Saturday, 30 March 2013

Where to Eat (and Drink) in Berkeley

After nearly two weeks of eating mostly vegetarian meals while on the recent University of Exeter field course to California, I was more than ready to indulge in some red meat last week when I rolled in to Berkeley with my colleague Caitlin (yes, we have the same name; we're also both American expats and we both have brown hair, among other similarities). We parked on Cedar Street with plans to stroll along restaurant-heavy Shattuck Street until we encountered a venue to our liking, but before we even got to the intersection of the two roads, our attention was captured by signs for Barney's Gourmet Hamburgers.

Barney's, as we discovered once we entered the restaurant, is a local-ish chain that first opened in 1978 and has since won a vast array of burger-oriented awards; one entire wall of the restaurant was plastered with certificates and newspaper clippings associated with its many accolades. Similarly vast was its menu, which listed several dozen specialty burgers, as well as the "plain" Barney's burger that can be tailored to suit any diner's individual tastes.

(Hot air balloons were only one part of the eclectic decor at Barney's)

Since we were in the mood to really let loose, we started off with a plate of spicy curly fries accompanied by Barney's ranch dressing. So unhealthy, and so delicious. These were washed down with one of my all-time favorite drinks: an Arnold Palmer (otherwise known as half-and-half, or half iced tea and half fresh lemonade).

(My Arnold Palmer)

Caitlin opted for a Barney's burger, but I decided to order off the specialty menu and asked for a Baja burger, a beef burger with bacon, avocado, Monterey Jack cheese, and a side of fresh salsa. It was decadent and delicious and huge--so huge that I had to discard the lid halfway through, since I just didn't have enough room for it in my stomach. 

When we left Barney's, I thought I might never want to eat or drink again, but within a couple of hours I was ready to have my regular afternoon cup of tea. Luckily for me, Caitlin's and my next destination (Black Oak Books) was two doors town from a delightful tea shop called Far Leaves Tea. Far Leaves is the type of place I have always wanted to visit, but never had access to. It was clearly established by people who love tea as much as I do--and I love tea a lot. I could happily have sampled dozens of different flavors, but since we only had a limited amount of time on our parking meter, I settled for a single order of Moroccan mint tea.

The thing that made Far Leaves really special was that the server didn't just hand me a prepared cup of tea and send me on my way. Instead, he brought over a tray with all the necessary accoutrements for me to prepare the tea for myself. He placed the kettle on an electric stand that boiled the water for my initial cup, and then periodically re-boiled the water every few minutes afterwards so that it would be ready for me to make whatever follow-up brews I might desire. I know that might not seem desirable to a person who just wants to add a little sugar and leave with a to-go cup, but for someone who loves the drink and everything about the ritual of consuming it, it was a very fun experience.

Berkeley, of course, has a veritable glut of restaurants and cafes, and I'm sure there are many other places where Caitlin and I could also have had fantastic fare; one that I was particularly interested in was Crepevine--partly because I love crepes, and partly because I like witty names. Regardless, I was quite pleased with our choices of Barney's and Far Leaves; they were a tasty way to celebrate our equally delicious freedom from students and the beginning of our spring holiday.

Where to Eat in Dorset: Hix Oyster and Fish House

Sasha and I were recently asked to kick off a series of lectures hosted by the Friends of St. Andrews in the lovely and historic St. Andrews Church in Colyton, Dorset. Neither of us really ever expects a fee for this sort of public gig, but the Friends were kind enough to offer us payment in the form of a meal at the Hix Oyster and Fish House in nearby Lyme Regis. I had never heard of the Hix, but evidently it is one of several restaurants owned and run by Mark Hix, a chef and food writer specializing in British gastronomy.

The Hix is perched on a hillside overlooking the scenic Lyme Regis harbor and coastline, though because Sasha and I ate after sunset, all we could really see was a scattering of lights winking in the distance. Dark though the night was outside the Hix's windows, the restaurant itself was bright and cheery; it was a cozy little place with probably no more than 20 tables, and an upscale but friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

Sasha started by ordering a cocktail, after which he moved on to a perry served in a rustic ceramic mug. Uncharacteristically, Sasha also indulged in a starter: pigeon breast perched atop a thick slice of toasted bread smeared with chicken liver pate. I was surprised that Sasha began with an appetizer, since he is normally a main-course-and-dessert type of guy; I was even more surprised that he ate something involving liver. Although the entire course was a bit of an experiment for him, he ended up enjoying it very much.

Unlike Sasha, I almost always have a starter, though this time I opted not for my standard vegetable-heavy fare, but instead ordered the house smoked salmon and soda bread. That was a bit of a surprising choice for me, as well, given my former opinions on lox and lox-like products. As I have gotten older (or, I should say, as my palate has matured), I have increasingly come to enjoy raw and cured fish--particularly salmon. This version was really tasty, and I could have easily eaten another plateful and called it a night.

Luckily, though, I did try one of the entrees--a curry with sweet potatoes, (regular) potatoes, and pumpkin seeds, all on top of jasmine rice and served with a side of raita. Not anticipating quite how large my serving would be, I also ordered a side salad. Needless to say, I did not make it through all of my food, and I was quite stuffed by the end of the meal. Everything was delicious, however, so I was very content; if I hadn't been en route to the US the very next day, I would have taken my leftovers home and had a delicious lunch of my remaining curry.

Sasha ordered the Lyme Bay scallops with local bacon and greens--one of many meals made predominantly, or even completely, with locally sourced ingredients. We were both impressed by the enormous size of the scallops, though unfortunately a large percentage of each scallop was made up of its coral rather than its meaty core; since neither of us can bear to eat corals, a good bit of food was wasted. That said, it is hard to go wrong with the scallop-and-bacon combo, and Sasha managed to clean his plate of everything but the corals.

Since I couldn't finish my main course, there was no way I could even think about dessert; I did order a small pot of mint tea, though. Sasha, on the other hand, always has room for dessert (a fact that he even has a scientific theory about!), and he ordered the rhubarb cheesecake. It was a pretty little confection and disappeared rather rapidly, which I assume means that it was more than satisfactory.

All in all, it was quite a successful night out--despite the fact that I'd succumbed to motion sickness during our drive down Dorset's picturesque but very windy country lanes. I was grateful to have worn fairly sensible shoes, since the Hix is located in the middle of a slope and can only be reached by walking up from the waterside car park, or walking down from the one at the top of the hill. I only mention this because we saw several high-heeled ladies teetering their way down the path (and one well-prepared woman who walked there in boots but then changed into dress shoes just outside the doorway!); it would not be fun to begin date night with a twisted ankle, so diners should beware.

The restaurant was bustling--even well past 9 PM--so I'm guessing that reservations are a necessity. Sasha and I are very grateful to the Friends of St. Andrews for booking our table and gifting us with the Hix experience. If anyone else wants to make a similar deal, we are definitely willing to trade more lectures for gourmet food!

Where to Eat in Falmouth: Two Ten

To celebrate the publication of our online encyclopedia entry on animal behavior, and to spend the £100 pounds we were given for writing it, Sasha and I, along with our co-author (and Sasha’s former postdoc) Morgan, made our first visit to Two Ten, a restaurant just down the street from our apartment. I pass Two Ten every night on my walk home from work, and I have often wondered what sort of food it serves and whether it is any good, so this outing—which also served as Morgan’s farewell meal—seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore this venue for the first time. 

(Two Ten's subtle exterior)

 (Feeling like Alice going down the rabbit hole...)

Two Ten is a tiny little subterranean place that is easy to miss. The owners have done a nice job hanging signs and menus outside the cheerful blue entryway, but there are so many other businesses along the same stretch of road that Two Ten is still a very subtle presence. Given the lovely views that can be seen from many of Falmouth’s restaurants, you might not feel too enticed by an underground restaurant. However, the off-white walls and simple, elegant décor ensure that you do not feel claustrophobic; in fact, the restaurant has an intimate, exclusive sort of atmosphere. This was especially true when we visited, since we were the only diners all evening.

(The simple but elegant decor of Two Ten)

(Another view of the interior)

(Our artistic cutlery layout)

The staff, who appeared to be a husband and wife team, were extremely friendly and attentive; they provided an appealing menu that offered a variety of flavors and styles. Everything about Two Ten was incredibly promising, but ultimately I think we were all a bit disappointed by our meal. We were not served any food that was bad, but it was all a tad bland and needed some extra little thing to make it really special.

 (My salad)
 (Morgan's mussels)

I opted for a salad, followed by breaded fish; Morgan had mussels and then duck with a molé sauce; Sasha had a steak. I passed on dessert, but Morgan had chocolate truffles and Sasha had chocolate and marshmallow fondue. My salad was generously sized and did have a dressing—which is often not the case at British restaurants—but it could have used a bit more dressing and needed salt and pepper. My fish was moist and tender, but, again, needed salt and pepper to add some oomph and bring out the flavors of the various ingredients in the breading. Sasha felt that his steak could have been more tender and flavorful, though he acknowledges that he ordered a cut of meat that is not always known for being the juiciest and most decadent part of a cow. Both of us were surprised and disappointed by his dessert, which I had been really tempted by myself. The chocolate fondue tasted fine, but it was accompanied by an inadequate number of store-bought marshmallows; I think we both had expected that they would be homemade, and come in a large enough quantity to use up all of the chocolate provided. Morgan never expressed too many opinions either way, but he is French, and so I suspect that no British food quite lives up to his expectations. 

(Sasha's steak)

(My breaded fish)

(Morgan's duck)

One thing that balanced out the lack of flavors was the comparable lack of expense: We barely spent more than our £100 paycheck even though we ordered a bottle of wine, a bottle of sparkling water, a pot of tea, two appetizers, two desserts, and 3 main courses. In Britain, and especially in a tourist town like Falmouth, it is difficult to get that much food in a restaurant that pleasant, for so little money. In order to make that an even better bargain, I hope the chef adds a little spice to his/her dishes (literally!) so that the cuisine is on par with the service and the aesthetics.

(Sasha's marshmallow and chocolate fondue)

 (Morgan's truffles)

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Foodie Penpals Reveal: February

Thursday was Foodie Penpals reveal day for February 2013, but I was so busy that I didn't get a chance to post about my parcel. The busy-ness actually began the month before, when I had to skip Foodie Penpals because I was out of the country for several weeks and wouldn't have a chance to mail or receive any packages. Nobody had any parcels in December, since we all decided to skip the frantic holiday season. In other words, this is my first parcel since November, and it had been so long that I'd almost forgotten how magical it is to come home one day and discover a mysterious box waiting on my doorstep.


This month's parcel was from Rachel, who informed me that she is relatively new to the Foodie Penpals program. Despite her lack of experience with FP parcels, she put a very nice one together for me.

Having picked up on my interest in spices and spicy food, she enclosed a tandoori rub for salmon and some chilli pepper puree--the latter of which might finally help me cook a chilli-pepper-containing meal without rubbing pepper oil in my eyes; I have my fingers crossed.

Another spicy product was a bag of Thai chilli snack mix, which Rachel thought would be both tasty and convenient for eating on the go. I noticed a small hole in the bag of snacks (from an unfortunate incident in our kitchen--not from Rachel's packing!) and, of course, had to reach through it in order to have a quick taste. Well, it wasn't long before the entire bag was gone; the photo below actually features empty packaging! I'm hoping I'll be able to find some more around here. Harder to replace will be the Lancashire crisps that were made near Rachel's home. I managed to wait at least a week before eating these--as part of a packed lunch during a field trip, to be exact.

Rachel also sent a box of Yogi Tea's "Women's Tea" blend. The funny thing about this was that I had considered buying the same thing for my own foodie penpal a couple weeks earlier; however, my shopping bag was already so full that I just didn't think I had the space. I've never tried it myself and am looking forward to seeing what it tastes like. I really love Yogi teas--to the extent that I recently earned a free mug for having bought so many boxes of their brews! Lately I have been trying to drink more herbal tea and less black tea, in the interests of weaning myself off the ridiculous amount of caffeine I consume each day; I think this will be a good addition to my selection of flavors. Rachel also included a sleeve of currant Shrewsbury biscuits to accompany my warm beverages.

All of the package's components were explained in a lovely handwritten note with a Valentine's Day-themed pink border, and Rachel even enclosed a little heart in acknowledgment of the holiday. Thanks to Rachel for her very thoughtful (and successful!) parcel.

Updates on previous packages: I've recently been making an effort to work my way through some of the previous FP food items that have started piling up over the past few months. A couple of weeks ago, I managed to drop and break an entire jar of ground nutmeg, but luckily I was able to use the whole nutmegs that Kylie sent in October. Kylie also mailed some cardamom pods, which I recently used to make chai latte from scratch. Last week I stir-fried chicken and vegetables using the Dutch nasi goreng mix mailed by Kim back in August. My husband and I really enjoyed it--both the first time around and as leftovers. My other Dutch penpal, Marjolein, mailed some rooibos strawberries-and-cream tea, which I have been enjoying tremendously over the last couple of weeks. The only drawback is that I can't seem to find anywhere in the UK that sells a similar I guess I'll have to visit Holland sometime in the near future!