Sunday, November 25, 2007

CR Gibbs American Grille - Guest Review

Best food in Redding!


by Cindy Martinusen author of The Salt Garden

Last summer there was a banner claiming Voted Best Food in Redding Again. I'll sign me up to do such eating and judging, even though I'd find it hard to settle on a Number 1 when it comes to food.

“Best Food in Redding” or not, there are weeks when I must get myself to C.R. Gibbs American Grille for their fish tacos and a pint of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Though the restaurant has a menu full of excellent dishes, gourmet creations that make the mouth water, it’s these fish tacos that mostly call me back. It’s usually during moments of intense writing, when I’m wrestling or strangling in a story, but it also happens when I’m just plain hungry.

The location isn’t some funky hole-in-the-wall – which tend to be my usual favorites. Attached to the Best Western Hotel, C.R. Gibbs American Grille is located on a main street of Redding among a strip of hotels, restaurants, shops and further down, the lone mall in the city.

There are three choices of seating: dining area, the center bar and the outside patio. The main dining room, divided by the bar in the center, can be noisy for such culinary savoring. But if I sit at one of the tall little tables in the bar area, the noise is somehow expected and desired, why, I’m not sure. But the best dining is outside, ah, the outside patio.

All summer long – and we have long hot summers in Redding (mid-May to mid-October) -- the patio area is open for dining. On Friday and Saturday nights, live music from jazz to swing fills the nights, and sitting there with someone I love (husband, kids, family, friends), while savoring food and drink, well, maybe I’m getting more simple as I head toward my forties, but such moments rank among some of my happiest.

The service has its inconsistencies - one waitress, nice as she may be, never fails to look panicked if we want separate bills – even if there’s two of us.

So what’s so special about the fish tacos and pale ale? It’s a somewhat basic choice considering the comparison to a mélange of dishes that tempt me:

  • Pecan Porkloin with Sweet Carmel Onions
  • Almond Encrusted Halibut with Apricot-Horseradish
  • Seared Ahi Tuna
  • Spit-Roasted Chicken in a Honey Citrus Glaze
  • For kids (and adults too), there’s an appetizer called Crunchy Chicken Strips with a secret special “crunchy” ingredient. They roll the chicken in Corn Flakes -- my sleuthing skills revealed that mystery, or rather my friend Becci who once knew a waitress who worked there (thanks Becci).

Those are just the beginning of the choices. So you see my quandary.

But now to the tacos.

Grilled cod, shredded purple cabbage, some special spicy ranch sauce wrapped in a grilled corn tortilla and overloaded with provolone cheese. It’s served with black beans and a delicious, light and aromatic rice with a cup of fresh salsa. So okay, even with that description, they’re just tacos. But somehow, it blends with the taste of beer to be as perfect a meal as can be found most anywhere.

A little message about beer. I was a late bloomer to liking it, and I still don’t care for most kinds. But beer can be very much like a good wine. It can compliment the meal, accentuate the flavor, and add something essential sort of like butter and salt add to a dish (I’m not exaggerating here). When I have pasta and red meat, I want a red wine. When it’s tacos, pizza, and a few other dishes, I want my beer.

Sierra Nevada is my favorite brewery with their Pale Ale never failing to satisfy (it’s a nearby brewery that’s gained national attention – I’ll write more about it some time). But during different seasons, the pale ale is rivaled by the even bolder Celebration Ale, Harvest Ale or the newly released Anniversary Ale. It you like a milder beer, they offer a golden and wheat as well.

But back to the restaurant.

January and February are free shrimp bowl months. For every entrée ordered, you get a dozen plump peel-n-eat shrimp arriving on a bed of ice to keep them babies cold. Let’s just say, I keep it marked on my mental calendar every year.

Before the entrée arrives, a small loaf of sourdough bread arrives with a dipping sauce of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and crushed pistachios poured over the top. It’s bread and dipping sauce that tempts me to gorge myself right here and ask for a takeout box when my meal arrives.

A few weeks ago, my sister and I decided to share a meal. It was painful to be there, sitting at one of the tall bar tables with a Celebration Ale and to not order the fish tacos. Since she’s having marital troubles, I let her order what she wanted, and that was the Tomato-Pesto Shrimp Pizza. Here’s the description: “A thin crust pizza with pesto sauce, fresh Mozzarella cheese, grilled shrimp, fresh spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and red onion. Finished with pine nuts and Parmesan cheese.” Can you guess that I quickly got over my disappointment? It was the kind of excellence you think about for days afterwards.

But then days after that, I started thinking about the fish tacos, so I easily convinced my husband to take me last week.

The best arrangement is to go with someone who is willing to share two entrees and who wants one of those to be the tacos. My husband was willing – I knew I married a good one. Corey was our waiter and gave us great service (as usual – I’ve had him before) and told us the restaurant has been there since the early 80’s.

We ordered my usual and then the chef special of swordfish and mahi-mahi with mushroom caps, wild rice and some kind of yummy flavored butter with lime rind – I think. Whatever it was, this arrangement was the best. I should note that my husband’s favorite beer is Lost Coast’s Great White (a very good beer from a nice brewery on the California coast).

The city of Redding, with a population of 80,000+ is the largest city north of Sacramento in Northern California. It’s a different kind of California up here with our quaint culture, the volcanoes, lake sports, hiking, wilderness areas and other summer and winter recreational and outdoor activities. Many small towns dot the mountains and valleys and thankfully some fine cuisine can be found even though we’re far from the famous restaurants of San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Sacramento.

If you’re driving on Interstate 5 going north to Oregon and Washington or south to Sac, the Bay or down to L.A., plan a stop in Redding and C.R. Gibbs American Grille. You won’t be disappointed, and maybe I’ll be there as well.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Banderas - A Texas Bistrot

Urban Vaquero Coastal Tejano Germanic Cajun cuisine! Who knew?

Where: 9721 Arboretum Blvd (in Rennaisance Hotel)

We stopped by the Arboretum Barnes and Noble for a technical book. The Renaissance Hotel is only a short walk through the trees and is home to Banderas, which bills itself as a Texas bistrot. We weren't sure what that was, but it sounded interesting and it was close.

Banderas is the high-end restaurant at the Renaissance. There is also a deli, a nightclub and the lobby bar. Per usual for a rush hour date night, the place was practically deserted at 6pm. However, a table of Tivoli conference trainers were at the far end of the room, proving their prowess as presenters by having a conversation that was fully discernable from 50 feet away. As a result, not only can I tell you about Banderas, I can also give you some pointers on the national seminar presentation racket.

Tip #1: Never pick up the tab.

Oblivious to the Texas Tapas theme emblazoned at the top, we browsed the whole menu and constructed an order exploiting their signature items. Hey, if I don't like the stuff they think they do best, no need to come back and try the rest. Here’s what we got. We split everything.

  • BBQ swordfish
  • Spinach salad with strawberry, bleu cheese, candied pecans, balsamic fig vinaigrette dressing
  • Roasted sweet potatoes
  • Angus bleu cheese burger with applewood smoked bacon on a jalapeno cheddar roll
  • Peach streusel cheesecake with cinnamon ice cream

How can you not dig these options? The swordfish was surprising, a thin plank of fish drizzled with BBQ sauce and served with tomatoes and olives and some other stuff. Not bad. The salad rocked, especially the dressing. Taters, good. The burger was fantastic, as was the cheesecake.

Tip #2: Drink hot tea with lemon to keep your voice from fading.

However, in addition to having a great selection of entrees, Banderas features a slate of Texas-oriented tapas. For the uninitiated, I should explain that tapas are basically small appetizers that go far beyond the typical options of calamari sticks, chips/dip, fried mushrooms or jalapeno poppers. You order several to go along with your drinks. If you want to know more than that, read the Wikipedia entry.

Banderas has created a selection of tapas based on five different Texas cuisine influences. As their literature says:

  • Urban Vaquero. The Vaquero or cowboy is a historical figure that has attained romantic features and near-mythic stature. The urban vaquero is creative southwestern big city cooking using classic campfire cuisine techniques.
  • Coastal Epicurean. From Port Arthur to Brownsville the shoreline of Texas stretches over 372 miles. The Gulf coast is known for its abundance of fresh and flavorful seafood and fish.
  • Tejano. The term Tejano encompasses the influence of Texas on Mexico and vice versa in culture, language, literature, art, music and cuisine. This unique style of cooking and enjoyment of foods stems from cantinas and taquerias of Texas and Mexico.
  • Germanic Hill Country. The proximity of the Hill Country with its European descendants has given us a wide variety of artesian cheeses, fresh produce, honey and game to choose from.
  • Texas Cajun Country. We are still pure Texas, with our Bayou roots, a combination of two colorful cultures. Key towns like Marshall, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Houston in close proximity to the Louisiana border have contributed to the Cajun influence in our cooking. [Note: Fred, Texas is right between Marshall and Beaumont.]

The menu I found online is evidently out of date, although the tapas listed there sound great and I would love to try them. On our second visit we decided to do the tapas. We walked through the throng of the Society for Petrophysicists and Well Log Analysts (say that three times fast) and got a table immediately, as the SPWLA were on their way to a cocktail hour followed by getting on three large cruise buses to go eat somewhere. (I wonder why they allow only well log analysts. If you get sick, is your membership revoked?) There were six tapas alternatives on the menu and we had them all:

  • Quesadilla, beef or chicken with salsa, guacamole and sour cream
  • BBQ swordfish
  • Lump crab cake with avocado and tomato salsa and a Bloody Mary vinaigrette dressing
  • Salt and pepper calamari with a sweet chili sauce
  • Seasoned jumbo scallops with a 5-spice citrus salad and scarlet orange vinaigrette dressing
  • Chili glazed shrimp with manogo crema, chili oil and cilantro scallion oil

The total damage for the lot was $58, but any four of them would have been plenty for two people, which is not a bad price for two peoples in a classy joint like Banderas. We resorted to the little red wagon to drag away what we couldn’t finish. Let’s just say I’m going to have some interesting scallop wraps for lunch tomorrow, and I won’t be crying about it.

Tip #3: You’re always auditioning for your next gig, so never let your hair down or let them see you sweat.

At first I thought we could skip the quesadilla. After all, what can you really do with a quesadilla? Here’s what, load it with nice chunks of juicy steak. Holy tamale, Batman! They were luscious. Typically I squirt some lemon juice on crab cakes, and this one came with lemon but we took one bite and realized it was perfect just like it was. However, that didn’t stop us from scarffing down the salsa along with it. The calamari was cut into half-inch rings and was very tender. They were slightly spicy and were great with or without the sauce. The scallops were huge, tender and rich. The shrimp was large, meaty and very spicy. The Woman, a shrimp lover, quit after one, but I, a capsaicin addict, ate the remaining ones for her.

I asked the server if they saw many locals and he said they didn’t. After all, how often do you think, I’ll just head down to my local hotel and grab an incredibly superb meal? That’s fine with me, as it means it won’t be crowded the next time I go. It also means a lot of locals are missing out on a really good thing. But I can live with that.

Tip #4: Learn to hide the hat.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Clay Pit

Capitol Indian fare.


Most novelists, even published ones, have a day job. My day jobs have been all over the court, including janitor, math teacher, field hand, computer programmer, brickyard worker, editor, resident Gentile in a Conservative synagogue, IT director, weed-cutter, and a number of influential positions in less notable professions. My current day job is freelance technical writer. Pursuant to said job, I found myself in Addison, TX, at a conference hosted by the Lone Star STC chapter, accompanied by The Woman, because who can resist the lure of Addison?

While partaking of the pleasures of Addison, we found an Indian restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. It was the highlight of the trip, right up there with getting a new jacket from the Men's Wearhouse. Later we stumbled across the original location right here in Austin, TX, (original Clay Pit, I mean, not the original Men's Wearhouse) in the historic Bertram building (no relation to Bertram Wooster) on Guadalupe.

The Clay Pit puts a contemporary spin on Indian cuisine, and that suits me right down to the ground. Keep 'em coming, I say. After three visits, I still haven't had enough. There's plenty more for me to taste before I work through the whole menu, and I intend to do just that. And why not, with entries like the house specialities:

  • Kabuli Chicken: Boneless chicken cooked in our korma sauce from the curry house & infused with a paste made from pureed nuts, raisins & cherries
  • Goat Curry (Halal): Bone-in Goat marinated in yogurt, ginger, garlic, cumin & coriander, cooked in a tangy tomato & onion gravy with a touch of nutmeg
  • Sauteed Baby Eggplant: Eggplant & peas sauteed with crackled mustard seeds & spices
  • Khuroos-E-Tursh: Medallions of chicken breast stuffed with seasoned spinach, mushrooms, onions & cheese, simmered in a rich cashew-almond cream sauce with a hint of sweetness
  • Kothmir Salmon: Fresh salmon rubbed with garlic & ginger, pan-seared in a marinade of mint chutney, paprika, lemon juice & olive oil

I could go on listing menu items and causing you to drool all over your keyboard, but, honestly, what's the point? You already wish you were there right now, soaking up the tikka masala and a Kingfisher. So let me give you a sense of the two locations. The Addison spot is the the great urban sprawl known as DFW, in the D portion of the metroplex on Belt Line Road. It's a nice, contemporary restaurant with a classy jazz bar feel to it.

The Austin spot is in a 150-year-old limestone building downtown. You get the feeling that Stephen F himself, or perhaps David Bowie or Daniel Boone, might stroll in and order a whiskey alongside the functionaries and interns from the capitol who are squeezing every last drop possible from the happy hour, rolling past the 6pm cutoff into one full-priced drink in the hope that the traffic on MoPac will fade, thereby trading a few hours in a bar to cut their commute by 30 minutes.

But you are in the main dining area, free from the worries of homeward commutes and state politics, enjoying the pre-prandial papadum and chutneys as you tackle the challenging task of selecting just one item from the panoply of tempting dishes to enjoy with the bride of your youth. Life is good and Indian food is better.

You really need to get down to the Clay Pit. I'm thinking about jumping in the car and heading down, and it's 2am, for crying out loud. You can see how addicting this place can become.