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  • Resturants: Ethnic and Specialty
Chef-owner Daniel Malventano has been knocking our socks off with his spectacular Italian fare for more than a decade. Sometimes it's a little hard to keep up with him, given his penchant for changing the restaurant's name (it started as Il Forno, then became Acqua e Sale, and has just been rechristened Daniel's). Who cares what he calls it, though, as long as he never stops serving up the same level of classical dishes that he travels around the world to research and perfect. There's no one else who serves succulent diver sea scallops in black truffle mousse, duck ravioli in butter-sage sauce with blood orange reduction, or our favorite class act: pork tenderloin roasted in amarone wine reduction, julienne prosciutto, sun-dried plums and crème de cassis with butternut squash-mashed potatoes and baby vegetables. Bellisima!
We've been contemplating taking up the Atkins Diet. That's the only way we can justify the gluttonous meat orgy that is a meal at Drinkwater's. This place is a caloric menace, with massive steaks (33-ounce rib eye chop), veal (a full pound) and pork chops, entire 22-ounce racks of lamb and whole roasted chickens (one and a half pounds).

This isn't just any meat, either, but the best USDA Prime, Midwest corn-fed steer, cut in the in-house butcher shop, wet-aged for 21 to 28 days, seasoned, broiled at 1,800 degrees, slicked with clarified butter and presented on a sizzling, 400-degree plate. We can even get our steak crusted with Gorgonzola for extra impact.

No fancy diet can justify the indulgence of Drinkwater's side dishes -- of table-tilting proportions -- but we can never say no to full-pound baked potatoes drenched in butter and sour cream, soup-plate-size twice-baked spuds, or buckets of broccoli swamped in oceans of melted cheese. They're just too tasty.

We pay for our gorging -- an easy 30 bucks on just a piece of meat (no salad, no potato, no vegetable included, nothing but the plate). And we'll pay again for months as we drag ourselves to our Stairmaster. But we'll keep coming back, because with Drinkwater's, there's just no way to pretend we've got willpower.

The best seafood in the Valley can be found in a dark room, buried in an underground building, across the street from a cemetery. But the owners of the Salt Cellar seem to understand that, when it comes to a fine tradition of excellent food, reasonable prices and a comfortable setting, it doesn't matter where the actual property is. So rather than go for a glitzy, high-profile location, these folks have kept the Cellar pretty much as it was when it first opened in 1981. What they save in rent, they pass on to us in lower prices for exquisitely fresh seafood flown in daily from places like Hawaii, Chesapeake Bay, Alaska, Boston, British Columbia, Idaho and the Gulf of Mexico. The cellar keeps us coming back for its seasonal specialties, too, like turtle soup, and smoked blue marlin. Great seafood, for just a few clams? Who could ask for anything more?

Readers' Choice: The Salt Cellar

We eat a vegetarian diet because we want to feel healthy. But that doesn't mean we don't want deeply flavored, interesting foods. Plaid delivers -- the kick-back, casual den strewn with sofas caters to a hip, multinational college student clientele. We like the salad "plaidders," omelets served all day, the "plaid" Thai noodles, Caribbean jerked tofu and lemongrass tofu served over rice. Some of the most exciting dishes show up as daily specials, like black bean pepper stir fry in Asian brown sauce, and Singapore curry. It's an interesting environment, too, earthy and hodgepodge, full of tree-hugging fellow diners, but with a full bar.

Readers' Choice: Pita Jungle

Japanese restaurants have been proliferating all across the Valley like shiitake mushrooms after a rain. Why, within a mile or two of our beloved Sushi on Shea, there's almost a half-dozen of the ethnic restaurants. Yet as much as we were impressed with the quality of SonS when it first opened in 1994, we're that much more in love with it today.

SonS never lets us down with the basics. This is consistently perfect maguro, hamachi and red snapper sashimi. Salmon melts like butter in our mouths. Tempura emerges from the fryer light and crispy; tonkatsu is the real thing, with moist slabs of pork crunchy in panko and served over crisp green cabbage. No details are missed, either -- the green salad is slicked with dynamite ginger soy vinaigrette, miso soup is always hot and rich, and white rice is always exquisitely fluffy-sticky.

SonS goes the extra mile, offering traditional dishes like shabu-shabu and nabeyaki udon. And the kitchen is always coming up with something new and exciting, like the recent addition of carpaccio, lacy thin strips of raw tuna dressed in a gripping horseradish-hot wasabi cream.

After almost a decade, our romance with Sushi on Shea just keeps getting more passionate.

Readers' Choice: RA Sushi Bar Restaurant

A half-hour north of town, it's worth a jaunt to this old-fashioned saloon with, yikes, honest-to-goodness real cowboys. Rock Springs has a history as delicious as its food, existing since the 1800s as an Indian encampment, a bivouac, a watering stop for miners, and a stagecoach stop. In 1918, it was enhanced to include a general store, hotel, and saloon.

Today, Rock Springs is as rustic as ever, dark, with lots of rough wood, an 1856 Brunswick bar and an antique soda fountain. Cowboy twangers play live music on weekends, and on the last Saturday of every month, there's a Hogs in Heat Barbecue and Nut Fry (yes, Bradshaw mountain oysters, battered and deep-fried, also known as the private parts of calves and lambs).

The old-time menu features lots of mesquite-smoked Midwestern beef and old-fashioned barbecue, catfish, trout, chicken-fried steak and liver and onions. When the rooster crows, cooks dish up breakfasts of steak and eggs, biscuits and gravy, buttermilk pancakes and grits. If a homemade hot buttered cinnamon roll isn't enough, dive into one of Penny's Pies, baked fresh every day. Now that's some gosh-darn honest cowboy cookin'!

Readers' Choice for Best Steak Restaurant: Ruth's Chris Steak House

While Americans salute a cheeseburger and French fries as a national treasure, people in India feast on the signature dish of tandoori. That's chicken marinated in yogurt and mild spices, cooked in its own juices over red-hot charcoals, then roasted with onions in a tandoor (a special clay oven imported from India) to a crisp, tender copper brown. We have hot dogs. Indians snack on lamb boti kebab, marinated lamb meat in morsel-size pieces skewered over hot charcoals with mint chutney and onion. Sure, we love our American food, but you get the picture: There are many more intricacies to Indian dishes. And no one makes the complex recipes sparkle like Indian Delhi Palace. It's difficult to choose from the massive menu. So we suggest letting the chef do it, with one of the complete meals offered. Our favorite is the tandoori dinner, with shish kebab, tandoori chicken, lamb tikka, vegetable curry, naan, dessert, chutney and tea. This is a culture we're proud to be part of.

Readers' Choice: Delhi Palace

Greekfest owners Tony and Susan Makridis wish us "kali orexi" -- have a good appetite. And man, we're going to need it, because with one look at their expansive menu, we know we've got to have it all. This is a taverna absolutely brimming with good times (yes, the cheerful waiters yell "opa!" when they flame our saganaki cheese), and great food. Steaming ceramic crocks of moussaka, pastitsio and youvetsi are sublime pasta-meat casseroles. Lamb and chicken turn on a souvla over crackling fires. The desserts are prepared with ritualistic family tradition, like natural yogurt and honey with walnuts. Hey, if this stuff is good enough for the Olympian gods, then it's good enough for us.

Readers' Choice: Greekfest

One of our friends is a chef, living in that fresh food capital, Berkeley. She came to visit, and we took her to dinner at Christopher's. Months after that meal, she still raves about the incredible truffle-infused prime sirloin she ate, the tender meat served with fareki (a Middle Eastern grain), shallot confit and rich red wine bone marrow sauce. She still swoons over the decadent soup of wild mushrooms and foie gras, the frisée salad with lardons, poached eggs and sherry vinaigrette. If there were a restaurant like this in her hometown, she keeps repeating, she'd eat there every day.

So how lucky are we, because we can eat this fantastic French food every day, for lunch, dinner, and even late night (the place serves until midnight seven days a week). Christopher's has kept us thrilled since chef Christopher Gross first opened this comfortable, elegant bistro in 1998, and we swear, he just keeps getting better. Chalk it up to the simple grace of his Gallic classics, emphasizing artisan ingredients from local and regional farmers. Salmon is smoked in-house, most dishes are prepared in a wood-burning oven, and the traditional French touches are all there (fantastic wine list, an extensive cheese program).

And ooh la la -- the desserts! Parnassienne of chocolate mousse has no equal. Christopher's, c'est magnifique.

Readers' Choice: La Madeleine French Bakery & Cafe

The only problem we have with Tao Garden is deciding what to eat: Everything on the restaurant's 210-plus-item menu is spectacular. Sometimes we're in the mood for mainstream, so we fill up on perfect pot stickers, fiery kung pao chicken and black beef chow mein. Other times, we're craving adventure, so we order authentic Cantonese or Mandarin specialties like fish maw with crab soup; salted fish, chicken and tofu hot pot; sautéed squid with preserved greens; and prawns with crispy fried milk. We're always up for a dive into Tao's fresh fish tanks, stocked with live lobster, crab, tilapia, rock cod, flatfish, catfish, scallops and clams. The kitchen has ingenious ways of preparing its catch, and we're sure to ask about the daily specials (printed in Chinese but cheerfully translated by a friendly staff). At least one dining decision is simple -- for best Chinese food in the Valley, we choose Tao Garden.

Readers' Choice: P.F. Chang's China Bistro

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