do you do?

  • Frozen shrimp – you can do just about anything with these suckers, they thaw in minutes, and they cook up quickly. Shrimp cocktail, pan-fried shrimp (dust them in cornstarch to make them crispy), simmer in pasta sauce, serve over rice or quinoa or whatever, toss with veggies, make shrimp tacos. It’s an easy, fast protein.
  • Chicken breasts, pork chops, ground turkey – I know freezing meats “changes the texture”, but having them in the freezer means I only need to think a day in advance. I portion them out for the two of us and can throw them in the fridge the night before and then spend the day deciding what to do with it.
  • Frozen veggies – spinach, broccoli, soycutash, green beans, corn, peas, carrots (or that mix). I usually buy fresh produce, but sometimes you just don’t have any. Steamed, they’re a nice side to any fact protein. Mixed with canned tomatoes, it kind of becomes a sauce. I always have frozen spinach or broccoli because that’s what I mix into mac n’ cheese (see above disclosure) to add a tiny bit of healthiness into the meal.
  • Quinoa and polenta – I may be wrong, but I think these are healthier than white rice. They both cook up really quickly, you can throw in whatever veggies you have on hand, and if you have absolutely no protein in the house, you can top it all with an egg.
  • Whole chicken/chicken stock – there is often a whole chicken in the freezer because I buy them from Costco (I know, I know… but I like Costco and I’m probably not going to stop buying meat from them) and they come in a pack of two. Even when you buy the organic ones. So, I’ll roast one (usually on the weekend) and throw the other in the freezer. When I run out of frozen chicken stock, I make plans to cook the other chicken and then make more chicken stock.
  • Beans – at least I buy my beans from Rancho Gordo. Between the crockpot and pressure cooker, I can decide to use them for dinner that morning. Beans make a good side, taco filling, and soup. Right now, there’s a ham bone simmering away with beans and onions for dinner. No recipe, so I hope it turns out well.

There are various other things I tend to keep around (sausages, tomatoes, whole wheat pasta, etc) and, of course, I try to make enough so we have leftovers for lunch. I like to have a loaf of bread in the freezer, since you never know when you’ll want a sandwich, toast, garlic bread, or something to dip into soup. I should also mention that Travis is not very picky, so I don’t really have to work around what he’ll eat or won’t eat. I also don’t have any kids to deal with. And I don’t cook for my dogs. My life is pretty easy, but I do work full days and I like to have dinner done by 7pm so we can get to other things on our list and sometimes have time for exercise.  I’m a fan of fast dinners, but I pride myself on being able to make them “from scratch” more or less.  I think if everyone (who wants to learn to cook) could just learn the basics of how to meld ingredients together, they’d have a great start.

Avenue 5 Restaurant & Bar, SDRW Preview Dinner

As much as San Diego Restaurant Week (SDRW) has changed (for better or for worse), I still look forward to it and always look through the menus to see if anything piques my interest. Sometimes we go more than once, sometimes we don’t go at all. I think we’ve managed to visit a new (to us) restaurant each time. We had already decided to visit Nobu this year and it helped work out some birthday celebration issues since people are in and out of town, plus there is a baby’s birthday to celebrate soon after mine this year. But, when McFarlane Promotions e-mailed to ask if I’d like to preview the SDRW menu at a restaurant, I jumped at the chance.

Splitting off for a tangent, I mentioned to Travis that I kind of feel weird accepting free meals in return for a review. Like I’m a sell-out or someone just looking for free stuff. He pointed out that just because it’s free doesn’t mean I have to give a positive review. Likewise, even if I don’t like it, I can always point out something positive in addition to the negative points. And, he said that I comment an awful lot on meals that we’ve certainly paid for, so being invited to a restaurant is just a nice perk. I do try to balance my reviews on free meals with what I would think had we paid for it, or what we would be paying if we were to return for another meal. I also tend not to post about places we’ve been where I was just downright disappointed in the food or service, mostly because people get mad when you say you don’t like them. But, I’ve decided that if I’m invited out for a meal in return for a review, if I really don’t enjoy it, I will leave it up to the people who invited me whether or not they want my thoughts published. If you can call writing on my blog as “publishing” something.

Anyway… I was given a list of participating restaurants, weeded out the ones in North County because I knew we wouldn’t be able to get there, took a look at some menus online, and decided to choose a restaurant we hadn’t been to before. When I replied, I was pretty flexible with the time we could done out and gave a list of restaurants I’d be happy to get (since it was mentioned that seatings were limited). I also asked if there were any updates to the participating list and they replied that Avenue 5 wasn’t on my original list. I’d actually never heard of Avenue 5, but it seemed like it had promise so I picked that one. And then I decided to check out Yelp reviews, which was just a mistake. Based on the Yelp reviews, it looks like people enjoy the brunch but are all over the place when it comes to dinner experiences. Travis reminded me that Yelp is all over the place for everything, though, so perhaps it’s most useful for checking whether a restaurant is still open or not.

Avenue 5 Restaurant & Bar is on 5th Avenue (duh), between Olive and Nutmeg Streets. It’s next to Hane Sushi. I guess it’s in Bankers Hill, but I would probably point people to it by saying it’s across from Balboa Park. The park part of Balboa Park. And then they’d probably get lost. It’s an easy drive and we didn’t have any trouble finding parking. I had already decided that if I didn’t like dessert, I was going to make Travis take me to Extraordinary Desserts, but that ended up being unnecessary.

We encountered a little snafu when we checked in because the reservation wasn’t under my name, but the name of my blog (how was I supposed to know that?) I was actually asked if I might be confused as to what restaurant I made reservations for, which I found a little insulting since I’m pretty sure I know where I’m dining at all times. For a brief moment, though, I did wonder if there was another Avenue 5 somewhere and we were at the wrong one (this has happened to me in Palm Springs where we were at one Mexican restaurant but we were supposed to be at the other one, same name, at the opposite end of town). Once I said we were there to preview a SDRW menu, it got all cleared up.

The restaurant space is nice and open, in an L-shape. We were seated around the corner, so we didn’t get to look at the bar or the outside, which I guess is fine. The food was great, which is really what matters, right? The menu is on the SDRW site or you can look at the picture I took [update: the SDRW site lists Avenue 5 as a $40 menu, but I confirmed with the restaurant that it will be $30]. I chose the salmon tartar, short rib (I always have to check out the short ribs), and chocolate decadence. Travis chose the vodka-cured beef carpaccio, the herb gnocchi, and profiteroles. He also had a pint of Airedale Homecoming Porter and I had a glass of rose. The porter was lightly spiced (nutmeg, I think), just sweet enough, and nicely rich and malty. I like a good porter and this was a good one. I also like a good rose and mine was right in the middle of dry and sweet. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten better at describing beers and worse at describing wines.

bread and beer

salmon tartar

carpaccio

Travis’ brain has been overloaded at work lately, so when the carpaccio came out he said it looked like it had been cured in something. I had to remind him that it was vodka-cured, like the menu said. Poor guy. He was very happy with it and liked the olives and capers that were sprinkled around the plate. As far as carpaccio goes, it was a good-sized portion, velvety smooth, and it came with a small pile of dressed greens and two baguette toast slices. My salmon tartar came with four (I only ate three) and, while I liked the crunch of the toast with the salmon on top, I actually preferred eating the salmon with the cucumber slices. Travis thought it tasted a little fishy, but I didn’t think so. He’s not a big raw salmon fan, though, so it’s not something he would order. I loved it and cleaned my plate.

beefy short rib

best gnocchi ever

The short rib and gnocchi were next, served in very warm plates. The short rib was one piece, but it was a huge piece! It wasn’t fork-tender, but it wasn’t so tough that I had to use a knife to cut it. I just had to use my knife to help pull it apart. It tasted like beef (in a good way) and it wasn’t dry, stringy, or chewy. Quite tasty, actually. Travis had ordered the gnocchi, which I never would have guessed, and it’s certainly not something I would have ordered normally. I’ve given up on gnocchi because I’ve had so many awful experiences: it’s heavy and doughy and you have to chew forever before you can swallow. So, I just don’t order it any more. And, because I don’t make them at home, I don’t really get to eat them very often.

People, I have good news and bad news about the gnocchi at Avenue 5. The good news is that they were fantastic. Perfect, really. The gnocchi was light and tender but with a hint of a chew. Almost fluffy, but not really. Plus, they had been pan-seared so they had a little crisp crust on the outside. Crisp on the outside, soft and delicious on the inside. Served with pearl onion, green beans (sorry, haricot vert), brussel sprouts, mushrooms, and diced sweet potatoes (I think) in a Madeira cream sauce, they were amazing. I actually ate only half my short rib, with the intention of taking the rest home, but I kept picking at Travis’ gnocchi. Halfway through, I told him I wish I had ordered the gnocchi and he switched plates with me. I finished the gnocchi and he finished the short rib.

The bad news? The gnocchi is not on the regular menu (we took a peek after dinner; neither is the salmon tartar). They do have a mushroom tortellini, which gets some great reviews, but I would want the gnocchi. If we go back, I’m asking them (ahead of time, of course) to make it. That’s how good it is.

So, I thought I was full, but really I just wanted gnocchi instead of short rib. Then, dessert arrived.

profiteroles

not photogenic, but so tasty

The profiteroles come filled with pistachio ice cream (with real pistachios in it) served on a puddle of crème anglaise, which was so good I’m surprised no one licked the plate. Travis really enjoyed it, and he’s not much for a sweet tooth, so that’s saying something. The profiteroles were good, but I prefer mine filled with pastry cream. Just personal preference, that’s all. My chocolate decadence, though, was just what I wanted. Sometimes you come across “chocolate decadence” and you don’t know what to expect. Sometimes it’s dense like fudge; sometimes it’s cakey like a molten chocolate cake. This was like a flourless chocolate cake, but not cakey. It was light and airy, but chocolatey and had substance. Definitely not dense and chewy, but not airy like a meringue. I don’t know how to describe it. It was just really good.

So, funny story… because I was asked to review our meal, I figured I should take some pictures. I forgot my camera and we had to use Travis’ work camera, which is why they aren’t the greatest pictures (sorry). But, after I’d taken a few, a gentleman came over with his card and mentioned that he figured we were there for the same reason he was (to preview the SDRW menu). We exchanged cards and a few sentences (he actually writes articles that get published… like, for real publications) and went back to our meals. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me. So, hi Howard! Hope you enjoyed your meal as much as we did!

SDRW may catch some flak from the peanut gallery (speaking of which, I am so over CH and I’m not posting there anymore. I’ll rely on the plethora of SD food bloggers to keep me informed on the new and exciting stuff) but we still enjoy it. It’s an excuse to go try a new restaurant and sample (hopefully) good food. And it’s usually a pretty good deal when you look at all the food you get.

Avenue 5 gave us a great meal and I’m glad I decided to give them a try. My only complaint (and it’s one I’ve run into before during SDRW) is that some of the SDRW menu items aren’t available on the regular menu. I understand that a lot of San Diego menus are becoming seasonal and change frequently, but it is a little disappointing to find an outstanding dish during SDRW and not know if you can order it again. But, I’m glad to know that they’re willing to recreate it (or something similar) if I give them enough notice. I like restaurants that are willing to work with their customers to make them happy. If you’re thinking of dining out next week, SDRW gets my stamp of approval. And, if you like a good gnocchi dish, I can’t recommend the SDRW menu at Avenue 5 enough.

Avenue 5 Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Sab E Lee 2

After hearing an awful lot about Sab E Lee and Sab E Lee 2, we finally made it to the Santee location.  We didn’t take any pictures, and we were only able to get through a few dishes, but there are many, many posts out there for further information.

We used all those posts as inspiration (actually, more like a guide) to what to order.  So, we started with Kra Throng Tong, little cups of chicken and veggies and spices, topped with a cucumber vinegar sauce.  There were 8, perfect for splitting amongst 4 people (which is what we had).  I thought they were good with or without the sauce and it was a nice start to our meal.

Travis’ barometer for Thai food is Tom Kha Ga, the coconut milk based one.  Some of us are spice wimps, so I think we went with a Level 2 on the soup, with extra chiles on the side for Cami.  I’m no connoisseur of soup, so I can only tell you that it was tasty, not too salty, not too spicy, and full of chicken and mushrooms.

Then we moved on to the Spicy Raw Beef, which is slightly different from Nahm Tok (which is different from Beef Salad?) but very, very good.  And spicy.  We were told that the lowest they could possibly make the dish would be a 6 or 7, which I kind of understand since it is called Spicy Raw Beef, so we went with a 6.  I love the lime juice and chile flavors, the crunch of the rice powder, the coolness of the onions and lettuce… but this dish was so spicy I wanted to cry after a few bites.  Like, it made my tongue hurt.  Even worse, I still wanted to eat more!  I ended up finishing what I had on my plate, eating lots of rice, drinking water, and then moving on to the Pinecone Halibut (which was temperature-hot and made my already-damaged tongue hurt) until I recovered.  Then I would get a bit of rice, load it with a piece of beef, and eat it.  One bite at a time.

I’ve since learned that the Thai Beef Salad at the place near our house is a decent substitute for when we don’t want to drive (oh-so-far!) to Santee.  It’s seared beef, still rare in the middle, sliced thinly, but it has the same lime-chile-tastiness that I crave from the Spicy Raw Beef.  Oh, and they let us order it at a 4, which is still spicy, but bearable.  I have no idea if it’s a Beef Salad or Nahm Tok, but it’s tasty, which is good enough for me.

The Pinecone Halibut was fried fish with a sweetish vinegar sauce.  Crispy on the outside, still moist fish inside, and a nice break from the spicy dishes.

We finished with sticky rice and mangoes and the fried bananas, which were coated in fried coconut.  Have you ever had fried coconut?  It’s crispy and crunchy with coconut undertones and it’s addictive to munch on.

So, I’ve learned that it’s quite rewarding to branch out and order things off the menu that you normally don’t order (I usually end up with pad thai or a curry from the lunch specials).  I also learned that while I think I can handle crazy-spicy dishes, I really can’t and a 6 is way more than I can enjoy.  I can do a 4… maybe on certain dishes a 5 would be tolerable, but for now I think we’ll go with 4 or lower.  I don’t like my mouth mad at me during dinner because I’ve abused it with chiles.

Sab-E-Lee on Urbanspoon

Food 4 Kids Fundraising

Help the Food 4 Kids program reach its goal!  Every donation enters you into a raffle for some great prizes!  I’m donating a signed copy of The New Portuguese Table.  If you want a real-life sneak peek, look at what we made for our dinner party.