Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mediterranean Kitchen Review

Kayleigh here. I had been hearing buzz for a while about a very accommodating Greek restaurant in the area, so we finally made our way out to see for ourselves. Mediterranean Kitchen in Bellevue has a fairly small space, not many tables, but is quite busy during the dinner hour. We came on a sunny July evening, so we were able to get a table outside where it was quieter, and despite being in an out-of-the-way spot our waiter was always prompt and attentive.

Bowls of aromatic, golden yellow soup were served as soon as we were seated, with the waiter reassuring us that the soup of the day was vegetarian as well as gluten and dairy free. Once he knew of our concern, he went over the menu and let us know the few dishes that did contain gluten, and that the pita bread that came complimentary with the entrees would be served on a separate plate for the table, not touching the rest of the dish. Instead of the usual feeling that we have to push for special treatment for Jason and really quiz them about the components of the dish, we got the impression that allergies and dietary preferences were carefully considered in the menu design. It was nice to go to a regular restaurant without feeling like you need to nag the staff!

As for the food, I really wish I had gotten a recipe for the starter soup they served- it was phenomenal for such a simple tasting dish! The chefs were clearly not afraid of strong flavors and bold combinations, as each dish was strongly spiced and memorable on its own, but managed to play well with the other components of the plate and give a balance to the meal. Despite how much I enjoyed it, though, I barely managed to make a dent in the giant plate, so I ended up using the doggy bagged rice and hummus in almost a weeks’ worth of lunches afterwards. Glad to say, though, that the flavors and textures held up well and tasted almost as good cold.

Jason here. Kayleigh has been wanted to visit a Greek restaurant for some time. Having visitors is a great time for us to go out and try things one or either of would not normally choose. Greek food just is not top of mind for me, so it’s not something we would usually go to ourselves. Mediterranean Kitchen is nice because it’s right downtown in Bellevue, with easy to find parking available.

For my meal I got the Lamb Shish Kabob, served with rice, and charbroiled tomatoes and onions, and a side bowl of soup. As Kayleigh mentioned, we were served the soup the day first and it was fantastic. I quickly downed the whole bowl, and considered ordering just a larger portion for my main dish. I didn’t quite catch its name, but it was a thick soup that I believe consisted of split peas.

The main dish was a very large portion, which I was thankful for. I’m well known for my love of left overs that I can take into lunch. Same as Kayleigh, when I finished it looked like I had barely made a dent. The yellow rice had a hint of saffron to it, but I couldn’t be certain. It was not mentioned specifically for my dish, but listed for a few of the others. The only bit I could have passed on was the Greek yogurt which adds a bit of sour to the dish. It doesn’t count against the dish, as I recognize it as a quirk of my own personal taste and I knew it was included when I ordered. Overall I was very satisfied with my meal, and even more so that I got to enjoy it for lunch the next few days.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Safe Travels in Japan - Ryokan Hoeiso

(website is in Japanese only, Trip Advisor link here)

Kayleigh here. Even before we had started planning out our trip, we knew we wanted to spend the last couple of nights relaxing in one of Japan's famous hot spring resorts. Taking a two week vacation in a foreign country where the language barrier is omnipresent and the risk of breaking one of hundreds of little etiquette rules is terribly daunting can really take a lot out of you. And what better way to cap off the perfect trip than to soak in a hot, steaming bath as many times as you can take in one day?

To start off, we knew we wanted to find somewhere that was a true representation of the romantic portrayal of ryokans that we knew from popular media. Somewhere far away from civilization, with naturally fed hot springs to soak in and a cozy room to sit and read books all day. If it had a history to it, all the better, and an artists touch to the architecture and decorations would be the icing on the cake.

At first, our search proved more difficult than we expected. Staying at a true, traditional ryokan means that you get a kaiseki dining experience, where course after course is carefully crafted and artfully presented- a meal fit for nobility. The dishes are always excellent examples of local cuisines and seasonal ingredients, utilizing every piece of each animal and every possible preparation of the fresh produce available to them with the ingenuity of an era long passed. What were the chances of finding a ryokan that would willingly prepare gluten free meals?

After some searching and several back-and-forth emails, we finally found a place that fit what we were looking for. Using a booking website as our translator, we managed to explain Jason's intolerance to the staff at Hoeiso, and they told us they would be more than happy to make special preparations for him. We were able to double check with them once we arrived, and were quite reassured that they would still be able to accommodate the restrictions.

We ended up staying in the Shigure room, with a fantastic view of the mountain looming behind the buildings. Although we spent most of our stay relaxing and never left the property of the resort, we talked with several other guests that found quite a few things to do around the train station in Hakone and the surrounding area, but we were perfectly content exploring and appreciating all the paintings and floral arrangements scattered throughout the building, alongside liberal trips to the indoor and outdoor hot springs. Just keep in mind before booking that the baths are public and separated by gender- if you want to bathe as a couple or family, then you have to wait until the evening and reserve a half-hour slot in one of the outdoor baths.

If you are wondering why I have not talked about the food yet, it is because there really are not any words that can adequately describe it. Each meal was carefully and artfully set up on the low dining table while we soaked in the baths, then once we arrived our hostess would briefly explain to us how to eat some of the more complicated dishes before excusing herself. The table was always set with the same seating arrangement in mind, so we would know which food was gluten free. Surprisingly, though, there was very little difference between our meals- Jason would have a few different small plates and often a soy sauce substitute, but it all seemed very natural and well thought out. It did not feel like he had to make do in the slightest.

We more often than not bungled our way through the meal, with each bite being unfamiliar but extraordinarily delicious fare despite the fact that we were undoubtedly eating it wrong. From shabu-shabu to yakiniku to whole grilled fish, not to mention all the tiny side dishes- we had more than enough to eat at every meal, and often ended up leaving the rice untouched. It was a truly amazing experience, especially to have made it all the way through two days without getting glutened once.

We highly, highly recommend taking the opportunity to stay at Hoeiso for a night or two on your trip. The only things that we had to watch out for was the tea set that they kept in the room- the wrapped sweet cakes that came by default were off-limits, and one of the two teas they offered on the tray was barley. A quick sniff let us know which tea was which, but make sure not to confuse the two.

Jason here. Hoeiso was wonderful. The staff was impeccably friendly, and made sure my meals were gluten free. This must not have been easy to do, as the meals consisted of well over a dozen items each. I must admit I did have some apprehension at first as I did not want to get sick on the first night and be unable to enjoy the hot spring experience. After talking to the staff, I felt better, and after my meal was specifically labeled when they brought it to our room I felt absolutely safe. 

If you ever get to have a traditional meal, definitely give it a go. There are just so many items to choose from that you will end up trying many new delicacies. I honestly have no idea what some of the items I tried even was. Some were delicious, some I traded with Kayleigh for something more to my liking. Others, looking back, I am fairly certain were sauces or toppings which I unknowingly ate plain. I would describe the whole meal in just two words, variety and filling. I distinctly remember dinner on the first night, and after taking the last bite of the meal in front me I said, “Wow, I couldn’t possibly eat any more”. It was precisely that moment, that our second course was brought in and I knew I would be in trouble. After yet another dessert course, I was truly about to burst, but feeling very satisfied.

The hot springs themselves were a great finish to our vacation. After walking for nearly 12 hours straight on some days, my legs and feet were in for some much needed heat and relaxation. Although the hot springs were technically open to everyone at the resort, I only ever ran into someone else in the men’s hot spring once. I know Kayleigh met others on more than one occasion, so your experiences may vary. My particular favorite was the reserved outdoor hot spring. It was night just to relax with Kayleigh and enjoy the night sky, and listen to the nearby river. 

If you are spending any great length of time in Japan, be sure to stay at a ryokan for at least a day while you are there, whether it is for relaxation or to enjoy the cultural experience of a traditional meal and room.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Barrio Star Review

Jason here. While we were visiting family in San Diego, our second food destination was Barrio Star. Part of the Isabel Cantina chain of restaurants, Barrio Star is a Mexican Restaurant located in San Diego. It happened to have been July 4th and I was very thirsty from walking around in the sunny weather, so when we discovered a restaurant that was not only open with available parking but had a menu with gluten free options labeled, I was pretty happy.

For starters, I drank about 2 glasses of water, and then half a pomegranate margarita. Kayleigh and I decided to split the margarita, but she ordered a non-gluten free dish. Thus, in order to avoid cross contamination I opted to drink my half up front. The pomegranate added a nice fruity flavor, but the tequila definitely came through strong.

For an appetizer, the table ordered some tortilla chips with guacamole. While they are labeled gluten free on the menu, they let me know they have been cooked in the same fryer as other items. However, our waiter went out of his way and offered to bring out some gluten free corn tortillas so I could have some of the guacamole.

Now what’s interesting is that I can’t really find any other fried items on the menu that would have contaminated the nachos. This is convenient, as without thinking things through I ordered a bowl of tortilla soup which was also labeled gluten free on the menu. Whether it was luck, or they really do have a safe gluten free fryer, I can say I felt fine afterwards. While it was an exceptionally hot day, the restaurant was air conditioned and my glasses of water (along with the ice I consumed) had cooled me down considerably. I enjoyed my nice hot bowl of soup, downing the entire thing in short order. The tortilla chips were not exactly “crunchy” as advertised, but I wasn’t expecting that from tortilla chips soaked in soup. The roasted red chile guajillo added only a small amount of heat, which was good considering the weather.

Kayleigh here. Out of all the food I tried there, the highlight by far was the freshly baked corn tortillas. They were incredibly soft and very slightly chewy, unlike any I have had before. What was I doing buying prepackaged corn tortillas all my life? That's it- we are going to buy a tortilla press, then use them instead of bread for everything from now on.

If you’re looking for a chance to escape this heat this summer, are in San Diego, and in the mood for some good Mexican food, then give Barrio Star a try. The price was right, and although they warned me about the tortilla chips, they still had plenty of gluten free options available.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Safe Travels in Japan - Yatagarasu and unnamed cafe

Unnamed cafe

Jason here. My second favorite restaurant we visited in Japan was café that we unfortunately could not find the name of. We did take some pictures of the sign for anyone that can read Japanese.

Hidden away in off a road in Harujuku, is this tiny little café located by walking down some stairs to basement. When you walk through the door, it’s like walking back in time with classical music playing and décor reminiscent of that era. Everything was just so relaxing and inviting, the atmosphere brings you in.

After sitting down I ordered a coffee, and Kayleigh ordered a Matcha Parfait. Depending on the coffee, I like it either black or with lots of chocolate, cream, and sugar. If it is really good flavorful coffee, with a good bit of bitterness to it I like it straight. Otherwise if it is lacking flavor, overly bitter, or already two sweet I just go crazy with additives.

Coming in a tiny little teacup, I drank my coffee plain. It was bitter, but still packing a strong coffee flavor.

If you are every walking around Harujuku, perhaps sightseeing the latest fashions, definitely find this little hidden gem and stop by for a nice relaxing cup of coffee.

Kayleigh here. It was quite a surprising find, to duck into this quiet European-style restaurant after walking through the crowded Harajuku main thoroughfare. The waiters were all crisply dressed in black and white, and the bartender was grinding the coffee beans in a wooden hand-cranked box. As if to juxtapose this, the coffee percolator itself was a series of glass globes and metal strips- looking more at home in a chemistry laboratory than a quaint painting-lined getaway.


Jason here. After taking a day trip out to Nara and walking around the park, we stopped at a restaurant called Yatagarasu to grab dinner. Nara is famous for a particular breed of chicken, and that was this restaurants specialty. 

The menu was in Japanese, and our waiter spoke only a very little bit of English so we were adventurous and ordered effectively a few random things off of the menu. We had pictures we pointed to, but there was definitely some uncertainty of what we would be getting. Luckily we had our allergy card on us, and the waiter was extremely friendly and made sure nothing contained any gluten.

We ended up ordering chicken heart (or liver?) sashimi for the both of us, grilled chicken offal rice bowl, and breast and egg soup. I had the offal rice bowl, and the soup was Kayleigh’s (we don't think that was gluten free).

We aren’t certain if we ordered sashimi chicken heart, or if it was liver. Either way it was tastier then I expected. The texture is similar to that of salmon sashimi, with a bit of an initial chewiness to it that quickly gives way. The taste itself was plain, with little to no hint of chicken. The closest flavor I can think of would be an extremely lightly flavored water. Something like rose water.

The chicken offal rice bowl was delicious. The offal was well cooked, and just tasted like chicken with a bit more flavor and richness than one would usually find. 

Kayleigh here. I would also like to vouch for the atmosphere of this place- it seemed like the sort of cozy local spot that you could easily become a regular at. Since izakayas (the tiny bars you see peppering downtown streets) were out of the picture for us, this was the one time that I really felt like we had found something unique. They had something on the menu for every part of the chicken, showcasing the unusual bits and really making them shine instead of trying to hide them in a sausage or smothering them in a overpowering sauce.