Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Counter

I've probably said it before, but I'll say it again... I don't know if a burger and fries have ever failed to put me in a good mood. I love stuffed shells and pizza and chimichangas... dim sum and smoked duck and frozen custard make my day... but a cheeseburger and french fries just plain make me happy.

We were heading to Santana Row, which is an area of San Jose where we've been a couple of times before. With Borders closing all over the place, we wanted to go take advantage of some discounted items, and Jim suggested we all eat at The Counter. He had been there a few times before, but not recently. It's a smaller chain of burger places, where the big concept is "build your own burger."

You check boxes on a sheet filled with options, specifying the size of your burger, how you want it cooked, the type of bun, the cheese, the sauce, the toppings, etc. They also have this for drinks - pick your juice, liquor, spritzer, garnish, etc. I thought that was funny. We ordered a fifty-fifty to share - french fries and sweet potato fries in combination. There were tons... 5 people could have shared them. They weren't the best ever, and the flavor was nothing unique, but they worked. We also got fried pickles, since I love them and we haven't had them in a long time. They were thick and the sauce with which they were served wasn't tangy, which we generally expect. I wouldn't get them again, but it was nice to at least see them available out here!

I chose a ciabatta bun and a 1/3 lb burger, well-done. Cheddar cheese, garlic aioli, tomato, grilled onion, pickle, and banana peppers rounded it out. It was pretty good, though not exquisite. I'd get another burger there. Jonathan and Jim both felt theirs were under-cooked (they asked for medium-rare and got more of a rare), which is a common complaint when you read other reviews of this place. We all loved the grilled onions, but after that we had very different options. Jim ate his pretty quickly, and Jonathan was pretty happy with his selections. If there's one near you, I'd suggest you consider giving it a try - you might like it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cake Decorating

So, although it may not come up often on here, I love to bake. When I was in high school, the week before Winter Break consisted of me asking each friend whatever type of cookies they would like this year, then baking all of them and bringing them to school to pass out. Once, I baked for seven straight hours in order to make 9 varieties of cookies (including at least two types that I never tried so I can only assume my friends didn't lie to me when they said they liked them!). When we lived in Pennsylvania, I first tried my hand at doing layered cakes, and was surprised at how simple it can be. I learned to drizzle chocolate over the top and down the sides. But, that's really the extent of my know-how in decorating cakes. In fact, for a long time I tended to make brownies instead, since you don't have to frost those. It just really bothers me to see the top of the cake have an uneven surface, so I preferred not to ice the cake at all.


Now, since about 2006, I've wanted to take a cake decorating class. But, it had never been convenient, especially trying to have a single night free consistently for a month. But, last month, I decided that I needed to make it happen. By the time I decided to look up when and where I could learn this out here, I was surprised to find out that there were two beginner's classes starting that week! As soon as I was sure that I could commit to four Thursdays in a row, I rushed down and signed up, nabbing the final spot in the local Wilton's class. I had a bit of difficulty finding all of the supplies (you'd think they could put stickers or something in the "cake aisle" when a class is about to start... just to make it all a tad easier.

For the first lesson, I needed to bring some basic supplies, a few other household items (like an apron), and six plain, flat cookies. So, I baked the largest sugar cookies I could (they should really specify what diameter they want), and brought in seven (you know, since I tend to mess up things, I thought I'd need an extra, LoL). Turns out, almost everyone had just bought a pack of sugar cookies at Safeway.... it never even occurred to me that I could have just done that. But, regardless, my cookies were roughly the same size (though not as thick), so nothing lost there. And mine were totally cheaper.

The first class focused on some basics (properly baking, leveling, torting, filling a cake), but we also learned how to make buttercream icing (and how to properly color it), how to fill a bag, and how to pipe stars. The instructor didn't come around and comment on every single person's practice board, but they looked good enough to me. I also only had time to decorate four of my cookies, since I had a bit of a late start - we had all brought "stiff" frosting to the first class, and needed to turn it into "medium" consistency, and I was the last person to get the water to mix in. But, Jonathan promptly ate one when I got home, so it all worked out well. 
Now, I'm taking this class ultra-seriously (and, if you know me, you expected that, haha). I'm going over my notes, I'm reading and re-reading the book, and I'm practicing everything like we're supposed to between lessons. So, this meant that I decorated another eight or ten cookies, working through the stars and even figuring out how to do swirls. I had to make my frostings by hand (no hand or stand mixer), which is a pain. It takes about half an hour per batch (2.5 cups), since I take a couple breaks in order to keep stirring. I also learned very quickly that I don't like the Wilton buttercream recipe at all. It's waaaay too sweet for me... it tastes like the filling of an Oreo... and I don't want that on a cake! So, I made my second batch for the second week chocolate, since we were also given that recipe. I thought it was much better, and it probably would've been excellent if I had butter flavoring to use (I had to use vanilla). I brought this up in the second class, but nobody else thought the icing was too sweet, although one other girl asked about how to make a cream-cheese-base instead (which I'm looking forward to trying myself!). We also had to bring in an 8" cake for the second class, where we leveled, torted, filled (I made mocha-toffee pudding for filling), and iced (complete with learning to transfer a pattern!) in class.
you can see large and small stars, circles and elongated circles, and lines. You can also see my pretty-smooth top, the chocolate color, and the light purple and green that I mixed.

After frosting, my edges weren't perfectly even anymore, but you can see my border from this angle - it's just alternating dots and stars. We learn "shells" soon and I'm looking forward to that.

Everything moves so fast in class, and the instructor is very... "engineer" (Jonathan used that word to describe her after I told him about her). She doesn't give any praise at all, or affirm that you're doing anything correctly. Only criticisms, and many of them are along the lines of "now, what did I say about doing that?" and "don't you remember I said to use a 45-degree angle?" It bothers me. So much so that I'm pretty sure I'm going to take my subsequent courses at a different store (I already determined that she teaches at two, so I'll just take classes at another one... luckily Michael's is prevalent in this area!).

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this - a little something different. I'll do another post after I've finished the other two classes in this course.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Daphne's Greek Cafe

We were over near GameStop, so we grabbed some dinner at Daphne's Greek Cafe. I had never been there before, but Jonathan had. The menu was about average-sized but it didn't offer a ton of variety. I was also surprised with the wait we had after we ordered, but it seemed that everyone else waited just as long.

I had the grilled chicken pesto pita melt, which was pretty good. It was large, so that was a definite plus. It had mozzarella and feta on it, plus some tomatoes. It wasn't fantastic, but it was good. I'm torn over whether I'd get it again, honestly. They also gave us a free pesto hummus with pita triangles, so I got to try that out as well. It was pretty good, but not my favorite flavor of hummus.

Jonathan tried the $7 dinner special, with roasted red pepper hummus & pita, grilled chicken kabob and gyros street pita, and baklava. Except, we got the order to-go, and they left out the baklava, which we didn't realize until after we were home and started eating. He enjoyed his hummus (which we used to have frequently in Florida and Pennsylvania, but it's expensive out here! we've tried making our own before, too... but that's a lot of work), and liked most of the entree as well. However, the vegetables on the kabob weren't that great.

The owner/manager was the one who took our order, and he was fantastically friendly. I just don't know that we'd go back to this place over the other Greek places in the area. Another negative to this one is the parking... the situation isn't good at all during rush hour.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Erik's DeliCafe

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you our new favorite place to get a sandwich in California! ...and, really, it's about time! This was one of our biggest complaints the first time that we lived in California, and we never even really came close to solving the problem.

It was a Sunday afternoon and I was really feeling like a sandwich. We have been driving by a deli somewhat regularly for a while now, so it only made sense that we pop in and try it. It's called Erik's Delicafe, and it's not all that big, though it has a nice, prominent place in a strip mall. The menu stretches the entire length of the counter (above it, of course), but it's not terribly complicated. There were about four things that absolutely sounded delicious to me, but I settled on the Rio Grande Club Sandwich, which was turkey, pepperjack, and bacon on toasted ciabatta, with tomato, lettuce, guacamole, and "secret goo," which was a lot like mayonnaise. Jonathan went with the thai chicken wrap, which is a seasonal item. It was wrapped in a lemon grass tortilla, and also had mango, cilantro, mint, red peppers, green onion, peanuts, and spicy peanut sauce (with more in a little container on the side as well).

We took them home to eat, and as I was unwrapping mine, a little chunk of guacamole fell out of the sandwich. Of course, I tasted it... and I was a little unhappy. It was heavy on the avocado, and light on everything else. HOWEVER, once I took a bite of the sandwich, I was thrilled. The flavors just came together so well, it was truly a great blend. Similarly, Jonathan thought the world of his wrap. I didn't try it (peanuts and all), but he thoroughly enjoyed it.

Needless to say, we're in a hurry to go back, hehe!

Monday, February 7, 2011

GolfLand

We wanted to go miniature golfing for Jonathan's birthday, but the weather didn't agree with the timing on any of our attempts. So, we went the Saturday afternoon after my birthday, and Jim came with us. We pass a certain mini-golf place regularly, and I really wanted to go in December when they had Christmas lights decorating their course. As we pulled in, it was clear that the place was packed... with kids. This was concerning, but it turned out that there were two different courses, so we just chose the less-crowded one. 18 holes, no pars... that was different. And, instead of a generic scoring sheet like at every other mini-golf place I've EVER been to, this place prints it out for you based on the number of tickets you bought... so Jim had a scorecard and we had a scorecard... now we know to all buy together, LoL. We alternated going first, and were definitely somewhat impressed with the course. It wasn't green or cheap carpet. The holes were all goofy-golf style, meaning that there were genuine obstacles, like doors that opened and closed, ramps where angle mattered, and other interesting things.
This was the first hole. You can see the sharp turn, as well as the log that hovers over the actual hole. I ended up getting a '6' on this hole because the log kept knocking my ball away, LoL.
This is about halfway through the course, and you use centrifugal (this might be the wrong word, LoL) force to get the ball all the way around.
Another hole... this time it was kinda like skee-ball, LoL.
Many of the holes were the kind where you did one thing, then the ball came out elsewhere and you kept playing to the actual hole. Here, you get your ball over any of the humps and it comes out one of three holes to the left and down a little hill. 

I thought it was pretty fun. I am excited to go back and play the other course, LoL. And we'll get our tickets online since it's $1 cheaper.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sprinkles!

I did tag this as a "restaurant review," but it's not really a restaurant. Sprinkles is a bakery in Palo Alto that is part of the famous Beverly Hills chain. I had not heard of them, but apparently they're a big deal, and the owner judges Cupcake Wars or something.

I'd only been to a cupcake-specific shoppe once before (in Washington, DC), so when we received my birthday card from Jonathan's parents sponsoring a trip, I was really excited. I immediately looked up their hours and carefully studied the chart of which days have which flavors (I was shocked that there were some flavors that were only available one day a week!). We ended up going on Monday, almost a week after my birthday. When we arrived, we realized that we had been very close once. The cupcakery was only a few doors down from Max's Opera Cafe, where we ate once with Andy in 2009.

We chose two flavors each to take home and enjoy over the next couple of days. My first selection was banana, with vanilla frosting. Jonathan (of course) went with red velvet with cream cheese frosting. I also chose cinnamon sugar, which is a spiced buttermilk cake with cinnamon sugar on top... no frosting. The last selection was the vanilla cupcake with chocolate cream cheese frosting. About an hour after we got home we decided to enjoy some cupcake action. My first bite into the banana bursted with flavor. The vanilla frosting complimented it very well, and it was very banana-y through to the end. Jonathan took a bite and also thought that it was the epitome of "banana," LoL. Jonathan really enjoyed the cream cheese frosting on his. We agreed that the red velvet flavoring was not typical... it certainly had a non-chocolate flavor, and without the accompanying cream cheese frosting, it would have been difficult to know for sure that the flavor of the cake was indeed red velvet.


We saved the other two until the following evening (and I forgot to take photos as we were eating those ones). We couldn't wait any longer than that, since they use no preservatives and they really recommend that people eat them the day of purchase. We kept them in individual ziplocs to keep them fresh. The top half of the cinnamon cupcake was delicious- the cinnamon did some sort of caramelizing or something to the cake, resulting in a wonderful taste. The bottom half was kinda plain... it did have a nice spice to it, but a little disappointing. The vanilla cupcake was pretty plain, but the chocolate cream cheese frosting was wonderful. I probably ate 1/3 of that one, since Jonathan wasn't a big fan.

Overall, it was a cool experience. I don't know that I'd pay $3.50 for a cupcake (they weren't over-sized or anything), or that I'd want to eat one on-the-go (they were matched really well with milk!), but it's worth a trip. Oh, and those cute decorations on top were crunchy and not good (well, I didn't even try one, but Jonathan tried those on both of his and wasn't pleased).

Thursday, February 3, 2011

There's a Zoo in my Mouth...

...yep, that's what I said about my birthday dinner.

I really wanted to do something different for my birthday dinner this year, so I sought out a fondue place. Jonathan and I tried out The Melting Pot one time in 2008 (or maybe even 2007) and weren't all that impressed, though we agreed that the novelty was good. We had a couple of non-chain fondue places out here, so after reading some online reviews, I chose La Fondue, which is in Saratoga, about twenty minutes away from our place. Because fondue is generally a pricey meal, I wasn't counting on being able to get very many people to come on out with us, but to my surprise we ended up with five, which worked out pretty well. We had a reservation for 8 o'clock, and all carpooled from our place, so it made it easy. The waiting area was nice, but we didn't really focus on it since we were seated immediately. The lamps had a machine-gun look, which the boys thought was cool. We took a bit of time looking over the menus, since it was pretty intense. In the end, we ordered two different meals, both of which fell under "Fondue Feast."

Jim and Vivian chose the Blue Tomato cheese fondue, which was beer-based with cheddar, blue cheese, and sundried tomatoes. Kathy, JB, and I went with the 4 Cheese, which was champagne-based with Fontina, Gruyere, Ementhaler, and Surchoix. These were neat, since they made them at the table for us. We enjoyed it quite a bit, and our dippers included bread, potatoes, garlic, carrots, broccoli, tiny pickles, apples, and grapes. I think we all had our favorites - but of course mine was the bread! I had to really stop myself from filling up!
While we were eating the cheese course, the salads came. Jonathan and I both ordered the chef salad, but everyone else had the spinach salad. Everyone agreed that the salad was excellent and that the ingredients were incredibly fresh. Our chef salads had cheese on top as well as four small "chef rolls," which were pinwheels of salami and cheese. Again, I had to stop myself from gobbling down the salad, only eating 30-40% of it... it was HUGE! (and, in theory, for $10 a la carte it should have been, LoL).

The next round was the meats. We all chose the "euro-grill" method, which turned out to be pretty easy and pretty good. Kathy, Jonathan, and I chose the Swiss Chicken (swiss cheese and honey mustard-flavored, from what we could tell), Savage Wild Duck, Sea Scallops, Alligator Tail, Wild Kangaroo, and Antelope. Jim and Vivian also chose the Savage Wild Duck and Wild Kangaroo, but went with a Japonaise Chicken (teriyaki-style), Tuna Saku, Filet Mignon, and one more. There were also more vegetables, including carrots and peppers. There were also SIX dipping sauces! Teriyaki, wasabi teriyaki, mango chutney, sour cream and chives, garlic butter, and barbecue. I liked the teriyaki quite a bit, and Vivian adored the mango chutney. The garlic butter worked well to cook the vegetables and scallops, so it all came together really well. We all liked the antelope, we were half-and-half on the kangaroo (I think it tasted like meaty popcorn) and the duck, and loved pretty much everything else as well. They were out of ostrich and llama, so I think those are definitely on the list for the future, along with python and wild boar!
duck on top, kangaroo in the middle, scallops on the bottom

I was psyched about the dessert, and I had every reason to be! We got milk chocolate with amaretto, and Jim and Vivian got the Flaming Turtle, which really was set ablaze! That was cool, since we were able to roast marshmallows on the flame before it went out, hehe. Our dish of dessert dippers had a single candle, and since we were already buying dessert, as a birthday gift they gave the entire table champagne! It wasn't as delicious as the kind we brought (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday it's BYOB with no corkage fees!), but still very thoughtful and yummy. The dippers included strawberries, bananas, oranges, cream puffs, marshmallows, piroulines, chunks of chocolate chip cookie dough, rice krispies treats, and little marscapone cheese balls. We asked for extra strawberries, bananas, cream puffs, and cookie dough. It was simply fabulous. I think we all ate as much as we could before calling it a night, LoL. Before wrapping up, I wanted to point out how eclectic and unique the decor of the restaurant is. Each room is decorated differently, and everything from the wallpaper to the mirrors is exquisite. Truly a sight to behold, and at least a few of us got up at various points of the meal to walk around the other areas of the restaurant, hehe. The prices were a little high, but in comparison to other meals we've had that cost about the same, this one was a winner in my book!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Fiesta del Mar

...the search for good Mexican food continues. Andy suggested that we try Fiesta del Mar, which is a place that we drove by very frequently when we lived in Mountain View, but never stopped in to try. Jonathan went there once for lunch with Jim, but it was quite a while ago. So, for a Friday lunch, Jonathan, Andy, and I met there to give them a go!

I arrived first and was greeted very nicely. I was seated immediately and waters were brought to the table within a minute. Chips with three different salsas were placed, and I admired the decor of the restaurant while I waited for the boys. The chairs appeared to be hand-carved and painted to resemble various animals, which was neat. There were also dozens of wooden fish lining the wall - each painted with a different design. The salsas were each quite different - a mild, a spicy, and a chunky. I preferred the chunky, though we ate a bit of all of them.

I chose the chicken chimichanga (this time remembering to ask for double-rice-no-beans), which came with sour cream, guacamole, and fresh cheese on top. I was delighted to find the guacamole very flavorful and the cheese quite good as well. The meat wasn't marinated in anything special, but the chimichanga had a good flavor overall. The rice was plentiful and delicious - and although I was surprised to find small pieces of potato in it, they added a nice touch. I'm not sure if I finished quite half, but came close.

Jonathan went with the chicken burrito. He found the chicken to be really good, and it was quite cheesy. It did come with a red sauce that was weird and that he would substitute out next time.

Andy chose the fish burrito, which came with a creamy sauce. It looked wonderful, and Andy agreed that it was pretty good. He was busy bragging about how much he liked the refried beans, so I guess that's a good sign to those who enjoy them.

I was the only one to take home leftovers, and they were just as scrumptious that evening. Ladies and gentlemen, we have certainly found the frontrunner for Mexican food in this area! Next time I look forward to getting a seafood dish... after all, it's in their name!