B&B Ristorante at the Venetian

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You know you’re in Vegas when Mario Batali is more powerful than Caesar himself. Seriously, look at this! You turn a corner and there he is, waiting for you, with a pair of his orange Crocs!

Good thing that all his restaurants are pretty legit; otherwise Maya and I would be picking up an overpriced Chinese food at a food court at some sorry mall. And this place lived up to the reputation of Babbo of the West.

Appetizers: Complimentary chickpeas on toast, Warm Lamb’s Tongue, and Grilled Octopus.

Main Course: Seafood pasta and roasted Brussel sprouts

Dessert:  Spiced Almond “Tronchetto”and I forgot the name of the other one 😛

B&B Ristorante
At the Venetian

My Favorite NYC Moments #2: Lunch at Babbo

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Time to check off an item from my culinary bucket list – I finally made it to Mario Batali’s Babbo Ristorante in Greenwich Village. Yipeee!

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When we arrived at the restaurant at 11:00 a.m., right at my reserved time, the restaurant was still closed. Strange, I thought. How could a restaurant be closed when I, in fact, made a reservation for that time slot more than a month ago? When the door finally opened 30 minutes later, I went to check in, only to find that my name was nowhere to be found. After a few tries, the hostess figured out that my reservation was not for 11:00 a.m. but was for 11:00 P.Meek Only in NYC that people actually make dinner reservation so late.

Luckily, she was able to seat us right away!  Phew!

The restaurant was everything I’d expected this place would be — a professional service, attentive servers, and absolutely delicious food and wine.

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Complimentary chick pea appetizer.

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My appetizer: Crostini Napoletani with Ricotta, Sardines and Dandelion Greens

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Maya’s appetizer: Mozzarella di Bufala with Babbo Coppa

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I ordered Pappardelle Bolognese.

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Maya ordered Soft Shell Crab on a bed of couscous.

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We shared a plate Babbo Greens with Roasted Shallots — a much needed vegetables!

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Pistachio and Chocolate Semifreddo for dessert.

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Maya enjoyed a glass of port (Pedro Ximenez) that she absolutely loved, and I couldn’t get over all the sugar options that came with my cup of coffee.

Here’s the full list of my top 10 moments:

  1. Dinner at Villard Michel Richard
  2. Lunch at Babbo
  3. Picnic at Central Park
  4. Serendipity 3
  5. Lunch at Balthazar
  6. Grand Central Oyster Bar
  7. Gahm Mi Oak
  8. Dominique Ansel Bakery
  9. La Vie at JFK
  10. Bryant Park at night

Puck Time with Kings and Wolfgang

Frozen FuryRight after I landed in Los Angeles from Atlanta, I hopped onto my boyfriend’s truck and headed to Las Vegas to watch my boys play in the annual Frozen Fury, a pre-season game that promises the exciting new season ahead. I didn’t even bother unpacking my luggage. I just tossed clothes in a washer and dryer and put them back in, some even unfolded!

Boy, has Las Vegas changed tremendously in the past 10 to 15 years or so. I remember going to the Sin City as a kid and the only things to do there were to hang out and play cheesy arcade games at Circus Circus and eat nasty $3 buffet. Now, the city has become the international entertainment and culinary mecca with endless rows of world-class shops and restaurants – the change I most certainly welcome.

With that said, please make all the fun you want at the fact that the first place we ended up was Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill (I know, I’ll wait until you finish laughing). In our defense, the only reason why we ended up at this gastronomic cliché was because the hotel room wasn’t ready for check-in, and we had a $50 credit going toward our meal at MGM Grand … or so we thought. We didn’t find out until we finished our appetizer, our main course, and two drinks, that this was one of the ONLY restaurants in the hotel that did not honor the discount! In one sitting, we had burn through almost half of our weekend food budget  …. and it wasn’t even dinner!

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The saving grace was that the food here was surprisingly very, very delicious. We ordered the heirloom tomato and burrata salad to start, which turned out to be (dare I say it?) mind-blowing! I love Caprese salad and order it at every opportunity I get and this one felt extra special because this was probably going to be one of the last times I get to enjoy these special tomatoes this season. Also, the balsamic reduction and tiny dollops of pesto puree that accompanied the tomatoes hit the dish out of the rink. The sprinkle of halved cherry tomatoes, sliced onions and pieces of roasted artichoke gave this salad a delicious edge.

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Now, with the pasta dishes. My boyfriend ordered the linguini with clams and pancetta, which was, although drained in a sea of butter and oil, nicely salty and flavorful.

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In contract, my spaghetti with tomato and basil with a basil smear was light and refreshing. I’ve never been a fan of fresh pasta because I love my pasta el dente and the homemade type gave the mushy, watery consistency. This pasta, however, was still very firm and bouncy. The consistency reminded me a little of undercooked instant ramen noodle but I mean this is a most respectable way.

The bill came out to whopping $90 but oh well, this is Vegas afterall. We need to take a gamble sometime. You walk away a winner one day and a loser the other. In our case, I think we got the long end of the stick.  (And by the way, the Kings beat the Avs in a high-scoring, outrageously entertaining game, 4-3!) 🙂

Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill
MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, Nevada 89109
★★★★☆

Silly Putty for Grown-Ups: Homemade Potato Gnocchi

gnicchi-013I loved playing with Silly Putty and Play-Doh growing up — kneading, rolling and forming those colorful bouncy doughs into strange, obscure shapes. I then moved up to fiddling with Fimo clay as a teenager, turning those polyester clays into jewelry pieces. I guess I never got over the love for mushing and mixing things, which explains why I am, now in my 30s, obsessed with the art of cooking and baking.

I also love performing mindless, repetitive tasks (MRT) alas chopping vegetables, knitting, and even running (afterall, running is just putting one foot in front of the other over and over and over again, isn’t it?). I find these activities that allow me to submerge into my own little world where nothing negative exists very therapeutic (until, of course, you cut your finger with a knife, or tangle the ball of yarn, or bonk… then it’s a whole different story).

After weeks of travel, I really missed doing something creative and my body desperately wanted to “create” and “make” something with my own two hands. After strolling down the aisles at Trader’s Joe’s for inspiration, I decided on making potato gnocchi for dinner which seemed liked a perfect combination of my favorite childhood activity and a much-needed MRT.

I searched online for some good gnocchi recipes, but all the ones I found served 10 or more, which was way too much, so I jot down the main ingredients (boiled potatoes, flour and eggs) and decided to improvize – a gutsy move, I know, for my first attempt in making these little Italian dumplings.

Potato Gnocchi (serves 4)
(Disclaimer: As in all recipes on this site, this is not really an instruction on how to make gnocchi. I don’t know what the heck I’m doing here. It’s merely a recount of my experience so please, use with caution.)

4 large Russet potatoes
1 cup flour (and more for dusting)
1 egg
1 pinch salt

① Boil potatoes until fork tender. Peel the skin while hot, and run them through the food mill. I didn’t have the food mill so I just mashed the potatoes with a fork and ran them through one of those vegetable colanders. Ghetto, I know, but it worked!

② Place the mashed potatoes onto a floured wooden cutting board (or any work surface). Make a well in the middle and pour flour and egg.

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③ Mix the flour and egg together. Once mixed, incorporate the mixture with the mashed potatoes.

④ Knead well for about 5 minutes until all the ingredients are well incorporated.

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⑤ Many “proper” recipes require you to roll the mixture into a log and cut the pieces off with a knife, but I just picked a small amount directly from the potato dough and rolled it in my hands to form a little, edible piece.

⑥ Put a little dent in the center of the dumplings by pressing a fork onto each piece. This step may sound boring but it’s worth it in the end, when you’re able to scoop the delicious sauce! Place each dumpling on a floured baking pan until ready to cook.

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⑦ Cook the gnocchi in boiling water, just as you would with pasta. When the pieces float to the top (about a minute or so, depending on the size), remove them from hot water, and move them into a bowl of ice-cold water to “shock” them. This stops the cooking process immediately, preventing them from getting soft and mushy.

⑧ Toss them in olive oil until ready to cook.

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After debating how I should prepare the gnocchi, I decided to go with my quick, easy, fool-proof pink sauce recipe (it’s like the vodka sauce but with no vodka).

Pink Sauce (serves 4)

1/2 pint of Half and Half (add more, depending on how thick you want the sauce to be)
2 cups of uncooked spinach
1 large onion
3 cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons of tomato paste
2 twigs of rosemary
3 twigs of thyme
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

① Sautee chopped garlic and onion with olive oil on low heat, until they are clear and tender. Add finely chopped rosemary and thyme. (The kitchen would be smelling absolutely divine at this point!)

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② Turn up the heat to medium, add spinach and cook until wilted and tender.

③ Pour the half and half and whisk in the tomato paste, making sure that the paste is well incorporated into the liquid. Add salt and pepper to taste.

④ Add the cooked gnocchi and toss, and make sure to be careful when tossing, as you don’t want to break any dumplings.

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The dish came out fairly well, much better than I expected for a first timer. The texture of gnocchi was perfect — not too flour-y, not too starchy. I served the dish with a simple salad of mixed greens, cherry tomatoes and prosciutto ham, and a glass of Chianti.

I’m happy to be home and back making a mess in my playground (aka the kitchen) 🙂

Hungry Gal in Brazil: Andiamo Ristorante

store-frontHello from Brazil!

After 14 hours of flight, plus the two-hour layover in Miami, I arrived to Sao Paulo safely. The flight was surprising pleasant with no delays or unnecessary troubles that often accompany international travels. The service provided by the American Airlines flight attendants — a mixture of both U.S.- and Brazil-based crew — was superb, an adjective not often associated with airline services but quite appropriate for my experience this time. Dinner (a cardboard meat with a side of rubbery mashed potatoes and defrosted, watery vegetables) and breakfast (piping hot croissant what quickly became hard, from the galley oven, accompanied by a cup of yogurt that certainly didn’t taste like one) served on the flight, however, was a different story altogether but it’s my fault for even expecting it to be somehow edible.

I arrived at Sao Paulo Guarulhos International Airport in the morning, and although my body was still operating under the Pacific Standard Time which is four hours behind, I was wide awake. It is surprising what adrenaline can do. Even after picking up my luggage and clearing custom and arriving at the hotel around noon, I could not sleep. So I did what I know best – go out for lunch 🙂

Unfortunately for me, the part of Sao Paulo I’m staying is a major business district so there aren’t much around. It’s an understatement to say that it is quite on a Sunday. I see NOONE on the streets! I took a quick walk around the very quite neighborhood of Vila Olimpia, found the office I’ll be reporting to tomorrow, and found an only place that seemed to be open for lunch at this hour.

dining-roomAndiamo Ristorante is a little Italian restaurant on Rua Do Rocio, a street populated by office high rises and cute eateries that make businesspeople happy every day. Italian cuisine wouldn’t have been my first choice in a city full of wonderful, unique native dishes had there been more places open, but I was happy with my selection when I was greeted by a kind, English-speaking hostess. This may be an equivalent of a chain Italian restaurant in the states, but what the heck. This place was cute and I was hungry!

I was seated in the back booth that made even a solo diner comfortable. I don’t mind dining alone. In fact, I enjoy it, but the atmosphere of the restaurant can really dictate how the overall dining experience would turn out. The waiters spoke no English so I thought the communication would be difficult but the magic of food is so powerful, that it brought one English- and Japanese-speaking hungry gal and Portuguese-speaking staff together!

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Simple is good.

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A glass of red wine the waiter recommended.

I ordered a dish called Fusilli Rustico — butterfly-shaped pasta tossed with sliced olives, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and topped with a generous portion of grated Parmesan cheese. It was a simple dish but a delicious one, with juicy tomatoes adding distinct tanginess to the dish.

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I heart strawberries.

For dessert (who could resist one when they bring you a tray full of sweets to choose from?), I had this strawberry cream concoction that had the perfect combination of fruity tanginess and subtle sweetness. It reminded me of the way that French eat strawberries where you pour milk on a bowl full of the fruit and squish them, making it a delicious milk dessert. My mother likes eating it this way too, and although it may not sound appetizing at first, it is most certainly a great way to enjoy this heavenly goodness! The drizzle of strawberry liquor added a punch to this lovely plate.

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The street the office located.

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An interesting graffiti I found on the way back to the hotel.

The fatigue finally caught up with me after lunch. Once I got back to the hotel, I went straight to bed and slept for the next five hours! It was a great start of my Brazilian trip and I’m looking forward to tasting some more wonderful dishes in the days to come.

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My home away from home for the next six days.

Andiamo Ristorante
Rua Do Rosio, Sao Paulo

Unpleasantly Surprised: Lavanda Restaurant and Wine Bar

a-lavenda-appetizer2When the Epi-“curious” Threesome (or the Gastro Monsters, or the Hungry Trios, or just “Three-Friends-That-Go-Around-Town-in-Search-of-Great-Food”) gets together for dinner, it’s a guarantee good time. But, deciding on where to dine can be a challenge at times, because we want to try everything and narrowing down to just one is virtually impossible! Needless to say, we take preparation very seriously, as careful research is definitely the key to maximizing our dining experience. Tiffany’s epicurean inspiration comes from Chowhound and Gabriel relies on the trusted Zagat, and I dive into my favorite blogs to give us the best recommendations.

We were in the Silicon Valley together for business a few weeks ago, and we all agreed, after serious discussion as to where we should go, to drive down to the neighborhood of Palo Alto, a home of many fine restaurants. We had narrowed down to several places that were Chowhound- and Zagat-approved, but when we drove by Lavanda’s warm and welcoming décor, we just had to throw away our plan and go in.

Despite our unlikely spontaneous act, the night seemed promising. The place was beautifully lit with the natural light of the late afternoon sun, and the fully stocked wine bar showed pride the restaurant has in its fine vino. We were seated on a table by the window overlooking the hip yet sophisticated University Avenue where, I suspect, is the destination of many local Northern Californian’s very discriminating pallets. Lavanda, it turned out, boasts an impressive resume.  Not only was it dubbed by Michelin Guide as one of the best restaurants in the Bay Area, it is the recipient of Wine Specter Magazine’s “Best of Award of Excellent” for featuring, “one-of-a-kind wines from around the world.”

The threesome, who can never settle for just one, ordered the Red Wine Flight that allowed us to sample three of the popular reds, and ordered three tapas-like appetizers to get the night started.

The first appetizer we ordered was Stuffed Risotto Fritters. The little orange-like balls were wonderfully golden brown with well-cooked Risotto but the flavor of the blue cheese that oozes out on the first bite was just a tab too overwhelming for my taste as it took away the goodness of the Arborio rice.

Vince’s Avocado and Grilled Bread, on the other hand, was more on the simple side, but lacked any character. It was nothing more than an avocado smeared on a piece of tasteless bread. I would have loved to taste a drizzle of olive oil or a sprinkle of sea salt on it for more depth in flavor.

The tomato salad we ordered was my favorite appetizer of the night. The mixture of fresh tomatoes, red onions and other summer vegetables tossed in light vinaigrette was refreshing – a perfect plate for the hot summer night.

Unfortunately the fun ends there.

a-lavanda-pasta1I ordered the Fettuccini with Mushroom Ragu from the special menu with anticipation. The dish had all the characteristics of a true winner – with homemade fresh pasta and wonderfully pungent wild mushrooms – yet the dish was, I hate to say, one of the worst pasta dishes I have ever tasted. The fresh pasta didn’t translate well on the plate as they were mushy and overcooked, and they reminded me so much of the consistency and the texture of an Instant Noodle (yikes). The Ragu was flavorless, somehow silencing the lovely flavor of mushrooms as if it were ever possible. It was so unfortunate because I was really looking forward to this.

a-lavanda-risotto1Tiffany’s Shrimp Risotto was not any better. I understand how difficult it is to make a perfect Risotto, but this one seemed to lack effort. The rice was still coarse and tasted very “rushed”, as if the chef didn’t give enough love and time for the dish’s magic to truly come out. Shrimps were slightly overcooked which made the texture very rubbery.

a-lavanda-ravioliThe House Made Ravioli of Artichokes with Manouri Cheese, Kalamata Olives and Wild Fennel that Gabriel ordered were our favorite, or should I say the lesser of two evils. The artichoke filler was interesting and the cheese added creaminess to each bite.

Lavanda, to me, is a place that purely relies on its untarnished reputation and not on the craftsmanship of the folks in the kitchen. With wonderfully written reviews from some of the most reputable publications in the Bay Area, I’m sure that Lavenda is full of charm. We, unfortunately, were not able to experience that during our first and last visit.

This night made us really rethink about deviating from the original plan and spontaneously giving an unknown venue a chance, which was perhaps the most disappointing part of this entire dining experience.

Lavanda Restaurant and Wine Bar
185 University Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94301
★★★☆☆