Eat

Scala. San Francisco, California. May 30, 2015

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La Famiglia Ristorante Italiano. Reno, Nevada. May 22, 2015.

A drought challenged mama bear and two of her hungry cubs visited our Tahoe cabin deck the other day. I was in our living room on the phone with my back to our big glass window…turned around when I heard some sort of noise outside…and looked straight into the eyes of the hungry big mama.

Well, that scared the shit out of me.

So, naturally…this frightful episode made me hungry.

Soon over Mt. Rose we headed. Sonja provided us reservations for dinner at Reno’s La Famiglia Ristorante Italiano, one of our favorite dining spots in town.

La Famiglia spent several years in what might be charitably described as a grimy part of downtown Reno.

Back then La Famiglia was housed in a simple little corner location east of Virginia Street…kind of an oasis of cleanliness and charm a hundred yards or so from the back end of Harrah’s indoor parking tomb and another hundred or so from sort of a mini-high rise concrete edifice one might guess houses millions of Cisco-type machines.

After surviving several years of that “no location, no location, no location” location, La Famiglia packed up it’s rolling pins, pasta machines and Campari and moved into a new, more upscale Virginia Street spot a few blocks away. In fact, Reno’s Pioneer Center for Performing Arts is only a few steps from the ristorante’s door. Trust me, a few blocks here and there makes a big difference in Reno.

The Lords of Reno finally recognized a few years back that their “Biggest Little City” would never compete with Las Vegas…and have refocused the local economy on attracting the Teslas and Apples of the world. Core area investment and redevelopment has begun to reflect the new economic direction…and La Famiglia appears to be taking advantage of this new downtown wave.

The new location offers a large, yet somehow cozy high ceiling dining room. An inviting, dimly lit, well stocked bar with stools is in an adjacent room. A smaller dining room is nearby for overflow crowds.

We arrived at La Famiglia Friday evening a bit after 6:00pm. The room was full. In fact the only free table appeared to be the one being held for us. Though busy with conversation, the sound level was surprisingly very comfortable.

We ordered a reasonably priced house red to begin. Satisfying and warm. An Antipasti plate accompanied our reds…a pleasant combination of cured-to-perfection Prosciutto di Parma and fresh, cool cantoloupe.

For our main plates, I chose the Penne con Salcicce…sausage, mushrooms and marinara. The serving was very generous, presented in a bowl the size of a frisbee. The sausage was spicy without being overpowering…the fennel nicely blended within the finely ground, tender pork. The penne was cooked al dente; the marinara a rich red with large sliced mushrooms complementing the traditionally seasoned sauce.

Sonja chose her favorite, Gnocchi. The light little potato pillows are house made. Sonja likes her gnocchi served with the sauce half and half…one side covered with the marinara, the other with a creamy Gorgonzola. As with my penne, her portion was generous and served in a large bowl. Gnocchi is fragile and can be tricky to cook. However these were perfectly prepared…likely floating in the hot water for only a few moments. There were lots of delicious gnocchi to eat in Sonja’s serving…she couldn’t finish all of them…many came home with us afterwards in a carry-away container.

Finally, a “Gustav and Sonja Eat” Rule: No Italian meal is complete without Spumoni ice cream for dessert. The La Famiglia version was cold, light and creamy, with little bits of pistachios mingling with the flavorful blend of customary Spumoni flavors…cherry, vanilla and a hint of chocolate.

During the postwar years, Reno and Lake Tahoe were frequent hangout spots for Frank Sinatra and his mafia gumbah buddies like Sam Giancana and Hank Sincola as well as mob club owners such as Cal-Neva frontman Skinny D’Amato. You gotta believe, if those wise guys were around today, surely they’d make La Famiglia Ristorante Italiano a regular meal stop.

La Famiglia is that Italian.

Gustav’s Penne con Salcicce. 


Sonja’s favorite: Gnocchi!

Tahoe Thai. Stateline, California. May 16, 2015.

OK! Enough, already! Can’t we PLEASE be done with miserable drizzle…wet, half-hearted snow and dark days? We are hours away from Memorial Day weekend…the official start to summer…and Sonja and I feel like we’re living in the always moist Northwest back in 1976.

Except we’re at Lake Tahoe in 2015.

It’s cold! It’s wet! I have to build a friggin’ fire in our cabin’s wood stove every morning so that our old tickers don’t quit ticking if exposed to the indoor temps in the 50’s here, for god’s sake.

I know the west is in the middle of one of the worst droughts in recent memory…but if our beloved Tahoe home-away-from-home region is going to be cursed with low water levels and zero Truckee river runoff…RAIN HARD here! NOW! And then be done. Please, Mother Nature…provide some REAL relief to our forests, lakes and reservoirs. All we have had here for 7 or 8 days is overcast skies, wimpy drizzle and the Oregon-like gloom of damp, cool days.

It’s too cool to work outside clearing our yard of fallen winter needles and tree limbs…too damp to refresh our deck rails and posts with it’s protective coat of summer stain.

And more importantly…it’s not beach or barbeque weather!

We’ve just about exhausted all the House Hunters International on HGTV and almost finished the first 13 episode season of “Grace and Frankie” on Netflix. (Which, BTW, if you haven’t seen…you must. It is hilarious good fun.)

Sonja has trotted out numerous slow-cooker soup recipes for us to prepare so we can try to stay warm. I’ve desperately grilled Casper dogs inside on the stove…and weakly attempted bbq’ing steaks on the Weber Sunday evening in 45 degree weather.

In short, Sonja and I are getting Cabin Fever. Big Time.

It’s time to get OUT OF THE HOUSE. (Cue hair pulling and twisted facial expressions)

Other than two breakfasts at our favorite west shore cafe, the Firesign, we’ve eaten nothing but our own muffled attempts at the aforementioned indoor culinary creativity.

So, Sonja got busy scouting out some new Tahoe places for us to try. We rounded up some errands we could run down at South Lake Tahoe, so that area became her search focus. But what to eat…what to eat?

“I feel like Chinese”, Sonja suggested. Hmm. Not wanting to sound insensitive, I let that comment pass without one of my usual snarky replies. “But here’s a Thai place that sounds really good!”, Sonja said.

The usual 45 minute ride to south lake was stretched to around 65, thanks to ever present CalTrans road crews performing their interminable repairs and vigorous constructive (destructive?) attempts to save Tahoe from dreaded mountain erosion in the form of new drainage channels and concrete ditches. Progress? Busy work, It seems.

Anyway…My Thai…was selected as our luncheon destination.

We easily found My Thai. It is housed in a small, quaint log cabin right on the main highway, Lake Tahoe Blvd, at South Lake Tahoe. We arrived during the lunch hour rush. The small dining room seats about 25. It was nearly full. We were promptly seated at a deuce, not but a few feet away from the biggest religious shrine in a restaurant I’ve ever seen in my life! Turns out she is Kwan Yin…Goddess of Compassion….or Goddess of Mercy…depending on whether you compassionately grant the cook forgiveness if the noodles and peanut sauce are subpar…or ask for Mercy if the hot sauce is too hot.

Curiously, there were also 5 or 6 VERY large pitchers of ice water set up on a table, smack dab in the middle of the dining room. Either the brutal California drought is not applicable at My Thai, or Governor Brown’s edict about offering restaurant guests water “On Request Only” was lost somehow in translation. We’re not sure. So…without request…large, full glasses of water were served us immediately. OMG! Maybe lunch would be REALLY spicy!

Sonja and I decided to try something from the Lunch Special choices. There were about ten of them. The Pad Thai special with soup, choice of meat, salad and appetizer included for $7.95 sounded good. Sonja chose the beef. I went with the chicken. We were asked by our efficient young lady server, “Mild or hot?’…and after getting a look at all the abundant drinking water in the place…Sonja and I practically snapped in unison, “MILD!” Please.

To begin, we enjoyed hot cups of chicken broth based soup. Small cubes of tofu and several chewy sliced mushrooms floated mindlessly together. I am always thankful I don’t have to rely on tofu for sustenance. It is so boring…yet in this warm combination seemed appropriate and satisfying.

Shortly the Pad Thai was served. The presentation was very pleasing. A small green salad topped with peanut sauce dressing filled one side of the plate. The appetizer…a triangle shaped, deep fried wonton wrap filled with a mixture of ground chicken and Thai herbs…settled on another portion of the plate. Meanwhile, the Pad Thai served in the plate’s center, looked yummy. The stir-fry rice noodles glistened. Each of our helpings were topped with lightly scrambled egg. Bean sprouts, green onions and crushed peanut were lightly tossed within the noodles…with plentiful tender chicken and beef in each of our servings.

The noodles were cooked perfectly. The bean sprouts were crunchy and moist….the green onions a nice complement to the noodles and peanuts.

Thankfully the Pad Thai was mild…yet distinctive without being boring or bland.

We really enjoyed My Thai…our new Tahoe discovery. It’s a bit of a drive for us to get there often…but Sonja and I would heartily recommend the food and overall experience.

As we left, we were both thankful we had to ask Kwan Yin for neither Compassion nor Mercy…

…and then prayed for an end to damp, cool weather…and our Cabin Fever.


Here’s a look at our My Thai, Pad Thai! (Minus the scrambled egg topping…which by the time I remembered to take this shot…had already been consumed.)

Les Chardenoux de Pres. Paris, France. September 2014.

Wanting to enjoy a nice dinner one evening recently in Paris, we asked two young women working the front desk during our stay at the Left Bank’s Hotel Montalembert for suggestions. They spoke perfect English…a good sign that perhaps they’d be able to help us with some of our meal preferences.

With their help we learned of two restaurants that sounded good. Both were near Blvd. St. Germaine and within walking distance from the hotel. We checked out the menus at each and decided to try Les Chardenoux des Pres…a small room on Blvd. Dragon with comfortably sized bar and perhaps a dozen tables for two. We chose to sit at the bar; we had no reservation. Many bars in Europe can actually have a bit more elbow room than a table. Besides, bars always seem to be better vantage points to people watch!

I began the evening with Grey Goose. After all, this is France! My wife Kris chose a nice Petit Syrah. Everything on the menu sounded wonderful. After some helpful direction from our bartender, we decided to try the 39 Euro fixed price offerings for the evening; first plates, main dishes and dessert.

Kris’ first plate was burrata and tomatoes in pesto sauce. The fresh burrata was cool and creamy, the tomatoes ripe, crisp and flavorful…the pesto adding the tangy topping to enhance it all. My first dish was crumbled crab on a bed of warm cubed potatoes topped with sliced cherry tomatoes and French dressing…molded and topped in a perfect round. The crabmeat was mixed as a salad with finely chopped celery and dressing. The potatoes complemented it perfectly. The serving was a simple, tasty prelude to what followed.

For my main dish I chose farmhouse chicken from the French coastal region of Les Landes. The generous portion of breast meat was baked in salted butter, accompanied by a side of vanilla flavored potato purée. The potato side was presented in a petite cast iron serving bowl. I have never, ever tasted chicken breast so soft and tender…not a hint whatsoever of dryness. It is NOT an exaggeration to say it actually did melt in my mouth. The potato purée was delicious. It was warm and smooth…the vanilla adding almost a dessert quality to the taste.

Kris selected the Top Sirloin Angus Steak with Bearnaise sauce and coquette potatoes. The steak was served sliced in strips after having been perfectly pan cooked in butter to an as requested medium rare. The Bearnaise was tangier than some we’ve had…unique to us but perfect to dip the steak into. The potatoes were little mashed rounds. We decided they must have been flash-deep fried; lightly crisp on the outside…soft, warm and creamy inside. Pretty amazing stuff.

We were both extremely satisfied at this point in our meal…but we bravely carried on to the third course…our dessert selections. We each chose to try French Toast (yes! French Toast!) topped with Sicilian pistachio ice cream. When presented, the toast had been baked in a round. Hints of egg blended nicely with the fresh, cold strawberries. The ice cream melted as we ate through it…oozing down into the toast and creating an incredible ala mode.

It turns out that the Master Chef at Les Chardenoux des Pres is Cyril Lignac…a pretty famous guy in Michelin circles. We knew nothing of this before we began our evening. We learned Lignac has two other Parisian restaurants as well. We had a wonderful meal and experience in this little gem for one of our evenings in Paris…served by friendly, knowledgeable staff.

A leisurely stroll up St. Germain in the warm Parisian evening air helped to burn off only a few of the spectacular calories we’d consumed. We feel fortunate to be able to experience such pleasure in our lives.

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Creme Cake Heaven. Bled, Slovenia. September 2014.

Who are these people?

imageThey’re Bled pastry pros…circa mid-1950’s…led by Serbian pastry chef Ištvan Kovačevič. I have NO idea which one Ištvan is in this photo, but I’m guessing he’s the guy wearing the biggest hat. It seems he created an incredibly delicious dessert back then. He called it Bled Creme Cake.

Generally I can’t cram candy, ice cream, desserts…and especially pastry…into my fat face fast enough. But I had never heard of Bled Creme Cake until one day when I was walking along Lake Bled’s bucolic shore…and I saw a big sandwich board blocking my path to a cheesy souvenir shop a few feet away.

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Get a load of that sweet hunk of heaven, will you now? Creme Cake. Geezus. Who knew? Not me. Never, ever heard of a Creme Cake in my life. And, no…a Hostess Twinkie doesn’t count.

So, here’s the scoop on my latest, heavenly sweet tooth moment; Cream Cake.

Creme Cakes have been well known to visitors to Bled, Slovenia for decades and, are in fact the symbol of Bled. Imagine that…cake!

Over the last 60 years as many as 12 million cream cakes have been sold. Each gorgeous cake has a golden crispy crust made from butter dough and a vanilla cream filling topped with whipped cream. An enticing dusting of powdered sugar crowns the creation.
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The terrace of Hotel Park…where these treats are exclusively served…was slammed with people eating Creme Cake that sunny day. And everyone had BIG SMILES on their faces. I just had to have a Creme Cake. Had to. Immediately.

When I shared my Creme Cake story with my traveling companions…they weren’t all that excited. Unless there’s a warm, crispy French baguette…a pound of butter and a big glass of house red sitting on a table in front them…they never get too excited about anything that sounds like dessert.

“C’mon, Creme Cakes? Really? What’s the big deal?”

After I finally promised to take some boring rowboat ride across Lake Bled with them and a dozen other Creme Cake ignorant tourists later in the day…they all decided they’d humor me…and go WATCH me eat my slice of cake.

Hmmmmph.

Some in our group were not big custard fans…but good grief, custard is the soul of the Creme Cake! But when they experienced my over-the-top enthusiasm…they finally relented…agreeing to try a piece of Bled Creme Cake with me!

We sat at a Bled lakeside table. Creme Cakes were served.

With fork in hand, I gently cut into my inviting little cake. Savoring the moment, I took my first bite. Bells went off in my mouth! The custard was light, moist…and YES…creamy! The thin pastry was oh-so buttery.

Unique and delicious. Creamy sweet and light…each bite found it’s way down toward contentment. Words can’t describe much more. Even the previously unenthused among us couldn’t enjoy their Creme Cakes fast enough.

Ištvan, old boy…I  never had a clue who you might be before my recent Slovenian adventure. I’m so glad I discovered your creation.

Congratulations!  After all these years your deliciously unique Bled Creme Cake has stood the test of time.

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Lo-Lo’s Waffles and Chicken. Scottsdale, Arizona. February 2015.

Breakfast at Lo Lo's.

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Pizzeria Bianco. Phoenix, Arizona. May 2014 

Pizzeria Bianco

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Gusta Pizza. Firenze, Italia. May 2013.

Gusta Pizza

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