Thursday, February 25, 2010

Kasha - "K"omfort Food

Everyone has their own definition of comfort food. For some it could simply be something warm and filling. For others it could be something that reminds them of home, or of their childhood. For me, comfort food is a little of both.

Food always played a big role in my family. A Saturday wasn't a Saturday until Dad started making his whole grain, flax seed enriched pancakes. The scent of toasted oats or nuts still, to this day, reminds me of coming home from school to find my mother laying her homemade granola out to cool. Do you see a pattern forming here? Food that reminds me of my childhood is "health food". Make our own pizza night involved whole wheat dough. A quick weeknight meal was Bulgar Wheat with raisins and almonds. And the meal that made me race to the dinner table was Kasha Varnishkas...or as we called it...Kasha and Bows. Delicious!!!

Not familiar with Kasha? Most people aren't. Kasha is, quite simply, buckwheat. You cook it as you would most grains, that is, simmer it for a few minutes in water or stock until all of the liquid is absorbed. It's got the most wonderful nutty flavor, firm texture and earthy aroma. The aroma is what reminds me of my childhood. It's unmistakable.

My parents made a pretty traditional Kasha Varnishkas, with sauteed onions, bow tie pasta, kasha of course, chicken stock and finished with a beaten egg. Then we would get creative and top it with some un-traditional things like Parmesan cheese or salsa. It is one of my top 5 favorite childhood meals.

Recently I had a craving for Kasha and bows, but when I looked in my pantry I found no bow tie pasta, darnnit. I got creative. First I made a simple Kasha salad with lemon juice, olive oil and fresh parsley. Next I made a Kasha Chili from a recipe I found for my vegetarian brother. Both turned out so well that I thought I would share.

So give these recipes a try. You may start making new comfort food memories.

Kasha Chili:

-28 oz can stewed/crushedORwhatever tomatoes
-3 cups vegetable broth (to keep it vegetarian...but can use chicken broth otherwise)
-1 can pinto/kidneyORblack beans
-3/4 cup uncooked Kasha
-1 medium onion diced
-1/2 green pepper diced
-1 tbs. olive oil
-1 tbs. chili powder
-1 tsp. paprika
-1 tsp. minced garlic
-1 tsp. cumin
-1 tsp. cayenne pepper

In skillet saute the garlic, onion and pepper in oil until semi-soft. Add the rest of the ingredients (except the kasha) and bring to a light simmer for 10 mins. Add the Kasha and continue to simmer, covered for 10 more mins, or until Kasha is tender. Top with sour cream and/or fresh cilantro. I didn't, but you could also add some sharp grated cheddar. I also topped mine with plenty of hot sauce.
For a vegetarian meal that could even be vegan if you kept the sour cream and cheese out, it's amazing. Not what you think of when you think healthy eats.

Kasha Salad:

I made this out of leftover Kasha so the recipe is based on ratios, not exact measurements.
-1 part good olive oil
-1 part lemon juice
-salt and pepper to taste
-1 - 2 parts fresh chopped parsley
-as much shredded lettuce as you like

Take already cooked, cooled Kasha (you cook it for 10 mins, covered at a light simmer in a ratio of 2 to 1, water to Kasha). Toss with the whisked together olive oil/lemon juice mixture, then toss in the parsley and lettuce. Salt and pepper to taste. It's another satisfying and refreshing dish...that's also healthy (really healthy) and vegetarian. I topped mine with fresh scallions.
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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I'd rather be...

Do you know those, "I'd rather be...fill in the blank" t-shirts and bumper stickers? You know, "I'd rather be fishing" or "I'd rather be skiing" or "I'd rather not be wearing this shirt". They always make me giggle. I can never imagine wearing one because mine would either have to say, "I'd rather be eating" and I would have to be stick-thin, I mean downright wafer-thin, to be able to pull that off without looking like a pig, OR, my shirt would say, "I'd rather be traveling", and that's not cute, witty or is, however, the truth.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Thank goodness my husband indulges me when it comes to travel. Thank you Nick. I would be impossible to live with if I wasn't constantly planning some sort of trip. I've been this way for as long as I can remember and I don't see that changing any time soon. The planning part can be almost as fun as the actual travel itself. I used to plan corporate travel and I can honestly say I loved every minute of it. The hubby and I are headed to Aruba in a week or so for a spur-of-the-moment type trip and I had so much fun booking it that I thought I would share some of my favorite travel websites with you too! Like I said, planning can be fun, and planning a trip for a steal can be downright thrilling. **p.s. all the pics on this post are of tropical places (and don't correlate with, well, anything I'm writing) because I thought everyone dealing with this crappy east coast weather right now would enjoy it**

Looking for a cheap hotel room and only a cheap hotel room? Priceline is THE ONLY site you need. On our trip to California last year I booked ALL of our hotels through Priceline and paid an average of $65/night for 4 star hotels that normally go for close to $200/night (did you see the American Idol audition a few weeks ago when they were in LA?? We stayed at that lovely hotel for $69). Priceline is a godsend for frugal travelers. I wrote a tutorial for using it in a recent blog. If you're a first time Priceline user I recommend reading it. **note: I only use Priceline for hotels and I only use the "name your own price" bidding option...I have to admit...even I am scared to bid for a flight without knowing too much about it**
Looking for a cheap rental car? Go here: Rental Car Momma
This site offers discount codes for all of the major car rental agencies. It takes a bit longer than using, say, Orbitz, but their prices can't be beat. I us it religiously.

You can also use Hotwire for cheap and easy rental car rates. They're not quite as inexpensive as rental car momma, but you can get a decent deal in under a minute.

As for the flights. Ahhhh, the flights. They can make or break a good vacation. I ALWAYS start here at Kayak. I have been using it to start ALL of my flight searches for at least the past 4 years. It's the mother of all travel search engines. It basically SEARCHES the search engines. To this day I have yet to find a site that is this thorough or offers lower rates. **tip...there is a lot of info on the Kayak result page...I like to click the "show matrix" shows a table of the cheapest and most direct routes in a format that's easier on the brain**

Looking for a package deal? If you're looking for a package deal, say a cruise or an all-inclusive resort w/airfare, I highly recommend Cheap Caribbean or BookIt. Both places specialize in putting together the whole vacation package for you (flight, hotel, transportation and even activities) all in one handy dandy place and for one handy dandy price. Oh, and they've almost always got some amazing deals. If you're looking to go to the Carribean or basically anywhere in Mexico you'll want to give them a shot. They will put together the entire package for muss, no fuss. They almost always throw in a free airport to hotel transfer or a $100 spa credit for free. I've used BookIt no less than a half dozen times over the past two or three years and I just used Cheap Caribbean to plan this Aruba trip. I searched every travel site I knew and used every trick in the book and in the end realized that the first place I checked, Cheap Caribbean, offered the best deal. Figures right?

Once you've decided where you want to go and have narrowed your options down to a few resorts or hotels, I recommend heading over to Trip Advisor to give your place one last look before you buy. Now I warn you, this site is a big bulletin board for happy and disgruntled travelers alike. Some people write horrible things about pretty decent resorts and it could scare the living hell out of you. That's why I just skim, or even skip the reviews and head right to the section where travelers post their personal pictures. If a picture is really worth a thousand words than a picture is all I need. I always just give the pics a quick overview before booking. Joe Shmoe from Cincinnati most likely didn't use some super wide angle lens when shooting the hotel room, but the professional photographer that the resort hired probably did. I just think that if the place looks good even through the lens of amateur photographers who are jacked up on one two many daiquiris, then it's a pretty good bet the place is up to snuff.

This list of sites is only the tip of the iceberg. These are the sites I use most often and most loyally, but I have a TON more to share. If YOU'RE looking for some tips, recommendations, booking help or just want to chat about prospective travel destinations, PLEASE (!!!!!!) send me an email or leave a comment. I'm always happy to help.
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Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I'm sure you're wondering what KooZeeDoo is. It sort of sounds like something you would expect to see on an infomercial..."when all of the other cleaning products don't...KooZeeDoo!"... or something like that. In fact, KooZeeDoo is the name of a new Portuguese restaurant in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philly that has been receiving rave reviews...and rightly so. The name is strange, I know, but the website offers an explanation:

COZIDO [koo zee doo] adj. cooked

I like it. Actually, I like just about everything about this place.

The hubby and I were lucky enough to get a table at KooZeeDoo last weekend. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Nick and I live to try new things. On our way to dinner that night we thought back at all of our culinary adventures and realized that we haven't had much contact with Portuguese food, but that was all about to change. After being seated we were given a run down of the restaurant's philosophy, "We are sort of like the anti-tapas", the waiter said. My husband smiled and said, "I like it already". The waiter recommended we order a few small plates to share and then only one entree for the two of us, as they were mammoth (and he wasn't kidding). After perusing the menu we opted for the tasting menu (as we almost always do when one is offered). The tasting was $75 per couple and it consisted of the usual 5 courses...all of which were entirely UNusual in the most wonderful way.

We began with a Lamb Consomme. To the naked eye this bowl of crystal clear broth with specks of radish floating about may seem boring at best. But making a good consomme is art. It takes a lot of work to make a clear broth packed (and I mean packed) with flavor (I won't get into it but you have to strain it and use egg whites to grab the large particles...yadda yadda...not an easy task). This was the best consomme I've ever had. A wonderful start to the meal. I will say, however, that they did make us share a bowl, which I found somewhat difficult. We had to hover over this communal bowl slurping up the goodness. Not a deal-breaker as I understand they serve everything family style, but I wish they had given us two small bowls. (p.s. I didn't take a picture because, like I said, it was a bowl of clear broth)

Then came the oysters. Ahhhh, my mouth is watering just thinking about these oysters. They were wrapped in a thin layer of cabbage and presented atop the most deliciously complex broth. No lie...when the waiter came around to take the plate I shamefully asked him to leave it so I could soak up every last bit of that sauce/broth with my bread (delicious bread by the way...two baskets flew off our table in record time). He laughed and obliged, but honestly, he would have had to pry that bowl out of my cold dead hands had he not left it. The oyster was cooked perfectly...that is to say, JUST cooked through. The idea of wrapping it in cabbage was a genius one. It added little to no flavor, but it gave so much texture to the oyster that it took on a whole new personality. The broth was rich in seafood flavor but also in SO many other flavors. I tried and tried but couldn't put my finger on them all. The thing that amazed me the most was the fact that even though my taste buds were experiencing all of these out-of-this-world flavors, the oyster still stood out as the main event. This chef is a magician.

Third came the quail. Two of them were served dog piled on top of each other. The waiter said they were Piri Piri quail. I had no idea what he was talking about until I sunk my teeth into that little guy. Piri Piri was apparently a hot sauce. And an almost perfect hot sauce, in my mind. This is one of the joys of trying new things...finding your new FAVORITE condiment or protein or veggie, etc. I have no idea if I can find Piri Piri in Philly (I googled the heck out of it), but I found some online and I must have it. The spice of the sauce combined with the char on the quail resulted in a grilled masterpiece.

The fourth course was the "entree". It was a lamb shoulder, slow braised and served with sweet potatoes and almonds. It sounds simple right? Wrong. Once again something so simple was SO complex. The lamb was perfect, fall of the bone tender. And next time I cook a lamb shank I will certainly be serving it with sweet potatoes and almonds. I'll never get the sauce down but if I can get even close to the flavor profile the chef created in this dish I'll have won...sweet, smoky, creamy yet robust. Heck yes folks...yummy in my tummy.

For dessert they offered a banana dish. It was a banana, sitting atop a chocolate concoction, sitting atop a vanilla wafer, all sitting amidst a layer of passion fruit sauce. The hubby wasn't as impressed as I was with the dessert. He liked it, but I loved that sauce SO very much that I had to give the dish two thumbs up. Once more, I have no idea how they made such a simple thing so delicious, but I guess that's why they own a restaurant and I just eat there.

When the meal was finished we put our hands on our bellies and let out a sigh of content. Not only did we experience a new cuisine, with new flavor profiles and new cooking techniques, but we also discovered new ingredients that we will surely seek out and use in our everyday cooking. Of course our cooking won't compare to that of KooZeeDoo. I don't often say that a chef is a true artist, but this chef prepared a masterpiece for us that evening. So like I always say, get out there and try something new...and if I were you...I would try KooZeeDoo.

614 N. 2nd Street
Philadelphia PA

Koo Zee Doo on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Boy And His Bourbon

Unless you've been living under a rock I'm sure you've heard about the big 'ol blizzard that's hit the east coast recently. Here in Philly we got A LOT of snow. So much snow, in fact, that the city was shut down for 2 whole days, which meant the hubby and I got to spend some quality time together while the rest of the world shoveled their way toward daylight. We live on the 5th floor of an old warehouse so all we had to do was sit back, light a fire, pour a few drinks and enjoy the view. So to kill some time and drum up conversation about something we both love I decided to interview my husband. The topic...bourbon. Bring up something like bourbon to a guy like my hubby and it's a sure fire way to get him excited about talking to you...even after being cooped up with you for two days straight ;)

Me: Nick, why do you love bourbon?

Nick: Because it’s tasty and has a "calming effect". Jess, do I really HAVE to do this? Are you really going to post everything I say?

Me: Yes. Now just answer the questions please. Until recently, when you started your quest to taste all of the finest whiskeys America has to offer by working your way down what’s called the American Whiskey Trail, via a large chunk of the Kentucky Bourbon trail, what was your favorite bourbon?

Nick: What kind of favorite? I have lots of different favorites. I tend to split them into mass produced/inexpensive, harder to find/moderately priced and rare.

Me: Well, let’s make this a bit easier for you. From the age of 21, to the age of 31, what brand do you think you consumed the most of.

Nick: Old Crow (by the way, he didn’t even wait until I finished the question before he answered)

Me: Why?

Nick: Because it’s a delicious sour mash, if not a little harsh, and it’s true to the sour mash flavor characteristics even though it has a bad reputation. Then early in my bourbon career I moved into Jim Beam and Jack Daniels land which keeps the same type of flavor profile but removes the slight harshness you get from your old crow experience

Me: Jose Garces' new restaurant, Village Whiskey, serves up 2 oz serving of some bourbons that cost as much as $60/glass. Have you ever, honestly ever tasted a glass of bourbon worth 60? (note: I'll be posting my Village Whiskey review tomorrow or in the next few days)

Nick: Well, the markup at that restaurant is astronomical. I had a glass that was $15 for2 oz, and although I did enjoy it I felt robbed because a week later I bought a fifth of it for $35. The whiskey I’m speaking of is the Basil Hayden (pic second from top), which is my current favorite daily sipping whiskey.

Me: Nick, I notice that we have approximately 5 empty bottles of Bulleit whiskey lying around the house. What do you think of the Bulleit? (pic third from top)

Nick: ***laughter** Bulleit is a fantastic whiskey. In my mind I think it’s probably the best bottle in the lower $20 price range. But it’s noted that I like my whiskey sweet, and Bulleit is a very sweet whiskey.

Me: One last question. If you were stranded on a desert island and could choose any bottle of bourbon and any accompaniment what would they be? A bottle of Blantons and to accompany it…another bottle of Blantons. (Picture of Blantons whiskey to the right...It's Nick's true favorite, hands down, without a doubt, but a bit pricey for everyday drinking)

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Have No Fear...Raw Milk Cheese Is Here

Danger is my middle name. Ok. Danger isn't actually my middle name (it's Kate), but when it comes to food I tend to be fearless. I feel like the world has become overly protective, cautious and even fearful when it comes to food. But I suppose I understand it. We mass produce livestock and keep them in deplorable conditions. We watch documentaries on ecoli outbreaks and what's ACTUALLY in that fast food hamburger. It's scary...I get it. But what if you could go back to a simpler time in food production? Even just for a bit and on a small scale. What if you found a mom and pop farm that put tender loving care into everything they produced. Would you be less fearful about your food then? I know I would be. That's why I jump at the chance to buy things like raw milk cheese when the opportunity presents itself. And recently, it did!

Back when we lived in VA the hubby and I went on a bit of a "do it ourselves" kick. But we weren't trying to re-finish our cabinets or lay down wood flooring (disaster by the way), instead we were trying to do it ourselves...eggs and cheese. I know what you're thinking..."I get the eggs, but why cheese?"...well, the answer is plain and simple...we love it. So we incubated and raised us some chickens for eggs and then the hubby went online and bought me a cheese making kit. The chickens ended up being the less daunting of the two ventures...amazingly enough. We fell in love with these little guys. The hubby built them a coop and we let them roam our 5 acres all day. It was great. The cheese making, on the other hand, didn't turn out to be so easy.

The kit made it seem approachable. You open the box and see all of these great tools...rennet tablets, citric acid, cheese cloth, cheese press, cheese wax, etc. "I can do this!" you say to yourself. Then you begin to run into some problems.

Problem #1...finding milk that hasn't been "ultra pasteurized". These days they don't just pasteurize milk, they ultra pasteurize it. All of that pasteurizing makes for not-so-good cheese. So I headed out in search of some raw milk...what a journey that turned out to be. I found out that the only way to get raw milk in VA was to buy a part of a cow or goat. I'm not kidding. You can co-own a cow or goat, so, through a bit of a loop hole, you aren't actually BUYING the raw milk, you're just harvesting it from something that you partially own. I thought about it and instead sought out a local dairy that pasteurized their milk to the lowest degree allowed by law.

Problem #2...actually making the damn cheese. The hubby, I must say, was WAYYYYY better at cheese making than I was. Do you know how much patience you need to make cheese? A lot! So we stuck with the simple ones...mozzarella, neufchatel, queso blanco. And they turned out good...really good actually. But after about a dozen batches we threw in the towel and went outside to play with the chickens.

So why am I telling you this? Well, the other day at the Northern Liberties farmer's market we happened upon a woman selling raw milk cheese and I simply HAD to have some. The farm she was from was called Birchrun Hills and it's located in Chester County, PA. I randomly picked out a wedge of something called the Fat Cat and took it home. WOW! Yes...WOW. What an amazing artisan cheese. I mean, I cheese hopped my way across Europe and this cheese, in my mind, was up there with some of the best. It had multiple textures...semi-soft and somewhat gooey on the outside (sort of like a firmer camembert) and the inside was creamy and crumbly. The flavor was what I call mildly-stinky and semi-strong, but the inside was so delicate that it evened the whole cheese out. It was amazing (our dog agrees...she's putting on her most pathetic "may I have some cheese please" face here waiting for this Fat Cat). I must try more of Birchrun Hill's cheese, and you should too!

Their website is bare-bones to say the least, but they do have an email link at the bottom and I'm sure if you contact them they'll be happy to tell you how and where to acquire some of their amazing raw milk cheese.

This wedge was only $6.30 (ONLY $6.30!!!!) and worth every penny. Take it from a girl who spent $85 on a cheese making kit and about $200 on milk, only to have her husband say, "I love you sweetie...but don't quit your day job".
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Monday, February 1, 2010

One Fish Two Fish - Little Fish's new big brother, Fish, could use a "little" something more

In October of '09 I wrote about the wonderful experience the hubby and I had at a little restaurant in South Philly called Little Fish (link to my post). Little fish was a tiny, 22 seat seafood restaurant that had won the hearts of seafood lovers everywhere. At the time of our Little Fish meal, the owner and head chef, Mike Stollenwerk, had decided to hand the reigns over to his sous chef, Chad Jenkins, and Mike headed out in search of bigger and hopefully better things. So he opened Fish (he's a great chef but no one said he was a wordsmith). Perhaps chef Jenkins was working extra hard to prove he had the chops to take over Little Fish, or, perhaps he's just THAT good, but whatever the reason, our meal that evening was sublime. It was a 5 course tasting menu at an unbelievable price of $28/person. Each course was absolutely packed with flavor, texture and pazazz. So when we heard that Stollenwerk's newly opened Fish was offering their very own 5 course, $28/person tasting menu we jumped at the opportunity for another amazing night and spectacular meal. As much as I hate to say this, I felt like Little Fish blew "big" fish right out of the water.

We moseyed out of the subway last night and down the quiet residential street where Fish lives. We walked into the restaurant and were pleased by it's appearance. It was cozy yet spacious (very unlike it's predecessor). It had a nice sized bar and adjacent to said bar was the ice chest that housed the raw bar fixins. We were seated immediately, ordered some cocktails and were given some bread and goat milk butter. I'm going to pause right here and say that thinking back on last night's meal, the one thing that stands out more than almost everything else was that butter. It was mild and creamy, and it actually was reminiscent of chevre. Amazing. I MUST find some. Ok, back to the story. Before we went, as always, we read the normal Fish menu, as they had not posted the tasting menu online. I skimmed the offerings and made of wish list of the things I hoped he would give us tastes of...perhaps he would start us off with the Peeky Toe Crab Ravioli, or the Octopus Carpaccio!...oh, and how I wished upon wishes that the salad course would feature his Baby Beet Salad topped with crispy chicken skin (chicken skin...on a salad...yes please!) for the mains I was happy to try anything on the sample menu as it all looked delicious. Back at the restaurant the time had come...we opened our menus to see what amazing tastes we would be experiencing that evening. The menu read as follows:

Smoked Salmon Tartare with fried pumpernickel and shaved egg yolk
Fried Bristol Bay Oyster with pickled fennel and an aioli

Baby Arugula with lemon, olive oil and Parmesan

Mahi Mahi with roasted fingerling, brussel leaves and lobster reduction

Chocolate Torte

The salmon tartare came out in a lovely presentation and the quality was fantastic. However, it was just smoked salmon, chopped up and dressed up a bit. And there were a few (tiny) random pieces of fried pumpernickel bread strewn across the plate. I would have like some more crunch to contrast the lump of chopped fish. I eat smoked salmon a few times a month and as I was eating THIS tartare I thought to myself, "Gosh. I think I'm going to start chopping up pieces of smoked salmon and putting them on some dark pumpernickel with some egg yolk for parties. It will be super easy to do". When I eat a dish at a restaurant and think, "that would be easy to do at home" I get a little...or a lot bummed.

The oyster (pictured left) was fried well and when eaten alone it was tasty but the dollop of aioli and mound of pickled fennel were almost larger than the oyster itself. I love the taste of a good oyster, and unfortunately I couldn't properly taste this one.

Then came the rabbit food. The hubby thought that the menu might have had a typo, as neither he nor I could imagine that they would serve us a mound of arugula dressed with oil and a piece of cheese. I buy a small garbage bag full of baby arugula at the Reading Terminal Market for about $1.75 each week and here I was paying for a plate of it...poorly dressed at that! If he had added a few beets and even a sliver of that chicken skin I was dreaming about I would have loved it.

The mahi mahi was probably the star of the show. Finally we were served a decent sized piece of protein that was packed with flavor. It was perfectly cooked and sat atop a pool of the most delicious lobster reduction I've had in a long time. As I swirled my fork around the sauce I remembered where I had previously tasted a similarly delightful concoction...Little Fish. I believe it was a crab reduction at Little Fish, however, the lobster reduction at Fish brought me right back to that meal...until I realized that I wasn't there...and that my meal at Fish was almost over. This one wow-worthy dish, I felt, came too late.

As for the rest of it...the chocolate torte was fine and a nice, rich cap to the meal. Nothing to write home about. And the wait staff was nice enough. A little rough around the edges (I like to be brought more bread without having to be asked if I want it...and things like that...asking for more bread to dip in that AMAZING butter made me feel like Miss Piggie). The price was reasonable and the wine list was actually rather nice. We had a few glasses of the Fuzelo from Portugal at $7 a pop, which was a pleasant and welcome surprise. The cocktails they offered were also quite Old Fashioned, a Pimms Cup (a personal fav), etc. And the atmosphere itself was, honestly, better than that of Little Fish.

I guess when it's all said and done I just feel like a tasting menu should highlight the BEST you have to offer. If you're sending out tiny portions (that people of course expect to get when they sign up for a tasting), then at least send out tiny portions of mind blowing food. I hate to go back to the tasting I had at Little Fish again, but I must. The portions there were substantial AND the food was mind blowing. If the tasting Fish offered made me feel as though I was just seeing the tip of the culinary iceberg then I would certainly return for another meal, or maybe even two. But when you taste 5 items and only say "wow" to a tiny portion of sauce, it seems that you didn't showcase the best you had to least for Fish's sake, I hope that's the case.

1708 Lombard Street

Fish on Urbanspoon
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