July 31, 2014

On a Mission for the Best Ice Cream!

Sign in front of Xanath Ice Cream (graffiti was photoshopped!)

Summertime in San Francisco's Mission District means perfect weather, the envy of the rest of the city—blue skies, sunshine, a mid-afternoon breeze and that famous blanket of refreshing fog before sunset. Everyone wants to be outside at a sidewalk café or picnicking in Dolores Park. Whether it's foggy or sunny, no afternoon in August would be complete without a cup or cone of gourmet ice cream. 

Here's a short list of the top 3 summertime ice cream choices in the Mission. These recommendations represent the best seasonal ice cream flavors found in the 'hood.

1.) Huckleberry Ice Cream (Xanath)
Made from fresh-picked seasonal berries!
Xanath Ice Cream
949 Valencia St, San Francisco
Telephone: (415) 648-8996

2.) Strawberry Balsamic Ice Cream (Bi-Rite)
3692 18th Street, San Francisco
Telephone: (415) 626-5600
Sun-Thurs: 11am–10pm; Fri-Sat: 11am–11pm

3.) Pineapple Sorbet (Chocolatier Blue)
904 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Telephone: (415) 648-1010
Mon-Sun 11am-9pm

"Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the most beautiful words in the English language." 
-Henry James

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Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

June 17, 2014

Eastern European Charm and Ten-Layer Honey-Cake!

{Review of 20th Century Cafe}

20th Century Cafe (198 Gough Street, San Francisco)

If only Gough Street were paved with cobblestones and lined with vintage European cars, then the Old World ambience of 20th Century Cafe would be complete. When you walk into this cafe, you half expect the hostess to start speaking with a foreign accent. 

Visiting 20th Century Cafe is like a mini vacation, it's an escape to another world. You are far, far away from the typical grunge San Francisco coffee shop. By contrast, 20th Century Cafe has a gorgeous interior decorated with exquisite attention to detail. From the marble tables to the Art Deco light fixtures, everything is beautiful. The cafe also uses elegant porcelain cups and plates along with polished silverware.

The chalkboard of delicious options at 20th Century Cafe
20th Century Cafe specializes in Eastern European baked goods such as pierogi and strudel. Chef-owner Michelle Polzine was inspired by her travels through Budapest, Prague and Vienna, and she scoured antique cookbooks to find the perfect recipes. The cafe's friendly waitresses also dress to fit the part, in charming 1940s outfits. 

The bakery counter at 20th Century Cafe showcases a selection of Eastern European baked goods and pastries including house-made bagels, babka, pierogi, potato knish, Sacher Torte and linzertorte. The cafe also offers lunch specials such as Hungarian Chicken Salad Sandwich, Reuben Sandwich and Cream of Garlic Soup.

The pièce de résistance at 20th Century Cafe is the Russian Honey Cake (Krasinski Torte). This amazing ten-layer creation features a caramelized honey mousse alternating with fluffy genoise cake. Even though the cake appears indulgent, it's surprisingly light.

Russian Honey Cake (Krasinski Torte)

To make the Russian Honey Cake, the cafe uses exceptionally fragrant honey. When the baking staff first starting preparing this cake in their kitchen, they noticed that the caramelization process was attracting local bees. So now they only prepare the cake at night when the neighborhood bees are off duty.

20th Century Cafe specializes in classic Easter European tortes (layer cakes). On the day of this blogger's visit, the cafe was offering a hazelnut torte. This dessert featured layers of moist hazelnut cake alternating with delicate Seville Orange marmalade, glazed with bittersweet chocolate ganache and served with a dollop of whipped cream.

20th Century Cafe is a great place to spend some quiet time, read a book or catch up with friends, while enjoying a leisurely lunch or dessert and coffee break. Treat yourself to an afternoon spent in grand European style!

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Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved. 

May 30, 2014

Summertime Dreamin' {Review of Bi-Rite Creamery}

Cheesecake with Blueberry Swirl; Balsamic Strawberry; Mexican Chocolate
Bi-Rite Creamery, 3692 18th Street, San Francisco

Ah, summertime! Those glorious warm days of swimming in the lake and basking by the beach, cooling off with juicy watermelon and frosty snow cones, relishing wild amusement park rides and fluffy cotton candy at the county fair, wearing sundresses into the evening while fireflies flutter about. I've read about it in books but have never experienced it in real life (such is the weather during the months called "summer" in my hometown of SF).

Line for ice cream at Bi-Rite (photo taken in September, when it was actually sunny!)
Despite what you'd imagine to be a lack of demand, the foggy city of S.F. has some of the best artisan ice cream in the country. Perhaps this is how we console ourselves for bundling up in wool sweaters in June, July and August—by enjoying the refreshing iced treats of our summertime dreams. Take for example Bi-Rite Creamery, where you will find a line winding around the block even on chilly afternoons.

Bi-Rite offers exceptional ice cream, which is made by hand in small batches using Straus Family Creamery organic milk and fresh seasonal ingredients. Balsamic Strawberry is a favorite that's only available when berries are at their peak ripeness. Another signature flavor is Salted Caramel, which has a distinctive taste of burnt sugar. The flavor is so intense that you can tell the sugar was caramelized to the limit of burntness. I recommend trying some of the really unique ice cream flavors like Honey Lavender or Ricanelas (cinnamon with snickerdoodles).

What is your favorite flavor? Please post it below!

Bi-Rite's enticing selection of 20 seasonal ice cream flavors
Quote of the Day:
"When I'm no longer rapping, I want to open up an ice cream parlor and call myself Scoop Dogg." -Snoop Dogg

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Copyright © 2013-2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved. 

May 18, 2014

A Lovely Day of Loukoumades and Live Music!

I can't resist a good festival and every year in May the Oakland Greek Festival tempts me with delicious food, great music and amazing atmosphere. It's my favorite local festival! The venue, Oakland's Greek Orthodox Church, provides a surprisingly pleasant atmosphere. Besides the beautiful modern Byzantine church that is open for visits, there is a wonderful outdoor patio. I've never seen a church with such style. It must be a Greek thing!

The Greeks really know how to live it up! The festival's tag line "It's great to be Greek {even just for a weekend}" says it all. It seems the entire local Greek-American community turns out for this event, along with others who want to soak up their joyous culture.

As you walk up to the venue, you hear lively Greek melodies in the background. Then arriving at the ticket booth by the "windmill", you're greeted by a friendly Spartan. He has a fabulous costume despite the questionable placement of his name tag. I was already smiling before I even entered the event.

The happy energy bursts from every corner. I wish that I could bottle up this ambience and save it for a rainy day. Friends sip glasses of Santorini wine while sharing good jokes. Families enjoy dinner on the sunny terrace overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Little kids play on the patio and sometimes make accidental cameo appearances during the live performances. Everyone is invited onto the dance floor to take part in the traditional Greek dancing, where dancers hold hands and follow around in a circle. 

The festival does a great job with the entertainment, featuring live music on the Platia stage and in the Taverna. The musicians pay tribute to Greece's ancient musical heritage. The Takis Kokotas Band has a bouzouki virtuouso, Alekos Galas. Two performers who grew up attending the Ascension church, Margarita and Giuliana, display amazing vocal talent. The band Mediterranean Soul also has a fantastic singer, Frosene Phillips.

The best part of the festival is the authentic Greek food. The "street food" section of the festival only accept tokens (not even cash) so first you need to purchase tokens before heading to the food booths. There are often lines for popular specialties like Gyro (pronounced "yee-rho") although it's well worth the wait!

Other specialties include Souvlakia (grilled lamb or chicken on skewers), Greek Salad (cucumbers, tomatoes and feta cheese), Spanakopita (filo pastry with spinach and cheese filling) and Tiropita (filo pastry with cheese filling). 

Spanakopita and Tiropita (similar to Spanakopita is filled with cheese) 

The festival also has a Wine Tasting Bar where you can sample Greek wines such as a refreshing white wine from the Island of Evvia called Avantis Malagouzia and a dry, fruity white wine from Santorini by Hatzidakis. 

Platia Bar hosts Wine Tastings of unique wines from the Greek Isles.

The true highlight of the festival is the silliest-sounding word: Loukoumades, described as "honey-dipped pastry puffs." These "donut holes" take the concept of freshness to the next level. The Loukoumades are deep fried right in front of you, then immediately placed in a large bowl to be tossed in a delicate syrup of warm honey. 

Festival volunteers serve up warm Loukoumades!
Once they're dripping in honey, the hot donuts are drizzled with a sprinkling of ground walnuts. The result is irresistible: Light and airy donuts that are crisp on the outside, with just the right amount of sweetness and stickiness from the honey plus a touch of contrast from the walnuts. What a delight! 

A serving of Loukoumades at the Oakland Greek Festival! Yum!!!!!!

I wish this Greek Festival took place more than once a year! It is so much fun!! Opa!

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Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

May 11, 2014

Parisian-Inspired Tea Party

Sweet Mue fruit tartlets & jasmine financiers ; Chantal-Guillon macaroons

This past Sunday, I set out to accomplish "une mission impossible." I attempted to convert "chez moi" into a virtual Parisian salon de thé. My inspiration came from a place that I discovered in Paris called Bread & Roses. Located on the rue Madame, this tea salon has just the ambience that suits a fancy tea party: elegant, delicate and feminine. 

Decor inspired by "Bread & Roses" tea salon in Paris

Bread & Roses is decorated simply with bouquets of fresh roses. The stylish tea salon brings together Parisian "bonnes amies," who linger over a pot of tea and cherished tête-à-tête. I aspired to recreate this charming atmosphere, to offer an inviting space where my guests could shares stories while sipping the finest infusions from Mariage Frères.

Mariage Frères Éros Tea (black tea with spicy and floral notes)

When you gather a small group of close female friends for afternoon tea, it is important to set up the correct backdrop for conversation. Fine porcelain teacups and dainty macaroons somehow encourage discussions to flow. Chit-chat begins in high-brow territory and quickly shifts to "girl talk." In accordance with codes of propriety, I will not give away the details.

Chinese porcelain vase and classic teapot made in England

I will only share an overview: talk of revising resumes; career aspirations & grievances; the virtues of boyfriends; the downside of breakups; confessions of ice cream binges; advice to use cooking as therapy. From how to complete a religious conversion to how to organize a shoe closet, the topics were a reflection of our diverse experiences as women.

Different styles of find china teacups from my grandma

Tea party success is measured by the quality of the company. For this to happen, you must have the right guest list, pleasant atmosphere and the essential refinements. An aristocratic custom originating in England, afternoon tea has an entire set of rules that must be followed. There is the expectation of a special occasion, of luxury and beauty. 

The proper way to serve cream and sugar cubes

Here's how to host the perfect tea party:

1.) Select the date and the time for your event (4 o'clock is traditional for afternoon tea).
2.) Create a guest list. An ideal number of guests is six or seven. You can expect a positive response rate of around 30%-50% so you may want to start by inviting about 12 guests. 
3.) Send an invite or call to invite guests at least a week ahead of time. Request RSVPs at least three days before your event and be absolutely clear that a response is required.
4.) Create a music play list for the party, ideally classical music or other gentle background music (such as bosa nova or cheerful jazz) that will not distract from the conversation.
5.) A few days before the event, clean and decorate. Wash and iron your tablecloths and napkins. Make sure that you have the essential china, serving pieces, tea and sugar cubes.
6.) The day before the event, shop for fresh flowers, pastries, strawberries, cream and if needed, tea. Cut the flowers and create several colorful bouquets using pretty vases.
7.) The day of the event, set everything out an hour before the party begins. If it's a warm day, be sure to have glasses and iced lemon water ready to offer guests when they arrive. The most important element of the party is the hostess' welcoming manner.

Fresh bouquet of garden roses

Tea Party Essentials:

*Good-quality black tea, Mariage Frères is the best!
*Teacups with saucers (ideally vintage porcelain, mismatched is fine)
*Cream and lemon (served in fine bone china or porcelain pieces)
*Sugar cubes (with special mini tongs for serving; I found mine at Lovejoy's Attic)
*Macaroons (about 20 for 6-8 guests). Try Chantal-Guillon rose and vanilla flavors.
*Madeleines or financiers (2 per guest). I recommend Sweet Mue browned-butter cakes!
*Fresh organic, locally grown strawberries (one 8-oz. pack)

If you follow these steps, you are guaranteed to create a special occasion that your guests will cherish. You may even inspire a new tradition! Hosting a tea party is a rewarding experience and an art form well worth sharing with others.

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Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.