If someone asks me what my favorite cuisine is, I usually say Moroccan.There’s something about the spiceful combinations, or the slow roasting in the clay tajines, or eating with your hands – it a really sensual experience.
I’m not sure I could eat Moroccan food with people I didn’t like, or that I felt were strangers. There’s too much sharing. I’d want them to already know some dining protocols, or be willing to follow them as they are explained. And I’ve had trouble trying to explain it to many Americans. There’s an element of being mindful, and we are not so good at being mindful. I’m probably overthinking this. Long story short: I don’t eat it as much as I’d like to.
But here in San Francisco, I was researching some dinner options and Moroccan food came up. Out of the places popping up on my radar, Aicha gave me the best feeling about being legit. Not in that whisked-away-into-draping-fabrics ethereal lounges in Marrakesh, but honest and authentic cooking one would get in a house, or restaurant that Moroccans would be proud to serve, or eat. The first time around, I wasn’t able to go to the restaurant, another restaurant won out. But a week later I was stopping in SF for a day, friends needed to run an errand around Nob Hill, and lo, Aicha was just a couple blocks away. I had dinner plans in less than 2 hours, and it was going to be a big meal, so I knew this was gastronomic suicide, but I *had* to go and see if my intuition was correct. I walked in around 4 pm, solo.
It wasn’t busy, but definitely not empty. The menu is not huge, and it has all the traditional dishes I was hoping for. If I had a few other friends with me, and this was my primary meal, I would have ordered this:
* Salad Trio – zaalouk, taktouka, and carrots charmoula.
But it was a meal for one, followed by another meal. I ordered the one item I’ve no experience making myself, but love. Chicken b’stilla. And some mint tea, just to see how much sugar they put in.
B’stilla is both a sweet and savory dish. Traditionally, pigeon is used instead of chicken, but good luck finding that here. It is layers of flaky phyllo-like pastry with a succulent spiceful concoction of shredded slow-cooked chicken, crunchy and ground almonds, and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. It is a fair amount of work to do at home, so it’s a not-miss item if I have the opportunity to eat Moroccan food out.
I was really happy with the food, and the atmosphere of the restaurant. I’d say it was legit. There aren’t the fancy bells and whistles, which suited me just fine. I’m here for the food and all I really want it to feel like the person making it is true to his or her traditional cooking. I got that impression and hope I can make it back there to try a greater range of the menu.
Aicha (Nob Hill)
This location has long been a prime spot for the assorted state street café loungers, I certainly was one of them back in my surly goth high school days which was a helluva long time ago. Regardless of the name of the café, or the management, there was always, *always*, an assortment of beatnik folks idly sitting out front, all day, every day. A writer, or independently wealthy, or disenchanted youth? Probably all the above and then there’s the guy sitting next to him.
Again, my long-held bias about all the cafes that resided here in the past held me back from even peering into the pastry case. I’m so glad I finally looked. Exquisite looking lemon tarts ($4 ea), brown butter almond shortbread, perfect little palmiers ($1 ea), stuff I used to buy as small treats in Europe. Most recently I had an apricot puff pastry thingie, and to my delight there was a layer of almond cream filling hidden in there.
Santa Barbara’s coffeehouse scene is definitely improving. There are several other places I happily give business to, and each has its unique perks. Hipster artisanal vibe is at one, locally roasted is at another. Open Cup has a worldly international feel to it to its product while still retaining its rough edges that come with its proximity to de la Guerra plaza and the peanut gallery of gutter punks outside. Turns out, they’re mostly harmless and more concerned about their crossword puzzles than giving me any hassle. You want European coffee and a little pastry that’s so perfect it hurts, and without leaving Santa Barbara? This is the place. And if the owner is around and you want to talk food, he might be down to join the conversation. This is how a good hour of mine disappeared over summer solstice weekend.
On this cold dreary, rainy evening, I flopped down at home and thought there would be nothing better to have than toasty melty grilled cheese…
Just kidding. There’s been no cold dreary rainy evenings in Santa Barbara. It’s all SUN and WARM, and the council took a vote and it was unanimous, there would be no rain whatsoever this winter.
In reality, I was having one of those moments where I fret about having too much stuff in my fridge, freezer and cupboards, and I Did Something About It.
So, baguette came out of the freezer, cheeses came out of the fridge, some magical ham given to me by parents just returned from San Francisco’s Ferry Building was sliced thin, and grilled cheese sandwiches with lots of butter were assembled for dinner.
Plus, a pot of floral tea, since I have more tea than you could ever imagine.
My homage to the midnight snack and pork belly boy. The End.
So soon after my last visit? Yes! I love dim sum.
This time it was with my family, as a new year’s weekend brunch. We got there just as yum cha service was starting, and the first thing I noticed was that its first devoted customers were all Chinese families. That’s a good thing.
BBQ pork buns, pan fried beef and scallion pies, shrimp dumplings.
Shanghai soup dumplings, shrimp and chive dumplings, and mystery dumplings!
We also had baked egg custard tarts, but I guess I forgot to take a photo.
This large yum cha session was very filling, with leftovers, and cost about $15/person before tax and tip.
I went to Mama Lu after attending an art exhibit opening near the area. Pulling in, the car park was filled with young Asian students, over a dozen people in the throes of bidding each other adieu after eating at Mama Lu’s. Inside, a woman working there confirmed – the place is popular with Chinese and Taiwanese exchange students.
Another thing I noticed in the car park were the trees and shrubs. They were all specimens fitting for an Asian garden, like hedges of bamboo, an orchid tree (Bauhinia) and a Japanese maple, starting to turn autumn colors. If I didn’t already recognize these types of plants, I’d have walked right by them, because they’re all cut and maintained like generic street plantings, i.e. box and ball shaped. There’s a great infrastructure of horticultural gems there, they just need some shaping under the guidance of someone with an eye for Asian gardening to bring them back to their optimal aesthetic. It also goes to show: this spot is perfect for serving up Asian specialties.
If any of you remember this spot when it was Hibachi, a large center portion of the restaurant is the “kitchen” area, but back in those days, the kitchen was in an open space. The center is still the kitchen, but walls probably closed it in a long time ago, giving the impression of a much smaller dining space with the tables lining the remaining outer ring of the building. You might never know your best friend is sitting at a table just around the corner from you.
The popular thing to do is the buffet, offering about 2-dozen options throughout the day for just $9. There seemed to be a natural separation in the restaurant, where buffet diners sat on the side of the restaurant to be closer to the buffet table, and people who ordered off the menu sat on the other side. We sat on the buffet side and were this close to ordering it, not because we were famished for unlimited quantities, but because we were thinking we wanted salt and pepper shrimp and it was in the buffet, whereas an individual portion of it was around $12. Ultimately, we decided not go the buffet route, nor did we order the salt and pepper shrimp!
Instead, we ordered items we weren’t familiar with: a Fish Hot Pot, Taiwanese style, and a dish of eggplant and ground pork. Plus tea and rice.
The tea comes first, where I let it steep a minute. My experience with Chinese dining, it is customary for whoever takes the teapot to pour everyone’s tea before their own. Even later in the meal, if your own cup is totally empty and everyone else’s are still mostly full, you pour a courtesy amount of tea in the other cups, or provide the opportunity for others to decline your offer, before you fill your own. It’s a sign of generosity and being gracious. While we are sipping our tea, the kitchen brought out a small plate of hot salted peanuts, and picking them up with chopsticks is excellent practice for the coming main dishes.
For the hot pot, there was a beef option, but we got the fish and this turned out to be a hot clay pot filled with a very hot and spicy fish stew, the kind of spicy hot that makes my tongue tingle, because the dish is brimming with Sichuan peppercorns. For those who find it too hot, have some rice with it. The portion was easily generous enough to be a complete meal for two people, but we also had the eggplant and pork dish coming.
The eggplant and pork dish was equally tasty, although far less spicy. In fact, not hot spicy at all, just good Asian flavor. The eggplant was in big juicy chunks, and the meat in the dish was generous as well. Would I get them again? Yes! But not before I go through more items of the menu.
The bill was about $25 for two people sharing. I took away all the leftovers, and assembled my own bento box for lunch the following the day, and the rest I delivered to my parents, who made a dinner of it the following the night. It was a lot of food.
Good morning, kitty!
For my milk tea. Kawaii! ^_^
This is reputed to be on the site of the oldest coffee shop in England, around 1650 (according to Pepys’ diary), although the Grand Cafe itself isn’t of that era. But that’s close enough for us, and since it’s there, and we’re nearby with time to spare, why not stop in for a coffee.
For its history, the cafe is unassuming enough on the high street. It’s not in a busy foot traffic area. Well, it kind of is, but there aren’t many shops on either side, so most pedestrians seemed more to be passing by, especially the tourists. Perhaps that’s because they. don’t. know. But we had the Dodo Guide to Oxford, which is cool, quirky, and lays out the facts quickly. Thanks for the loaner, Rog!
We had a caffetiere of coffee – that would be a French press to you Yanks – with hot milk and sugar lumps. Sat at the bar, catching up on the news via the Guardian and Independent.
One of the details I really liked about the Grand Cafe was by the door. To make the door gently close, it was counter-weighted with a metal teapot on a chain. When the door open, the tea pot would lift up, then slowly come back down, gently pulling the door closed. Hey, I want something like that.
In my starving student days, this was a big treat, yet it was just across the road from the Jodrell Gate, taunting me with its bakery goods. Christopher was fond of the pastries called Maids of Honour. In hindsight, they are obviously Portuguese tarts, but since they were expensive little treats, I rarely had them. Plus, I’d forgotten all about those chinese dan tart, which were essentially the same thing. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Now, being gainfully employed, I can afford to eat here, so after the long day traipsing through the Botanic Gardens, we came here for high tea, which is much like a cream tea, but includes some savory by way of little sandwiches. There’s a choice of sandwiches: cheese, salmon, and ham, and we opted to have a selection of all of them. There’s also a choice of the pastry, with an array to choose from at the bakery counter, but we opted for the Maid of Honours. For old times sake.
This bakery has been around since the days of Henry VIII, who lived just a hop over in Richmond at Hampton Court. This building housed his maids of honour and apparently he was also gahgah over these tarts. ahem.
Maids of Honour
If Shakespeare were around today, he would be protesting – eloquently – to the council at all these commercial businesses overrunning the quiet residential neighborhood his home was once in. Then again, these businesses wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for him. So nevermind, I guess.
The childhood home of William Shakespeare is now in the center of a bustling tourist street lined with souvenier shops and tea rooms. Did someone say cream tea?
I go cuckoo for cream teas and Devonshire clotted cream seems very readily available now, so you can have a good one in just about any town, including Stratford which is nowhere near Devon. The Henley Street Tea Room is about 50 feet away from Shakespeare’s house, as my second photo at the top of this page shows from my seat at the Tea Room. While there were many places to choose from, and most offered a cream tea for about £4, this tea room specifically baked their scones on site, and also didn’t appear to be a chain.
The tea is freshly brewed, loose in the pot, so the service comes with a little strainer to place atop your teacup. After pouring the tea, milk and maybe sugar is added. Not before! That’s how it’s done, sir.
The scones are served warm, dressed with a little strawberry and powdered sugar. They’re also very generous with the cream and jam. It’s so good! Slather on as much as you can onto that scone, clotted cream is not to be wasted. The cream tea, including tea, scones, cream and jam was £3.95.
Henley Street Tea Room