A Taste of Spain Via Berkeley at La Marcha

Trio of croquetas at La Marcha.

Trio of croquetas at La Marcha.

 

It’s been way too long since I visited Spain, but when I walked through the doors recently of La Marcha Tapas Bar in Berkeley, I felt as if I was back in that vibrant, energetic country.

Or perhaps I should say, nudged my way through the doors, because on a Sunday even before 5 p.m., the place was packed and the host was having to turn people away. Fortunately, my husband and I had reservations for an early dinner, of which we paid our own tab.

Why the crowd at that hour? Because La Marcha has one of the best Happy Hours around. It’s every day, too. A select number of cocktails, wines and beers offered at a discount. Best yet, during Happy Hour, each drink you order comes with your choice of a free little snack. There are about a dozen to choose from. No wonder people were fighting their way in here. If you can’t make it then, and are a night owl, La Marcha offers a second Happy Hour each night, 10 p.m. to midnight.

Crisp, sweet and tangy Brussels sprouts -- a freebie snack you can choose with your drink during "Happy Hour.''

Crisp, sweet and tangy Brussels sprouts — a freebie snack you can choose with your drink during “Happy Hour.”

The boisterous spot features a Real Madrid flag hanging above the expansive bar, and an exposed brick wall behind small, closely set tables. We snagged two end seats at the bar, which were actually more at regular table height than bar height. It took a little while to not feel like we were at the kid’s table at a dinner party as we peered at neighboring bar patrons sitting up a foot or so higher.

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Enter the Doors of Porta Blu

Tagines are the centerpiece of the menu at Porta Blu.

Tagines are the centerpiece of the menu at Porta Blu.

 

Driving Highway 101 on the Peninsula, you cannot miss the swank new Hotel Nia. Its 11 stories of gleaming glass make quite the statement.

Step inside the just opened hotel, and you are sure to get whiplash. That’s because the upscale yet whimsical decor by Colum McCartan of New York’s McCartan, Inc. will have you looking every which way. Everywhere you turn, there are eye-catching, fun touches such as a cart full of luggage turned into a planter and rakes leaning against doorways that are actually light fixtures. Just when you think you’ve spotted every surprise, you discover yet another one.

Somebody sure left their luggage here a long time. LOL

Somebody sure left their luggage here a long time. LOL

Don't try using these to sweep up anything.

Don’t try using these to sweep up anything.

Just a tandem bike on the property.

Just a tandem bike on the property.

The property somehow manages to feel secluded, even if it is right off always-jammed 101, and has Facebook as a neighbor.

Enter the restaurant, Porta Blu, and the unique artfulness continues. The backs of the bar stools look as if they sport an abstract squiggle design. But start at them a little longer to discover it’s actually a silhouette of two faces kissing.

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Who Can Resist Candy Pork?

The most appropriately named Candy Pork.

The most appropriately named Candy Pork.

 

If there were two things that my Dad loved, it was candy and it was pork.

After all, when you are of Chinese ancestry, pork is practically in your DNA.

And when you live most of your life in San Francisco, where boxes of See’s Candies are apt to be offered up as gifts for most any occasion, you can’t help but develop a fondness for all things sweet.

That’s why if my Dad were still alive this Father’s Day, I would cook up a batch of “Candy Pork” for him. Because it’s like the best of both of his favorites combined into one.

The recipe is from San Francisco food writer extraordinaire Jessica Battilana’s new cookbook, “Repertoire: All the Recipes You Need” (Little, Brown and Company), of which I received a review copy.

Repertoire

After collaborating with chefs on a half dozen cookbooks, this is her first cookbook filled with her own recipes. After she and her wife had two kids, Battilana’s life became so time-pressed that her style of cooking had to change. The result is this cookbook of 75 recipes, most of them completely do-able on a harried weeknight, and others not that much more involved for weekends or special occasions.

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Why Harbor House Inn Needs To Be On Your Radar

Vermillion rockfish caught just off the waters at Harbor House Inn.

Vermillion rockfish caught just off the waters at Harbor House Inn.

 

ELK, CA — A good three hours drive north from San Francisco through winding roads of vineyards and redwoods, this place is definitely off the beaten path. But it is making quite the splash.

Built in 1916, Harbor House Inn reopened this spring with decidedly new life. New owners bought the 9-room inn in 2005, and have spent the past few years not only meticulously restoring but improving it — most notably, with the restaurant.

They doubled the size of the restaurant kitchen and managed to lure an incredible team to oversee it: Executive Chef Matthew Kammerer, former executive sous chef at Michelin three-starred Saison in San Francisco. Husband-and-wife, Sous Chef David Hopps, formerly of Saison, and Pastry Chef Elise Hopps, previously of Craftsman & Wolves in San Francisco. Chef de Partie Holden Tal from Michelin two-starred Commis in Oakland. And sommelier Corrina Straus, a veteran of both La Folie in San Francisco and Michelin three-starred Manresa in Los Gatos. Amanda Nemec, former program manager for media operations at Facebook and Kammerer’s partner, is the inn’s general manager.

The entrance to the inn and restaurant.

The entrance to the inn and restaurant.

The magnificent view from the back of the property.

The magnificent view from the back of the property.

Executive Chef Matthew Kammerer (right) in the kitchen that doubled in size.

Executive Chef Matthew Kammerer (right) in the kitchen that doubled in size.

A few weeks before it opened to the public, I was invited to be a guest to come check it all out. (Full disclosure: I was hired to write some of the inn’s marketing materials.)

The Mendocino Coast town of Ellk has all of 200 people, and this inn, situated on a bluff right over the ocean, really does make you feel a bit like you’re in the middle of nowhere. There’s little else directly around it, save for a herd of shaggy-haired Highland cattle across the road.

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Syrian Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Sumac

A simple chicken with sumac, onions and pine nuts, for the times.

A simple chicken with sumac, onions and pine nuts, for the times.

 

I know this may sound sexist and simplistic, but I truly believe if more women were in charge there would be fewer wars and conflicts.

Women just have a natural tendency to want to talk it out — rather than use their fists or other weapons — to resolve situations.

Just imagine if a woman were the head of state of Syria rather than the long-standing brutal male president whose crimes against humanity have left this once beautiful country devastated beyond imagination.

Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi know only too well the tragedy that has befallen the country. Azzam was born in Syria and moved to the United Kingdom in 2011, where she’s produced theater productions with refugees, as well as the Peabody and BAFTA-winning documentary series, “Exodus: Our Journey to Europe,” which chronicles the migration crisis.

Mousawi, who grew up in Baghdad, produced and directed “Terrestrial Journeys,” a theater piece devised with Syrian women living in Beirut’s refugee camps.

OurSyria

Through their nonprofit theater project, avid cooks and friends, Azzam and Mousawi met dozens of Syrian women refugees. As they got to know one another, the conversation naturally turned to food.

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