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César, Berkeley CA

Spanish dining is typically slow and relaxed.  Your server will bring your order very, very quickly, but there is no rush to finish the dish and clear the check so that the next party can take your table.  César is just like any restaurant in Spain in this regard: the tapas come out almost faster than you can blink, but after that the pace is set by the diner.  Keep the daily menu at the table and order the tapas one at a time, so that you can savor and appreciate each individually.

complimentary marinated olives

complimentary marinated olives

We started our dinner as soon as we sat down, nibbling on this sampling of marinated olives.  Zach had never seen such tiny olives amidst the regular sized ones he was used to seeing!  All were quite tasty, as each type of olive had its own unique brine or cure.

grilled asparagus with olive relish & egg

grilled asparagus with olive relish & egg

The chilled, grilled asparagus was a refreshing salad like none other.  Well, a form of a salad; it was our roughage of the night.  Salads don’t have much variety in Spain anyway.  The only salad August ever found while living there was iceberg with onion, tomato, tuna, egg, white asparagus, olive oil, vinegar, and salt, and sometimes not even all those ingredients.  But whole vegetables are popular, raw or boiled or roasted or grilled.  With the bright and salty olive tapenade, the crisp asparagus was hard to share.

patatas bravas

patatas bravas

Fried potato wedges with spicy brava sauce & alioli piled for a not-so-small plate, with multiple layers of flavor.  Spanish food is spiced, but it is not spicy hot.  The potatoes were seasoned with just the right mix of peppers to bring a tiny hint of heat to awaken the taste buds.  The brava sauce was sweet and smoky, almost like an American barbecue flavor but with a richer tomato base.  Spain is the birthplace of mayonnaise, but alioli is essentially a fancier version.  After noting the creaminess that it added to this plate, Zach said he will make some alioli/aioli soon.

montaditos with smoked duck breast and orange alioli

montaditos of smoked duck breast with orange alioli

Duck was a surprise to see on the menu, so of course we got it.  It was lightly smoked to allow the true duck flavor to shine, while the texture was supremely tender.  The bright, creamy, and refreshing orange alioli was naturally sweet and well paired for the meat.  The slices of bread were firm but not hard or tough.  It’s the bread slices that make these feel like “typical” tapas such as those found in the Basque region of Spain (in particular the city of San Sebastián aka Donostia, the tapa capital of the world and August’s favorite city in the world, as well).

ibérico presa a la plancha with mashed potatoes & spanish wine reduction

ibérico presa a la plancha with mashed potatoes & spanish wine reduction

Pata negra, the nickname for the meat of Iberian black pigs who feed on mostly acorns, has a mildly nutty and pleasantly earthy flavor.  For this final savory tapa we got a 5 oz. shoulder cut of pata negra that was extremely tender and sliced perfectly for sharing.  It was drizzled with a savory and delicious wine reduction, which went well equally with the meat and the potatoes.  Mashed potatoes with some firmness and height were unexpected here even though the menu said “mashed potatoes,” because from August’s experience in Spain, mashed potatoes didn’t exist there.  The closest she could find was puré de patata, or potato puree, that was closer to soup than mashed potatoes.

coffee flan

coffee flan

Just about everyone knows what flan is; since it’s popular not only in Spain but nearly all of Central and South America, it is almost invariably part of the gastronomic scene wherever there is a population of Spanish speakers, local or migrant.  Flan is so universal, spellcheck doesn’t red-squiggly underline it.  This flan, though, might start catching on.  Yes, the texture is smooth, velvety, and magnificent, which is something to be proud of, but the bigger deal is that it is made with coffee!  The coffee flavor provided a very distinct and robust richness, like that of a high quality bittersweet chocolate.

churros with chocolate sauce from spain

churros with chocolate sauce from spain

Speaking of chocolate, this sauce was apparently brought in from Spain.  It made such a big journey, and here we are dipping with it.  One of August’s common breakfasts while living in Alcalá de Henares was a big churro from the bar up the street plus a tall, wide mug of thick hot chocolate.  This comes very close to her memories, flavor-wise.  The churros tasted sweet and of cinnamon, with an added bonus of lemon zest.  The lemon zest was new and different from the standard churro, but totally right.  August and Zach have discussed before if chocolate and lemon could work together, and here we got the answer.

bread pudding with orange-caramel sauce

bread pudding with orange-caramel sauce

Whipped cream and caramel sauce acted as moats around the mini loaf of tender and light bread pudding.  The whipped cream was made by hand, and the caramel sauce was mildly flavored with orange so there was a citruc-y aftertaste to it.  The bread pudding itself, though, was very decadent.  This is something you have to share, maybe even with three or four others.

This was Zach’s first time at César, but August had been here once before around ten years ago with her mom.  Today was also somewhat of a significant anniversary of one of August’s goals from her past, so our dinner here was a rekindling of memories as well as a delicious celebratory meal.  It’s a great restaurant to bring a date, your friends, and your family, but reservations are not accepted so be prepared for waiting if it’s a busy night.  But don’t worry, the restaurant closes at midnight so everyone who wants to, will get to eat.

Antipasto Español

antipasto espanol 001

Our first finger food items for Superbowl were assorted Spanish and Spanish-inspired products.  As today’s theme in our house was truffles, the highlight of this selection was the truffle honey (center, next to what’s left of the giant truffle flown in from Italy).  The Blarney Castle cheese, while not Spanish, went well with all the elements.  Cantaloup with jamón and chorizo was new for Zach, and he liked it.  He especially liked the sweet olive oil tortas (left) with sugar and anise.  Olives are a must when it comes to building a Spanish platter, and the lightly salted almonds go great with any beer.  The mini olive oil bread sticks (right) were light, simple, and a delight when dipped in the honey.  We can’t quite call this a recipe since we didn’t make anything, and this isn’t entirely a product review; either way, hopefully it will inspire you to try something similar.

Va de Vi, Walnut Creek CA

August lived in Spain for a year in college and loves the cuisine.  For years we had heard about Va de Vi, a tapa joint in downtown Walnut Creek.  Now that this blog gives us a reason to go out for dinner, it was time we gave this place a try.

This is a tapa restaurant so portions are served as such.  Expect to share a single item with one other person, and you’ll want to order at least four to six times together.  We chose five because we wanted to taste some variety and see how they put a Californian twist on Spanish bar food.

roasted mushrooms

roasted mushrooms

We started with roasted mushrooms with a slow-poached egg, fennel soubise, and bacon marmalade.  Before eating we were instructed by the waiter to break the egg and stir to enrich the soubise.  The dish was beyond decadent and rich with plentiful oyster mushrooms roasted to perfection, the soubise was a nice touch and not overpowering (the egg yolk probably helped with that), and the bacon marmalade was a most excellent touch.

herb and ricotta gnudi

herb and ricotta gnudi

Next was herb and ricotta gnudi, but what we received was not what was on the menu.  The menu described it as having butternut squash, black garlic, and lacinato kale puree.  Instead the gnudi came with more oyster mushrooms sauteed with lacinato kale (not a puree).  It wasn’t what we expected, but it was still good.  The gnudis were light and flavorful, and August said she wished she could have a whole bowlful just this dish.

gulf shrimp

gulf shrimp

For the third round we ordered grilled Louisiana gulf shrimp with white cheddar grits and warm bacon vinaigrette.  The shrimp were grilled beyond perfection and came three on a skewer with two skewers, so there was nothing awkward about sharing this between two people.  August thought the vinaigrette made the grits oily, but the flavor overall was amazing.

lechon (foreground)

lechon (foreground)

lamb shoulder

lamb shoulder

The lechon (crispy pork belly) was served on rice cakes with pickled onions and sweet chili soy glaze.  The lechon was definitely crispy, probably a little too much so.  The skin was supposed to be crispy, but the meat ended up being dry and chewy.  The rice cakes were actually globs of rice formed into little patties, so the description was misleading.  August compared the sweet chili soy glaze to Panda Express sweet-and-sour sauce.  The lamb, unfortunately, was no better.  August grew up eating lamb and has never turned it away, until tonight.  You might be able to tell in the picture – the first sign it wasn’t good quality was the color of the lamb.  Gray is not attractive.  Then, upon chewing it, we could tell it was not lamb, but old mutton!  There is a huge difference in flavor (more gamey) and texture (more tough).  Thankfully, it was served with truffled Roman style gnocchi, which made up for the disappointment in the meat.  They were delicate in texture and strong in flavor, with a hint of melted Parmesan cheese that put them over the top.

The service was impeccable, with the staff working as a team to swap out our plates and flatware between each tapa.  Most likely we would return, but for specific dishes.  Even still, we could be in for another surprise, like the gnudi that did not match its description.  And you can be sure we won’t get lamb from there again.