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Monday, October 31, 2011

Where to Eat: A Willow Glen Food Tour

If you live in the South Bay chances are you have at least one favorite restaurant in Willow Glen. So, my foodie friend Carl and I decided to check out both some of the more established eateries and two that are fairly new. We started our day on LIncoln Avenue at the Hay Market, moved next door to Top Nosh Cafe, down the street to Taiwan Restaurant, then back again towards Willow Street to the Willow Glen Frozen Yogurt and Ice Cream Co and finishing at La Villa Deli.

I first read about the Hay Market in Willow Glen online. Owner Jim Cerone had a vision to create the kind of restaurant he'd want to eat at himself. We were able to chat with him that day and he let us know that his menu embraces tradition, creativity, local produce, there is no gas in the kitchen and more surprisingly no freezer. How do you cook with no gas? For starters Cirone implements both sous vide and making his own charcuterie.

The seating is European style with two long, high community tables and one lower, standard height, long table.

There are paper menus on the tables held in beautifully embossed copper menu holders.

The menu and libations are also posted on large chalkboards along one wall. I'm not a wine drinker but I read in the online article mentioned previously that the Hay Market's wine prices are "excessively reasonable."

Plum and Nectarine Clafoutis ($6.00)

So where did we begin? With dessert! We ordered a classic French dessert, the Plum and Nectarine Clafoutis (pronounced Cleh-foo-tee). It was delicious. Made with organic, roasted black plums and nectarines with Jim's mom's orange butter puddled on the plate. This dessert was over the top delicious!

Though it may look like one a clafoutis is not a cobbler or bread pudding. After reading how to make one it sounds more similar to a flan or quiche that puffs up as it bakes, is allowed to cool before serving then you slice and serve it just like a cake.

I told him eating it made me think of those beautiful picnic photo spreads you see in Martha Stewart magazines. It tasted like something you'd want to bring to a picnic on a sunny summer day, pull it out of an ice box and sink your fork into a chilled slice to enjoy a cool bite on a hot day.

We also ordered the Cheese Plate ($9.00) with Manchego (top), Fourme D'Ambert (blue cheese) and Petite Basque (sheep's milk) cheeses with arugula tossed in just a bit of oil with salt and pepper, locally produced honey butter, house made wine (chianti) salami, and in the center of the picture a special "Chow Chow" mix made with fruit and nuts drenched in local honey with both apple and bread slices.

The Petite Basque was my favorite of the cheeses. We sampled everything and packed the rest in a to go container I'd brought along because we still had a whole day of eating ahead of us. BTW a little scoop, the Hay Market is now serving Brunch on Saturdays.

Along with our check we were given two temporary tattoos! I'd never used a temporary tattoo before so our waitress showed us how to peel off the back and use the damp washcloth to make the ink adhere to my arm.

Ha ha. Hubby did a double take when he saw it later that evening. 

Just two doors down Carl spotted the Top Nosh Cafe. We usually don't just wander into a restaurant but we did that day. The menu of "Market Pies" was so tempting we couldn't resist trying one:

Chicken with Tomatoes
Chicken with Almond & Yogurt
CHicken, Apple & Cheddar
Chicken & Yam with Coconut Curry
Spicy Beef
Wild Mushroom with Gruyére
Roasted Butternut Squash
Grecian Spinach with Feta
Country Ratatouille
Southwest Hot Potato
Eggs, Cheddar & Chives

There's a little seating out front on the sidewalk, two areas with tables and chairs and some counter seating available along one bay of windows.

Inside the restaurant was very modern and very clean. It was so polished looking we started to wonder if it was part of a large chain, which we normally try to avoid on our monthly food adventures.

We ordered a Southwest Hot Potato pie filled with Yukon Gold Potaoes, creamy cheeses and corn and roasted poblanos for just a bit of heat.

So here's where it got interesting. As we stood at the counter we saw an employee take a frozen pie, wrapped in clear cellophane, from a freezer. It was unwrapped and placed inside what looked like an industrial microwave. Carl and I both felt our expectations drop when we saw this. Little did we know that we had nothing to fear.

The Southwest Hot Potato Pie ($5.75)

A few minutes later our pie was delivered to our table with a small portion of cole slaw. The pie, the pie was fantastic! The first thing that came to mind is that it's like a Hot Pocket but a hundred times better. The crust was perfect, thin and flaky, and the filling so tasty I wanted to eat the whole thing all by myself.

Some online research the next day and I learned Top Nosh is a small, local company that started out selling their market pies at the Sunnyvale farmers' markets then began selling at more markets and their frozen pies at several grocery stores like Andronicos and Zanottos. The pies are made, baked then frozen in Santa Clara and delivered to the cafe. They can also be purchased frozen at the cafe for $5.00 each. I will definitely be loading up my freezer with them the next time I head over to Willow Glen.

On their website I learned how much quality matters to owner Yasmin Tyebjee. Considering how delicious the pies are it didn't even surprise me because I felt like I could taste the quality as I ate my pie.
"Top Nosh uses only the finest epicurean ingredients to create delectable flavor combinations from around the world. We use only premium, natural ingredients like free-range chicken, halal beef, gourmet cheeses, unbleached flour, cage-free eggs, creamery butter and pressed olive oil. Top Nosh Farmers Market Pies are handcrafted in small batches, wrapped in a golden pastry crust and quick-frozen to stay at their best until the moment they are served."

Next we headed over to Taiwan Restaurant. I think almost everyone knows Taiwan and for many it's considered to be the best Chinese Restaurant in the South Bay. Some of their best loved dishes include their Crispy Beef, Pineapple Fried Rice and Honey Walnut Prawns.

When I first dined at Taiwan I would order the Honey Walnut Prawns. When I became allergic to shellfish I switched to Honey Walnut Chicken. Then I became a vegetarian and since then I've ordered Honey Walnut Fried Tofu ($9.95). It's not on the menu but I asked the waitress if they could make it for me. I blogged about it here. Not only did I love it, the restaurant was really excited to make it because they couldn't recall ever making it for anyone before.

The cubes of tofu are coated in a light batter and fried  until crisp. The candied walnuts are sweet and crunchy. The cubes of tofu are tossed in the sweet and creamy honey sauce and all of it is plated on a bed of shredded cabbage. *Drool*

So I wanted to introduce Carl to it and, no surprise, he loved it too! The only downside about Honey Walnut Tofu is that you have to eat it all when you order it. It doesn't reheat well because the tofu absorbs the sauce. It doesn't taste bad reheated, just not nearly as good as fresh. So when dining alone this is a problem because I can't eat an entire order by myself.

After Taiwan we headed down the street to the Willow Glen Frozen Yogurt & Ice Cream Co. It's located ont he corner of Lincoln and Willow Street and much to our surprise, looks as if it won't be in its original location much longer.

Directly behind it a large new shopping and office center is being built. Where the shop now stands will eventually become the new Willow Glen Town Square. The shop will move into the new building when it's completed next month.

The reason I wanted to try the Willow Glen Frozen Yogurt & Ice Cream Co. was neither for its Fro-yo or Ice cream. And it wasn't for its toppings even though they have an impressive variety split into two cases.

We were there for their Frozen Custard ($3.00 + $1.25 single specialty topping). Their website reads:
"What we are famous for: Frozen custard is a cold dessert similar to ice cream, however it is much healthier and lower in fat than the alternative. It is an ultra rich soft serve product made with cream, pasteurized eggs and sugar. It originated in Coney Island around 1919, but is very hard to find on the West Coast. Customers venture far distances all over the bay to experience this frozen treat."
All I can say is that it was rich and creamy and definitely tasted more decadent than ice cream! We had the vanilla with fresh raspberries. Carl only tried one bite so I did my best to finish the rest but had to admit defeat before I could eat it all.

They offer 6 sizes as well as a low calorie alternative called Wow Cow with only 9 calories per ounce and low in lactose.

Our final stop was a Willow Glen Institution. La Villa Gourmet Italian Delicatessen was founded in 1947 and to this day remains  a popular eatery famous for their raviolis and sandwiches.

Along with the deli cases are imported goods for those who love to cook!

I must confess I'd never stepped foot inside of La Villa before. Not that I hadn't tried. I did try once at lunch time over a decade ago but the place was so packed with people I literally could not enter the building. If I frequented WIllow Glen more often I'm sure I would have tried again. So when Carl insisted it had to be part of our food adventure I was all for my first long overdue visit to La Villa.

We had a stuffed artichoke ($5.50) that a lady in line ahead of us insisted we had to try, a vegetarian lasagna ($6.99)  and some macaroni salad ($2.19).

The stuffed artichoke was really yummy. I have to say this would be my favorite way to eat a fresh artichoke. Just pack it full of stuffing so that with each leaf you get some seasoned breading to eat with each petal.

The vegetarian lasagna was literally, the best I've ever had. It's not full of big chunky vegetables, in fact the amount of veggies is fairly modest. The pasta was perfectly cooked, not over cooked, the tomato sauce zesty and full of flavor and the cheese was just enough, not over the top too much. La Villa's lasagna made me realize that most restaurants get it wrong by either over cooking the pasta, putting too much flavorless cheese on or using a mediocre pasta sauce to meld it all together. I will definitely be back for their lasagna.

I'm also looking forward to trying their famous raviolis. We saw customer after customer leave the store carrying their boxes of raviolis to go. Finally Carl couldn't take it and asked a lady if we could photograph her boxes. LOL. Turned out she also owns a breakfast and lunch restaurant named Cafe San Jose over on Meridian Ave. I've never been there before but now want to try it out.

We also couldn't resist doing a little shopping while we were there. La Villa carries products that don't seem to be available anywhere else! This is a shot of all of our purchases combined. Carl purchased a bruschetta tapenade and some pasta. I purchased an Italian chili sauce, some finely ground sea salt, Habanero Pepper Jack Cheese, some balsamic vinegar and a bag of spaghetti O's shaped pasta.

You can check out Carl's recap over on his blog by CLICKING HERE

I also had to share with you my favorite boutique in Willow Glen. It's called Magpie and it's full of vintage styled home decor, gift and garden items.

Willow Glen is a cute and quaint old fashioned downtown shopping district located just South of HWY 280 between the Meridian and Bird exits. The majority of shops and restaurants are located down Lincoln Avenue between Minnesota and Lester. There is free street parking and plenty of free parking lots behind the shops so this holiday season if you want to support local small businesses, Willow Glen would be a great place to shop.

If you enjoyed this post you'll probably enjoy our previous adventures this year:

A Surprisingly Delicious Pleasanton Food Tour

A Pescadero Food Tour: Where and What to Eat Off HWY 1

A Bay Area Cheap Eats and Secret Menu Food Adventure

• A Palo Alto, Epicurean Food Tour

• Our May, East Bay, Berkeley and Oakland Food Adventure

• Meet the Kids on The Harley Farms Goat Dairy Tour

• Beyond Sushi: A South Bay Japanese Food Adventure

• Beyond the Beach: A Santa Cruz Food Adventure

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