World Renowned, Locally Loved

How many chain restaurants can draw lines everyday, from opening to closing, numbering well into the dozens on a “slow” day? What about an outpost that can claim a Michelin star? If you haven’t already heard of Din Tai Fung, there’s a good chance you’ve felt its impact on the overall culinary landscape whether you realize it or not. Born in Taiwan originally as a cooking oil purveyor, Din Tai Fung transitioned into the restaurant business in 1972 and has taken the world by storm ever since. Based primarily in Asia, the west coast has been blessed with a handful of these hallowed outposts, each one drawing rave reviews at a fevered pitch typically reserved for rarefied fine dining. Making a taste of the extraordinary accessible on a mainstream level is just one of their many triumphs.

It’s been said that their xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings, are the absolute pinnacle of perfection; the very best example of the art, executed with the exact same mastery every single time despite being made by hand, in volumes that would boggle the sober mind. Unfortunately, that’s not a debate I can weigh in on, as vegan soup dumplings are about as common as three-legged unicorns. Why bother with the wait, which can range from a minimum of  one to three hours, then? Well, there’s a whole lot more to this menu than just dough-encased parcels of pork.

Keenly aware of their local audience, Americans are treated to clearly labeled options for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dishes. Even without modification, overwhelming choices unfold with the turn of the page, particularly for vegetable-lovers with a penchant for spice.

Vegetable and Mushroom Dumplings surely can’t compare to their plump, porky brethren, but offer a highly competent, crowd-pleasing combination of springy wonton wrappers and tender umami fillings. The same can be said for the Vegetable and Mushroom Bun, which simply replaces that thin and chewy exterior with a puffy, fluffy cloud of steamed white bread. Essential for enjoyment is the DIY dip you’ll concoct from slivers of fresh ginger and black vinegar, mixed to taste.

No, that alone would not bring me running back to the Westfield Valley Fair mall where this Santa Clara locale has set up shop, of all places. It’s the starters and sides that make this meal. Like Thanksgiving dinner, side dishes are the stars of this show.

Go with a crowd and order every single plant-based appetizer because I can’t imagine leaving without just a bite of each transcendent taste lingering on my tongue. Soy Noodle Salad, a cold composition of shredded bean curd, is an absolute necessity. Deceptively simple on the surface, masterfully balanced flavors play on every delicate strand, sparkling with gently salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and savory notes in such perfect harmony that one can’t be fully separated from another. The Cucumber Salad arrives at the table like a statuesque work of edible art. Columns of stacked cylinders are crowned with a single clove of marinated garlic, which is a prize you’ll want to fight for, by the way. Wood Ear Mushrooms in Vinegar Dressing may not resonate as universally, but for fungus fiends, this is slippery plateful of earthy bliss.

Flip over to the section on greens and dig in deep. Every single dish here is completely vegan! Picking here comes down to personal preference, but don’t sleep on the Sauteed String Beans, lightly blistered from the kiss of the wok and dripping with sizeable garlic chunks. Taiwanese Cabbage gets a similar treatment, providing one of the few great examples of the concept this side of the seas.

Dessert buns stuffed with red bean paste or taro also tempt for a sweet plant-based finish, but I can’t personally vouch for these treats. Undone by an unreasonable attempt to eat through the full range of vegan specialties, I left feeling quite like an overstuffed dumpling myself.

Though you may go for the dumplings, you’ll inevitably come back for the vegetables.

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Fresh Off the Boat

One of the most buzz-worthy restaurant openings of recent months, much has already been written about FOB Kitchen in Oakland, California. Filipino food is quickly gaining mainstream traction, but remains relatively rare in an elevated dining atmosphere, particularly in an accessible, approachable format. Given the circumstances, such breathless anticipation can be forgiven. Clamoring for something new, the dining public is absolutely eating this stuff up- And not just for the novelty factor.

In a culture ruled by pork, vegan options are rare at best, but not so on the menu at the Temescal treasure. FOB Kitchen goes out of their way to provide meatless eats for their diverse, discerning Californian clientele.

Tofu-mushroom adobo, the entree that earns the most critical attention, is the result of recipe testing for over a year to get the flavors just right. Garlic-forward in the best way possible, aromatic onions and peppers give this lightly stewed combination its essential character, enhanced by a generous hand with the coconut oil for a luxurious eating experience.

Ensalada talong, an unassuming eggplant salad, turned out to be the sleeper hit of the evening, dazzling with a bright vinegar dressing sprinkled across crisp jicama, tomato, with the surprising briny bite of sea asparagus woven among tender braised eggplant and shredded mango. Crunchy broken rice crackers crown the melange with a satisfying toasted note, essentially allowing eaters to indulge in forkfuls of chips and chunky dip without looking like brutes. This dish alone is worth a return visit.

Kabocha squash also dazzles with stunning depth, stewed in coconut milk alongside long beans and onions. Such simplicity belies the incredible richness of each melt-in-your-mouth soft orange cube.

Pancit sontaghon, simple glass noodles with a handful of colorful vegetables, doesn’t have quite the same sparkle, but still satisfies with its savory soy sauce-infused translucent strands.

Suman, a variation on mango sticky rice, presents the starch as a completely smooth cylinder on the plate that bears only gentle resistance to the fork. Topped with caramelized coconut crumbs, the lightly bitter notes contrast beautifully with the tropical fruit arranged on the side. Though I might personally prefer more sauce, it could probably be served in a soup bowl and I’d still have the same complaint.

Beginning life as a fledgling pop-up back in 2015, the name is an acronym for “Fresh Off the Boat,” but I truly hope they’re dropping anchor to stay a good long while.

Glass Act

After so many years of looking inward in search of that “new you for the new year,” can we all agree that what we really need to change is the same tired routine? Could it be that such deep personal dissatisfaction is simply a side effect of boredom, of time wasted on the couch instead of living life? Shake it up, get out there, and do something radically different this time around! I’m all about making 2019 my year of adventure, starting with a little help from IfOnly. Curating singular experiences with talented luminaries in cities across the US, this is not just another Groupon or Living Social app. You can have Alice Waters cook a private meal for you in your own home, go paragliding over the whole bay area, or even book a hot air balloon excursion over Mount Everest. Starting a bit closer to home, I’m still just testing the waters before I jump in head-first on a scuba diving adventure, instead homing in on the wide range of hands-on art opportunities nearby. Sure, painting and sewing are easy enough to pick up, but glass work is considerably less accessible.

Enter: Lynn Rovelstad, offering curious crafters an opportunity to get up close and personal with a kaleidoscope of custom glass projects. Rather than a standard drop-in to dabble with scraps, this booking gets you a private tutorial with the glass master herself, for an intimate afternoon for two or a party of twelve.

Whereas blown glass is difficult, hot, and potentially very dangerous, fused glass is easy, safe, and fun for all ages. In fact, children as young as 18 months have gotten in on the act, but 3 years old is the generally recommended minimum. The biggest hazard to participants are possible glass splinters, though even that risk is quite rare.

Fragments of colored glass are adhered to solid white, black, or clear glass base with plain old nontoxic Elmer’s glue gel. The process is very much reminiscent of mosaic making, with the bigger picture slowly revealing itself through each subsequent shard. Placement becomes permanent only after a day or two in the 1500-degree kiln. Edges are rounded, surfaces smoothed, and your work of art transforms into a solid, single piece. It’s akin to modern magic, although in the case of my one-of-a-kind serving utensil set, much more practical alchemy.

In one afternoon, I managed to go outside my comfort zone to explore a new part of the bay area, meet an inspiring artisan, spend time with a good friend, AND craft a completely unique salad serving set, barbecue fork, bread knife, and cake server. While it may not be as bold as flying a jet plane at mach speed, it was the exhilarating change of pace I needed to get out of my crafting rut and try something new.

Join me: Don’t just make resolutions for 2019, but make something real. Start crossing activities of your bucket list instead of adding them, for once. Get $50 off your first booking on IfOnly with the discount code “Kaminsky50” until 3/31/19.

A Fresh Approach to Fast Casual

Chain restaurants have come to represent the slow erosion of all that is held dear by discerning diners the world over. Homogenized, mass-produced, oversimplified menus designed for consistency and volume proliferate, muting bold flavors in favor of simplicity. Quality isn’t the first, nor second or third, consideration, with more focus placed on cost than true value. Small businesses are edged out, putting the endangered mom and pop shop around the corner at even greater risk than ever.

Surely you’ve heard this tale of woe before. It’s not a new story, and no happy ending seems to lie ahead in the yet unwritten pages. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. “Franchise” doesn’t have to be a dirty word when it represents the spread of better corporate values. Veggie Grill is bucking the trend as the largest 100% vegan chain in the country, bringing real food that “celebrates the veggie, the fruit, the grain, and the nut” to the people. Veggie Grill has over 30 locations spread across the west coast and is soon to begin their east coast invasion, taking root in Cambridge, MA before spreading to NYC in 2019. If you haven’t yet heard about their infamous B-Wing Salad or sat down to a towering Beyond Burger, you’re in for a treat.

My first taste of Veggie Grill was many years ago when it was still a fledgling eatery based in Portland, OR. Although I’ve dabbled with the bay area locations once a year or so, they still remained just a bit beyond easy access… Until now. Planting themselves right in the heart of downtown Berkeley, it’s dangerously easy to pop in whenever the craving for Tempura Green Beans strikes, or worse yet, simply order $1 delivery through the app.

Meatless mains feature prominently through partnerships with Beyond Meat, Gardein and Hodo, appealing to the staunch omnivore and old-school vegan alike. Many reviews come from confused patrons who realize only after plowing through their entree that it was entirely plant-based. This is exactly the kind of accessibility that the industry needs now; not dumbed-down flavors, but a level playing field to unite eaters of all stripes. You can still get your spicy Buffalo Wings with creamy ranch dressing; your soulful Southern Fried Chicken plate piled high with mashed potatoes and gravy; your bright and zesty Mediterranean Super greens Salad, if you so choose.

My personal favorite of the moment is the Rustic Farm Bowl for its deeply umami grilled mushrooms, roasted yams, braised white beans, broccoli pesto, roasted tomatoes, and red pepper sauce. Every element would be a fine bite by itself, but in concert, creates a symphony of carefully tuned tastes, in perfect proportion. It’s a grounding meal that always leaves me feeling satisfied, energized rather than weighed down, easy to grab and just keep going. That’s what fast casual dining should really be about, right? Fuss-free, wholly satisfying fare that fits into the existing social fabric, rather than tearing a hole through it. If you haven’t yet tried Veggie Grill, prepare yourself. You may just see one opening up near you soon.

Don’t forget to download the app before you go and use my code HannahKa8145 for $5 off when you sign up!

Carbivore

WAIT! Before you start folding up the picnic table and packing away the lawn darts, let’s pretend like it’s still summer for just a little bit longer, please? While everyone else rushes to embrace the new pumpkin-infused season, plenty of warm, sunny days remain in the forecast yet, with much of the west coast in particular still due for a solid heatwave soon. Despite what the calendar may tell you, take a look outside before donning that heavy sweater. Let’s party like fall is but a distant concept for later days, concerning only overly cautious weathermen determined to throw shade on our fun.

My encouragement is of course entirely self-serving, but you see, it would be a shame to sit on this great pasta salad for another full year. Inspired by a trip to Baia Pasta, my neighbors in Oakland that I never knew lived next door all along, such incredible noodles need little ornamentation to shine on any table.

These small-batch artisan noodles are making a big splash nationwide thanks to an obsessive level of passion for every detail. Obvious considerations are the specific amounts of protein, moisture, type of flour, but what about the drying temperature and time? Procuring the unique shapes and the obscure dies to extrude them? Determining the types of wheat that can endure such a demanding process without breaking, dissolving, or crumbling under the pressure? That’s to say nothing of the unconventional seasonings blended into some of the more colorful pastas, giving rise to a full rainbow of bright, bold flavors.

Organic durum, whole durum, spelt, whole spelt, and whole khorasan wheat are the foundations of each charming twist, twirl, and tube. Pale, limp spaghetti strands are no where to be seen here, and you’d never miss them in the first place.

To fully celebrate such an exquisite yet uncomplicated staple, the greatest (and most challenging) task for the cook is to simply not mess with perfection. It’s already great as is- What more could one add?

In this case, my inclusions are more like additional refrains of the chorus, echoing and underscoring what already got the crowd off their feet to sing. Beautiful Organic Durum Wheat Flavored Soup Radiatori (Dynamos) are infused with beets, spinach, and tomatoes, which are exactly the same guests I invited to harmonize. Yes, that’s why it’s the BeST pasta salad, but for more than that cute pun alone. Accented with an invigorating punch of fresh basil, savory yet subtle white miso, and a light kiss of buttery avocado oil, it might very well be best dish of the season altogether, if we can sneak this last ode to summer in, right under the wire.

Smothering any of the superlative pastas from Baia with a heavy sauce seemed a crime, though I’ll readily admit, later experiments with mac and cheese were a stunning success…

But that can wait for colder days. For now, let’s revel in the fading sunlight, the last call of summer, until we reach the very bottom of the bowl.

BeST Pasta Salad

2 Cups Grape or Cherry Tomatoes, Halved
1 Medium Gold Beet, Peeled and Spiralized
8 Ounces Rainbow Radiatori Pasta, Cooked, Rinsed in Cold Water, and Thoroughly Drained
4 Cups Baby Spinach
3 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1 Clove Garlic, Very Finely Minced
1/4 Cup Avocado Oil
3 Tablespoons Sherry Vinegar
2 Tablespoons White Miso Paste
1/2 Cup Fresh Basil, Roughly Chopped
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

As you might imagine, this pasta salad comes together very quickly and easily. If you’ve gone through the trouble of prepping the ingredients as listed, you probably aren’t even reading this instruction right now. That’s okay; I wouldn’t bother either. Simply toss everything together until well blended, and either enjoy immediately, or chill for up to 4 hours. Savor a taste of summer all over again.

Makes 4 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe