In recent weeks I've had the chance to try a few SF Peninsula restaurants for the first time.
Shiok! Singapore Kitchen, 1137 Chestnut St. in Menlo Park serves up Nonya cuisine on tables covered with brown craft paper. Ours was the only party without a Malay, Hokkien or Indian face as you'll see in Singapore. Most looked like they might be students from nearby Stanford. After agonizing over whether to order the chili crab or the black pepper crab to celebrate the start of the Dungeness crab season, it was disappointing indeed to learn that the last one had been sold out from under us. We settled for nonya fish which was deep-fried snapper filet with a fiery hot tomato-onion sauce, vegetarian version char kway teow, sambal string beans, oyster omelet and coconut steamed rice. The fish was fresh and crunchy but the sauce seemed one-dimensional and simple. The oyster omelet presentation was pretty unappetizing - gray lumps and bumps of oysters, white dough balls (what are these chewy things?), and large curds of scrambled eggs served with a side of sambal chili sauce and lime wedges. But it was very delicious and the strongest dish of the night. The beans were snappy with just the right amount of salty/hot seasoning. The wine list is only 5 selections but well-chosen for value and quaffability. We had the 1998 Hugel "Gentil" from Alsace, a blend of aromatic white varieties with appley and citrus flavors and crisp acidity, priced at $20 that was a very good match for the spicy food. I was let down to learn that dessert was limited to ice cream (several tropical flavors) instead of Malay style sweets. Dinner for 3 with one bottle of wine, tax and a generous tip was $70.
Millbrae Pancake House, El Camino Real in Millbrae is a local institution. The gift shop at the entrance features a selection of stuffed animals, and in their heyday, this was one of the top outlets for beanie babies. Nothing on the dinner menu appealed, so we opted for breakfast (served all day) and a pancake trial. My brother William had the #2 - banger, eggs (scrambled) and 3 buckwheat pancakes. I asked for the # combo with corned beef hash, and the waitress instead pointed me to eggs with hash and hash browns with a substitution of pancakes for toast as a better deal. My over easy eggs were exactly the right amount of runniness to fold into the corned beef hash. The hash itself seemed like a slice of the canned variety with mushy mini-cubes of potato. The hash browns were underdone and only browned on one side. My pancakes were very good, light and fluffy, with a soft, melt in the mouth texture. On the other hand, William thought they were too soft and lacked toothsomeness. His banger was pretty good, with more meatiness than what I've had in the UK. The buckwheat pancakes were wonderful with a roasted malt flavor, slight graininess in the mouth yet very tender. William thinks the pancakes at Peter's (also on El Camino in Millbrae) are better because they're chewier, although a little more expensive. Dinner for the two of us, plus a diet soda, tax and tip was about $15.
Pisces, on California Street at the foot of Broadway in Burlingame, is the little brother of SF's Aqua. Billed as a more casual place, the starched linens, attentive service, detailed dishes and price levels are still in the fine dining realm. Located in the former train station, the dining room is long and narrow, reminescent of a rail dining car with small tables lining the long walls. A frying and wait station breaks up the expanse, and the periodic sizzle of fish hitting the fat seemed out of place here. We weren't that hungry at lunchtime and decided to try the two appetizer samplers, served as at Aqua in tiered towers. Priced at $16 apiece, each offered 3 bites of each taste. Sampler #1 included fried garlic clams, spicy fried calamari and mushroom strudel. Sampler #2 was tempura prawns, lobster egg rolls, and Hudson Valley foie gras on toast. Each taste was accompanied by a complementary dipping sauce. My favorite of these was the calamari with a sesame mayonnaise, and the fried clams were the weakest. While it wasn't that much food, it was heavy from being fried or coated with butter or duck fat. It's a lovely spot for nibbles and a leisurely two-hours reconnecting with a good friend. But I left feeling that I hadn't really let the kitchen show its talent.
Wild Hare, El Camino Real in Menlo Park, features game dishes. The dark woods, booths, open kitchen, lively bar, and mural of edible wildlife create a welcoming vibe combining hunting lodge, hearth and home, and night club in one. We had a 6pm reservation as Sheryl and Ralph had just arrived from the east coast. With so much catching up to do, we had a hard time focusing on the menu and our server did a good job of checking back, gently moving us along and getting our order in. This paid off later as we never felt rushed and relinquished our table by 9:30pm. You know you're in for a treat when the basket of breads arrive - each one was delicious in its own way. Many appetizers with fanciful descriptions to choose from, but we went with the wild mushroom risotto and the Maytag blue cheese and walnut salad to share among the three of us. Maybe not as novel as the others, these were beautifully executed. Each type of mushroom in the risotto retained its individual flavor adding its own note to the spectrum of flavors. Texturally, the rice was spot on al dente and we liked biting into the soft cubes of prosciutto di parma. The essence of the dish - damp earth, mushroom and smoke - was amplified by the 1995 Siduri Cellars "Hirsch" Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir I'd brought along. What an amazing nose! It's fully mature and ready to drink. The salad sparkled and the dressing was perfectly balanced with all its elements. Sheryl's venison shank prepared osso buco style was delicious but so intensely flavored it soon became tiring. Ralph was very happy with his smoked pork chop, as was I with the rabbit prepared 3 ways. Everything on the plate belonged there, nothing frivolous or intended to shock. The dishes were harmonious with a homey feel but show the hand of an expert chef, not an easy balance to achieve. The wine with our entrees was 1990 Arrowood Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, also from my cellar, which was more youthful and vivid than many 90s at this point, brimming with cassis, red plums and anise in a silky seamless body. Corkage was $15 per bottle, using good quality Spiegelau Bordeaux and Burgundy-style glasses. Our server was appreciative of the tastes we shared with him. Soon Executive Chef Joey Altman stopped by our table, and we twisted his arm to try our wine. He agreed with me that the Arrowood was drinking more like a 94 than a 90. Sheryl and Ralph were convinced that he came over because he'd heard I was in the house, but I noticed that he visited many other tables and worked the room with ease. We ended with a baked Alaska which was a rather small medallion of hazelnut icecream topped with a soft meringue and passed under the torch. An exceptional evening of great food, wine and good friends.
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