Storrs Winery: Pleasantly Surprising in Every Way

Whilst in Santa Cruz, the husband suggested we do some wine tasting.  You can perhaps imagine my reaction.  It was somewhere in the vicinity of “OK!”  And so I perused my Santa Cruz Mountains wine guide for a promising-looking tasting room and came upon Storrs.

Storrs is one of those rare local wineries whose products I have seen in abundance in local stores.  In fact, they have their own little section in the World Market next to my work.  Because I always enjoy knowing what I’m buying, I figured I’d give them a try.

I was pleasantly surprised.  Since they are in my local shop, I wasn’t expecting the highest quality, but we liked just about everything we tried.  The Sauvignon Blanc was crisp and clear if a touch too grassy.  We both agreed that the Zinfandel was divine, and I liked the light yet flavorful Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir as well as the Grenache, notable because I’m usually not a Grenache fan.  However, the bottle we went home with was the Riesling which was light yet sweet with a hint of bubbles.  I cannot tell you how exciting it was to get to try a Riesling.  Riesling is probably my favorite varietal, but it just doesn’t grow very well around here, so very few wineries have one, and not only getting to try one but having it be good enough to buy made me almost giddy.

Perhaps the most pleasant part of our wine tasting experience was how reasonably priced the wines were.  Our Riesling was a mere $16, and most of the wines cost around $20 which is low for this region and quality. I would absolutely consider buying several of them at World Market, and with a sale, I could even afford it.

Our pourer was pretty cool too.  She was very nice, easy to chat with, let us try quite a few wines, and let us do both of our tastings free even though we only bought one bottle.  I would definitely go back.

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Categories: Northern California, Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Mountains, Wine | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Becoming the Fish

Growing up in Southern California, I loved the beach.  My parents used to say I was a fish I spent so much time in the ocean.  I loved the sun and the surf, and as I grew older, that love only grew stronger.  Naturally, I have never lived anywhere as warm since going off to college.

Northern California has beaches.  Some of them even have sand.  But they’re not really what you’d call swimmable.  The water is perfectly all right most places, but it’s cold.  Really cold.  As in “I need a wetsuit” cold.  Sometimes even “I need a dry suit” cold or “let’s call the whole thing off” cold.

So of course I’ve been trying to swim in it ever since arriving in Berkeley at the age of 17 (i.e. a long time ago).  While there, it was basically hopeless.  The only beaches remotely near Berkeley were in San Francisco and Marin, and it was so cold up there I shouldn’t even have bothered.

However, since moving to San Jose, the closest beach has been Santa Cruz, and this is where I pinned my hopes.  It gets sunny in Santa Cruz.  I wouldn’t say it gets warm, but it does at least progress to “not cold” occasionally, and the water is a touch warmer than the surrounding areas.  Thus, I made it my goal to go swimming in these frigid waters if it killed me (which was always a possibility).

Easier said than done.  I could have just donned my wetsuit and gone in that way, but I was determined to swim without it at least once if only to prove it could be done.

I started small, braving the cool air enough to get in a bathing suit and wade in.  It took a whole summer for me to get past my knees, but finally I made it in to the hips.  Alas, there I was stuck.

You see, I could have just plucked up my courage and ran for it, jumped in, then run back out again.  I’ve done that sort of thing before.  Once on a family vacation, my brother and I jumped in a 39 degree hotel pool–in the rain–before running out screaming to the jacuzzi.  This was different.  The most difficult part of my task here was not getting in the ocean, but enjoying it, even if it was just a little bit.

For me, this experiment to see whether I could swim in Northern California became rather a test to see if I could see myself living in Northern California permanently.  That’s not to say I even think that will happen, but it’s certainly possible, and I really just can’t live here forever if I can’t go swimming.  And there is no point to going swimming if you can’t enjoy it.

It took two-and-a-half years for me to get in over my head, but this last Monday, I finally succeeded in actually swimming, sans wetsuit, in the Pacific Ocean off Santa Cruz.  It didn’t last long, but I did get a kind of sick pleasure from finally accomplishing this eight year long goal.

And it actually wasn’t that bad once I was in the water.  It took me a long time to work up to it, going in to my knees, then my thighs, my waist, and finally the whole Nicole.  But once I was under, I managed to swim a bit without wanting to kill myself, and it was all right as long as I kept moving.

Until it wasn’t.  When I got out, I tried to stick around for a bit, but as I huddle in my towel, I realized that wasn’t going to happen.  The cold went bone deep and stayed there until we had driven back to San Jose, and I had spent a long time in a very hot shower.

Still, I did it.  I proved I could swim in Northern California waters and not be completely miserable.  On a day when it’s 90 degrees in San Jose, has been for the past four days, and the ocean has had the entire summer to warm up.  Woot.

Now the real question is can I do it again?

Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Local Travel, Northern California, Santa Cruz | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Donnelly Chocolates: the Best $5 You’ll Ever Spend on Caramel

It was a dark and stormy night the first time I entered Donnelly Chocolates.  Well, all right, it was a pretty average night.  Probably actually a rather nice night.  But it was night anyway.  I was on my way home from Santa Cruz and definitely not looking for a chocolate shop.  Still, Donnelly caught my eye, and, well, I don’t often say no to chocolate, so I stopped.

Oh how glad I am that I did, for inside this little shop was a whole new world of chocolates.

Immediately upon entering, Richard Donnelly himself offered us some samples.  That was all it took.  My husband summed up the experience rather nicely:  “If you do not want to spend (at least) $5 on a chocolate-covered caramel, WHEN HE OFFERS YOU A TASTE, YOU SHOULD SAY NO!”  Once you’ve tried it, walking away isn’t an option.

I cannot even begin to put into words what makes these chocolates so special.  Obviously, they are made with the finest ingredients by someone very skilled in using them.  But it’s more than that.  The instant the caramel reaches your tongue, you can tell this is something special.  Donnelly has clearly poured his heart and soul into his craft, but even that does not account for the extraordinary perfection of these caramels.  There is a touch of magic in them, too.  Nothing else could explain what makes them so much better than even high quality caramels elsewhere.

As I have said before, I am a connoisseur of fine chocolates and have literally looked for them across the world.  A number of magazines have named Donnelly’s chocolates one of the ten best, including National Geographic which named it one of the ten best chocolate shops in the world.  I believe it, for I have almost certainly never had a better caramel.

Milk Chocolate Caramel

Milk Chocolate Caramel

Categories: Dessert, Food, Local Travel, Northern California, Santa Cruz | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Baking Beauties at Bijan

Hustle and bustle is the very definition of a trip to Bijan Bakery.  Come when the morning coffee is still brewing, and you will definitely want to take a number.  This business is booming for a reason:  whether you’re looking for a morning pastry or a wedding cake, you’re bound to be impressed by this European bakery.

My first encounter with Bijan was a decadent chocolate birthday cake that made me do a double-take.  The rich ganache and decorative slices of chocolate made for the ultimate chocolate cake experience.

Clearly, I had to go back and try the rest of the shop.

While in France—and frankly the rest of Europe—I spent my time seeking out the greatest pastry shops I could find, and looking for such desserts in the U.S. is one of my hobbies.  Bijan is among the few that make the list.  All of their pastries are delicious though I am particularly partial to the guava and mango mousse cakes.

Likewise, their more basic pastries have that something special that makes them worth the calories.  The croissants in particular impressed me with their light and fluffy yet crispy consistency.  So much buttery goodness!

Bijan is definitely worth braving the crowd (and if you come later in the day, you shouldn’t even have to do that).  If you’re looking for a morning snack or something more decadent, your taste buds will be pleased.

Categories: Dessert, Food, Northern California, San Jose | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Old Spaghetti Factory Reborn!

The Old Spaghetti Factory in Fullerton still awakens fond childhood memories for me.  Walking by the train station to the old brick building just makes a kid feel important, like you’re stepping into a piece of history.  This image is heightened by the old manor style, dark wood thrones in the waiting area.  When the time arrives for you to be taken to your seat, you have about a 50/50 chance of sitting in an old caboose, elevated  for a classy yet fun dining experience.

It’s a kid’s dream.  Well, this kid anyway.

At the same time, the decor is tasteful as is the food so that this restaurant is fully palatable for both kids and adults.

There is a Spaghetti Factory in San Jose too, and I have been wanting to visit it for ages.  This week, I finally got around to it.

I was not sure what to expect when I did.  The only Spaghetti Factory I have been to is the one in Fullerton, and I know that my feelings about it are strongly rooted in childhood nostalgia.  What would this new one be like?  Would I arrive just to find that I was completely blinded by my childhood memories?  Would it fail to live up to the (for me) original?

Fortunately, no.  The Old Spaghetti Factory in San Jose met my every expectation.

Within and without, this restaurant is amazingly similar to the one in Fullerton.  With the old brick walls and antique decor, I assumed the feel would be the same but the look a bit different.  It really wasn’t.  The chairs, the couches, the decorations, and even the dining caboose were all very much like what I remembered from Fullerton.

So was the food.  What I like most about the Spaghetti Factory is that the food is good without being pretentious.  It is really hard to find a sit-down Italian restaurant in the Bay Area, and particularly in the South Bay, with entrees starting at less than $13.  At the Spaghetti Factory, it’s more like $10, and I appreciate that.  But it gets better because that price gets you a full meal.  All entrees come with bread, soup or salad, a drink, AND spumoni ice cream.  I can’t believe that you can get all of that for $10 or $11.

And the amazing thing is that you don’t have to sacrifice quality.  There are many great options.  The meat sauce is rich and flavorful without overdoing it.  True to its name, Spaghetti Vesuvius is a spicy concoction with a cajun flavor that diverges from tradition but is still delicious.  Topped with satisfactory amounts of garlic and a large helping of cheese, the garlic bread is sure to satisfy.  We got the Bay Shrimp Crostini this time which was particularly impressive because I enjoyed it even though I don’t generally eat shrimp.  The cheesy goodness made the shrimp more of an afterthought which was fine by me.  And at the end, you get the spumoni too which is without contest the best spumoni I have ever had (granted, there has not been a lot of competition).  Each flavor is good on its own, but they also work well as a unit, something I have not found to be true in most spumonis.

If you can stomach anything else after all of the food they already bring you, try the homemade Italian cream sodas.  Unlike most American versions, they actually combine soda, cream, and flavoring to make this soda, and it is so good.  They ruined all other cream sodas for me for life (but I don’t mind).

I was very happy with my experience at San Jose’s Old Spaghetti Factory.  Too often, we revisit places we loved as children only to find them lacking as adults.  It was encouraging to find somewhere that is just as good as I remember.

Categories: Bay Area, Food, Northern California, Restaurants, San Jose | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tara’s: The Best Weird Ice Cream in Town

I have seen a lot of interesting ice cream flavors over the years but never as many in one place as at Tara’s Organic Ice Cream.  Sesame, avocado, pepper, chai, garam masala…one has to wonder where they come up with these.  But I must say that while Ici is my favorite ice cream shop in Berkeley, no one does interesting flavors better than Tara’s.

Let’s take garam masala.  Never would I have guessed that this Indian spice would work as an ice cream flavor, but it does.  And it’s good.  The creamy texture compliments the spice to bring out both the flavor and the creaminess in the ice cream.  However, lemon blueberry absolutely stole the show for us.  Light yet creamy, the flavors complimented each other perfectly.

I cannot seem to think about ice cream in Berkeley without comparing it to Ici, especially since Tara’s is just down the street.  Ici offers deliciously light ice cream, but Tara’s provides a richness  that leaves you heartily satisfied.  While both shops offer unusual flavors, Ici’s are pretty hit or miss.  When successful, they are fantastic, but I feel the need to try everything before ordering it.  Not doing so has lead to disastrous results (don’t try the tiramisu.  Just don’t).  In contrast, even though Tara’s has even weirder flavors than Ici, they are much more successful in bringing out the best each flavor has to offer and pairing it well with ice cream.

So next time you don’t want to wait in line at Ici, crave something a bit heartier, or really want to try avocado ice cream, head down College Ave. to Tara’s.  You won’t be disappointed.

Categories: Bay Area, Berkeley, Dessert, Food, Northern California | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Best Chicago Irish Pubs

In continuing with our Chicago feature, today we will discuss the awesomeness that is Chicago Irish pubs.

Irish pubs in the Bay Area suck.  Really.  There are exceptions, but on the whole, the Irish pubs here are just…not.  Not Irish.  Not pubs.  Not nothing like that.

Thus Irish pubs were one of the things I was excited to explore when I spent a year in Chicago.  The first job (and in this context, job means “slave labor” or possibly “major rip off”) I had upon arriving at the Windy City was blogging about Irish pubs, and boy were they better than the ones in SF.

Having spent time in Ireland and having learned how to drink in the U.K., I have an appreciation for authenticity that escapes most Americans.  At the same time, having lived in England briefly, I have an equally strong appreciation for non-British food and the knowledge that while Irish food is better than English, there are advantages to throwing some American in there too.

With that in mind, these pubs stood out amongst their many brethren as the best, whether for food, drink, atmosphere, or the whole package.

Unforgettable Atmosphere

Wilde is more of a restaurant than a pub, but it has two bars and an abundant selection of drinks, so close enough.  Centered around Oscar Wilde, the Irishman responsible for The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Grey, Wilde is set up like an upper class library, covered with massive bookshelves, stained glass windows, and cozy alcoves perfect for reading.  The drink selection is vast, and the food is fabulous if not cheap, providing a full selection of Irish fare along with American options.  Being able to sip some cider in an armchair surrounded by books is a truly unparalleled experience.

Bet You've Never Seen an Irish Pub with a Stained Glass Dome

Bet You’ve Never Seen an Irish Pub with a Stained Glass Dome

Most Irish

Celtic Crossings is everything an Irish pub should be.  Built and manned by Irish immigrants, this is the most authentic Irish pub I have encountered anywhere outside Ireland.  Even on an average day, the pub was largely peopled by Irishmen.  As per Irish tradition, they do not serve food but sport a large selection of Irish beers and whiskeys from their large wooden bar that was actually imported from Ireland.  They introduced us to the  tradition of adding a dash of 7-Up to your Smithwick’s, and Daniel has been ordering it that way ever since to the constant consternation of bartenders.  I dream of spending St. Patrick’s Day here; it’s probably the closest I will ever get to spending it in Ireland.

Just the Right Amount of Irish

Just the Right Amount of Irish

The Best of Both Worlds

Even though there are more Irish and more exciting pubs in Chicago than Bridget McNeill’s, I cannot have a best Irish pubs list without it.  Admittedly, I have a strong personal attachment to the place, but my love grew from the pubby atmosphere.  The most important aspect of an Irish pub to me is not the food nor the drink but the friendly, cozy atmosphere that accompanies sharing a pint with some friends after a hard day’s work.  With its comfy arm chairs, small tables, and a sound level at which you can actually have an intelligible conversation, this pub exudes the atmosphere that really makes Irish pubs for me.  But in place of an Irish menu, Bridget McNeill’s sports the best that America has to offer from fantastic thin-crust pizza to scrumptious burgers to baked mac and cheese.  The food is superb and varied and helps this pub truly encompass the best of Irish and American pubs.

Great for Food, Friends, and Trivia!

Great for Food, Friends, and Trivia!

The Best of the Best

However, much as I love Bridget McNeill’s, the pub that truly mixes Irish and American traditions flawlessly is Fado.  The atmosphere exudes Irishness in a tactful manner without being overly overt.  The pub centers around a massive, ovular wooden bar fading into dark, wooden tables and rustic decor on the ground level.  Floor number two is topped with a boat.  Yes, an actual boat.  Just hanging from the ceiling.  Tell me that’s not awesome.  The drink menu is not only wide but also diverse, from a large range of Irish beers and whiskey (and Strongbow!  It may not be Irish, but it is awesome and such a U.K. staple that it still lends to the pub’s authenticity) to more international fare like white sangria and mojitos.  And the food, oh the food!  It is so, so good.  Traditional Irish dishes abound, but their flavoring has been updated to perfection.  Never have I tasted better corned beef and potatoes.  Even the cabbage was good!  And you have to try the boxty.  Shaped like an Irish pancake, the boxty is basically a fried potato tortilla that does not need filling to be delicious.  Fado has everything an Irish pub could offer but the variety and ingenuity of Americans intent on perfecting the pub experience.

Something for Everyone

Something for Everyone

No matter your tastes, as long as you like Irish pubs, these four are bound to please.  Should you wish to read more about them, visit my Chicago Irish Pubs Examiner page.

Categories: Field Trip, Food | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Molly’s Cupcakes = The Best of All Cupcakes!

As you know, I spend a lot of time eating cupcakes.  Upon visiting a new city, I first seek out the best cupcakeries around so that I can find the city’s best cupcake.

I am going to Chicago this weekend for a family event, so I thought I would share with you some of the city’s finest attributes.

We start with the best cupcake I have ever had.

My first taste of Molly’s Cupcakes was a tiny bit of buttercream frosting that had rubbed off on the side of the box, just a small smidgen if you will, hardly even a taste for normal frosting.  But the second that baby taste hit my tongue, my mouth exploded with flavor.  I could actually taste the butter and the cream, separate entities yet inextricably entwined to create the greatest flavor of frosting I have ever had.

Next to that explosive taste experience, the otherwise delectable cake seemed like a little bit of a letdown…until I realized it was filled with berry jelly.  The mixture of incredible buttercream, moist but strong cake worthy of holding sweet filling, and fresh berries on top, adding a tang to the sweetness, made for the best cupcake I have ever eaten.

Until I had some of their other cupcakes.

The Mixed Berry cupcake is still quite possibly my favorite, but now it is in competition with their Butterscotch Caramel, and the Peach Cobbler is up there too.

There are several cupcakes that are high on my list of all-time favorites.  The Berry Berry at Spot Dessert Bar in New York was exceptionally moist and perhaps the best chocolate cupcake I have ever had.  I still can’t get enough of the Lemon Pistachio cupcake at Love at First Bite.  And once there was another shop in Chicago called Cupcakes that had a fabulous Salted Caramel that still moves me even though they have gone out of business.

However, none of them measures up to any of the cupcakes I have had at Molly’s.

So next time you’re in Chicago, go visit Molly’s Cupcakes, or I will hound you until you do.

The Best of Molly’s Cupcakes: The Filled Kind
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Categories: Dessert, Field Trip, Food | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Why Smart Alec’s?

When I first came to Berkeley, one of the first places I heard my fellow students rave about was Smart Alec’s.  Close to campus and ever popular, Smart Alec’s was everyone’s favorite dining option, the destination of choice when one did not want to use meal points.  As my college career progressed, many things changed including my friends’ favorite gastronomic haunts, but Smart Alec’s was always at the top of the list when faced with the question, “Where shall we go to eat?”

And I never understood why.

Smart Alec’s is fine, I guess, if you’re into the sort of thing.  I’m not much of a burger fan, and to be perfectly frank, I’m no health nut either, so Smart Alec’s really isn’t my kind of joint.

I can appreciate a good burger, soup, salad, or sandwich when forced, but to my mind, Smart Alec’s is none of these things.  It may produce a “healthy” burger, but that doesn’t make the burger tasty, and I am quite sure most of my comrades were not eating there for their health.  None of their food groups moved me or even satisfied me no matter how many tries I gave them, and with everyone constantly suggesting we go for dinner, I gave them more than their fair share of chances.

The only thing that ever impressed me about Smart Alec’s was the corn bread.  Rich and flavorful, the cornbread is the only item I enjoyed.  I will say that their veggie burger is good for what it is.  It tastes like a regular burger, and in my opinion, is slightly more flavorful than their standard burger.  However, it really only stands out when compared to a hamburger, and on it’s own just isn’t worth it.

Hate me, spurn me, tell me I’m crazy, but I just cannot imagine why anyone would go to Smart Alec’s when there are so, so many better dining options not only in Berkeley but within a five minute walk.  Good burger joints may be one of the few food genres that Berkeley lacks, but there are still much better options than Smart Alec’s.  Like Barney’s.  Or Manhattan Roast & Grill.  Or any other burger place in Berkeley!

Or you could go have Indian, Chinese, sushi, crepes, or any of the other many, many ethnic food choices Berkeley has to offer that are fantastic!

All right you Berkeley undergrads, now tell us why we should go to Smart Alec’s.

Categories: Bay Area, Berkeley, Food, Northern California, Restaurants | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Campbell Farmer’s Market of the Gods

Farmer’s markets are one of the greatest of Northern California institutions.  Ever-present, they bring quality fresh, local produce right to the consumer, and it tastes so good!  Though not always cheaper than grocery stores, it is almost always tastier.

The King of Farmer’s Markets in the South Bay has got to be the Campbell Farmer’s Market.  Every Sunday, Downtown Campbell gives it’s main street over to tents, produce, and vendors from 9am to 1pm(ish).  And never have you seen its equal.

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Four long blocks of goodness, the Campbell Farmer’s Market is so big it has to be broken up into sections.  On the west side, you’ll find prepared food vendors.  The east side sports artsy goods, and in between you’ll find mountains of produce.  I could never begin to tell you which produce vendors are the best, cheapest, or best value; there are too many.  But I can tell you about a few gems.

My favorite stop is always the Milk Guy.  His business is not actually so named, but he will always be the Milk Guy to me.  One might think that milk is not a product to get excited about.  One has clearly never met the Milk Guy.

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He sells raw milk, straight from the cow, no preservatives, no pasteurization, just pure milk.  It is beyond compare.  Richer than milk, more refreshing than cream, you can drink this milk in place of a meal and feel completely satisfied.  It’s deliciousness is beyond compare.  Get the true raw milk–that is, the whole milk–and I swear you will be amazed and astounded unless perchance you have had milk straight from the cow.

There is an abundance of scrumptious prepared food as well.  Should you be willing to brave the lines, the Oaxacan Kitchen is amazing AND reasonably priced.  Everything is hand-made in front of you, including the tortillas, and this is one of those rare instances in Northern California where the Mexican food lives up to–or perhaps even eclipses–its southern counterparts.  I always stop by the Indian food booth for a $1 samosa, and Daniel rarely visits the market without buying a Flying Falafel sandwich (even rarer are the times I don’t steal at least one of his falafels).

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Yummy $1 Samosas

 

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Flying Falafel

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Oaxacan Kitchen

Some of the booths straddle the line between prepared food and…not, and they are generally worth a visit if nothing else for the free samples.  The Hummus Guy (and that is actually what he calls himself) is awesome.  All of his hummus is delicious as are the flavored pita chips.  The bolani people are really good too, giving you the perfect combination of sauces and flavored bolanis though alas we cannot afford them.

And indeed that is the most difficult thing for me about the farmer’s market:  not dropping all of the cash in my wallet on their wares.  We pretty much do it every time we go, so we’ve had to keep our visits to a minimum.  Everything tastes so good, it’s hard not to buy the whole market.  And frankly, most of its offerings are a bit pricey anyway.

But totally worth it.  The quality is impossible to find in a grocery store.

Making up for the price is the ease of finding samples at the farmer’s market.  Almost all of the vendors have samples of their wares, and I usually fill up on samples before deciding what to buy.  And it absolutely works in their favor because we have bought way, way more than we ever would have without a taste first.

If you haven’t been to the Campbell Farmer’s Market, you are seriously missing out.  Go now!  Eat and be happy.

Categories: Bay Area, Food, Local Travel, Northern California, San Jose | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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