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Monday, December 31, 2012

Z Café Express: We were impressed!

Lunch date 27: November 9, 2012

For our final contribution for 2012-we actually report on our lunch date last month, and sadly have not had one since! We are happy to relay, however, that our project was a huge success. We dined together 27 times in 2012-and had some wonderful lunchtime experiences-by trying new restaurants, different types of cuisine, and also spending great time together. Mom commented recently that while she really enjoys our dining experiences-she'd prefer to eat food that she likes! I think she’ll be a good sport, however, and willing to continue our project into the New Year-there are so many more restaurants in Pleasanton to try. I'm sure she'll appreciate some new finds, and we're bound to find something she will like.

Lunch date #27 was at Z Café Express in Mission Plaza-former site of Sister's Café (1987 Santa Rita Road, www.zcafeexpress.com). I had been at Z Café for breakfast (quick heat-up egg sandwiches, only a few choices), but looked forward to trying some of their appealing lunch choices. Interesting that they bill this café as an espresso bistro and wine bar, although they close at 3pm. Certainly, some people do enjoy a glass of wine with lunch, but just not what you'd expect in a neighborhood coffee shop/café. This is a "branch" of the Z Café in Oakland, a full upscale café and bar in the uptown district of Oakland near the Paramount Theater.

Location 3.5 points: across the parking lot from Blessings, so the same score seems appropriate for location.

Ambiance 3 points: Definitely café style: order at the counter and just a few plain tables. Outdoor seating is available when favorable weather. Big chalk board menu sets the tone. They do have a lovely display-case of baked goods at the counter. There is a good sized wine bar at one end.

Menu selection 3.5 points: There are some interesting panini combos such as my choice of the turkey with apple, brie and a lemon sauce on a flavorful bread. You can get a bag of chips or side salad for $1 extra. It seems they do not have a kitchen/grill as all of the sandwiches are made on a panini maker or served cold. They offer all of the usual hot coffee drinks.

Service 4 points: Although order-at-the-counter style places are hard to judge regarding service, the server/cook/barista was very helpful and cheerful. She immediately made a fresh pot of coffee for mom since the last cup from the old pot wasn’t hot enough. She brought our sandwiches to the table very quickly, although I did have to fetch our own napkins from a self-serve counter. She cleared our table promptly, and asked if we wanted anything else. So why the high score, you might ask, considering the type of 1/2 service offered? She was very pleasant and cheerful; it was clear she was trying very hard to provide good service within the confines of the organization of the café and we salute that!

Food 3.5 points: Mom ordered the turkey chipotle and cheese sandwich and was happy. The cut of turkey was thick and had good flavor. I really liked my sandwich: it was rather unusual with the combination of flavors (lemon with apple), but it was good and something I would order again.

Value 5 points: This one was a hit! Our sandwiches were very reasonably priced: mine $7 and Mom's $6. Even the coffee was reasonable at $1.80.

Overall score for Z Café Express: 3.75 points. Would have scored higher if a better location, but overall very good quality of food, promptly served in a comfortable atmosphere, for a very reasonable price. Tough to beat this one. Not fine dining, but an excellent place to grab a quick bite for lunch. Might have to go back and try a glass of wine next time!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Lokanta Mediterranean Grill & Bar: For interesting food, don't have to go far!

Lunch date #25: November 2, 2012

We have a fan! Whoohoo, how exciting. Well, OK maybe not so much as a fan as someone who commented on our blog! Our "fan" recommended trying Lokanta Mediterranean Grill & Bar (443 Main Street; http://www.eatlokanta.com). This is the new Mediterranean restaurant that replaced Agora Bistro. We had wanted to give it a try, or at least I was interested-and the lamb burger, something I really like--was recommended by our "fan. Mom agreed that she likes lamb and was willing to give it a go. Lokanta evidently means "neighborhood bistro" in Turkish. Sounded good and after the last two duds, we were up for some decent, interesting food.

Location 5 points: downtown—same place that was Agora Bistro (the old location of Bruno's).

Ambiance 4 points: Gotta love what they've done with the place! They opened that previous dark and narrow hallway. The front is an open kitchen/dining area with bar seating grill-side. Odd that the bar stools are cheap plastic—maybe the good ones are on order? Mom liked the wine bottles along the wall in the hallway and the cloth napkins: "That's classy," she commented. The place is certainly dressed up and inviting.

Menu selection 4 points: While we didn't read it too closely before ordering—we were after the lamb burgers—we did review it later. All sorts of dishes to offer for lunch: salads, interesting "gourmet" style sandwiches, and hot entrees—including Shish Kebabs. Many intersting dishes to try. We weren't sure if this was a specific lunch menu-especially since the prices were pretty high. A quick look at their webpage: only difference is that, other than the lamb burger,  they drop the sandwiches with the dinner menu. Entrees all the same prices for either menu.

Service 4 points: Very attentive, good hot coffee and refill of hot water for tea. The food took a while, but we munched on fresh bread with an interesting olive tapenade. Server kept checking back and after serving our meals checked back again. He packed up our left overs to go.

Food 4 points: We both enjoyed the lamb burgers: great flavor, large size (we both only finished half). The garnish of roasted red peppers and feta was very good. Mom went with the garlic fries-they were good and not overly garlicky. I chose the side salad which was delightful and had a tasty vinaigrette. We both took home left overs (half a lamb burger, each), and that was plenty for another meal.

Value 3 points: Aye, there's the rub. Knew it was going too well to be true. The lamb burgers were $14, pretty high for downtown even with the fries or salad included. We know that lamb is generally priced higher than beef, but this place is overall pretty pricey—especially for lunch. Now I just looked at their website, and the price of the lamb burger is listed at $15! The other meals are comparably priced, so it is not just the lamb that is driving the price. Interestingly, I would say that the prices for a dinner are very reasonable. We just usually see a bit of a break in the price at lunch time due to smaller portions, or the effort of the restaurant to fill tables at the lunch service.

Overall score for Lokanta: 4 points. Very enjoyable ambiance, good service and good food. Certainly if you're aching for a lamb burger-this is the place to go. Overall the steep prices might make it difficult to go frequently for lunch. Mom was pretty excited to try something new and to eat in a nice restaurant-but she commented that overall she prefers beef to lamb when it comes to a burger.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

El Jarrito: Mexican, oh no!

Lunch date #25, October 5, 2012

The second of the two restaurants we visited before Mom's cruise was El Jarrito at the historic Cheese Factory (828 Main Street). In our continued quest to find local, good Mexican food-and to sample every restaurant downtown, this one seemed reasonable to try. My friends say—"Why are you eating at such and such…" and I have to remind them that this is a project—to try every restaurant in Pleasanton! Sometimes, I have to remind Mom of that as well!

Location 5 points. Downtown on the North end. Parking is a bit of a hassle there, but the historic building is cool. This really used to be a cheese processing building and it was connected to the Pleasanton Hotel by one of the famous Pleasanton tunnels.

Ambiance 3 points: We sat outside and enjoyed the linen covered table, but that is pretty much the end of the ambiance. Very plain décor in and out. Not much to describe; fairly tacqueria type place. Still, it seemed clean.

Menu 3 points: There were some lunch specials and a general lunch menu also. Most of the usual things you'd expect in a Mexican-food place. Mom felt the selection was a bit limited. We both went with the lunch special, although I was surprised Mom ordered the tacos-she is usually more of an enchilada or tostada type. The server said the fish tacos were good, and as that is something I typically enjoy-I went with it. Mom order the beef tacos.

Food 1.5 points: Mom said this was the worse restaurant she had ever tried and the worse lunch she ever had! Wow, pretty dramatic I thought. But she couldn't eat the beef tacos at all. The meat was so tough, she couldn't chew it. We actually returned them…a definite first for us. The corn tortillas were soggy, and as tacos go—didn't have much on them except the meat (for me grilled fish) and served with a side of chopped cilantro and onion. The fish tacos were fair—but nothing special, and with the crumbling tortillas, hard to eat. Mom's beef tacos were replaced by shredded chicken tacos. She still didn't like them, even with the side of shredded lettuce in place of the cilantro—but she did pack them up to take home with the goal to fix them up the way she liked a taco and eat them at home!

Service 3 points: Our server was great. When I told her Mom couldn't eat the beef tacos, she immediately whisked them away and the replacement came pretty quickly She was quick to refill my tea, but never did get Mom more coffee. She tried, but came up a little short.

Value 2 points: When you really don't care for the food, it is hard to give the place any value at all. The prices were reasonable, but since the food so marginal, the value was low. We would not go back.

Overall score for El Jarrito: 2.9 points. Low points for the food and value offset by the good service and downtown location. Mom was not happy: "If this was my first Mexican dish, I never would have liked Mexican food!" I could see her point…but I do think she should have ordered the enchiladas—oh well, she is trying new things, have to give her credit!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Blessings Chinese Restaurant: No blessings to be found!

Lunch date #24, September 28, 2012

"Where have you been eating lately," our fans want to know! "Are you still having lunch with your mom?" The answer is yes, we've had a few more lunch dates, well actually only two since our last posting, so I will now bring you all up to date. I do have to report that Mom was out of town for 2 weeks on a Caribbean cruise with my brother and sister-in-law…even with the onset of hurricane "Sandy" in the region-but all was well with them, for the most part, and they had a great time! They are true cruise-experts and I'm sure had much better food than the next two places we will be reviewing—the first of which is Blessings Chinese Restaurant(1989-D Santa Rita Road). I would have to say that I was looking forward to this. We like Chinese food in general, and we used to frequent the old Blessings in Mission Plaza back in the day. I had not tried the new place since they re-opened in a new location, still within Mission Plaza, so figured it would be a good spot to try.

Location 3.5 points. Easy to find and park, but otherwise no big thrill. Certainly no external ambiance. Mission Plaza is fine, but as mom relayed crinkling her nose: "it is not downtown!"

Ambiance 3 points. After all it is a Chinese Restaurant—what did we expect. It was clean and simple. The stone-table tops were nice and the framed carved ivory fit the Asian theme. Still, nothing special, so a moderate score.

Menu selection 4 points. Lots to choose from with all of the usual Chinese-Americanized type dishes we expect to see. The lunch menu has good variety: soup, Chinese salad (lettuce, few shredded veggies) and rice included with several entrée choices. They offer steamed or fried rice at no additional fee.

Service 2 points. We were very disappointed with the service. We were not offered tea, and by the time we finally got a pot it was only tepid-warm and never did brew to be drinkable. Our server (only server) brought out the soup and then the main dishes very quickly-too quickly as we barely had a minute to eat the soup and the rest was served. I do feel this is typical of a Chinese restaurant lunch, so not too surprised. She was just rather abrupt and not too helpful. We had to get her attention to get the tea and then chopsticks and never did get the soy sauce. She spent a lot of time on her cell phone. When I was glancing around the restaurant to take in the ambiance, she yelled at me "What you want!"

Food 2 points. Printed in their menu is the following: "After several years of study and planning, Blessings has developed a new and uniquely delicious and healthful menu…" I am sorry—they should go back to the planning again! The food was uniformly too greasy. The soup was OK, but the meal went downhill after that. We did order "pan fried medallions of beef"—so I suppose you could say we got what we asked for—but it was sooo greasy, it was shiny! We also shared the "butterfly prawn combo with teriyaki chicken" (which I suppose is a bit of a rip off of a Japanese-style item), but it too was greasy and the prawn was breaded, fried, very tough and quite non-edible. The "fried" rice was OK, also a bit greasy but not quite as oil drenched as the other items. Needless to say, we didn't finish this food….of course Mom did take home the left overs purely out of habit, but I forgot to ask her if she ever did eat them!

Value 3 points. Menu prices of $6.50-8.25 for the lunch combos were relatively inexpensive, considering the soup and salad added, but since it was not good food, the value score has to go down.

Overall score for Blessings Chinese Restaurant: 2.9 points. A bit better than the First Hunan Chef Wong, but I doubt I'll ever go back. Sorry Blessings—not as good as before you closed. Somewhat on par with Panda Express in terms of low-end greasy Chinese food. Definitely not good for you and unlike Panda, the food at Blessings is not tasty enough to make the excess fat calories all that tempting. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Beeb's Sports Bar and Grill--After golf dependable!

Lunch date #23: Friday September 21, 2012

It was birthday time again-this time for our dear friend Kris. Every year we brush the cobwebs off the clubs and do a short nine in celebration of Kris' special day. Since the short executive at Los Positas had re-opened, we decided to try it. Kris always golfs well on her birthday, and since she beat us—this day held true to the claim! For lunch, it is convenient to stay on sight at Beeb's Bar and Grill (www.beebsatlaspositas.com), so Mom and others joined us for a birthday lunch party there. Obviously another foray out of Pleasanton, but close-by and we were overdue for a lunch date!

Location 3 points: At the Los Positas Golf Course in Livermore by the airport. Easy freeway access, but not exactly somewhere we would go if not playing golf. A bit off the beaten-path for a restaurant.

Ambiance 3 points: Very casual sports bar inside-with many flat screens showing all of the current sports. We chose to sit outside, and while the golf course view is nice, the hard-wire table and chairs are not all that great. No linens on the tables—and a new thing: if sitting outside, you have to walk into the counter to place your order. Also—they need some seat cushions: we were getting a waffle pattern imprinted on our backsides (Mom made a funny joke about this)! Definitely not comfortable. It wouldn't take all that much effort to upgrade their patio seating.
Great group for a birthday party!

Menu Selection 4 points: A very good selection of sandwiches, salads and burgers. Mom was especially happy to see Philly Cheese Steak on the menu! I went with my standard for Beeb's: the BBQ Chicken Salad. I said that I enjoyed the availability of the full bar-as I brought out our Bloody Mary's. Mom was quick to point out that we have been to numerous restaurants with a full bar, and commented she was surprised I was drinking at lunch. Just one, I figured…after all, it is fun to be festive at a birthday party!

Service 3 points: Since we had to order at the counter, it is hard to judge the service. The food was brought to our table, and the server did get some drink refills. She was very pleasant, but we felt the service was overall very minimal. The food did come out fast, so that was a bonus.

Food 3.5 points: My salad was pretty much as I had expected, and I liked it. Nothing special, but dependable. Mom liked her Philly Cheese Steak, but was disappointed with the fries. They were cold and lacking flavor—also she seemed to get the bottom of the bag with just little bits and fragments instead of normal sized fries. The others we were dining with enjoyed their lunches for the most part, other than Kathy who was not thrilled with the taco salad.

Value 4 points: Prices were fairly routine for what we typically pay for lunch at $9-10 each. Considering they have no competition in the area, it is nice that the prices are reasonable. I suppose you could counter-argue that the lack of location, other than after golf, makes the destination less than desirable.

Overall score for Beeb's: 3.4 points.  We always eat there when we play golf. It is reasonable and usually pretty fast. The prices are fair and food quality fairly consistent. We all enjoyed our time together to celebrate Kris' special day and were very relaxed and happy to be there. Like I said above, it is a place to grab a bite after a round of golf that is very dependable!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rising Loafer Café and Bakery-Dependable lunch, fun party!

Lunch date #23: Mom's birthday August 17, 2012

Such a grand day! Mom loves to have fun on her birthday-who among us girls doesn't? Since it was her special day, I thought it would be fun to go to one of her old favorites: Rising Loafer, (428 Main Street, www.risingloaferpleasanton.com). She was delighted that we had several surprise guest diners with us: my brother Gary, Emily, Jordan, and our dear friends Kelly, Kris and Dorothy! Perfect group for a perfect birthday lunch party. I have to laugh since Mom prefers to call this restaurant "Rising Loaf", which I do suppose is more technically accurate. This was one of regular lunch spots, before we started the 'project', but I realized it had been some time since we had been there. We were all looking forward to it.

Location 5 points: Downtown with parking in the back, say no more.

Perfect lunch party
Ambiance 3.5 points. While I prefer the outdoor tables, we had a rather large party that day so we sat indoors. The overall appeal of this place is not in the décor by any means. Rather simple bakery style with several tables. Kris pointed out the packing boxes and Windex on the sideboard in the dining room. Not a high class sort of place. Mom was thinking to give the place a "3", but then we looked back to see that we gave Dean's a "3"—which should have been a "2"…oh no what to do? We decided to give Rising Loafer a 3.5.

Menu selection 4.5 points. They do a good job with choices. Many lunch and breakfast items from which to choose. The home-made bread is always an added bonus. A good variety of sandwiches and salads making the choice difficult. I went with the turkey club on oat bread and a side of potato salad. Mom chose the chicken salad on lettuce greens. Dorothy ordered the quiche and was surprised to choose the type of cheese offered; which they melted on the top—rather different!

Service 4 points. Considering this is a bakery/café we didn't expect attentive service, but the server was on the ball. He was on time to take our order, the food was served pretty quickly and he was right on hand getting refills. We were especially pleased with the little offering of a few bakery treats to honor Mom's birthday celebration.

Birthday girl!
Food 4 points. Everything was good. My sandwich was large enough to take half home and I finished off the potato salad. Everyone else felt their meals were fine. Jordan was especially happy with the Sun Chips-his favorite. Unfortunately, Mom wasn't overly thrilled with her choice—I was wondering why she chose the chicken salad scoop onto greens instead of a sandwich. She forgot that they do a nice turkey sand with cranberries. Still she insisted that it was "good to try new things!" I was happy we were planning to grill some burgers for dinner that night—have to get a burger fix on your special B-day!

Value 4 points: Overall pretty reasonable at about $8-9 per sandwich. The ½ sandwich combos with salad were about $9. Seems a pretty good deal for good food and a good location. Mom didn't get to take home any left overs this time, but she was too happy as the birthday girl to notice!

Overall score for Rising Loaf (er): 4.2 points. Our memories were correct—it is a good spot for a nice lunch. Nothing fancy for sure, but good food at a reasonable price. We certainly had a grand time celebrating the birthday of a very special lady!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Stacey's Café: prepare to pay!

Lunch date #21: July 27, 2012 (yes, still need to catch up!)

I had been out of town for two weeks, and my wonderful Mom house-sat for us and took care of the animals. I wanted to take her for a special lunch, so suggested we go to Stacey's (310 Main St.; www.eatatstaceys.com).  It was a lovely day and I was hoping for an outside table. We certainly have had lunch there in the past, but I've rather given up on the idea of only new places-especially as Mom does point out, now that we are "reviewing" them, it gives us a whole new purpose! I've always liked Stacey's: nice atmosphere and service, and usually pretty good food. My memory was that it was a bit on the pricey side, so I was looking forward to our discussion regarding value of the place.

Location 5 points: Happy to be back on Main Street!

Ambiance 4.5 points: We did get an outdoor table: quite lovely next to the railing flower boxes. We enjoyed the nice linens on the table. We thought the interior to be OK, but as Mom said: "nothing special". We felt that the score should be on par with Fontina across the street, especially since with the flowers in bloom, it seems very similar.

Menu 4 points: Excellent lunch selection with many choices in each food category: salads, sandwiches and hot entrees. Of course, it is fun to read the menu with all of the Scott Adam's jokes printed in the description of each item! Mom was really excited to order the burger—what could I do? I'd been gallivanting around England and France for two weeks, while she was house sitting in Pleasanton—I wanted her to have anything she desired! I was interested in the grilled chicken sandwich with bacon and avocado. I think a real good sandwich was sounding perfect after all of the different types of food I'd had while traveling. Just can't beat a good ol' American sandwich!

Food 4 points: I was starving (why would I be after all of that eating while on vacation?), and enjoyed the fresh, soft bread and butter on the table while we were waiting. I also enjoyed the refreshing iced-tea. Mom liked her coffee in the oversized cup. She also liked the burger, especially the nice soft bun. She was disappointed not to have carmelized onions like the burger at Pastas! We realized later that you have to specify you want the onions carmelized, and then pay more—see later. I actually ordered the ½ sandwich and salad. The Caesar salad was very good with excellent flavor. I liked the sandwich, but the baguette was over toasted, very crunchy and somewhat hard to bite into and eat! Since we're comparing here, I also thought the sandwich I had at Pastas was better!

Service 4 points: Excellent server-very fast and efficient. Only problem: Mom asked for a refill of coffee and had to wait about 15 minutes while they brewed a new pot! By then we were done and ready to go, so too late. It wasn't an exceptionally hot day—kind of strange they ran out of coffee! Everything else was fine, and I did get refills of my iced-tea promptly.

Value 3 points: My memory was correct—this place is pricey! Most expensive lunch we have had: burger starts at $15 and then you have to pay an extra $1.50 for cheese and avocado. It did come with red onions, but if you wanted your onions grilled, be prepared to pay an extra 2 bucks-yikes!! I'm sure Scott Adams could come up with something witty and sarcastic about the burger rip off at Stacey's!! My ½ sandwich and salad was a bit better deal at $10.75. Still, adding in drinks and tax, the bill was $35 before tip!

Overall score for Stacy's Café: 4.1 points. Stacy's is a nice restaurant with good food, lovely ambiance and good service, although it is a bit over priced compared to the other "fine dining" restaurants in the area. We had a great lunch and it was a little thank you to Mom for holding down the fort for us when we were away. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

El Molino: Only so-so

Lunch date #20: June 29, 2012

We were a bit strapped for time and wanted Mexican food. I have been on a quest to find good Mexican food in Pleasanton, but for the most part, have been disappointed. I like Blue Agave-but it is more upscale, and not a place for a quick lunch.  Mom likes Fernando's as it reminds her of Celia's on the Peninsula. Neither of us is fond of Alberto's other than the location on Main Street.  One of Emily's friends, Lexi, had recommended El Molino (5321 Hopyard Rd) and said it was rather "authentic", so we thought we'd give it a try.

Location 2.5 points: In the strip mall at Hopyard and Owens behind Burger King. Nothing appealing about this no frills location-other that there is an OK sized parking lot and easy access.

Ambiance 2.5 points: Definitely low end, tacqueria style place: vinyl booths, chipped plates.  Mom liked the Hispanic music. It is an order-at-the-counter and someone-brings-the-food, sort of place. They also have a few outside tables facing the parking lot, but the day we were there was a bit on the cool side, so no one sat outside.

Menu 4 points:  They boast a very full menu with many lunch specials at very good prices. Lots of choices, with all of the usual stand-by favorites: chile verde, enchiladas, tacos, flautas, burritos, tamales…you get the idea. They offer both a la carte or combination choices.

Chili Relleno swimming in beans
Food 3 points: I was very disappointed with the chile relleno: way too mushy and quite bland. I also ordered a taco: way too drippy. The chips weren't very good or crisp. Mom also ordered the chile relleno and refried beans: the beans formed a runny lake on her plate engulfing the chile relleno. She didn't seem to mind, however, and actually ate it all! No left overs for her that day!        

Service 4 points: Very friendly older gentleman taking the orders and younger guys bringing out the food. For counter service, they were very attentive and even brought out drink refills. The food was brought out very fast…maybe too fast to have been made fresh to order!
Friendly server!

Value 3.5 points: Here is where Mom and I had a difference of opinion: I wanted to give it a 3—really not much better than Taco Bell, but on the bright side—about the same as Taco Bell regarding prices. Portions are small, but considering the low prices (about $2.50 for chili relleno) what do you expect? Mom actually liked it and appreciated the value of about $7 for a complete lunch including drinks…but then again, she likes Fernando's--- so there you are!

Overall score for El Molino: 3.25 points. Kind of get what you pay for…cheap Mexican food. As to whether it is authentic, I can't say, but the quality is just not there. Their motto is "Where others are concerned with luxury, we concentrate on quality."  I'm not so sure is true. Why is it so hard to find decent Mexican food in Pleasanton?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Denica's Pastry Café: A great place to start the day!

Lunch date #19, Wednesday June 13, 2012
I am so lucky to have dear friends that wanted to celebrate a little birthday cheer with me, so we worked out a date and time that would work for all of us. We elected to meet for brunch on Wednesday-one day before my birthday-to get the celebration started. I had never been to Denica's Pastry Café (6058 Dougherty Road, Dublin; www.denicascafe.com), but Sandi raved about it—so we simply had to go. It is an out-of-Pleasanton dining experience for us, but well worth the journey to our neighboring town.  Denica's is an interesting fusion of a bakery with amazing treats and breakfast items, and taco bar for later in the day.
Location 3 points: Since we had strayed from the downtown Pleasanton location, we had to evaluate the location. Easy to find, right on Dougherty Road, but in an industrial area—not a lot of curb side appeal. Parking lot is shared with an automotive business.
Ambiance 3 points: OK cute for a bakery/café. A lot of people line up at the counter and order to go, as there aren't that many tables. It is interesting that they expanded and annexed the adjacent business site which has been set up with more of a taco bar-type seating. We all agreed that it was pretty noisy in there, as the sound of dishes being cleared and banging make it hard to have a conversation—but Sandi pointed out that Denica has actually done a lot of improvements. We enjoyed the family photos on the wall.

Menu Selection 5 points: Excellent selection of all sorts of interesting breakfast dishes and baked goods. I went with the Roma Scramble-a special for that day….. We really enjoyed sampling the baked goods—a tradition at Denica's to have samples on the counter to give customers an idea of what cannot be missed. I simply had to order a blueberry muffin to share. Everything is made from scratch and you can easily dash in to grab a goodie and coffee to go. I'm somewhat glad it is not on my path to work, since I would surely get their baked goodies far too often and would have to ride my bike many extra miles to burn off those calories. 

Service 4 points: Well, we weren't going to rate it for service at first…it is an order at the counter and they bring you the food sort of place. It is even self-service for pouring your own coffee and getting your cutlery, etc. When I went back for a refill of water for my tea I just had to say "Hi" to the actual real Denica who was working behind the counter. I told her it was my first time there, and she insisted on giving me a free cookie!  How's that for customer appreciation!!
Food 5 points: Everything was excellent. The baked goods--our muffin and cookie, as well as the pumpkin muffin and brownie we sampled--were amazing. I don't see how you can eat there without consuming 1000 calories. Biggest problem: by 10:00 am, a lot of the baked items were already sold out…have to get there earlier to get the full selection. The scramble I ordered was great: an interesting blend of veggies and eggs all cooked perfectly. Mom had the ham and cheese omelette and said it was very good as were the side potatoes. Tracy and Sandi also enjoyed their selections, and they both bought some baked goodies to take home for the kids.

Value 4 points: Breakfast items in the $10-11 range, salads about $8-9, cookies $2.39 each. Somewhat high-end prices, considering the location and mediocre ambiance, but Denica's is somewhere that you go for the excellent quality of freshly prepared food.  
Overall score for Denica's Pastry Café 4 points. We were so glad to have found this gem, and will definitely go back.  Even though it doesn't technically count for our project, we decided to have an "excursions from Pleasanton" category to include fun places like Denica's…so long as Mom and I discover them together!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Café Main: Kind of Insane!!

Lunch date #18: June 8, 2012 (obviously behind on postings…will try to catch up this week!)

What on Earth was I thinking…going to Café Main (401 Main Street; www.cafemainonline.com)  for lunch on the last day of school—of course it was insane! High school students everywhere…but it was actually kind of fun and festive. I even got some good advice from some of Emily's friends for a sandwich recommendation. We lined up to place our order, and were fortunate to get a table outside around the corner.

Location 5 points. Still dining downtown at a perfect heart-of-downtown location.

Ambiance 3 points: This is a tough one. This place has changed hands many times over the years, and has been a coffee house for a while. I remember going to salsa dance classes in the back room many years ago! Now it still is a coffee house, but they do a good restaurant business as well. It retains that order-from-the-counter coffee house feel. The outdoor tables are nothing special-simply metal tables and chairs. I asked Mom for her opinion regarding the ambiance: "It really doesn't have any," she replied. It actually reminds me of the type of coffee house you'd find in a college town—really kind of fun!

Menu selection: 4 points. "No burger for you", I told Mom since he had ordered cheese burgers for the past two weeks in a row. She had been eying that selection, and was tickled at the price. Unfortunately, that was the price for the take-out burger…to sit in costs a bit more (sort of European if you ask me). Fortunately, there were quite a few other good choices on this menu-which actually is pretty extensive for a coffee house/order at the counter sort of place. Selections include sandwiches, soup, salads, and wood-burning oven freshly made pizza.

Service: 3 points. We weren't going to give it any score, but the guy at the counter was friendly and they did find us to deliver our sandwiches. That was where the service ended. No drink refills, nothing else offered, but that is the sort of place that it is. This didn't detract from the dining experience, but is different than that of other restaurants in the downtown area.

Food: 5 points. Since the roasted turkey-cranberry sandwich was highly recommended, we both decided to give it a try. We also split an order of fries on the side. We both felt that the quality of the sandwich was excellent-especially in consideration that it isn't exactly a fine-dining sort of establishment. Very fresh tasting, perfectly grilled sourdough bread, with cranberry aioli, roasted turkey and grilled onions. The fries were cooked perfectly, not greasy and nicely seasoned.

Value 4 points: The prices are fine, however considering that the fries are not included; the prices are actually higher than some of the choices at Pasta's! Also, there is really no opportunity for drink refills, given the self-service sort of place that it is.

Overall score for Café Main: 4 points. We really enjoyed our lunch, despite the hordes of teens present. We did share their excitement that school was out for the summer!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pasta's Trattoria: A good idea!

Lunch date #17, Sunday June 3, 2012

We had arranged to get together on a Sunday that week as the week days didn't work out. After discussing various options, and then a miscommunication, Mom ended up getting us a table at Pasta's Trattoria, 540 Main Street (www.pastastrattoria.com/). I wasn't unhappy with the mistake, but had two complaints: 1) we had both been there for lunch before—but Mom did point out that we hadn't evaluated it; and 2) they have bottomless mimosas on Sundays, but since I had to go right into my office after lunch, no mimosas for me! Mom was driving herself this time, so no mimosas for her either!

Location 5 points: Another perfectly located restaurant in the middle of restaurant row.

Ambiance 4 points: A lovely selection of seating both inside and out. I thought that décor was nice-cute lights and bar area. Mom thought the bar area was too small. I liked that you can see the kitchen area and thought the copper dividing wall was a nice touch. That day the outdoor tables were full, but we did score a nice window-side table. We both felt the white linen tablecloths added a nice, upscale touch.

Menu 4 points: Actually a very good lunch selection. Several choices within each category of insalata, panini, pizza and pasta dishes. Mom zero'd in on the Main Street Burger—oh no, I thought—she'd reverted to her old habits—that is two weeks in a row! But, she was so excited about the selection (and since I was late to arrive and had kept her waiting a bit), I didn't say a word. I went with the BLTA.

Service 3 points: It was going so well, our server took our order quickly and we were served pretty fast also…but then it all fell apart. Mom wanted some pepper to sprinkle on her tomatoes and we could not get the servers attention. I had drained my iced tea and wanted either a refill or water and we could not get anyone to come to us. I finally caught the attention of the hostess and she was able to bring us refills on the drinks and salt/pepper. I think the server was over extended: he also had some outdoor tables, but he never came back around to us until we were quite finished eating. Kind of frustrating for us.

Pasta's BLTA sandwich and yummy fries
Mom's Main Street Burger
Food 5 points: Wow, not sure we have awarded full points in this category before—or only very rarely. The food was actually quite good! Mom was quite pleased with her Main Street Burger-tasty caramelized onions and served on a ciabata roll that was soft and easy to eat. The fries were thin, crispy—and served warm! My BLTA was outstanding—just the right blend of everything with plenty of avocado, thick bacon that was not fatty, and a delicious aioli dressing. Even the iced-tea was very good-perhaps a passion fruit blend, but not too sweet.

Value 5 points: We were quite impressed with the prices: each of our meals were $10…definitely a good deal considering the other restaurants in the downtown area serving food of far less quality for at least that price (Dean's) or even more (Fontina's). Also, a very reasonable price for the drinks at $2.25 (less than Dean's). I was actually surprised to see the prices for the lunch choices—really a great deal!

Overall score for Pasta's Trattoria: 4.3 points. Definitely one of the best lunches we have had—at an amazingly good value, in a nice environment. If only the service had been better—and I think that usually it is…we perhaps caught a bad day in that regard. We would both highly recommend Pasta's as an excellent choice for lunch and plan to go back--we could always do a repeat evaluation and test their consistency…maybe that will be our next project!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dean's Café: Coffee Shop O.K.

Lunch date #16, May 25, 2012

We were in the mood for something simple. We wanted to grab a quick burger or sandwich and were trying to think of where to go. The plan was to meet over at The Habit—the new burger joint near the new Safeway on Bernal. On the way there, I drove down Main Street. Where could we go downtown, I was thinking. Then I saw it—so easy to miss, since we're so accustom to seeing it, we don't actually see it anymore…Dean's Café (620 Main Street). I know, more famous for their gigantic omelets and a popular breakfast spot, I had never gone there for lunch—so there you are, and Dean's it was!

Location 5 points. Can't get any more in the heart of downtown than Dean's. Also with a side parking lot and dedicated spaces, certainly deserves full points here.

Ambiance 3 points. "Well, it is a coffee shop," explained Mom as if to say 'quit being such a snob'! True I thought—Dean's does have that "been-there-forever" thing going…however, that is the problem when you look closely. The floor tiles (on the booth side) are worn and look dirty, the carpet (on the table side) is trashed. I think the veneer paneling and plastic ferns hanging on the walls are tacky. The torn seat in our booth was repaired with duct tape. The place looks like it would be a great candidate for the TV show "Restaurant Impossible".

Menu choices 3.5 points. To judge it for lunch, the menu is not all that extensive. There are 3 pages of omelet choices—and yes, we could have had an omelet for lunch, but beyond that there are only the basics. Few choices of each burgers, sandwiches and salads—not a lot of comfort food ideas which is what we were after that day. Mom ordered the cheese burger and fries, and didn't even bat an eye. I went for the French dip and FF—why not?

Service 4 points. One of the best parts of our lunch experience was the service—they were right on it. We did get a table right away, and were barely seated before we got water and were asked what else we wanted to drink. Our server suggested the smaller Dean's burger for Mom-which was an excellent recommendation. The lunch was also served very quickly-quite a change compared to my experience when I've been there for breakfast and have waited 30 minutes plus to get my omelet.

Food 3.5 points. Mom liked her burger, but joked: "Where's the beef" when it was served because the patty completely covered by a smothering of cheddar cheese. After taking a bite, she announced: "Mom's happy!" My French dip was also very good: very tender French roll and roast beef. Unfortunately we were both very disappointed with the French fries-they were the thick kind, and appeared over-cooked, but were cold and soggy. Too bad the fries were so crummy, or the overall food score would have been higher.

Value 3.5 points. The price of my sandwich at $9.95 was similar to other prices on Main Street. However, when you consider the dingy atmosphere and lousy fries, the overall value of the dining experience was decreased. Also, the prices for a cup of regular coffee and Lipton hot tea, both at $2.75 were pretty inflated. That brought up the total price of the overall bill and also decreased the value score.

Overall score for Dean's Café: 3.75 points. Not a bad spot at all, however, we suggest that the owner invests a bit for improvements of the dining room and it would score even higher. We get it that it has the been-here-and-not-going-anywhere type of charm, but it wouldn't hurt to update and clean up the place.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Fontina Ristorante: Not worth the money!

Lunch date #15, May 11, 2012

Wow—where did the last month go? We've been eating lunch fairly regularly…but I really need to update these postings! Good thing I have detailed notes so the review is not left to my memory! Yikes!

In our quest to sample all of what downtown has to offer, we again amended our rules. We elected to try Fontina Ristorante (349 Main Street; www.fontinas.com) even though we had both eaten there before-although I don’t think Mom had been there for lunch, so I suppose it still qualifies as a new-to-her lunch spot. Lots of friends recommend Fontinas…most of the Yelp reviews are pretty good, but even though I have had enjoyed dinner there several times, I didn't recall particularly enjoying their lunch. But considering my less than reliable memory these days (and what is up with that?), we figured to give it another try.

Location 5 points. Perfect downtown location with inviting outside dining on the front sidewalk area.

Ambiance 4 points. Mom was quite taken with the lovely flowers planted in pots around the outside dining area. Lucky for us, it was a warm afternoon and we were able to get an outside table. They do an admirable presentation with linen on the tables and market umbrellas. The inside dining area is also nice, but since we didn't even go inside on this particular day, we will limit our comments to the outside area.
Fontinas lovely outdoor seating

Menu offering 3 points. We thought very few items on the menu that would quality as the usual lunch fare: few salads and sandwiches. The other entrées were full-on heavy meals. The specialties were rather pricey at $18-20 so we certainly were not going to pick those! I asked the server for some advice and she highly recommended the grilled vegetable sandwich. As I'm a fan of that type of sandwich, I agreed to have that. Mom went with the grilled chicken sandwich and both of our choices were served with a bit of fruit and a small serving of salad greens.

Service 4 points. We were seated right away and promptly had service. Fresh baguettes and olive-oil for dipping were brought out quickly as well as our drinks. Refills were frequent. The server was very cheery and helpful. When I mentioned to her that I didn't care for the sandwich—yes sadly quite awful, see below—she offered to discount the bill. I declined but thanked her for the offer.

Mom with her chicken sandwich
Food 3 points. As I stated, I often order a grilled veggie sandwich and really enjoy the freshly grilled portobello mushrooms or eggplant, usually accompanied by some red bell peppers and onion. Unfortunately this sandwich was a big pile of mush—all grey and gooey, couldn't even identify which type of veggies were in the mix. Seemed like they grilled the veggies earlier in the day and then just reheated them for me. The fresh ciabatta bread was good, but I didn't even want to take home the leftover mushy mess! The side salad was the best thing on the plate!  Mom said her grilled chicken was nothing special: slice of ciabatta, topped with a piece of grilled chicken, caramelized onions and fontina cheese (hence the restaurant name, I suppose!). Unfortunately, there was nothing on the bread-such as an aioli-to hold on the chicken, so it sort of slid off when she cut through it. I had a bite and wasn't impressed. She did take her leftovers home, however…after all they weren't that bad!! Also, strangely enough…the iced tea had a very strange taste—kind of like there was paper in the glass?? I tried the water, and that tasted fine-so it wasn't the less-than-lovely Pleasanton water flavor coming through. I don't know what it was, but it wasn't good!

Value 2.5 points. The prices were too high for what we got. Both of our sandwiches were $12--which is higher than other downtown locations. Fontinas certainly gives an attempt at a fine-dining experience, and it started out well. The pretty setting and good service were encouraging, all to fall apart with the delivery of the food.

Overall score for Fontina Ristorante 3.6 points. Bottom line: the food has to be worth the money to make us like the place, want to recommend it to friends, or want to return. Fontinas certainly does not have that—as least not for lunch!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Tomo Sushi: Very friendly!

Lunch date #14, May 4, 2012

Now we are very official. We have had sushi. We know what we are doing. Mom is no longer afraid or intimidated by the idea of going to a sushi restaurant. This is especially true since she declared: "I don't have to eat sushi again, I already tried it." She was victorious! Our original game-plan was that she would try new things. We never said anything about having to try them again! She planned on something cooked-perhaps a teriyaki sort of dish. I thought we'd give Tomo Sushi a try (Tomo Sushi, Bar and Grill, 724 Main Street, tomosushibarandgrill.com).  After all, tomo means "friend" in Japanese (or so it is stated all over their literature, menus, placards), so it seemed a friendly place to try!

Location: 5 points. Sort of at the lonely end of the north section of downtown, nestled between a bike shop and hair salon….but as per our scheme, still rates as downtown. Former site of Cabana Daves, and I can't remember what was in that location before, but they do have a small parking lot which is nice.

Ambiance: 3 points. Very small inside dining: 6 tables and a sushi bar. There are two tables on the sidewalk out front, and they do have the patio in back (but honestly, we didn't look at it). There was only one other dining table occupied, and since it wasn't all that warm that day, we took a table inside. Overall the décor was rather plain—not as cute as Main Sushi…since we ARE comparing!

Menu offering: 4 points. Lots of choices. We were very interested in the bento boxes. Of course, if you're into it, there is a long list of sushi and sashimi choices—not that even with our vast experience, we'd know much about the choices. As I said, Mom had rather been there/done that with the sushi, so she went with the bento box including teriyaki chicken and Gyoza dumplings. The boxes also contained white rice, edamame and were served with miso soup and tea. For $1 extra, you can offer a few different maki rolls in addition to the box. I, being the brave sushi eater, went with the bento and added a California maki.

Service: 4 points. Our server was very courteous and attentive. She spoke Japanese with us…at least lots of "hai" and "domo arigatogozaimashita". All very proper and polite. Since my one great trip to Japan, I knew very few words of Japanese—but was certain to use them often! She was quick to bring tea and kept trying to refill it, but we didn't drink very much of it. Mom asked for a knife, and she promptly brought a full set of American-style cutlery for each of us. Of course, Mom had brought her chop stick pincher-cheaters with her and was doing a great job with them.

Food: 3 points. The selections in the boxes were pretty good. The miso soup and Japanese salad were OK. The tea was really bitter—we couldn't drink it. Unfortunately the California roll was really salty/fishy tasting. We started to discuss why Mom was so against the sushi roll. She confessed the hang up over the seaweed. "It's really like lettuce, or any other green," I explained. "It just happens to grow in the ocean."  To my surprise, Mom even tried a bite. "Tastes like the ocean," she decided. I had to agree. It did sort of taste like you were swimming in the ocean. I'm no sushi expert, but it didn't seem all that great. I guess that's not too good for a sushi restaurant! On the other hand, the teriyaki and Gyoza were very good, so we had plenty to eat. Nothing to take home, though…which is probably for the best considering the last time Mom took home Japanese food was not a pleasant experience.

Value: 4 points. The bento boxes were $8.50 each. Quite a deal! Lots of food; don't need to also order the roll. Much better priced than the other downtown restaurants, and more economical than Main Sushi. Would have scored a perfect 5 points if that sushi roll had been more to my liking.

Overall score for Tomo Sushi: 3.8 points. Not as good as Main Sushi, I'm afraid…but overall OK. I'm thinking we must have caught a bad-seaweed day. I just don't remember sushi tasting that salty. We will have to pay attention next time we visit a sushi restaurant—there are a lot of them in Pleasanton and we aim to try them all!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Chianti's Ristorante: Nice for our party!

Lunch Date #13: April 27, 2012

Wow—am I ever behind on these postings…will try to catch up on the next few. The best part of procrastination is that there is always the thrill of completion when you finally succeed in getting something done!

Happy Birthday to Kelly!
We were happy to meet with some friends downtown to celebrate Kelly's birthday. It just so happened that the group chose Chianti's Ristorante (436 Main Street, www.chiantisristorante.com)…so Mom and I used the opportunity to have guest input to our critique. I had dinner with Kris at Chianti's for her birthday last year—catch the birthday theme here? I thought at that time it was so-so; the place was rather empty that night, but was still fairly new then. I still miss the yummy tapas and sangria when the locale was Casa Madrid—sad to see that one go. So, what about yet another Italian-style restaurant in Pleasanton?  Not an issue with me…other than what is with the name of these places? (See my confusion regarding the name of Baci!) Since they went with the Italiano spelling for restaurant (ristorante), then why the Americanized "apostrophe-s " after Chianti….I doubt you would every see that on a real Italian restaurant: should be "Chianti Ristorante" or if they really want to show possession: "Ristorante di Chianti" or even just "Ristorante Chianti", but Chianti's makes no sense… then again neither does Strizzis (which in some of their literature is written Strizzi's)…I'm just totally confused, or maybe just a grammar geek…so there you go…

Location: full 5 points—can't get too much more in the heart of downtown. Nice sidewalk presence.

Cute bar area
Tuscan Ambiance
Ambiance: 4 points. A good attempt to look Italian. I liked the faux painted Tuscan-style brick on the interior walls. Kris thought the place was well lit and cheery while Kelly enjoyed the background music of recognizable Italian favorites. The place is small and nicely laid out. The small bar area is attractive and the offer of outdoor tables is great for a nice day or summer evening. Nice touch also to have the linen tablecloths and napkins…definitely going for the fine-dining type atmosphere.

Menu selection: 3.5 points. The main menu appears the same for lunch and dinner, with many full entrée-type items that seemed a bit heavy for a standard lunch. They do offer some lunch specials in addition, including some non-Italian looking items such as a grilled chicken sandwich and a soup/salad combo. I went with the Carciofi Ravioli and mom ordered the chicken sandwich. The other ladies chose a variety of dishes, including the soup/salad special. Kathy ordered bruschetta for us to share.

Mom's chicken sandwich
Service: 3.5 points. Here we were, the only party in the restaurant (at the beginning) and the waiter was busy stacking menus while we were ready to order. We sort of stared at him for a while and he finally came over. I was completely ready to forgive this, figuring that he was Italian—but no! He did not speak or understand any (well, at least not "my") Italian at all. Such a disappointment! After that, things did get better. There was pane e olio (bread and oil) on the table, and the assistant waiter was quick to refill our drinks. The food was served relatively quickly, but my ravioli was just luke warm and Mom said her coffee could definitely have been hotter.

Food: 4 points. Jody really liked the bruschetta pomodoro. Mom was happy with her chicken sandwich-especially since there was plenty to take home for left-overs. I was surprisingly quite delighted with mine: the carciofi (artichoke) ravioli had good texture and the creamy marinara sauce had great flavor. I was especially happy with the wilted spinach in the dish—just the right texture: not too firm, not too wilted… just perfect.
Carciofi ravioli with spinach

Value: 4 points. Reasonable prices for the food and atmosphere. The lunch specials are a very economic value: Mom's chicken sandwich and large side salad was $10.95 and my delicious ravioli was $11.95.  I think the addition of some smaller pasta plates or smaller meat-entrees at a reduced price for lunch would be a good idea for more selection.

Overall score for Chianti ('s) Ristorante: 4.0 points. We had a great birthday lunch. As we were leaving, we discovered the only other party at lunch that afternoon was a party of two also celebrating a birthday. Maybe this is the official place to go for a birthday party? Mine's coming up soon—might have to return for a celebration!