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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Baci: Fun for our family!

Lunch 7: Date: Sunday 2/26/12

We were very excited and fortunate to have many family members as guests for this outing. We elected to meet on Sunday and were delighted to have Stephanie home for the weekend (turned 24 on the 24th), the rest of the family, and even Uncle Gary drove down for the afternoon to join us. Sounded like a great time to go to Baci Café Resturanté, 500 Main St., www.bacibistroandbar.com. Not really sure what to call this place: is it Baci? Baci Bistro and Bar? (as depicted on their website), Baci Café? or Baci Café Restauranté? (as shown on the building neon sign). The term baci, I presume, comes from Italian “baci”, which means “kisses”; must be why they “dot” the “i” in Baci with a heart. I am confused about the spelling of restauranté—if trying to be Italian, should be ristorante (no accent)—makes no sense trying to butcher la bella lingua….sorry Enrica—cosa si può fare?

When I mention to someone that I’ve been to Baci, they wonder if perhaps I meant Bocce (east Pleasanton bocce ball courts/restaurant), since the term bocce is often mispronounced/Anglicized as baci (in Italian, I think bocce would be bo-chā´), but I digress… I have been there (meaning Baci, although I’ve also enjoyed Bocce) many times over the years, both for lunch and dinner, and have always found it acceptable—not the best in the west, but certainly not bad. Mom had never been, and I’m not sure about the rest of the family. I called to make a reservation; not knowing if that was necessary, but as it turned out, there was only one other large party there plus a table of two. Not too busy for a Sunday noon lunch/brunch on a nice sunny Pleasanton weekend. Started to wonder if we should have gone to play bocce? But again, I digress…

Critique #1 location: 5 points. We’re still exploring the highlights of downtown Pleasanton dining!

Critique #2 ambiance: 4.5 points. I like the way a single room can be designed to provide a lovely dining experience. Boring layout, but the décor is fun. I have always liked the lighting and ceiling medallions (copied that idea for my own home). Emily especially liked the provision of crayons at the table to draw on the white paper placemats—they even have an exhibition of patrons’ finest art contributions….some decent entries, I might add! Last time we were there, Gary used the crayons and placemat to illustrate how we were going to strategize our mixed doubles game plan to win the next match. I think it helped!

Baci interior: love the medallions

Critique #3 menu: 4 points. The presence of a full bar greatly improves this score! We did see several menu items that were worth trying and many seemed very interesting. I went with the salmon sandwich and side salad, while both Gary and Jordan ordered the seared Ahi on greens. Emily was happy to find a BLTA on the menu, while Mom went for a more classic choice for her: the grilled fillet-steak sandwich topped with crispy onion rings. I was happy to see that the lunch/brunch menu was different than what you would find at dinner; smaller portions, better prices, and good lunch choices. One major criticism: the restaurant name would suggest Italian food (or at least Americanized-Italian style food). Really didn’t see that flare on the menu, other than items served over pasta. Not thinking you’d see a lot of seared Ahi in Italia!

Mom and her steak sandwich--note the art work on the wall
Happy Birthday Steph!

Critique #4 service: 4 points. We would have gone with a five for this category if based solely on the effort of our server. He was one of only two total servers working—but again, it wasn’t very crowded. He also tended the bar, but was very attentive to us. Steph had requested her Bloody Mary to be made spicy. When she later ordered the salmon in dill sauce, our server said he could have it blackened (not a menu choice) since he remembered that she liked spicy. Impressive. The fault of the overall service, though, was that the food took a very long time to be served. I repeat, it was not crowded. The other large party was served their food shortly after we had arrived. They were completely finished and tending to their bill by the time our food came. I’m not one to watch the clock, but it seemed like a good 30 minutes. Pretty long time for our starving crowd. Gary had ordered a cup of clam chowder—that also was not served for quite a while. Good thing we had the crayons…

Critique #5 food: 4.5 points. Mom was very happy with her steak sandwich-tender and very tasty. She was very happy also to take ½ home for later consumption! My salmon sandwich could have been served on something more interesting than a french roll—maybe focaccia? Again, really no hint of Italian-style food seen here. I liked my side salad, although when I tried Emily’s fries I thought they were pretty boring.  Overall, the food was very good and-silence befell the crowd-we were all happy, especially now that we were finally eating! Jordan liked his Ahi—that might have been the first time he tried that...such a brave young man. One of the best things of the day was the clam chowder-very good, hot, interesting. Steph really liked her blackened salmon with dill—had a ton of dill, so I’m glad she went with the blackened spices to balance that flavor. Also, Uncle Gary was happy with his lobster ravioli-and he can be a tough critic!

Uncle Gary visits, too!

Critique #6 value: 5 points. Baci certainly shines here, at least for lunch. The prices were very reasonable: $13-15 per entrée. The bar items did increase our bill substantially, but that was as expected. Definitely in line with other downtown establishments for lunch prices with better food, lovely ambiance and an overall very nice experience.

Overall score for Baci Café Restauranté: 4.5 points: our highest thus far!  I’ve always heard mixed reviews for this place: some love it, some unimpressed. We had a very enjoyable lunch for our extended party that day. We will definitely return for future meals and recommend this to our friends.  

Friday, March 23, 2012

Agora Bistro: For Greek, here we go!

Lunch Date #6: February 17, 2012

I was running late (hmmm, nothing new there!). I had called Mom to have her meet me for lunch that day--although when I have time, I try to pick her up since she prefers not to drive. We were to meet at Baci, downtown Pleasanton. Still in my tennis garb, I ran into Baci--ignoring the hostess--and took a quick look around. No Mom—whew, I had beaten her there…but then I noticed the other patrons were dressed rather nicely. I looked a mess and thought perhaps I’d just back out of there and meet Mom outside. Fortunately she was just crossing the street. “Let’s go somewhere else,” I had explained, “something a bit more casual”. She was fine with that idea. We started to head south on Main Street and looked at the menu at Chianti. We weren’t really in the mood for Italian food that day. I peered across the street—“Hey, how about Greek?” I suggested. Mom registered a sneer and uttered a negative sounding snort. “Well Mom” I laughed. “Guess where we'll be going today!” She knew her reaction made the decision for us: we went to Agora Bistro to try some Greek food!

Agora Bistro, 443 Main Street, www.agorabistro.com/ is in the spot where Bruno’s was located long ago. We certainly had liked Bruno’s—not sure why they pulled out—it seems that their location in Livermore does well. I had actually eaten at Agora Bistro a few times, but had not been there in a fairly long while—and it was certainly new to Mom. She was wondering, as we crossed the street, which of us—me or my brother—had declared a long standing distain toward eating lamb. It’s not me, I had reassured her. Not that I cook it at home, but at a Greek restaurant, it is the thing to try.

Critique #1 location: 5 points. No surprise there—right in the heart of downtown. Nice building and can find parking in the back.

Critique #2 ambiance: 4 points. We preferred to sit in the back, in the sun room. That is actually the only room in which I’ve ever dined-both when it was Bruno’s, and also at the current establishment. It is a nice room-open and sunny. Mom and I discussed why we seem likely to pass out a “four” for such a place, and not a five? We agreed that we didn’t want to just “give out” a five, that score would be reserved for a truly deserving establishment. Then Mom commented, “Don’t know why we’re so critical…” and also: “glad we don’t really do this [critique] for a living—too much pressure!” I suppose we are just so sure everyone will be reading our blog, and we want to get it right! Responsible reporting—that is what we are all about!

Critique #3 Menu selection: 4 points. Reading the menu carefully, we both felt there were several items we could choose. I wanted Mom to have a good first Greek experience, so I thought we’d go for both an appetizer of Baba Ghanoush and then also both order something as an entrée. As it turns out, after describing the gyros, Mom quite happily agreed to go for that since she really likes Philly Cheesesteak and this is about as close as you can get to one in a Greek place. In the end, I decided to get one also—sounded too good to miss.

Critique #4 Service: 4 points. Wow, I guess we were in the mood to go with “fours” for the score that day! We were happy with our service: the tea and coffee were delivered quickly and were hot. I was very pleased to get my hot tea water in a little ceramic pot that was easy to pour without making a mess. Mom’s cup of coffee was huge-but she was happy for it and said it was good coffee. The server overall did quite a fine job.   

Critique #5 Food: 4 points (of course). Mom’s first comment for the Baba Ghanoush was “I like this,” saying it with more than a hint of surprise. This Mediterranean dish is based on roasted eggplant, but at Agora Bistro they add roasted red peppers as well; seasoned perfectly and quite tasty. The large Greek olives were a hit with Mom also. The gyros were large-we could have easily split one-they are mixed with a combination of lamb and beef—not too gamey and had good flavor. We were impressed with the presentation: two gyros served with a small green salad-topped with delicious vinaigrette, yogurt and even a few crispy French fries. Good news for us: we were able to both save ½ of our gyros to take home for another meal. Our only criticism: the pita in the basket as pretty boring-didn’t seem all that fresh, was not warm nor very soft. Really not that much different than that which you can buy off the shelf at Trader Joe's.

Critique #6 Value: 4 points. Really, we didn’t plan the use of the 4 points-for-everything that day! Compared to where we have dined thus far with our project, this place seems pretty good. The quality of the food and service along with large portions for a very reasonable price made us feel a score of a 4 was just right. The gyros were $11—a good deal considering so much left over and the additional side items. The baba ghanoush was a bit high at $8 for a lunch appetizer, but really not at all out of line compared to other downtown restaurants.

Overall score for Agora Bistro: 4.2  I’m beginning to think that a score of a 4 is what we give when something is pretty good, but not knocking-our-socks off good. Something you’d refer to a friend, and even go back to when in the mood, but not one of those “wow” that was something amazing sort of a place. But all in all a great lunch date—Mom tried some new things and as I’ve been saying, I think she is really enjoying our project: fun outings with her favorite daughter, good food…and plenty of left overs to take home!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Main Sushi: Great for the newbie!

Lunch date #5, Friday February 10, 2012

Now I knew Mom was really getting into the spirit of our project when she suggested we have sushi! I can guarantee that she has never, nor would ever, do this had she not been possessed by the adventurous spirit of our outings! Since we were still in the mood to center our efforts downtown, it seemed appropriate to hit Main Sushi, 411 Main St., for our first foray into Japanese cuisine. Although I loved my trip to Japan, I don’t tend to go after sushi by choice—so this was going to be an interesting experience for both of us.

Critique #1 Location: 5 points. Right in the heart of our quaint downtown Pleasanton, how could you get any better than that!

Critique #2 Ambiance: 3 points. Wow did we differ on this one! I sat with my back to the river-rock studded half-wall and had a lovely view of the dining room. Although we did have a nice window table, my mom didn’t enjoy her view of the river rock wall over my shoulder. I would have gone for a 4: liked the pendant lighting and bamboo along the walls. I thought it was open and airy, and still with an Asian flair. Mom was pretty sure nothing better than a 2 was indicated…so what to do? Compromise at a 3! Note to self: next time I should be the gracious daughter and give my mother the better seat/view!

Critique #3 Menu: 5 points. They definitely scored here. We were impressed by the good selection from the sushi chef, as well as numerous other choices, including udon, tempura and teriyaki.

Critique #4 Service: 5 points…and I mean a FIVE!! This was by far the best service we have seen since our project began. When we arrived, the restaurant was nearly empty, but rather than ignore us (alla Forno Vecchio), the server was very attentive, but not overly so. She promptly brought out our tea and it was nice and hot. The meal was delivered quickly and served very attractively. The udon was served quite hot also—perfect soup temperature. We asked her to take our photo using my iphone—which she handled quite well—she was concerned that the back lighting of the window caused shadows on our faces. She came back, without prompting, about 20 minutes later to see if the light had improved so we could try the photo again! My mom was determined to eat with chopsticks, but when our observant server saw her struggle, she brought out a “cheater” hinge device (like they give to kids) that was a huge success (Mom even asked if she could keep it—I think she wanted to practice at home!).

Critique #5 Food: 4.5 points: Mom ordered (with my suggestion) the udon soup with tempura. I also went with the udon, but with the chicken. After her first mouthful of tempura, Mom called out “FIVE!”. I do have to agree, a properly done tempura is very tasty. Everything tasted fresh and was not at all oily. Mom was having a great time eating the edamame (can’t believe I had never served that to her before). Then it was time to try the sushi. To keep this experience positive, I do have to admit to going soft on ordering here. I went with a California roll (cheating, I know) and a tekka maki—not the spicy tuna, nor sashimi grade ahi, but the basic-no-frills tuna roll. Here is where Mom wanted to down grade the score just a bit. She just couldn’t get into the whole take a slice and pop it into your mouth thing, and then she had trouble trying to bite into it. The seaweed was a bit of an obstacle, even more so that the raw tuna. I’m proud of her though-as she was able to eat a whole slice from each roll, and then got back to work with those pincher chopsticks to eat her tempura and udon. I thought the broth for the udon was quite nice—not too salty, great flavor, tons of udon noodles.

Critique #6 Value: 4 points. We spent a lot for lunch that day. Admittedly, we ordered a lot of food because I wanted mom to try two different types of sushi and I pretty much knew the udon noodles would be a hit with her. She was very excited that our lovely server was willing to pack up all of the left over udon “to go”. I had plenty of sushi to take home also—funny that mom didn’t want to also take that!

Overall score for Main Sushi: 4.4 points. We had a fabulous time and I would recommend this one to a friend. Not being a sushi aficionado, I can only report that if you have half the fun that we did that day, you’d feel happy too!

Necessary Addendum: We left Main Sushi giddy with laughter—we had a great lunch and an enjoyable date. When I chatted with Mom later about how impressed I was that she enjoyed our meal, she had a completely different memory! She didn’t care for the udon when reheating it at home later. I don’t think that udon is designed for eating later. I don’t know if it was the fun environment of eating with the chopsticks and the excellent service, trying new things (edamame and tempura thumbs up, tekka maki: no), but we really did have a lovely meal. I think some things are better left finished, then and there. Taking home the “doggie bag” in this case was a big mistake—it left her with doubts that our lunch was as good as the novel experience. I can accept that eating the left-overs/doggie bag..whatever we shall call it, is part of what my mom enjoys when dining out. I get it: living alone and having to always cook for yourself gets old—having that left over meal is great to have on hand. Perhaps not so for udon.