World Dinner Club

World Dinner Club
World Dinner Club

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Where does great chocolate come from?

Quick. Think for a second about where great chocolate comes from?  You probably thought to yourself “Belgium” or “Switzerland.” These places produce enviable chocolate, but they couldn’t be farther from chocolate’s origins.  Chocolate, as many people know, hails from Latin America.  It was a common food of the Mayans and Aztecs and even used as a currency. Of course, foods like Mexican hot chocolate (a hot chocolate drink made with cinnamon and/or chili powder) hark back to the ancient origins of cacao. Yet, for the most part, chocolate seems estranged from its pre-Colombian roots. Can chocolate be elevated to an art form and still express its Mesoamerican heritage?

Arcelia Gallardo is doing just this from her store Casa des Chocolates in Berkeley, CA. We stopped by her store last Sunday. As you enter through the front door, the intoxicating aroma of spices and melted cacao hits you.  Beautiful boxes of truffles and wrapped bars with flavors from Peruvian espresso to cinnamon are on a center display. Approaching the glass case, one is quickly impressed by the range of different bonbons (chocolates with filling).

Arcelia’s mission is to express the heritage of chocolate through special ingredients and fillings while presenting them in an artful and creative way.  Certainly, chocolate combinations like mole or chipotle caramel highlight the essence of this chocolate. We were impressed by the richness and dense quality of the truffles and the complex spiciness of the Mexican hot chocolate that came in the shape of a Mexican day of the dead image (right). 

Also delicious, was the tres leches cake, which is soaked in three milks and cinnamon. If you are in the Bay Area, you can find Casa des Chocolates near the corner of Ashby and College Avenue in Berkeley or order online.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

"Wisdom of the Crowds" or Follies of "Conventional Wisdom?"

In between appointments yesterday, I stopped for lunch at King of Thai Noodle House near Union Square in San Francisco.  A sign outside proudly declares that this is "the first authentic Thai Noodle House in the US." Thousands must pass this restaurant everyday and the place looked moderately busy.

What the popularity of a restaurant seems to usually indicate is that the food is not bad and sometimes that it is in fact good.  Location, local tastes, lunch specials, etc. all play a role in determining if a restaurant is actually going to be popular.  Food is just one element after all.

Eager to try something new in the area, I grabbed a seat at the lunch counter against the wall and took a cursory look through the menu. When someone appeared  to take my order I asked if stir-fried or soup noodles were most popular.  I was surprised to learn that stir fried noodles were most popular here, despite the store's signs featuring a bowl of soup noodles.  She went on to explain that the most most popular dish was [gasp] pad thai!

What does this little experiment show?  That economist Tyler Cowen is probably right in this respect about ordering Thai in restaurants.  He says "It is so easy to make the food too sweet, appealing to lowest-common-denominator tastes or masking deficiencies in the food’s preparation."

You  have to know when the conventional wisdom is wrong. When people are determining the "best food," it usually is wrong. The so-called wisdom of the crowds, I find here, guides you to the mean or simply put: what's mediocre.

Instead, I looked for something different and contrarian. I ordered the stewed duck soup.  It was epic.  Rich and unctuous, it was almost like a mushroom broth, but with with a tender duck's leg inside. It was way more satisfying than a run of the mill tom yum or pho soup that you might compare it to and now I have discovered the wonders of duck broth! A slight bit of fish sauce and red chili sauce and it was perfect.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Do not adjust your set.. relish is meant to be this green

I'm normally a fan of New York style hot dogs.. onions, mustard, saurkraut, etc.  But this was a fun discovery! 

I tried the "Wrigley Park" dog from Moishe's Pippic Chicago Deli on Hayes Street , here in San Francisco. Look at that freakishly green relish and those peppers and pickles!  Truly, I have found an authentic Windy City hot dog in the City by the Bay!
The matzo ball soup from this deli is also very good. A perfect soup for SF summers with our cold evenings! The owner is a real gentlemen who takes great care of his customers. Interestingly, Joe, the owner, isn't from the Windy City... he's from Rio! 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Argentine Odyssey: "¡Hola Chicos!"

Argentine Odyssey: "¡Hola Chicos!"

Coming to or going from our hotel, we were met with the enthusiastic greeting “¡hola chicos!” or “hi guys!” from Patricia, the ever-cheerful lady at the front desk. 

In Ushuaia we were excited to find ourselves on the coast and near to plentiful seafood. We found a charming and quaint restaurant called Tia Elvira that had an odd collection of bric-a-brac and collectibles like old prisoners shackles, guns and souvenirs from Australia and America.  Looking around the room we saw many patrons digging into large spiny bodies of king crab, which is native to the icy waters here. We decided we were ready for a hot meal and got king crab Provencal; a rich dish of parsley, garlic, paprika, and olive oil that was flavorful without overwhelming the sweet and meaty crab legs. It was sweeter than Alaska king crab and meatier than Dungeness crabs.  Scallops are also native here.   We ordered a steamy dish of small scallops in garlic and olive oil that we mopped up with bread and dunked with French fries. All this was washed down with a lovely bottle of torrontes from Salta. 

Hiking during the day in Tierra del Fuego park where it seemed to rain on and off, our outfitter treated us to a hot meal of piccados (snacks) and chicken stew. This was a nice treat and, with a glass of wine. Good preparation for back out into the rain. We canoed for another hour or two, before leaving the park. Our hard work of paddling was rewarded later at a bar with light crispy and perfectly fried rabas or squid and tall draft of local Beagle beer.

The next day we went out on a boat through the Beagle Channel, which turned out to be extremely cold and very rough waters.  However we did manage to see cormorants, fur seals, and sea lions.

For dinner we went to the sublime Kaupe for exquisite seafood. Elegant king crab crepes in saffron sauce were brought to the table for us to share.  For our main course, we enjoyed sea bass in capers and black pepper butter that simply melted in our mouths as well as octopus grilled with potatoes that were lightly draped in cream. For dessert we ate impossibly light crepes, filled with intensely rich, creamy dulche de leche with a touch of cognac to produce a simple and yet refined finale.

We walked back to our hotel, drenched from the rain, but our spirits lifted when we came through the front door to the perky and warm welcome of "¡hola chicos!"