The Hoppy Okapi

A 2012 Pacific Crest Trail Adventure

Wandering through North Park August 27, 2008

Having recently moved to the Little Italy neighborhood of San Diego, you would think I would regularly visit new restaurants there, within walking distance, where I could stop by Pappalecco for some gelato afterward on my way home. Once in a while, this actually happens; but so often, North Park beckons with tales of bakeries and restaurants and bars so fabulous that they must be visited over and over again. I’ve mentioned the Linkery before, and Sea Rocket Bistro; and I’ve yelped about Ritual Tavern but been sadly remiss in blogging about it. In the past few weeks though, I’ve had a chance to try three more excellent North Park establishments – Eclipse Chocolat, Urban Solace, and Toronado.

I’d been reading the Eclipse blog for a few months, salivating over descriptions of sooo many kinds of Crème Fraîche cupcakes and tempting truffles, so when I finally made it to the shop, I really stocked up!

I got 2 each of five different truffle flavors, so Chuck and I could each try them all, plus three cupcakes we shared – this decadent selection provided us with desert for a good five days! The truffles included blackberry goat cheese (creamy chocolate chevre interior, chewy intense blackberry topping), double coconut milk caramel, salted coconut milk caramel, lavender sea-salted caramel (my favorite!), and caramel pecan. Can you tell I’m partial to caramel? The coconut milk truffles are actually vegan, which is an interesting piece of trivia, but the true genius of them is, of course, the rich coconut creaminess enrobed in the chocolate exterior. It’s like the chocolate version of coconut fried chicken, except inside out. Good analogy, I know.

The cupcakes I selected were Kentucky Bourbon Caramel and Marshmallow Almond, and I think that one in the middle was Butterscotch Rum. These were quite good as well – even though I’m more partial to the melt-in-your-mouth truffles, I’ll definitely be trying more Eclipse cupcakes in the future. The Kentucky Bourbon Caramel was my favorite of the three, for the richness of the caramel/bourbon/pecan combination, but the Marshmallow Almond was the most unique – I was expecting a marshmallow-creme-like texture in the filling, but there was a true, solid, chewy marshmallow in the middle of my cupcake. What an intriguing texture combination!

We went to Urban Solace for a weeknight dinner, having been lured by tales of macaroni and cheese, one of Chuck’s favorite restaurant barometers. Despite construction outside that made the restaurant a little difficult to get to, I was impressed by Urban Solace from the start – it had a very welcoming and atmosphere, with a good buzz of energy, but wasn’t overly loud. We settled in with some beers (Bear Republic Black Bear stout for me), and started dissecting the menu – how to choose when everything sounds so good? In the end, we settled on goat cheese and butternut squash dip for an appetizer: I was a little bit skeptical about this combination, but the execution was brilliant – the goat cheese added a rich creaminess to balance out the sweetness of the squash, and all was well with the world.

For dinner, I ordered the “Not Your Momma’s Meatloaf”, which was simply unbelievably good. It was made from ground lamb, with figs and pinenuts, and a fig au jus sauce, and served with crispy onions and mashed potatoes. (Also, it was wrapped in bacon, just in case the ground lamb didn’t provide a rich enough flavor!) This was easily the best meatloaf I’ve ever eaten, so good that I may have trouble ordering anything else on the menu because I know I’ll be missing the meatloaf. In the background of the picture, you can see Chuck’s chicken-and-dumpling dinner, and a side of the rich and creamy mac n’ cheese, which did live up to its hype. So Urban Solace has been given a place in our official North Park restaurant rotation.

Most recently (yesterday!) we made our first visit to Toronado, the San Diego version of a well known San Francisco beer bar that opened earlier this year. Toronado is very straightforward – it’s all about the beer, with a small menu of sausages and sandwiches for noshing. The variety of beers on tap is truly impressive, and the bottle list was far more extensive than the version they have online, but I knew exactly what I wanted the second I saw it – Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout!

photo from ratebeer.com

This is the first time I’ve come across this beer in the wild (after months of searching!), and I’m happy to say that it didn’t disappoint. It was very dark with a strong coffee aroma that conveyed well into the flavor. Hooray for a beer worthy of its cuteness :)  For dinner I had a jalapeno cheddar sausage on baguette, with grilled onions and peppers, with a side of potato salad (topped with chives and bacon) – so simple, and very tasty. Chuck had their Reuben, and we both agree that it was excellent, second only to the legendary Reuben Tuesdays of the Linkery.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s better that we don’t live within walking distance of North Park – we might never cook again!

 

It’s Alive! Or, a Serendipitous Encounter with Uni August 3, 2008

Last week, Chuck and I finally made it to the Sea Rocket Bistro, the restaurant in the space formerly occupied  by the Linkery. In grand Linkery tradition, the focus is on fresh and local food, by Sea Rocket Bistro has (can you guess?) an emphasis on seafood.

The restaurant was about half full when we arrived, and got steadily busier as the evening wore on. The folks at Sea Rocket have maintained the intimate atmosphere from the Linkery days, and have added a fun twist with great pictures of their food suppliers – farms, fisheries, the South Bay saltworks.

As we were seated, they told us that live Sea Urchin was on the menu that night, having just come in from from the ocean an hour before. I have been curious to try uni since learning about its existence (from vintage Japanese-dubbed Iron Chef episodes, of course!), but I wasn’t quite sure about the “live” part of the equation – maybe just the sea urchin bisque to ease into sea urchin consumption – doesn’t that sound reasonable? But, Chuck and our server colluded to convince me to give the Live Sea Urchin a shot. Chuck made the excellent point that this sea urchin was probably the most fresh sea urchin I would ever have a chance to try (right! because it’s alive!), and so I was on my way to sampling quite possibly the most adventurous thing I’ve ever eaten.

It's alive!

It's alive!

So my sea urchin arrived on a white pedestal; it was about four inches in diameter with 2-3 inch spikes all around. We had slightly more than half the shell remaining – the urchin had been cracked open, and the inedible bits scooped out, leaving us with the golden-orange roe to scrape from the shell with spoons. Did I mention that the tentacles were still moving? I think that’s what they mean by “live”. Creepier – far, far creepier – than boiling your lobster alive (and hearing it scream and clamour against the kettle), is a sea urchin with wavering tentacles, from whose sundered shell you are scooping out organs for gastronmoic pleasure.

Ok, enough about the creepy moving tentacles of my live sea urchin dinner companion, let’s talk about the experience of actually eating it. There wasn’t really much of a scent to the sea urchin (probably a good thing, since typically fishy smell = bad flavor for seafood, so I had to dig in (literally!) and taste it. What I learned? Sea urchin tastes like The Ocean. It tastes like the first time you smell the ocean at the beginning of a seashore vacation, with the promise of a perfect sun-filled week ahead of you. It was salty and fresh, but the saltiness was more the idea of salt than actual saltiness – alomst overwhelming and yet somehow phantom, in the way that drinking strong rose tea is like tasting the scent of roses. The texture wasn’t as firm as some of the pictures that I’ve seen of uni in sushi – it was a little bit closer to the texture of just undercooked scrambled eggs. Eating the sea urchin did remind me a lot of eating caviar, and I felt like the experience could have been enhanced by having a crispy dark (pumpernickel, maybe?) cracker to provide a texture contrast to the uni.

The sea urchin, by the way, was still waving its tentacles at us when we finished. Did I mention the creepiness factor? (Yes! but if it wasn’t so creepy, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun to write about.) So how do I feel about Sea Urchin after the experience? I’m not sure I’d eat it live again (although if it were a different species of sea urchin, or something I were actually catching myself fresh from the ocean, i probably would…), but I’ve definitely overcome the sea urchin barrier and am interested in trying it in different preparations. Really – it tastes like The Ocean!

In case you’re still reading, and wondering what else I had for dinner at Sea Rocket Bistro, I bring you fish cakes in cucumber-yogurt sauce:

These were good, with big flakes of fish (no hiding behind breadcrumbs in these fish cakes!); the sauces and parsley added good flavor to complement the fish. The fish cakes themselves could have been a bit more moist, but the sauces made that less of an issue.

For dessert, Chuck and I shared the Peach/Rhubarb Empanada.

This had tender fruit with just a touch of sweetness; like everything else we sampled, it was a simple preparation with fresh ingredients, and really let the ingredients shine through. The pastry was on the soft side (probably an all-butter pastry? I would try to make it a little flakier…but then, I’ve never met a pastry dough I didn’t want to tweak. Perfect pastry dough is my neverending quest).

Oh, also? I recommend the passionfruit wine – I think it was from San Pasqual winery. Sea Rocket Bistro has a solid beer menu featuring local beers (a big selection from Lightning Brewery when we visited), but most of the available beers were a little on the light side for my taste (I will admit that my preferred crazy strong beers probably don’t pair with seafood as well as the selection they have, but I might as well take advantage of the mismatch by sampling new wines instead, right?).

Now that I’ve conquered the Sea Urchin, I need to go back for the grilled sardines!

That sea urchin is probably still twitching somewhere…

 

Road Trip! May 7, 2008

So much fun, so little time to blog about it! I have about two weeks of blogging to catch up on, but I’ll start with the most recent and work backwards…

Sunday afternoon, we made a quick trip to Santa Monica, as we do every few months, in pursuit of must-see live music. As-yet-unwritten posts to the contrary, sometimes San Diego is passed up by the live music scene and one must venture north to LA. When this happens, tradition is to combine a favorite restaurant of yore and the desired concert in a half-day road trip, as if we’re just casually venturing into the city from 100 miles away. And so, we set off from San Diego at about 2pm Sunday afternoon, caught an uncharacteristic wave of good traffic, and hit destination one at just after 4pm:

Cha Cha Chicken! Glorious bastion of jerk chicken located on at the corner of Pico Blvd and Ocean Ave in Santa Monica. I first visited Cha Cha Chicken while working in Santa Monica about eight years ago, and I take advantage of every possible opportunity to go back. Their jerk sauce is the standard by which I judge all others – including the ones we make ourselves – and the others invariably come up short. My habitual fare here is the enchilada dish, and Chuck’s is the quarter chicken, though we have also tried (and then tried to recreate) the coconut fried chicken. On Sunday I had the jerk combo: one jerk chicken enchilada and one jerk chicken tostada, with rice and beans and plantains, and ginger beer (Jamaican style, imported from Canada, and tasty!). Check out the numiliciousness:

After basking in the sweet and spicy Caribbean goodness, we headed on to the nightcap: the Girlyman concert at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. Girlyman has been one of my favorite bands since the first time I saw them, opening for Dar Williams at the House of Blues in SD a few years ago. I was enthralled by their beautiful harmonies, their on-stage sense of humor, and by how much fun they seemed to be having performing together. There’s something really amazing about finding great new bands by watching a live performance, and when there’s so much fun and love for the music and the performing, it’s practically magical. This is how I became a hardcore fan of Girlyman…well, that PLUS it’s really fun to sing along to their CDs in my car, and try to hit all the high notes along with Doris (I swear I used to be able to hit them all, ummm, in high school…but it’s still fun to try!).

Anyway – the concert on Sunday! We were actually to McCabe’s early enough that we were first in line at the door, so we got to sit in the front row, ultra close to the band. (And also, it turns out that our tickets were numbered one and two, which proves that I am ultra-quick on the draw when it comes to ticket purchasing…granted, I had been waiting for the LA concert to be announced for about three months, but still!) So..first row seats, concert venue that sells chocolate chip cookies (it was the second concert with cookies in four days, and I have decided that’s the best kind of concert, as it implies a certain homey intimacy), and my favoritest band in the universe – all the makings of a brilliant evening! There was no opening act – good, because we got right to the best band ever; bad, because who knows what kind of excellent opening act we may have missed out on; good, because we got to drive home that much earlier and not get too sleepy on the drive home. It was a great show (as were the other two I have been to!), full of fun commentary and great songs. They played Kittery Tide – my favorite Girlyman song – plus Viola, Young James Dean, Through to Sunrise, and many other great songs off their albums, PLUS a couple of new songs and Rock Me Amadeus and Moose in the Road, plus some fun facts about George Washington’s dentures. Good times were had by all!

 

Eating my way through Little Italy… April 20, 2008

The quest to sample all the restaurants in our new neighborhood officially began last week with dinner at Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, with pizza and beer in a classic “fear-the-falling-Chianti-bottles” setting. Since we’d been to several (three?) of the other Filippi’s locations around San Diego, that was more of a known (and longed-for) experience. This week we started the true exploration with a visit to Mimmo’s Italian Village on Thursday evening. The weather was mild and the outdoor patio was full, so we headed inside and found ourselves feeling like we’d stepped into a Disneyland ride. (Really…even though it was a replica Italian village, I found myself singing “Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me” for the first 10 minutes.)

I started dinner with a cup of Lobster Bisque, which turned out to be a pleasing orange-cream color. The soup was savory and just creamy enough without being too heavy, although the chunks of lobster were a bit chewy and I was wishing for a shot of sherry to add an extra sweetness. The true revelation of the evening was the Linguini Pomodoro – so simple, and yet so brilliant, the pasta perfectly cooked, the goat cheese adding creaminess and tartness, a dose of salt from the kalamata olives, and absolutely glorious fresh tomato flavor. It’s going to be hard to eat my way through Little Italy if all I ever want to eat is this linguini pomodoro…

 

Goodbye, SmartCorner! April 13, 2008

Filed under: restaurants,San Diego — Amanda @ 21:46
Tags: , , ,

Moving week! The dishes and cookware were all packed, so we finally hit a couple of the neighborhood joints, just in time to know if we’d be sad to be leaving them. First up, Gen Lai Sen, the self-proclaimed “Best Chinese Restaurant” in San Diego:

We’d been watching the restaurant from our balcony across the street for 4 months, and often saw buses and vans full of people stop there to eat- that many people couldn’t be wrong, right?

Our dinner: Orange Chicken, Pork Fried Rice, Fried Wontons

Overall, my Gen Lai Sen experience was pleasant but not earth-moving. The crispy goodness of fried wontons is always welcome on my plate, the pork in the fried rice was plentiful but a bit too tough, and the orange chicken had good flavor that was nicely offset by the mild bite of the onions. It was a decent meal and could be an option for dinner on a lazy weeknight. I do wonder if ordering something more exotic/authentic would have resulted in my agreement with its best-in-town claims, but I don’t quite wonder it enough to make the trip across town with this destination in mind.

Next up: La Casita!

A cute little Mexican restaurant located in a blue house right behind Gen Lai Sen, La Casita has a little courtyard in addition to the indoor seating, but difficult hours: M-F, 6am-4pm only, so we made a moving-day breakfast out of this one on Friday.

The grub: Breakfast Burritos with eggs, bacon, potatoes, and cheese.

Sadly, the verdict on La Casita was similar to Gen Lai Sen – it made a good meal, but won’t be added to my list of favorites (on the other hand, if it HAD been brilliant, I would be mourning all of the lost breakfast burrito opportunities of the past four months, but it’s always good to have a go-to Mexican place, and I so wanted to love it). The burrito was tasty, but just a bit off from my preferences in a few ways: most significantly, the tortilla was extremely chewy, and I am a big big fan of the flaky flour tortilla (Cotijas, Lucio’s #3, Cuatro Milpas), and the tortilla flavor/texture accounts for about 40% in my personal burrito evaluation scheme; second, the filling ratio was too skewed toward potato, not enough toward egg/bacon, making it a little bland and even more chewy; third, and least critical, was the hot sauce – it was a tasty one, but had strong roasted-chile flavor, while my breakfast burrito preference is for the crisper finish of more vinegary sauces. I like the roasted chile flavor with fish tacos and beef, but not so much for other dishes.

Also, La Casita did not have Horchata at the ready when I visited, and so I was sad.

Coming soon – adventures in cooking (the kitchen is almost unpacked – yay!) and finding the best restaurants in Little Italy.

 

 
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