BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Savory Saturday: Fine Dining

Hearts of Palm Salad from Nobu

Tofu Sashimi from Nobu

Mushroom Tobanyaki from Nobu

Zucchini Unagi (Cauli-Rice, Shiso, Lotus Root) from Greens & Vines

Zucchini Noodles with Macadamia Nut Pesto and Local Tomatoes from Greens & Vines

Sugarland Farms Watermelon (Thai Style Garlic Chili Vinaigrette, Nalo Herbs, Cucumber, Puffed Rice) from Roy’s


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Peerless Portland

Two years seems like nothing on paper, in the bigger scheme of things, but can make all the difference in the world when applied to real life. So much had transpired since the inaugural Vida Vegan, changes that affected both the event and myself for the better. One could never have accused this mass vegan convergence of delivering anything less than the most anticipated long weekend of the year, and this latest chapter to the story proved only greater than the last. Despite all the fun, friends, and food, I found myself horribly preoccupied for that first round, stressed to the max by my speaking engagements and upcoming book release. Coming home with only a single photo of a dewy spiderweb on my memory card to show for it all, it wasn’t exactly a travel log to share about. The general situation may have been the same, frantically writing magazine articles on the plane, receiving a second pass of the edited manuscript in transit, and fretting to no end about my workshop, but somehow, those burdens didn’t weigh me down. Making a concerted effort to breathe occasionally and actually get a taste of Portland, the overall experience was so much more enjoyable than the first.

The one restaurant on my list that was an absolute “must visit” was Portobello Trattoria, which we hit first thing before the convention even began. Clearly overeager, we actually showed up about an hour early for our reservation, trudging through the rain a bit faster than anticipated. No matter, once the doors were open we were seated immediately and lavished with unforgettable eats in no time. Asparagus Fries failed to excite my interest on the menu, so it’s a good thing that my mom ventured to order the tempura-battered green stalks. They were hands-down the hit of the evening, ringing with umami flavor that seemed disproportionate to the tiny, slender spears. Served with a creamy cashew-based dip, the condiment truly gilded the lily; it was delicious, of course, but completely unnecessary. If I could go back and eat any one thing in Portland, it would be this simple appetizer.

On the other end of the asparagus spectrum, I glommed onto the listing of Asparagus Vichyssoise like there was no tomorrow, immediately attracted to the promise of a cool, refreshing starter. Topped with sauteed mushrooms, asparagus ribbons, and edible yellow flowers, it was every bit as lovely as it was tasty. Though the dominant flavor was potato rather than asparagus, it was still a wonderful appetizer, light enough to whet the appetite without being too filling.

As soon as the entrees were presented at the table with a modest flourish, I started snapping pictures of my mom’s dinner first, working quickly so that she could begin eating. Of course, it was only after she broke the delicate pasta shells in half with a swift slash of the fork that the English Pea Ravioli with Morels revealed their true beauty. Vivid green pea filling, accented with a light touch of mint, provided both visual and flavorful contrast to the creamy, umami-rich sauce. I almost regretted not ordering a plate for myself, at least until I had a bite of my own main course…

Portobello Roast is a tried-and-true classic vegan dish, but they’ve really done it justice at its namesake restaurant. Fanned out artfully atop a round of sun-dried tomato polenta and cashew-creamed greens, the mushroom itself was perfectly tender, retaining a satisfying bite and bold savory flavor. Unchallenging, uncomplicated, it was probably the safest bet on the menu, but even such a modest gamble payed off. After a long day of turbulent travel, it suited my uneasy stomach just right.

Another day, another dining destination. Portland is full to bursting with gourmet vegan picks, so how is one to choose the best meals within the span of just a few days? Well, a generous dinner invitation certainly helps. Accompanied by some high-powered vegan luminaries and bloggers, our group made quick work of just about the entire menu at Blossoming Lotus. Dining with friends means sampling more dishes, so we definitely covered a lot of ground, but on the downside, I don’t remember what everything was. The above drink was not mine, has been removed from the online menu, and I have no idea what it was. Darn. Nice eye candy though, right?

One of my favorite dishes arrived early on in the meal: The Artichoke Fritters, deceptively simple little snacks, were perfectly crisp and crunchy on the outside, with just the right amount of salt. Paired with a creamy lemon-caper dressing, even the leftover crumbs of coating were inhaled after a quick dip.

Despite the riot of dishes that arrived all at once, I was immediately drawn to the Chickpea Curry*. Though a bit hot and heavy for a late spring day, the cold weather made it an instant hit, soothing bites of sweet potato mingling with the beans in a lightly coconut-spiked stew. Gloriously green kale on top lightened it significantly, while the perfectly caramelized cauliflower balanced at the top of the heap effortlessly stole the show. If we hadn’t been sharing plates, I would have licked this one clean.

*Not it’s real name, since I once again neglected to take notes at the time and can’t find it on the menu now. This might just put me in the running for worst food blogger of the year.

My last hurrah, the final meal in Portland, was a decision made at the last minute, largely due to proximity and a rapidly rising hunger level. Located just a few steps away from our hotel, Veggie Grill turned out to be the sleeper hit of the trip. In fact, my mom was so taken with the concept that she began plotting out the best space for the next outpost to open up back at home. Her pick was the Crispy Chickn’ Plate, a comforting platter heaped high with steamed kale, mashed potatoes with gravy, and the aforementioned breaded cutlet. This is the kind of food that anyone can enjoy, hearty yet healthy at the same time.

My meal of Papa’s Portabello (Kale Style) with Side Salad was decidedly less photogenic, but exactly what what my cravings demanded. Piled so high with caramelized onions and pesto that the mushroom itself was obscured from view, the combination was entirely addictive. Though I took so long chatting with friends that helpful servers tried to clear away my dish twice, I guarded it jealously until every last bite was gone. The single clove of roasted garlic crowning the stack was a surprise treat- Paired with the naturally sweet caramelized onion, the combination was out of this world.

Although that barely scratches the surface of all the vegan delights that Portland has to offer, or that I was able to taste in such a short amount of time, it’s just a sampling of a few truly memorable meals. Besides, even this brief glance over the dining options must beat a single photo of a spiderweb, right? For more mouth-watering photos, check out my Portland, Oregon 2013 set on Flickr, with more pictures to be added as I find time to sift through them.


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Hello, Hilo

By contrast to the hustle and bustle of Honolulu, Hilo is a sleepy little town tucked into the lush countryside. Compared to the rest of the country though, it’s still a lively and fully urbanized city. Condensing the majority of its shops and eateries into just about a dozen square blocks, almost everything is immediately accessible without hopping in a car, despite the lack of a comprehensive public transit system. For those seeking a tropical “escape” that still has all the amenities of home, Hilo should be at the top of your list. Pick your arrival time wisely, however, and don’t do as I did by landing on Sunday. Just a whisper above a ghost town, most of Hilo either takes Sunday off completely or closes up shop early, leaving those seeking shopping or structured entertainment to fend for themselves. Bear in mind that the listed hours for businesses here are generally more of a rough estimate than a precise time to set a watch by on any day, so always call in advance to confirm that the hits on your list are actually open when you drop by. Luckily, there are still a handful of eateries putting out their best dishes well into the evening. It was the small farmer’s market that shocked me, generously pointed out by an effusive shuttle driver on my way out of the airport.

The Hilo Farmer’s Market website states Wednesday and Saturday, 6:00 AM to 4:00 PM in no unclear terms, and yet there it was, gently humming away into the midday heat of Sunday afternoon. Though more modest in size and selection than the “big” days, this was no ramshackle assortment of venders here. Hidden on the corner just behind the KTA grocery store, skip the shopping cart to find more locally produced items just a few steps away. Piles of fresh produce overflowed out of baskets, fresh flowers sat in carefully arranged bouquets, and a good handful of homemade jams and syrups were available for tasting, to boot. Better than the selection that I’d find at my own local markets in the height of summer, this was a true boon to discover. Now that I had a full kitchen back at my hotel, I shamelessly stocked up on fruits and vegetables, stuffing the fridge as much as one can for such a brief stay.

Little did I know what hidden treasures lay barely a foot outside my hotel room door. For the first time using the descriptor of “homey” as a positive thing, I would recommend the Dolphin Bay Hotel to absolutely anyone. Walking into my comfortably furnished studio apartment, it really did feel like my own, happily lived in space. Offering bottomless cups of coffee in the morning far better than the average bitter brew, that generosity is only topped by the readily available papayas and finger bananas 24/7. Sitting right out in the hall, everyone is encouraged to eat as many as they can, and I did indulge quite a bit. Best of all, however, is their impossibly fruitful backyard. A quick stroll outside brought to light more edible delights than I could count, including but not limited to starfruit, oranges, ginger, bread fruit, mountain apples, and yes, avocados. It simply boggled my mind that all of this could be grown in the comfort of one’s home.

Though I now had plenty of food to survive through my single full day stay, there were a few enticing gustatory leads worth investigating nonetheless. All of my original points of interest were unavailable, but I struck solid gold after glancing into Le Magic Pan‘s open door. One of the rare establishments open until 9:00 PM everyday, they’re your best bet for a memorable vegan meal. Admittedly, options are slim, with your only real choice being the chickpea flour or buckwheat Vegan Crepe, but the mere existence of vegan crepes should be enough to encourage a taste. Go for the “half salad, half crepe” option, as portions are generous and the salad is far better than mere iceberg shreds with a token cherry tomato on top. Wildly varied and colorful throughout, the seemingly disparate ingredients came together to create a delightful little starter to whet one’s appetite.

Crispier than the average pancake, my chickpea-based crepe reminded me more of dosa than any French fare, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment one bit. Tucking artichoke hearts, creamy avocado chunks, and the salty pops of kalamata olives into that blanket of batter, the whole thing is topped off with an artful drizzle of “magic sauce,” which was appropriately surprisingly and mysteriously delicious. A must-try for any vegan in Hilo, budget travelers can play their cards wisely to get the best deal: The very same dish is on offer for breakfast, but at $2 cheaper.

Though I did have grand plans to visit a sushi joint offering up some creative vegetarian rolls, alas, bad timing thwarted my attempts. A full day tour kept me away from the downtown area until most places had closed up shop for the day, and then little was open the following morning of my departure. My greatest regret is missing out on trying shave ice… But I guess that’s just one more reason I’ll need to return, and soon.

Photos are still being uploaded to my Flickr set everyday, so keep clicking by to see the full scope of my trip. Coming soon: waterfalls and craters and vog, oh my!


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Broke Da Mout

Hawaiians simply have a way with words. Direct but gentle, and often spoken with a good dose of humor, every statement seems to come with a built-in smile at the end. Said in Pidgin with island inflection, “broke da mout” (“break the mouth”) is in fact a compliment to the chef. Not nearly as painful as it may let on, the phrase suggests that you’ve eaten something so unfathomably delicious, or eaten such vast quantities of it, that you simply couldn’t stand to take another bite. Ergo, your palate has been thoroughly spoiled, in the most satisfying way. I can report without hesitation that I thoroughly broke my own mouth to the fullest extent of the definition while in Honolulu.

Lured out by the familiar urge to discover new ono grindz (good eats), every step of my two mile walk to reach Greens & Vines was worth the effort. Born of the 100% raw vegan catering company Licious Dishes, this dine-in outpost is only a few months old, still glistening with that new restaurant shine. Glowing like a beacon on a dark night, the neon sign out front is quite arresting, especially for the unprepared. Already on my hit list, it was a sight I was unprepared for as I gazed blankly out the bus window.

“Oh, that’s the restaurant right there!” I exclaimed in spite of myself, to no one in particular. It would clearly require a more thorough exploration at a later time, especially without those lovely people sharing public transit who were now convinced of my mental instability.

After miscalculating the distance from my hotel rather drastically, it ended up being a later meal than anticipated, but gave me plenty of time to work up an appetite. Good thing too, since just one plateful of Kaffir Miso Pad Thai, composed of kelp noodles and topped off with a generous handful of crunchy cashews, left me feeling quite stuffed. Taking my time to luxuriate in every slippery strand, the effusively friendly staff made me feel more than welcome to linger, as opposed to so many other establishments that saw the single vegan diner as a burden. One gets a real sense of community here, proof positive that veganism is alive and thriving in all pockets of the world.

Although I already broke da mout on my main dish, the temptation of the dessert menu was too much to bear. Wrapping up a petite wedge of Tangerine Cheesecake to go, it became a most decadent midnight snack just a few hours later. Flawlessly smooth, creamy, and sparkling with citrus zest, its small size belied immense flavor. More than enough to satisfy even my voracious sweet tooth, what initially seemed like a scant portion turned out to be just right.

The raw movement may still be in its infancy in Honolulu, but endless other clean, green options can be readily found hidden in amongst the puka dog and saimin stands. Peace Cafe serves up well-balanced meals with a macrobiotic sort of slant, featuring otherwise obscure flavors like matcha and kinako to create vegan treats found no where else.

Speaking of which, the Iced Matcha Latte is an absolute must for any hot day, which is pretty much every day on the island. Lightly sweetened just to cut the bitter edge of the powdered green tea, soy milk lends body to the beverage, making it both refreshing and wholly satisfying. If only I had ventured out to this part of town sooner, I’m certain I would have found many excuses to return for a second and third refill.

Mochi brownies displayed alluringly on the counter did look like an awfully attractive lunch option, but the savory dishes are worth holding out for. Before ever setting foot in the shop, I already knew that I wanted the Heart and Seoul entree: Inspired by Korean bibimbap, a power plate of greens, both raw and cooked, beansprouts, shredded carrots, and either fresh tofu or TVP over a bed of brown rice. Ever indecisive, I stood there hemming and hawing at the counter, until the cashier helpfully broke my strained silence. “I could get you a little bit of both, too- How about that?” she asked sweetly. Yes, please; I felt like I really could have it all in that moment. Both were utterly delightful, but being the tofu-lover that I am, I would spring for a full portion of only that silky-soft bean curd next time. Topped off with a healthy dollop of very mild gochujang to mix and mash at will, the diner has the freedom to mix in as much of that salty paste as their heart desires. Naturally, I devoured every last smudge.

What’s most telling about how vegan-friendly a city is, however, is not the number of specialty shops or isolated outposts. Rather, it’s what one can scavenge in the everyday eateries, even the mundane or most unpromising locations. While the Ala Moana Mall is no average shopping center, boasting hundreds of stores spread out for what seems like miles, the above platter is still an incredible testament to how open and accessible Honolulu is to the compassionate visitor or resident. Grylt Ala Moana, located in the Makai Food Court, is one of three locations within Honolulu. In true cafeteria style, you’re encouraged to build your own plate, picking between proteins, sides, and sauces. Grilled Tofu is the way to go to avoid animal protein, and incredibly, you can actually choose Olive Oil Mashed Cauliflower over plain white rice, if desired. For just 50 cents more, it’s more than worth the upgrade. Grilled Veggies are already so expertly seasoned with balsamic vinegar and black pepper, it seems a shame to cover them with any additional sauce, despite how bright and vivacious the Citrus Herb Oil was. Request it on the side to dip the tofu in, and you’ll have the perfect complement to all components.

Next, we’re jetting off to another island… The Big Island, in fact, for a stop in Hilo. Still more photos are being uploaded everyday, so please keep checking in to see all of my adventures!


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Biting into the Big Pineapple

Though its nickname evokes images of a more tropical rendition of New York City, Honolulu is truly beyond compare. A big city with the heartbeat of a small town, everyone seems to know each other, or at least treat strangers like family if they don’t. Shy and introverted by nature, it took a huge step outside of myself to embark on my first solo trip, and I can say with conviction that there was no better destination than this string of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Reaching out into the void, I was shocked by the genuine kindness that was placed in my outstretched palms. Hearing horror stories about Hawaii’s rocky past, including some lingering (and often justified) resentment against haoles, it seemed a sure thing that my sheet-white face was just asking for trouble. Never have I been so happy to be wrong.

Simple interactions, no matter how shallow, just felt warmer, friendlier than anything I had previously encountered. Smiles came easily, instantly, to every gentle face, and accidental eye contact no longer felt like a potential threat. For the rest of my life, I will never forget the mundane act of waiting for the bus in China Town. Midday sun blazing away, cooling trade winds no where to be found, it was a warmth that was impossible to comprehend for a January afternoon. Wholly unprepared for the heat, I rolled up my sleeves and sweated it out, checking and double-checking the schedule to make sure I had picked the right bus line. Out of the blue, a petite woman sitting on the bench struck up a conversation, noticing my discomfort.

“Yeah, I sure wish I had an umbrella like you,” I mentioned dreamily, nodding to her black-paneled parasol. “I’ve only thought of them for rainy days, but that’s such a good idea!”

Without missing a beat, she immediately offered to share her shade. “Come sit by me then! There’s plenty of room,” she indicated her vast abundance of space, patting the empty seat. And so there I sat, nearly 5,000 miles from home, cheek-to-cheek with a complete stranger, having rarely felt safer in the comfort of my own house.

It’s such a simple gesture, such a forgettable instance, but I’m still bowled over by that effortless generosity. It’s just not something I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.

The people are what truly makes Hawaii so special, but the food naturally ranks second on my list of reasons to visit. Shockingly, vegan options abound in Honolulu, with hardly a menu lacking one ready-to-eat option. Tofu reigns supreme here, thanks to the influence of many Asian cultures, thus making it the norm rather than the “alternative.” Not every morsel was the height of fine cuisine, but I had a handful of memorable meals that would be worth returning to the island for.

An unassuming little hole in the wall, Ruffage Natural Foods is located just a few short blocks away from Kuhio Beach in Waikiki. After a long day of sun and surf, the short menu of simple, wholesome entrees draws both travelers and locals alike. The Tofu Avocado Spring Salad was exactly what I craved, fulfilling my desperate need for fresh greens and a punch of protein. Despite the heat, I still couldn’t resist pairing that with a soul-satisfying cup of miso soup, filled with seaweed and tofu as well. For a no-frills healthy meal, I can’t think of a better place to drop by.

Out in China Town, at the very bus stop where my most cherished conversation took place, the Downbeat Diner is also serving up some awesome meatless eats. Boasting a menu of comfort foods and classic diner favorites, they readily accept the challenge of veganizing each and every option should it not be naturally free of animal ingredients already. Since I came in a little bit early for lunch, the brunch options were most appealing, and they pulled out a solid Tofu Scramble indeed.

Squeezing in those greens again, this platter typically comes with potatoes, but can be swapped for a salad upon request. Mushrooms and onions added a savory complexity to the yellow-hued, seasoned bean curds, I cleaned my plate in mere minutes and would have licked it if not in public.

You won’t want to bypass the drink menu while you’re at it. My admittedly unusual request for a virgin Bloody Mary was met without any snark, and hit the spot perfectly. Lightly spicy, nice and salty, and packed with tomato flavor, I wish I could have ordered about a gallon of the stuff to take with me.

By complete accident or a crazy stroke of luck, however you’d like to consider it, I ended up staying at the very hotel where my top restaurant destination was situated. I had to compare the addresses at least five times before I believed it, but indeed, they were the same. Yuzu, crafting exquisite Japanese food in the ground floor of the Ala Moana Hotel, is not a vegan restaurant. Amazingly, they produce some of the most realistic-looking vegetable nigiri I have ever come across, and many other vegetable options are equally delightful.

You owe it to yourself to try the Vegetable Nigiri Sampler at least once in your life time. The height of edible art, though it may be a dead-ringer for fish at first glance, there’s not a scrap of animal protein to be found on this plate. The “tuna” slices are in fact peeled tomatoes, gently poached in vinegar to impart a uniquely bright, uncharacteristically oceanic flavor. Yuba fills one gunkan while a rich carrot mousse is piped into another. Lotus root is fried and covered with eel sauce, so cleverly hidden within its crispy shell that I would have never been able to identify it unaided. Mushrooms top of the remained of the pieces for incredible umami bites. Eggplant is typically included into the melange as well, but the chef so graciously provided a second tomato piece for me instead, accommodating for my sad eggplant intolerance.

Don’t leave the table without trying their hand-cut Veggie Medley Udon Noodles while you’re at it. Sliced fresh to order and lavished with all variety of garnishes on the side, they’re almost as much fun to eat as they are delicious. Slippery, chewy strands of wheat that twist effortlessly around the chopsticks, the noodles are a world apart from anything dried or store-bought. Each bite is a little bit different too, depending on how you load them up with scallions, sesame seeds, ginger, mushrooms, or crunchy tenkasu. A final splash into the soy-based dipping sauce, and the whole assembly goes down easily. My only regret is that I didn’t have time to return and try another dish or eight at Yuzu.

There’s still much more food to come, but in the meantime, keep checking my Flickr set for more photos!

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