Rise and Shine in the Valley: Oxbow Market (Napa, CA)

The sign for Oxbow Market beckons just beyond the Napa branch
and outdoor Oxbow merchant Gott's Roadside Diner
San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace (as detailed in this prior blogpost) is certainly the most well known of the Bay Area's food-oriented market-style buildings, but it certainly is not the only one.

Oxbow Public Market in Napa, California, opened in December of 2007, is a closer match in terms of retail space and general feel with Columbus' North Market than their San Francisco-based cousin. Unlike Columbus' North Market, Oxbow had struggled originally to attract foot traffic due to a combination of unfortunate events: loss of a major anchor partner in the COPIA art/wine/food center, ongoing road construction which limited egress into the area, and a generally suppressed Bay Area economy during its first few years of operation. However, things have swung for the better for this market, which has found itself at at or close to fully leased status in the last couple years with 22 merchants and a couple of kiosks.

The interior of Napa's Oxbow Market, which has seen a turnaround in its fortunes
We dropped by Oxbow twice during our recent California trip to grab some breakfast. Our first visit brought us to one of Oxbow's most successful vendors in combination with a transplant from San Francisco.

In its four years of existence, C Casa has become a hot spot for locals craving their gourmet tacos and other Mexican-inspired dishes as well as baked goods. Along with their focus on using environmentally raised produce and meats and their offering of craft beer and wines, their entire food menu is gluten-free.

Gluten-free baking is something of an art; those purveyors who can make you forget that your baked goods are such are something of a treasure, and C Casa for the most part has reached that level. I had dropped by just a couple months after their opening and scored a coffee cake that could hold its own with most and one of the most delicious brownies I have ever had. On this visit, we couldn't NOT grab another one of those brownies for later (yes, they were still as good as I had remembered) and grabbed two more additional pastries for more immediate consumption.

My spouse chose what turned out to be a wonderful Apple Fritter, with nice big chunks of apple , perfectly airy and donut-like interior, and a sweet but not too sweet glaze. My order of a Sinnamon Bun, on the other hand, did show just a touch of its gluten-free origin: the flavor was perfectly fine, but its texture was dense and a little chewy, in contrast to the more traditional airy and flaky textures of a typical cinnamon pastry. Despite that, I was more than happy to finish off this treat.

C Casa's delicious gluten-free pastries and a couple cups of
Ritual Coffee pour-over java were a great combination
For our java, we stopped next door to the lone location outside of San Francisco for Bay Area roaster Ritual Coffee. I missed seeing their Iced Coffee on their menu (one of my most favorite iced coffee versions ever was an iced coffee using their beans brewed by San Francisco's Salt House when they for a short time served breakfast) but both my spouse and I were quite happy with her cafe au lait (an item that wasn't on the menu but more than happy to oblige in making) and a latte. Similar to One Line Coffee in Columbus, customers can choose from a selection of beans for pour over coffee or a coffee flight for $10; if coffee or espresso style drinks aren't your bag, tea and hot chocolate are also available.

On our next to last day on our trip, we stopped by another Oxbow Market vendor to start our day. St. Helena-based Model Bakery has provided their bread and other bakery goods at their St. Helena location for approximately 90 years. In 2008, they expanded their reach with a location at Oxbow, which has become a steady destination for locals since their arrival.

The place really has not changed much since our last visit last year with one notable (and happy) exception: Blue Bottle has replaced Peet's as their roaster of choice. Otherwise, their usual selection of breads and baked goods along with cafe style offerings such as sandwiches and quiche were available to all.

Model Bakery has their usual assortment of baked goods, an upgraded coffee
roaster in Blue Bottle, and their to-die-for English Muffin
I personally have thought of Model overall as a half-notch below the best of the Bay Area bakeries in terms of everything is good to very good, but not eye-poppingly great...save for one item. The English Muffin, which has received national attention via The Food Network's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" show, is a glorious construct, with its crisp golden-brown cornmeal-coated exterior (helped immensely via the use of ghee) and delightfully light, airy interior, this would be my permanent McMuffin-style sandwich bread if I had my druthers. We went for the delayed gratification in our ordering this morning: while a couple of their muffins plus Blue Bottle coffee was a perfectly nice breakfast on this morning, our purchase of a six-pack of English Muffins to-go was the real treasure. We happily savored each one of them on several morning breakfasts back in the Buckeye State upon our return.

Oxbow Public Market
610 & 644 First Street
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 226-6529
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610 First Street
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 226-7700
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Model Bakery
644 First Street, Building B
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 259-1128
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Ritual Coffee
610 First Street, Ste. 12
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 253-1190
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Southern Comfort: Dosa Corner

Dosa Corner adds tasty South Indian dishes to Columbus' culinary scene
I've found from my time here that the Indian restaurant quotient of the Columbus area is fairly similar to the San Francisco Bay Area. Many are familiar with the styles of dishes more typical of the northern regions, and believe me, my spouse and I do love ourselves a spicy meat-based curry along with a freshly baked naan bread from the tandoor more often than not.

However, that's probably the extent of what many people think of as Indian cuisine, and I have personally tried to learn more of what dishes and their respective taste profiles are related to other regions of India as best as I can. That's perhaps what makes Indian restaurants like Northwest Columbus' Dosa Corner a nice breath of fresh air to me. Similar to Dosa and Udupi Palace in San Francisco, Dosa Corner brings the tasty dishes more typical of Southern India to the forefront. The fact that they do this in an budget-friendly manner is like bonus money found in your pants pocket.

Inexpensive has been and still remains a part of the Dosa Corner's winning combination, but our latest visit there revealed the nice surprise of what seems to be a continual upgrade in appearance and service. While the exterior and interior of this restaurant (which has reached its 10th year anniversary last October) would be considered far more functional than fancy, the sprucing of the space is quite evident. The building exterior looks just slightly more inviting, and the interior adds an Indian touch via artwork, various photos of Dosa Corner's offerings, and other related media scattered along the walls.

In addition, the fast-food style paper plates and plastic utensils familiar to those who decided to dine in have now been replaced by standard flat- and service-ware; some dishes were even brought to us on metal serving trays similar to other Indian restaurants we have visited in the area.  Personally, my spouse and I did not mind this lower-end aspect at all on our previous visits; regardless, this change was well-received by our group and I imagine any other longer-term frequenter of this eatery.

The menu and the interior are fairly simply laid out at Dosa Corner
Dosa Corner is truly one of those places where we have never felt limited by the fact that they do not serve meat dishes; in fact, that factoid rarely enters the conversation at all. Simply, pretty much everything we have had from this eatery has been uniquely flavorful, from the appetizers (the Samosas and Mirchi Bajji (green peppers stuffed with special masala and fried in chickpea batter) being two of our personal favorites) to their dosas (crepes) and utthapams (pancakes) and onward.

Clockwise from Top Left: Onion Pakora, Puliyogre, Onion & Hot Chili
Masala Dosa, and the Spicy Spinach Uthappam
On this visit, we were entertaining a friend from out of town, so we were able to pull a few more items off the menu than usual for sampling. We enthusiastically gobbled orders of our standby Samosas ($3.59) and Onion Pakora fritters ($3.99) while awaiting our mains. With our friend, who is somewhat unfamiliar with Indian cuisine and generally not a fan of hotter/spicier foods, somewhat unsure of what she would enjoy, my spouse suggested the Puliyogre ($6.95) as something she would enjoy. Indeed, this blend of tangy tamarind rice with herbs and nuts brought a satisfied smile to our friend's face as she finished her bowl.

My spouse and I both went for something with a tiny bit more kick, and my Onion & Hot Chili Masala Dosa with herbed potato and my spouse's Spicy Spinach Uthappam, topped with fresh spinach, onions, chili and spices (both dishes $6.99 each) were both prepared well and quite flavorful.

As we were relaxing with full bellies at the end of the meal, we realized upon looking at the cabinet (filled with Indian sweets such as Mysore Pak, Kesari Bath and Pongal) beside us that one of these days, we'll have to save room for dessert. A friend's Indian baby shower we had attended had brought an absolutely delicious Carrot Halwa onto my own personal dining radar, and this was a delicacy I have been kind of craving ever since.

And how convenient that Dosa Corner has this sweet treat on their menu. Not that I really needed an excuse to return, but how can I not go back for another visit now?

Dosa Corner
1077 Old Henderson Road (Northwest)
Columbus, OH  43220
(614) 459-5515
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Not Enough Sours In The Day: The Rare Barrel (Berkeley, CA)

A style of beer that I have found to be somewhat uncommon among Ohio-based brewers is the sour beer. The excellent Jackie O's Pub and Brewery in Athens, Ohio, has produced some truly enjoyable beers along this line since their opening in 2005, but for the most part this is an under-explored style in the state as a whole.

In the Bay Area, I lived within fairly easy driving distance of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa. While Russian River is perhaps best known for its West Coast-style IPA dynamic trio of Blind Pig, Pliny the Elder and the much-hyped Pliny the Younger (whose annual brew it and drink it while it's fresh release mayhem is due to start), its repertoire of sours are among the most amazing creations that both my spouse and I have had the chance to imbibe in our mutual beer pursuits.

The Rare Barrel in Berkeley is unique in that their sole focus is barrel-aged sour beer styles. I had been aware of their brewery since they announced their intent to open in 2012, and it was going to be a close call as to whether their tasting room opening just after Christmas of 2013 would work out with our plans to be in California at that time.

As it turned out, we wouldn't be able to drop by during that visit. 2014 would be a different story, however.

We had arrived about 20 minutes before opening at their facility in southwest Berkeley; we figured we would be a bit conspicuous being so early, but felt a little bit more at ease when we spied one other car in the parking lot waiting for the brewery's opening. As it turned out, we were just the first two of a dozen or so cars with Rare Barrel patrons who arrived prior to opening time. My spouse and I stared at each other and remarked that there must be something good going on around here.

Clockwise from left: Menu of deliciousness; the simple backsplash behind
the tap area; the gathering space; and racks full of oak-barrel-aging beer
Essentially, Rare Barrel's interior is a huge warehouse space with the front third of the area devoted to the tasting room and customer seating; a kitchen offers customers a selection of grilled organic grilled cheese sandwiches served with a quinoa side salad (as we were going to grab dinner after our visit, we decided not to indulge in these.) While Rare Barrel's offerings are the main focus of the taproom, other locally-based guest brews and other beverages are also available for taproom visitors.

The rest of the space is basically geared toward the conditioning of their beer: sightlines are dominated by racks of oak barrels. Each barrel contains a variety of Rare Barrel's fruit-based brewed creations and will be aged from anywhere from 6 months to three years, depending on the style of beer and brewers' whims. As described on their website, their overriding focus is to "concentrate on learning as much as possible about the reasons why those unique flavors are produced in sours" and use that knowledge to explore "flavors through both conventional and experimental methods to create exciting new beers."

Left: Mad Plum and Shades of Cool
Right: Forces Unseen and Apropos of Nothing
We found that the brewers of Rare Barrel are more than succeeding at their mission. Our first two pints brought us the crisp plum shadings of their Mad Plum to the black currant-laced blend of Shades of Cool. Our second pint pairing brought us two of their more complex brews: their Forces Unseen (Blend 2) is a blend of three golden sours which were brought under special fermentation, while the Apropos of Nothing brought a uniquely beguiling profile of elderberries and lavender to the forefront.

The proverbial cherry on top of the sour sundae came back in Ohio, where we opened up two bottles of Rare Barrel's beers that we had taken back from California. Both bottles of the Forces Unseen (Blend 1), which was basically the original three golden sour blend that was the base for Blend 2, and the apricot deliciousness of Map of the Sun were shared among friends and proved to be a highlight tasting for all gathered.

The Rare Barrel
940 Parker St
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 984-6585
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Three is a Magic Number: L’appât Patisserie & Café

Like people, restaurants operate at various speeds. Those geared to efficiency (e.g. fast food restaurants) will get your food to you quicker, but the odds that you will receive something distinctive in the food itself or the experience go down. Those factors reverse when you have a restaurant that operates at a slower pace: ideally, you get will get a much more fulfilling and satisfying experience from the longer time spent at the eatery.

L’appât Patisserie & Café falls in that latter category: while their various unique bakery goods (their nicely flaky chausson pastries are a definite treat) are available for those who have to grab and go, we found that there was nothing like hanging out and spending some time at this quaint eatery in Olde Towne East.

It's amazing to think L'appat qualifies as a bit of a veteran in the fast-evolving Columbus restaurant scene. This Olde Towne East location, the third eatery of husband and wife team Didier and Minervia Alapini, has been open since November of 2011, after two other attempts to establish eateries in both south and Downtown Columbus in 2005 and 2008, respectively. The third time appears to be the proverbial charm for the Alapinis, as they have formed a solid cuilinary core of restaurants in the area along with folks like The Angry Baker and Yellow Brick Pizza, among others.

We dropped by on a lazy Saturday morning with a friend to enjoy their breakfast items and were seriously tempted by the visually delectable items in the pastry case. However, we resisted the temptation of these sweet treats and decided we were more in line for a substantial breakfast.

All very difficult to resist: just a few of L’appât's pastries 
L’appât Patisserie & Café's interior offers nothing too extravagant; nevertheless, the space feels cozy and comfortable. I have never been to a formal afternoon tea service, but the service we received that day from Minervia made me think that we'd get similar treatment in such a place. In a polite yet welcoming manner, our hostess meticulously explained our dining options (L’appât offers a select weekly menu covering all meals except for certain special days of the month; more on that later.) This sense of formality was accentuated by the white porcelain service ware which accompanied our coffee and food, and some actual free samples of the cafe's sweet teas on a white dish. We also got the general sense that there was no need to hurry away: we would be more than welcome to sit back and stay awhile.

L’appât's service, menu, and interior were simple,
formal, and welcoming all at once.
Our guest and my spouse ended up choosing the Mexican Potato Platter ($9.50 w/sausage; $9 for the veggie), whereas I exercised my sweet tooth with an order of their Vanilla Beignets with a side of strawberry preserves and cream for $6. The beignets were perfect in their imperfection, coming in a stack of randomly irregular, powdered-sugar-coated nuggets of lip-smacking goodness. The preserves and cream proved to be a perfect complement.

Vanilla Beignets (Top) and Mexican Potato Platter (Bottom)
The Mexican Potato Platter far exceeded its description on the menu. Simply described as "Potato served with omelet (with) sauteed vegetable in tomato sauce," the potatoes were delightfully herb-laden, and the saute infused the vegetables with that redolent and pleasant sweet tomato tinge. And if we could regularly make a simple egg omelet as silky and airy as the ones that we were served, we'd seriously consider opening our own breakfast place.

As we were finishing up, Didier made an appearance at our table. We had read before about his engaging nature, and his loquacious personality came to the fore as he asked us how our meals were and explained a little more about his restaurant's and his own history, A native of the West African nation of Benin, Didier also let us know about his rotating menus, including a Pan-African menu on Thursday, and the fact that he could offer a specially-catered dinner for larger groups. For the latter, all you had to do was give him advance notice.

No need to convince us; regardless if we can scrounge up a dozen or so buddies of ours, a dinner date here is definitely on the docket. And I'm sure many more lazy weekend days are out there for us to drop by their cozy establishment for some morning eats as well.

L’appât Patisserie & Café
1159 Oak Street (Olde Towne East)
Columbus, OH 43205
(614) 252-6822
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Update: L’appât Patisserie & Café closed its doors on its Olde Towne East location in May 2015. Based on my best guesses, Chef Didier is still putting his culinary talents to use on a private scale, with no word on any future reincarnation of his restaurant.

Ma La Nostalgia: China Village (Albany, CA)

This somewhat unremarkable exterior holds some of the best
Sichuan cuisine found in the San Francisco Bay Area
This visit to China Village was a return trip several years in the making for me.

China Village, which is located in what has become a dining destination area in Albany's Solano Avenue, has been one of the Bay Area's leading purveyors of Szechuan cuisine since its opening in 2002. My evolving tastes for thing spicy brought this place onto my radar, and my only regret was that I never could get into a group setting that would allow me to enjoy multiple dishes at one setting. Regardless, I very much enjoyed my dishes that I did order, from their 1000 Chili Pepper variations, to their Hot & Spicy Pork Shoulder and Dry-Cooked Beef, among others.

My last trip to China Village was back in the latter half of 2011, prior to my leaving for Ohio late that year and a fire in spring of 2012 which closed the restaurant down for repairs and renovations. The restaurant reopened to much public notice in the summer of 2013. My spouse and I have found Columbus doesn't have too much in the way of Szechuan restaurants (the most prominent being Fortune Chinese Restaurant on Olentangy River Road) so by the time we made this last journey back to California, it was time to pay them a visit.

While the exterior hadn't changed too much since my last visit, my bearings were thrown off by the interior for a few moments. This was definitely not what I had remembered from previous visits: the remodel had put an elegant chord throughout, from the artwork, the earth-toned hues, and dark wood inlays as well as the new addition of a bar with various adult beverage selections. The specials on the dry ink board all looked delicious, but also reminded me of how I wished I had a chance to visit here with a larger group of people in tow. As much as the Ma La Tofu Dungeness Crab sounded completely delectable (especially for my spouse, who is a crab fiend), the $40 price tag for the dish was something we simply couldn't afford on this visit. Perhaps next time...

China Village's menu was as diverse as ever, but the numerous
interior changes really caught my attention on this visit
China Village's menu still proved to be as diverse as ever, and it took a lot of time for us to wend through it. This, plus the fact that it was the end of a long day, led us to some relatively "safe" selections as the Szechuan Thin Sliced Lamb Hot Pot ($15.95) and the Shredded Pork with Jalapeno Chili Pepper ($11.95.)

Before our mains came out, we started off with a tasty Pancake Wrapped Five Spice Beef appetizer ($7.95) as well as a pleasant mini-plate of kimchi to munch on. This waiting time allowed me personally to soak in how much the interior had changed since I had last been there.

Szechuan Sliced Lamb Hot Pot and Shredded Pork with Jalapeno dishes
The hot pot was the highlight of the meal, a melding of tender lamb, vegetables, noodles with a nicely spicy broth. My spouse suspected that they took a look at us and toned down the potential kick a bit, noting that she's had more potent versions at the Red Chili Asian Kitchen near The Ohio State University.

Whether China Village did tone down the kick, or if this was merely a natural evolution of our more robust spice-handling capabilities (as exampled by this previous post) she agreed that this was a great introduction (and, for me, a reconfirmation) to what has remained an East Bay standout for many diners and Szechuan cuisine aficionados.

China Village Szechuan Restaurant
1335 Solano Ave
Albany, California
(510) 525-2285
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The Rock of the Bay: Alcatraz Island

Yes, Alcatraz has its touristy side, but in reality,  the history behind
this former Federal penitentiary provides the real fascination for
the visitor. There was plenty of informational displays available
for people to view and ponder prior to boarding the ferry.
The Bay Area is rife with places popular with tourists, with one of the foremost being the home of the island holding the former maximum security Federal penitentiary that shared the same name as the island it sat on: Alcatraz.

I never had visited the island in the three decades of living in the area, and perhaps the mentality of "that's only where the tourists go" played into why I never did. My spouse and I do a good job of trying to limit these types of attractions on our visits, but we've been to the area together enough to start putting these places into our rotation. On this trip back to California, we figured it was time to make our first visit to the island.

Like our trip to Mackinac Island in the middle of 2014, pictures really are the best way to tell the tale of our visit on a slightly windy otherwise sunny late-December day:

Approaching the island on the ferry. All visitors to Alcatraz must use the ferry
service owned & operated by Hornblower Cruises. These hybrid ferries (which
uses power from various energy sources) make regular runs to and from the
 island and proved to be a relaxing and comfortable means of transport.
Some of the beautiful views outside the penitentiary, including one of the
gardens and the lighthouse installation. The park rangers explained the trek

from the ferry landing to the top of the island where the penitentiary stood
was equivalent to a 13-story climb; a shuttle to the top was available
for those with either health or mobility issues.
One of the old cannon batteries on the island. The island was first designated
by the U.S. Government for military use shortly after California statehood
and the Gold Rush in 1850. Alcatraz, along with Fort Point and Fort Baker,
formed the defense for a possible San Francisco Bay invasion. Alcatraz's
guns were never fired in battle, and the facility turned into a military prison
prior to takeover by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The old penitentiary looked forbidding from the start, from the prominent
"United States Penitentiary" sign as you get off the ferry boat, to the tiny
shed-like building that served as the facility's morgue (bottom left), and
the shower facilities (upper two pictures.) The shower facilities were
were where visitors received their Cellhouse Audio Tour headsets
 which are included in the ticket price to come to the park.
The audio tour, narrated by former guards and prisoners at Alcatraz,
summarized the details and stories of the prison well. Walkways were
were named (e.g. "Michigan Avenue"), new inmates were given "Rules &
Regulations" books upon admission, and sparse furnishings and iron bars
were commonplace. "D Block" was reserved for the worst of the worst. 
A look at the second floor's "Gun Gallery", where armed guards would patrol
the prison from the walkways in the gallery. Keys that were needed to open a
door were lowered to guards below via the device on the lower half of the grate.
Informational displays were found throughout the facility; we found they
 helped supplement the already detailed audio narration to great effect.
Inside the prison's control/dispatch room: the space reminded me a bit
of the broadcast booth of the radio station I spun records at during
college, sans any turntables or record albums.
Looking at the cell blocks A through C from the corner of "Seedy" Street
(a nickname for the main walkway between C and D cell blocks)
The cell that held Robert Stroud, the famed "Birdman of Alcatraz."
Indeed, Stroud was allowed to keep and study birds in jail, and
ended up making some significant contributions to the field of
avian science. However, this took place during his time at Leavenworth
Prison. After Stroud's transfer to Alcatraz (caused when prison
officials caught him distilling alcohol in his cell), he was relegated to the
hospital ward, where he spent his time writing an autobiography
and a manuscript detailing the history of Federal prisons.
Multi-media art installations by famed Chinese activist Ai Weiwei were
found throughout the island. Titled "@Large", Weiwei's artworks
"explore urgent questions about human rights and freedom of expression
and responds to the potent and layered history of Alcatraz as a place
place of detainment and protest," as described on the National Parks
Service's webpage detailing these exhibits. Activities exhibit visitors

could partake in included sending postcards of support to imprisoned
activists and listen to various musical works inside a prison cell. 
This message on the island's water tower hints at Alcatraz Island's past
as a center of protest for American Indian rights, climaxing with the
nearly 19-month occupation of the island by rights protesters from 1969
to 1971. This spurred other actions that helped bring Indian rights more to
the forefront in the public conscience and the U.S. Government, and led to
the annual "Unthanksgiving Day", a morning gathering on Thanksgiving
Day on the island to honor the indigenous people of America.
A view of the penitentiary's recreation yard, which was made available
to prisoners on weekends and holidays. Games of baseball and basketball
were commonplace in the yard; rights to use the yard were among
the first things to disappear for disruptive inmates.
Just some more of the dark spaces, passageways and crevices found
at this penitentiary. The facility was closed in 1963 mainly due to
the extremely high maintenance and operational costs. The island's
structures fell into neglect and disrepair for the next decade until the
property was transferred to the National Park Service in 1972.

Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark
(part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area)
Open for regular visits all year except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day
National Park Service Website Page

Ferry service/park admission available through:
Alcatraz Cruises
Pier 33, Alcatraz Landing
San Francisco, California 94111
(415) 981-ROCK (7625)
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Blessed are the Cheese Grillers: Tom + Chee (University District)

Today we have another guest post by my beloved spouse, as she gives the lowdown on the grilled cheese goodies offered by Cincinnati-based Tom+Chee

A segment on network TV show "Shark Tank" has boosted
Cincinnati-based Tom+Chee into national prominence
One of my long-standing personal rules about dining out is to avoid ordering something that I can make easily at home. On occasion, however, I will make an exception to that rule for a good grilled cheese sandwich. Grilled cheese is one of those ultimate comfort foods that can be as simple or complex as you would like, and so while mine at home are still simple and delicious affairs of butter, whole grain bread, and cheddar or other cheese I have on hand, the ones you can buy in a restaurant can be quite inventive in the toppings combinations.

I work at Ohio State and while I try to pack my lunch as often as possible, High Street is a convenient walk from my office for those days when I need to buy my lunch. Back on November, during the first real cold snap of the season, I happened to visit Tom + Chee not only for my very first time but (as I later learned) also on the first day it was open at its campus-area location.

The interior of the Tom + Chee next to The Ohio State University campus
The first thing I observed is that the basic layout left behind by Pera Fresh Istanbul Food is still the same, with a long central table, plus some additional tables and chairs along the side and in front of the window. I personally find the tall stools to be rather uncomfortable since my legs are a bit short for reaching the footrest on the table, and there are only a couple of standard height chairs and tables, which were full on this busy day. I opted to take my food to-go, and have continued to do the same on my subsequent visits.

Visit #1: Hot + Spicy grilled cheese with Beer Cheese soup - I am quite fond of all things spicy, so I selected this as my first sandwich from Tom + Chee.  The cheese didn’t quite hold in all the other ingredients so I had an escapee pepper or two, but the flavor was nice and not too pizza like despite the pepperoni. The beer cheese soup was creamy and rich, and very nice overall.

Visit #2: The classic Tom + Chee with Chunky Tomato Basil Soup - I probably should have had these the 1st day since they are the classic pairing. The sandwich was nice and garlicky, and the tomato is a nice touch. This time of year, tomatoes are pretty bland so I bet this would be really nice when ripe local tomatoes are available. I was a little worried about the tomato basil soup, since most tomato soups that use basil end up tasting like spaghetti sauce. In this case, the flavor really spotlighted the tomatoes with the basil a nice accent without being heavy-handed.

Visit #3: The Philly II and Blue Cheese Chili - The Philly II was a daily special sandwich that came with mozzarella, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, roast beef, mayo and banana peppers. I opted against the mayonnaise and banana peppers as I’m not a particular fan of either. I thought it tasted very good, though the bread on the underside of the sandwich got a bit soggy. This actually happened with one of the other sandwiches too (I can’t remember which) and I think it is just that some of the add-ons (the beef and mushrooms in this case) are a bit juicy.  If you eat in the restaurant, this likely is not an issue, but you will want to be aware of this with take-out.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the blue cheese chili but it turned out to be a regular chili with blue cheese crumbles dotting the top. The chili had a little surprise of bacon in with the beef and tomatoes, and there were no beans. Not sure if there are none in the recipe at all or if I just didn't happen to get any in my cup. The chili was mildly spiced (about the same level as Wendy’s chili) where I would have preferred more heat, and I would also have liked a little more blue cheese so that flavor was more forward as well.  In the end, this was my least favorite of the soups.

Top to Bottom: The Philly II with Blue Cheese Chili
Hot + Spicy grilled cheese with Beer Cheese Soup
Classic Tom + Chee with Chunky Tomato Basil Soup
All in all, I was satisfied with my food on all 3 visits. My overall favorites ended up being the classic Tom + Chee with Chunky Tomato soup, which has the benefit of being one of the most economical options on the menu.  Prices are per sandwich ($4.95 for the Tom + Chee, the fancier ones can be as high as $7.95) and for $3, you can add a soft drink and cup of soup (a cup of soup on its own is $3).  For the lunch places I frequent on High Street, the price is right about the mid-range for lunch if you get the lower priced sandwiches and/or skip the soup.

For the adventurous, the restaurant offers both a basic and fancy grilled cheese donuts, in which a glazed donut takes the place of the usual bread. The fancy ones have mascarpone and a variety of sweet toppings. Adam Richman from Man vs. Food even gave the Blueberry Blue a try at the Cincinnati location.

I will be curious to see if Tom + Chee has staying power in this location, despite their relative success downtown and in Hilliard. I have been working at OSU for nearly 12 years, and this particular restaurant location has had probably half a dozen different restaurants in it during that time. It is in the middle of a stretch of about 9 different restaurants between 17th and 18th Avenue on High Street, and thus faces quite a bit of competition. Restaurants here live and die by the student population at OSU, and this spot has had more turnover than some of the others on the block. Summertime in particular can hit restaurants hard, and I’m not sure I’m in the mood for grilled cheese all that much at that time of year myself.

1980-A North High St (University District)
Columbus, OH 43201
(614) 947-1232
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Mud Beds and Fancy Breads: Golden Haven Hot Springs (Calistoga) and Clif Bruschetteria/Velo Vino Tasting Room (St. Helena)

Calistoga's Golden Haven Hot Springs Spa & Resort, and a
view of their mud baths for couples
Golden Haven Spa & Resort: My spouse and I have figured out that experiential gifts are often more memorable and satisfying than the material ones, and this last Christmas we decided that our gift to one another would be something we had never done prior (but we hope to do again): a mud bath/spa treatment from a region of the country well renowned for such.

The most northern town of the Napa Valley, Calistoga (population just over 5,000) was probably best known originally for its mineral and hot springs. The native Wappo Indians were the first to use the hot springs for their healing properties, and settlers to the area soon discovered this fact. According to legend, European settler Sam Brannan, entranced with the hot springs during an exhibition, bought acres of land in the late 1800's to develop a spa reminiscent of those found in Saratoga, New York. Brannan intended to call his spa "the Saratoga of California" at its opening, but was bit by the malaprop bug and instead declared it "the Calistoga of Sarafornia." Calistoga eventually stuck as the name of the surrounding community.

While spas and resorts may vary in style, the typical mud bath experience at any of them is basically same: people immerse themselves in a combination of hot water and soil of varying consistencies for a designated time. A spa attendant will help you with procedures and provide you a forehead cold compress once you are immersed in the mud.

Some of the sights found around Golden Haven Spa and Resort
Such was the case at Golden Haven Hot Springs, a hotel, spa and resort facility just to the east of the downtown area. Golden Haven may not be as elegant or lavish as some of its Calistoga compatriots, but they specialize in tailoring the process for couples and delivers the experience perfectly well for those who don't need the extra bells and whistles. We found all the staff there to be friendly and helpful, and were also fortunate to have found some last-minute specials which helped defray the economic cost of what was about as full-blown a package as one could get.

The process of immersing yourself in the mud (Golden Haven's mud is kept at a temperature of around 105 degrees and combines local hot spring water and a soil/peat mixture from the California Foothills) is a bit of an adventure. When one flops (graceful movement is almost impossible here) into the bath, you will find yourself floating on top of the mud; you must scoop mud onto yourself to achieve the desired cocooning effect. Extracting yourself is equally challenging; one must scoop the mud off the top of your body and then muscle themselves out of the bath.

Once cocooned, however, the experience is quite simply luxurious. I felt as if I were floating in outer space, and accompanying warmth soon had the desired relaxation and extraction (in the form of body sweat) effect. It would be very easy to fall asleep and nap for awhile if you weren't careful.

After showering the mud off ourselves, we proceeded with a hot mineral water bath that only added to our relaxation quotient. The transformation to completely pliable lumps of human jelly were furthered with a cooling off session via blanket wrap in a darkened cooling room, and finalized with a 30-minute massage. Spa-goers also have access to the pool for a post-session swim (we decided not to opt for this option.)

Along with pool access, Golden Haven offers those who book a stay at their resort access to bocce courts, a picnic area, and complimentary bicycle use. Room and spa specials are available through their website.

Golden Haven Spa & Resort
1713 Lake Street
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 942-8000
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Best known for their energy bars and related products, the Clif family
has branched off into more fancy culinary waters.
Clif Family Bruschetteria/Velo Vino Tasting Room: After the spa treatment, we were looking for something relatively quick, cheap yet tasty in heading back down the Napa Valley. A little pre-trip research uncovered this pleasant surprise of a food truck, operated by the same folks behind the well-known Clif Bar.

Opened in the middle of 2014, the Clif Bruschetteria food truck was inspired by Clif Bar owners' experiences of bicycling through Northern Italy and their experiences with the cuisine. Tapping some local talent (John McConnell, who had worked previously at Terra Restaurant in St. Helena), their menu is centered around bruschetta and other Italian specialties using ingredients from Clif's own organic farm and other locally-based food purveyors. Items are available a la carte; however, the Chef's Choice ($25), which includes a selection of items from that day's menu, provides a perfect way for a group of people to sample the food truck's wares.

Our food spread (including a closeup of the bruschetta) plus a view
of the Velo Vino Tasting Room interior.
Most days, the food truck is parked next to the Clif Winery Velo Vino tasting room, which proves to be a mutually beneficial relationship for the wine taster seeking out some food to fill the stomach, or the food truck customer looking for a nice wine (espresso drinks are also available) to enjoy with their meal. The tasting room, with an appropriately bicycle-oriented theme and plenty of Clif-oriented products in sight, offers a relaxed atmosphere for visitors. An outdoor patio with fire pit lies in the rear of the tasting room building, allowing plenty of space for people to gather and hang out.

We brought back a glass of their Chardonnay and Riesling ($12/$10) to the back patio area to enjoy with our food order. Both our Porchetta (porchetta, aioli, red onion, garden herbs and parmesan; $10) and Pomodoro (tomato fonduta and goat cheese with chunks of garlic; $8) Bruschetta were fresh-tasting, on larger-than-we-expected pieces of delicious bread. Their special Polenta ($5) proved to be a great side dish, with a wonderfully creamy texture and with truffles lending a sublime taste profile.

If nothing else, these two Clif Family ventures provide a perfect stopover point for bicyclists touring the roads around St. Helena. However, any traveler traversing through this area of the beautiful Napa Valley could do a lot worse than to give this food truck and tasting room a try.

Clif Family Bruschetteria/Velo Vino Tasting Room
709 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 968-0625
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Toast of the Town: Dan The Baker/Toast Bar

Dan The Baker breads are a familiar (and eye-pleasing) sight
at many local area farmers markets
My recent re-visit of the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco (my post on this popular and unique attraction can be found here) brought back many tasty memories as I passed from one vendor space to another. Some of the most fond memories were brought on by the baked goods of the Acme Bread Company - their basic bread loaves and baguettes are yeasted glory, sporting that sublime combination of exterior crunch, big bubbles in the crumb, and interior chew that only the best breads get. Their Cinnamon Currant Bread, a pull-apart, just sweet and sticky enough creation that sported a divine combination of zante currants and cinnamon. remains in the top ten of items I miss the most from the San Francisco area.

I simply figured the Columbus metro wouldn't have anything within shouting distance of their bread or any other Bay Area artisan baker's products. That is until I and my spouse came across the creations of one Dan Riesenberger, aka Dan The Baker. Starting off in 2008 via modest means (baking his breads from his backyard with a brick oven fashioned with help from his father), Riesenberger and his breads were well-established in both select Columbus restaurants and farmers market booths by the time we came across them. As we sampled his different breads and pastries, I found his creations more than held their own with the renowned Bay Area-based artisinal bread purveyors.

He eventually opened up a combination small retail cafe/production facility in the Grandview area of town in late 2013. While we still bought most of his breads from local farmers markets, we would occasionally drop by the cafe to hangout or grab a quick bite if our business took us into that part of town or we were headed into Western Ohio for the day. His branching out was not restricted to his cafe: we got a gander of his pizza-making prowess at a pop-up restaurant within Cafe Brioso during the monthly Moonlight Market on Gay Street in June 2014.

And when you think it couldn't get any better, Riesenberger announced that Columbus now has a shrine to toast to call their own, with the opening of Toast Bar two months ago.

Wait, what? Toast? Really, you can't be serious...toast?

Toast? Why, heck yeah, toast! Malaysia showed me the way
Yes, sometimes toast is what you want. During a work stint in Malaysia, I came across the Toast Box, an chain of Asian establishments started initially in Singapore. These restaurants are, to borrow their words, their "reflection of the coffee shops from the 60s and 70s, where the common practice for breakfast was a fragrant cup of Nanyang Coffee accompanied by freshly toasted bread." This quickly became a favorite place for me for either a light breakfast or an afternoon snack: the coffee (or tea) was a must along with two slices of toast, typically one with butter and kaya (coconut jam) and one with peanut butter.

As far as the States, artisinal toast is something of a new fad. starting off in San Francisco with The Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club (and in a tangential way, Ohio; the restaurant's owner grew up in the Cleveland area, as detailed in this story by Pacific Standard Magazine.) The fad eventually spread to neighboring restaurants and then to other parts of the country, as detailed in this Eater.com article.

The newly created Toast Bar adds some twists to the formerly existing space
The Toast Bar's offers a slightly re-designed space from the original cafe within their Ridge Street location, allowing for slightly more seating and a little better traffic flow. On this visit, we were both looking for a light breakfast, and all the new items offered that opportunity. Of course, you wouldn't call yourself Toast Bar without having that on the menu, and the flight of toast is pretty straightforward - three slices from the breads on hand along with three toppings. Another related new item is their Smørrebrød open-faced sandwiches, a blend of avocado, cucumber and dill on Danish Rye bread (their current offerings now offer one version that substitutes salmon for the avocado as well as a bacon, blue cheese and apple option.)

Left: the Avocado Smørrebrød; Right: the Toast Flight
Both these Toast Bar offerings hit the spot. The Smørrebrød was a nicely tangy, creamy and crisp combo which went nicely with the rye bread; my spouse loved how the dill made the flavors pop. As for me and my toast flight, the toppings were a nice way to figure out what went well with the various toasted breads I ordered without having to whip up my own homemade hazelnut spread or lemon curd, as well as experimenting how the toppings themselves blended in tandem or as a threesome. All three of the toppings I chose were quite good, with the cloverton and lemon curd being edging out the others as my fave.

The Smørrebrød (at the time of our visit, it was $4 for a single/$7 for two; the current menu states $6) and the flight (was and still is $5.50) could be considered by many to be on the spendy side; indeed, the Eater article referred to earlier in this post states this as a common criticism of these toast-centric establishments. However, based on that same article, Toast Bar's prices seem to be on the lower end of the expense scale compared with its brethren across the country.

Visitors who aren't all that into the toast concept need not fret; Dan The Baker still has its myriad of pastries, along with a selection of cookies, soup, and of course, the bread in whole-loaf form. Toast Bar also keeps the coffee drinks from its previous iteration on the menu, using beans from two excellent roasters (Intelligentsia and locally-based Cafe Brioso) as well as hot chocolate and tea.

Dan The Baker/Toast Bar
1028 Ridge Street (Grandview Heights)
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 928-9035
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