Sunday, 7 September 2008

Cafe Bernardo

Cafe Bernardo is one of my favorite Sacramento restaurants. It's good food, it's consistent, and it's easy to find vegetarian options. The only complaint I hear from others is that it's too loud, but apparently my years of concert-going protect me here, because it's never bothered me.

The entrees sometimes change seasonally, but they generally have three vegetarian options -- a portobello sandwich, grilled polenta triangles, and a fettucine. The sandwich is among my favorites, with thin-sliced cucumber, fresh tomatoes, red onion, and greens. I wouldn't mind a heartier bun, but that always seems to be my problem -- I'm a whole-wheat junkie. It also comes with a pickle spear. If you want fries, order them on the side. They're great. Also available from the sides menu are mashed potatoes, potato salad, and sauteed spinach.

The grilled polenta triangles are my second favorite. The grilling leaves a nice crust on the outside of the triangles, which provides a nice textural contrast with the creamy polenta. The sauce is a hearty, chunky marinara, and the whole dish is sprinkled with fresh parmesan.

I don't generally have the fettucine, but I never regret it when I do, as it's always made with the freshest seasonal produce. Actually, Bernardo focuses on local, seasonal produce.

I wasn't aware of it until this evening, but their salads are also available without chicken and with tofu instead. I tried the Thai noodle salad, and was very pleased. It came with shredded zucchini and carrots, a sweet, peanutty sauce, and peanuts and tofu cubes. It was really lovely.

I love Cafe Bernardo for breakfast, too. My favorites include the Amaretto French toast, which is two fat slices of Bernardo's own crusty, fresh bread, covered in butter and sliced almonds. I'm also a sucker for the two egg breakfast, which comes with well-seasoned potatoes and more of that wonderful bread as toast. The jam on the tables is a delicious seedy berry jam (raspberry, I think). I also love the huevos rancheros, which don't really remind me at all of the huevos rancheros I've had at Mexican restaurants, but it hardly matters. The eggs are served on whole black beans with loads of a spicy, tomato-based sauce and topped with cotija cheese.

Oh, and finally, they have good desserts. I can personally speak for the ice cream, the chocolate cake, the black bottom cupcake, and the fruit cobbler. They also have delicious coffee drinks.

My meat-eating companions have either the skirt steak (gosh, I think that's right), a turkey sandwich, turkey burger or Niman ranch burger. Actually, my most regular meat-eating companion (my mom) usually has a salad or the polenta.

The service is cafe-style. You order at the counter, then they bring you your food. Even so, we almost always have attentive servers who stop by to ask how things are and whether we need anything else.

A note

I've decided to get rid of the tomatoes rating system. I suck at it. I want to be nice and give every decent place at least four tomatoes, but not be so effusive as to give them five tomatoes, which leads to Malouf's and Fresh Choice getting the same number of tomatoes. Which is clearly ridiculous. Go to Malouf's. It's way better than Fresh Choice. No more tomatoes -- just read the review and decide whether you want to go there. That is all.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Fresh Choice

Fresh Choice is a glorified salad bar that I stayed away from for about ten years, but there are reasons to go.

I stayed away because I thought it was overpriced, but it's only $7.99 for pretty much everything (drinks are extra), which is really very reasonable. I started going again because my Mommy & Me group goes almost every week.

When you start out, you can get a prepared salad like a Caesar (I don't get this, because although it doesn't list all the ingredients, classic Caesar dressing contains anchovies) or another salad of the day (once it had strawberries and feta, today it had mozzarella balls and tomatoes), or you can make your own. I prefer to make my own salad, and you can choose between mixed greens, romaine, or spinach. Next up are the "extra proteins" (mostly not vegetarian and for an extra price, so I just slide on by). Then they have a few composed salads, like rotini pasta, couscous salad with black beans and corn, and quinoa salad with fresh peppers and other veggies. These tend to be quite good. They also list the ingredients on a small card, so it's easy to see whether they're vegetarian at a glance.

Next up are the toppings for the salad. There's a huge variety, including your standards (cucumbers, tomatoes, chickpeas, kidney beans, peas, cheese) and some slightly more unusual choices like tofu and edamame. There are a ton of choices, including both raw and blanched broccoli. There are about eight salad dressings to choose from, several of which are fat-free or low-fat.

You pay after getting your salad, but then there are a number of other options as well. There are soups, breads and muffins, pizza, pasta, fruit and desserts. The soups and pastas all have a descriptive card that lists whether they are vegetarian or vegan, and there are at least a few of each. On two occasions, the vegan soup was pho, and it wasn't bad at all (you had to ask for the vegetarian broth). On another occasion there was both lentil and potato leek. The pastas include a plain marinara sauce, and on at least one occasion there was a ratatouille with squash and mushrooms.

I haven't tried the pizza, so can't comment, although there is a plain cheese pizza. The breads are many and varied, including a sourdough, a "brown" bread, several muffins, brownies, and the like, and are accompanied by several compound butters.

The fruit is limited, and usually includes honeydew and cantaloupe. Next to it is a dairy-free soft-serve. Yep, vegan ice cream right there at the Fresh Choice. And it's tasty, not weird. If the sign hadn't indicated its non-dairy-ness, I'd never have known. There are several toppings for the soft serve as well, like sprinkles (or "jimmies" if you're an East Coaster). There is a selection of puddings as well.

As for the atmosphere, well... I wouldn't want to go there on a date. But for the Mommy and Me group, I have to say we've gotten excellent service. They always find room for our big group, including many strollers, and they jump to offer to carry our trays for us as we wrangle the babies. Really, I can hardly say enough about the great service, so I think that offsets the big noisy cold atmosphere.

Meat-eating companions seem to be happy with the selections of soups (including clam chowder) and the pizza (pepperoni), and some of the composed salads like Chinese Chicken. Overall, though, it's exceptionally vegetarian-friendly.

I am surprised to find myself reviewing a Fresh Choice -- as surprised as I was to return to it after many years -- but I'm even more surprised to give it a positive review. Four Sackatomatoes out of five, with a special nod to the great service.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Kathmandu Kitchen

The great thing about Kathmandu Kitchen is that there are a ton of vegetarian options. It makes my little heart leap when the appetizers are divided into the categories "Vegetarian" and "Non-vegetarian" and after the first page of veggie entrees, there's a "continued." Of course, Indian food is naturally vegetarian friendly (that whole "cows are sacred" thing). Kathmandu Kitchen doesn't just have Indian food, though -- they also have Nepalese dishes.

The appetizers are great. In fact, we almost always order the Himalayan sampler, which comes with pakoras, samosas, bread, and momos, which are steamed dumplings. The momos are my least favorite, being very delicately seasoned and sometimes a little mushy. The samosas are terrific and the bread is usually fresh and soft. The appetizers are served with four sauces, the tamarind being my favorite.

The entrees run toward your standard Indian fare, although there are some unusual options, like the saag (spinach) and tofu, which is like saag paneer, but, you know, tofu. There's also Tibetan Chau Chau which is a noodle dish that seems like a Chinese dish.

I'm usually a chana dal or chana masala girl, but at Kathmandu Kitchen, my favorite dish is the Aloo Kauli Ko Tarkari, which is primarily cauliflower and potatoes, although it also includes peas and tomatoes. It can be a little oily, but I still think it's one of the best things on the menu.

If you like your food spicy, you will need to order it "Indian hot," and then convince the waiter that you really mean it. If you simply order it hot, it comes medium to mild. (Note bene: My non-spice-loving friends completely disagree and feel that the mild is hot, so take my suggestion with a grain of salt, and maybe a delicious mango lassi to cut the heat.)

I really like the thali dinner, as it comes with a dal, naan, chutney and curry. (The thali and a la carte both come with rice.) That's a lot of food, though, especially if you have the Himalayan appetizer, so I'd suggest picking either the appetizer or the thali. The dishes are also available a la carte.

Now for the bad. As I said, the food can be a little oily. Also, the service is, to put it charitably, a little slow. There was a kitchen fire a while back, and before the fire, the walls were a garish green and orange and there was a wonderful waiter. Afterwards, the walls are pleasant cream and blue and the good waiter is gone. They're very nice, just slow.

The beverage list is fairly thorough, including several Indian beers, lassis, chai, "Indian soda" (Italian soda with unusual flavors, I believe -- my husband tried to order one once and they didn't have any that evening), and soft drinks and wine. The wines include a couple Reislings and a Gewurztraminer, which I think would be nice with the food. Almost everything comes by the glass.

My carnivorous companion's favorite is the lal mas, a spicy lamb dish that he always wishes was a little spicier.

Overall not bad, but if you're closer to Kaveri on Fulton or Pooja's in West Sac, just go there.

3 of 5 Sackatomatoes

1728 Broadway, Sacramento, CA

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Tower Cafe

Tower Cafe is where we always take out of town guests. Why? Well, it has so much character! The entire place is covered in plants, textiles, art, ceramics, and colorful bits and pieces from various cultures and countries. I've been going there since they opened and have been probably hundreds of times, yet I can't imagine I've really seen everything on the walls.

It's also very veggie-friendly. Of ten appetizers, six are vegetarian. I especially love the poh pia, a vegetarian spring roll served hot with a plummy sweet and sour sauce. I also love their chile relleno, which comes as an entree as well. The chips and salsa are fine, but the salsa is extremely mild.

There are two vegetarian salads, the Mediterranean and Las Americas (I can't bring myself to type THE Las Americas). The Mediterranean is my clear favorite, with baby spinach, myzithra cheese, olives, onions... there are two dressing choices and I recommend the red pepper, as the herb vinaigrette is a little oily. It comes with triangles of spanikopita. Las Americas has seasonal mixed greens and vegetables, which usually are peppers, tomatoes, onions, and beans.

Tower Cafe makes its own veggie burger, the Earth burger. I have a love/hate relationship with it. It is a dense vegetable and oat patty loaded with veggies, and the fries that come as an option on the side are fantastic, especially with Thai glaze (which is extra). Unfortunately, it comes on a sad, white bun that falls apart under pressure. Such a hefty patty really requires a whole-grain bun, in my opinion.

There are two vegetarian entrees as well, the ravioli florentine and the chile relleno. I've had the raviolis only once, as they come in a pesto cream sauce, and I'm not much for cream sauces. I'll withhold judgment. The chile relleno dinner is, again, love/hate for me. The relleno itself is the best I've ever had. It is a big poblano pepper, breaded and fried until the outside is crunchy. It is entirely unlike any other relleno in that it is crunchy, not soft and eggy, and the pepper really has some heft instead of being mushy. The cheese mixture inside has currants and pine nuts in it, and I love the contrast of textures and the sweetness. But the beans and rice that accompany the dish are bland and uninspiring. I usually mix them together and add the pico de gallo to give them a little bit of extra flavor.

Two other things about Tower are of note. First, they have fantastic desserts. I am a chocaholic, so I generally get the El Diablo mountainous chocolate cake, a truffle, a chocolate "bombe," or something like that. But my husband and best friend recently tried a key lime tart and raved about it. Also, they have great breakfasts. The custard French toast has no local equal. Of course, that means that the place tends to be packed on the weekends at breakfast time, so be prepared to wait. Six or eight of the breakfast choices are vegetarian (if you don't like French toast, I recommend the Greek omelette), and the Eggs Tower can be prepared without the canadian bacon (I'm sure other items can as well, but I've seen several people order this dish vegetarian). They usually have muffins and scones in the bakery case. I'm not normally a fan of white chocolate, but I love the strawberry white chocolate scone.

The specials tend to be hit or miss. If you like the sounds of something, I say go for it. In general, I think their Asian-type dishes tend to be the least authentic and I avoid them.

They have an extensive drink menu, with a large variety of juices, tea, coffee, espresso drinks, beer, wine, Bloody Marys, hard ciders, etc.

In nice weather, the outdoor seating area is delightful. There are many more plants, creating a sort of oasis a few feet from the traffic of Broadway. Of course, most people choose to eat out there, so there can be a wait. Over the years I've heard complaints about bad service at Tower, but I've never personally had any. I think the reputation is undeserved.

My carnivorous dining companions like the Brazilian Chicken salad and the All-American burger.

I give it four of five Sackatomatoes.

Tower Cafe
1518 Broadway, Sacramento

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Maalouf's Taste of Lebanon

I thought I'd better kick this off with one of my favorite local restaurants. When I tell a friend I have a favorite Lebanese restaurant, they always respond with "Oh, my favorite is Maalouf's." Mine, too. I'll get to the food in a moment, but first I'll explain why, even when we've cut back on our eating-out expenses, we never cut out Maalouf's: they are the nicest people around. To make a VERY long story short, they catered our wedding and threw in so many extras that we swore eternal fealty on the spot. The jovial owner, Abdul, always greets my husband with a hearty "Hey, Boss!" and usually a pat on the shoulder and a misogynist joke (you can tell he doesn't mean it). Rita, his wife, always chats with me and even gave our new baby girl a gift when we came in. Their daughter Layal, who works there on the weekends, is also kind and funny. They're such nice people that even if the food sucked, we'd go back.

But the food is great! I tend to get one of two items, the falafel sandwich and the spinach pie. The falafel sandwich is a huge, messy sandwich that I often can't finish. It contains several hot, well-spiced falafel patties wrapped inside a large pita with lettuce, tomatoes, pickle spears, and tahini sauce. I usually also add a few drops of the hot sauce they keep in squeeze bottles on the table (don't mistake if for ketchup). It also comes with a side of hummus, which is very creamy and smooth. The spinach pie tempts me slightly more often. It is a fresh-baked hot pastry with a a delicious dough that smells buttery, and the smell often hits me before it reaches the table. It is served as two large triangles with half a lemon to squeeze on it. I usually cut it into wedges and use the lemon liberally. Inside it's filled with cooked spinach and spices. I happen to love their labneh, a garlicky thick yogurt dip, so I always order it. Once, Rita showed me the trick of scooping some labneh into the pie, and I was in heaven. I highly recommend it.

Other vegetarian options include the mujadarra, a lentil and rice mixture topped with fried onions. I'm used to a version in which the rice and lentils are a little more al dente, still easily distinguishable from one another. Maalouf's version is more cooked together, and I'm not a huge fan. The portion, incidentally, is about enough for four. There is also a moussaka with ample eggplant and chickpeas.

I haven't tried the new cheese pie, as I'm too fond of the spinach. I would recommend against the cheese tomato, though, an anemic, flaky flatbread sprinkled with feta and (usually out of season) tomatoes.

I like Rita's lentil soup, but avail myself of the salt and of the lemon wedge it is served with for a little extra flavor.

If you can't decide, try the mezze platter. It comes with baba ghanoush, hummus, tabouli, falafel, pickles, olives, incredible hot dolmas, and kibbe, which is beef, but they'll happily substitute something else.

The stuffed falafel is to die for, filled with pine nuts and fairly spicy. You'd want to split it with a friend or order only a salad for dinner with it. The falafel salad is tasty, but has about twenty falafel balls on it, which is just about 16 more than I can eat.

Pita bread, pickles and olives accompany every dinner, and a small salad with feta and tomatoes accompanies most dinners. The salad dressing is tart and refreshing. (Just a note: the spinach pie is an appetizer and the falafel sandwich is a lunch item that can be ordered at dinner, so neither comes with salad.)

They offer several varieties of beer and wine but weather permitting, I recommend the mint tea, which comes with fresh mint leaves in the pot.

In terms of atmosphere, it's clean and freshly painted, but not fancy, decorated primarily with large pictures of Lebanon. Check out the belly dancing on Friday and Saturday evenings.

My meat-eating companion loves the lamb shish kebab, another generous portion with tomatoes and onions over a large bed of seasoned rice served with a spicy sauce.

For dessert, pick up some house made baklava. We always take ours home because we're too full! I also like the aish al sariah, a custard dessert sprinkled with pistachios and scented with rosewater.

So there's my first review. I highly recommend Maalouf's, both because of the fantastic food and the nature of the owners.

On a scale of five Sackatomatoes, I give it 4.

Maalouf's Taste of Lebanon
1433 Fulton Ave

Monday, 28 April 2008

Welcome, and who the Hell am I?

Greetings Sacramentans and interested others! A couple years ago, the News and Review was looking for a new food reviewer, and I gave it some serious consideration. Unfortunately, I had no previous published work. I still might have applied were it not for one other hang-up: I'm a vegetarian. I realized that a major publication, even an alternative weekly, probably wants its food reviews to cater to a bit less of a niche crowd. But that's why we have the internets! I can be as niche as I want (see the group yogurt blog I contribute to, Live Active Cultures).

Years ago, the only vegetarian restaurants in town were Mum's (delicious but expensive), The Good Earth (fantastic in every way), Eat Your Vegetables (the Fresh Choice of local, vegetarian places -- I still miss the river bottom chili), and Sunflower Cafe (great, but I never go to Fair Oaks). Of those, only Sunflower is still in existence. Andy Nguyen's is now vegetarian, but I rarely go there. Why? Well, because fifteen years ago, I found myself ordering salads or sides at most restaurants or asking for substitutions. But now it's 2008 in California, and it is a rare restaurant that doesn't have more than one vegetarian option on the menu. My goal is to review mainstream restaurants on their vegetarian options. I promise you it's not all pasta anymore!

What are my qualifications? Almost none. I've been a vegetarian since 1990, I love eating out, I love food, and I love cooking. I also love writing. And that's that.

Who am I? Well, my name is Kara, and I'm a lifelong Sacramentan. I grew up in Tahoe Park, and I've lived downtown, in midtown, in Land Park, Colonial Park, and East Sac, where I live now with my husband and newborn daughter. Years ago, I was "Your Mama": I had a web site devoted to local music, and I am still an enormous fan, although I don't get out as much (I'm old and tired, and there's that newborn daughter thing). These days, I'm Count Mockula. I also write about cooking at Count Broccula, although I've let that one lapse a bit. There are only so many blog posts you can do about stir-fry.

Why am I a vegetarian? Well, in 1990 at Sac High, where I was a freshman, all the super-cool mod and punk girls I admired had "Meat is Murder" pins on their backpacks. My friend Fiona was the coolest ever, and she was a vegetarian, so naturally I wanted to be one, too. Don't you wish this story was about my compassion for animals or my devotion to preserving the environment? Well, I became more devoted to those ideals as I learned more about them, but I can't lie -- at first it was about fitting in. Anyway, I asked my mom if I could be a vegetarian and she said no. I researched it at length and wrote a persuasive essay (note: I am a nerd). She read it and said I could, but only after we had dinner that night, as we were having chicken. Now it's a habit that I don't even have to think about. A benefit is that I felt healthier almost right away, and my cholesterol, which was borderline when I was in my early teens and first went veggie, is now very good. My whole family has high cholesterol, so I suspect the veggie thing is the tipping point for me.

What kind of veggie am I? Well, I'm a lacto-ovo vegetarian. I was vegan for about three weeks in 1997, but did you know if you're vegan you can't have cheese or ice cream? Yeah, that sucks. Pizza with no cheese? No Ben and Jerry's? That blew. I still don't drink milk and I try to limit the cheese and ice cream, because milk makes my asthma worse (the reason I went vegan to begin with). But I thoroughly enjoy the occasional chile relleno, so if you're hoping for vegan suggestions, you're in the wrong place.

How strict am I? Pretty strict, although I make two occasional exceptions -- Rice Krispie treats about once a year (marshmallows have gelatin in them) and miso soup with bonito flakes in it while I was pregnant.

Other notes? I am not a proselytizing vegetarian, so this blog isn't to make anyone feel bad for killing the pretty cows/destroying the environment/whatever. I also am not grossed out by people eating meat with me, so I may sometimes include notes in my review about what my meat-eating companions liked or didn't like at the restaurant.

Okay, I suppose that's it! Nope, one more thing. I am an English teacher, so I try hard to use proper grammar/spelling/whatnot, but my daughter is a boob-a-holic, so I am usually typing one-handed over a baby. I hereby apologize for any errors you might find, as I will probably not be proofreading. And that's the last I have to say on that subject. Welcome aboard!!

--Count Mockula