Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Best Restaurant in the Country Is In Washington D.C.

1509 17th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20036
Chef Johnny Monis
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday (closed when Chef Monis unable to come in)
Tasting menu only

Last tried: October 2009

Komi on Urbanspoon

Previously tried: January 2009

KOMI has a new sommelier, Kat Bangs, and a new pastry chef, formerly of CityZen. Who knows whether the new blood or the new expanded kitchen is the secret to Monis' continually mesmerizing creativity? Every time he adds something new, I fall in love. How did I ever exist without beef tartare with truffle ice cream, or wild salmon with shiso sorbet and candied pine nuts?

Yet I still hanker for the tastes of previous favorites. If Monis has any "flaw," it is that he rarely repeats anything-- thankfully he has made an exception for the fried Caesar salad, the miniature deep-fried croquette filled with lettuce cream topped with parmesan curls and anchored on a swirl of anchovy cream. Now, if he would only bring back the gyros and the olives ... oh, and the boudin (blanc or noir, I'll take either).

UPDATE: April 2007

Johnny Monis has been named among Food & Wine's Best New Chefs for 2007 (opening screen shot on Bravo TV's Top Chef Season 3). He deserves to be at the top of that list as well as any list that the James Beard Foundation could come up with. Every time I dine there, Monis adds to his repertoire of amazing creations with new delectable surprises-- microthin slices of salty, spicy chorizo on top of sweet scallop ravioli, with charred bites of tender fresh cauliflower interspersed among the ravioli; sashimi-grade slices of glistening white kanpachi dressed in sweet olive oil and fleur de sel; tiny roasted padron peppers accompanied by a sunchoke panna cotta filled with a quail egg yolk and topped with caviar; decadent discs of creamy boudin blanc seasoned with morel mushrooms that were braised in olive oil until they tasted like bacon and pulled together with braised ramps. (I finally understand why people get so hot and bothered about ramps. In Monis' hands, they were al dente with the flavor of garlic cream. I get it now.)

It's unfortunate that dessert chefs do not generally garner similar recognition. Brooks Headley knows how to conclude the unbelievable meals at KOMI with aplomb and matching flourish. His play on textures and contrasts, particularly his delicate execution of the combination and balance of sweet and savory elements, always commands attention from your tastebuds.

On the wine front, Derek Brown from Citronelle has replaced Adam Curling as sommelier. Technically, I have rarely encountered a sommelier with Curling's expertise and ability for perfect wine pairings, but Brown exudes the type of unintimidating wine knowledge that is very inviting.

Previously tried: December 2006

There are certain moments from my dining past that linger in my memory no matter how much time has passed or how many different restaurants I have tried since then-- the first time I dined at The French Laundry, Eric Ripert's miraculously refined tastes at Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's decadent yet delicate white truffle egg with brioche, David Kinch's innovative combination of Japanese/French/Catalan cuisine at Manresa -- and then there is Johnny Monis' flawless tasting menu at KOMI. The food created by Monis tops even these culinary giants, heightened by the compact yet thoughtfully matched, mineral-laden wine list compiled by Sommelier Adam Curling (formerly with the Inn at Little Washington), and finished with the equally inspired dessert creations by Brooks Headley.

Despite having suffered through countless years of mind-numbing business travel as part of my job, I find myself looking forward to at least one destination, Washington D.C., provided I can allot one evening to be able to make a detour out to Dupont Circle where Komi is located. This tiny 38-seat starkly decorated restaurant, located on the second floor, is unknown to even cab drivers, who often confuse it with a Japanese restaurant nearby. Each time after I have satisfied my Komi craving, I find a strange fog of depression settle over me as I realize that it would likely be months before I could return. Not even the thought of countless lovely restaurants in San Francisco and New York can pull me out of my wistful daze, as I recall KOMI's sweet, meaty house-cured Greek olives bathed in aromatic olive oil and sprinkled with crushed crystals of fleur de sel. Monis adds just enough salt to highlight the sweetness of the dark green berries and maximize the intense flavor of the slick green oil, which is sweet enough to pour over pancakes. Having sampled these olives, I can never order marinated olives anywhere else, for fear that it would disturb the last perfect taste and impression I carry from KOMI.

The olives are followed by roasted, candied dates stuffed with sweet, creamy mascarpone cheese, with a hint of cinnamon and more fleur de sel. Just these introductory tastes alone (part of the first course called "Mezzethakia," a series of small bites) demonstrate the chef's marvelous obsessive-compulsive tendencies and absolute control over flavors and ingredients. Adam Curling then added his magic touch with the wines, starting with a 2005 Hope Verdelho from Hunter Valley to pair with both the olives and the dates. The crisp, clean wine had just enough fruit to be delightful with both, without overwhelming any of the intricate sweet-savory flavor profiles.

The next taste was mackerel tartare on top of a crisp filo disc, the size of a quarter, topped with glistening grey pearls of caviar. The salty creaminess of the mackerel combined with the salty richness of the caviar balanced out beautifully with the slightly sweet and buttery filo round. This was followed by grilled crostini with taramosalata-- olive oil emulsified cod roe. Both of these dishes were executed with absolute precision and freshness, as though they had been created by a sushi master. Indeed, the pairing was a Shichiyon-hori Junmai Ginjo sake.

Grilled octopus legs intermingled with house-made mortadella cubes and decorated with dots of lemon aioli was the next dish among the Mezzethakia. The grilled octopus were nicely charred yet still very tender, and the mortadella was salty, sweet, and creamy at the same time. This is my idea of the ultimate surf and turf. When the next dish arrived, crispy fried cubes of halloumi cheese with expertly seasoned venison tartare, I decided that Monis is just showing off at this point. With the crispy oxtail gyro and the foie gras with mostarda (an Italian condiment made of candied fruit and mustard), I simply melted into dining bliss. To highlight these various tastes, Curling brought over one spectacular glass of wine after another-- from Greece, Loire Valley, Austria, and Italy.

The last dish of the Mezzethakia was a small salad of bitter greens topped with sweet grilled figs and crumbles of feta cheese, a perfect transition to the next savory courses, which generally consist of a pasta selection and a meat or fish course. Being greedy, I asked for two dishes from the "Macaronia" category: Pappardelle with milk roasted baby goat ragu and Ribollita with crispy frog's legs. The pasta was exactly al dente, and flavored perfectly with a dash of freshly ground cinnamon to brighten and highlight the richness of the rich and tender confited goat. The ribollita was the best version of frog's legs I have ever tasted, somehow simultaneously more elegant and more hearty than the rendition I had sampled at Restaurant Jean Georges. The final savory course was guinea hen saltimbocca with mushrooms. The nebbiolo selected by Curling was the ideal complement to this dish.

To conclude, I had the most amazing dessert: flourless chocolate cake (I know-- the tuna tartare of desserts, or the new creme brulee? But this one was done right, as so few are) with olive oil gelato, both decorated with bits of fleur de sel. KOMI does the sweet-savory combination like no place else. What to pair with this delectable but unusual dessert? Curling brought over a glass of chocolate stout by Brooklyn Brewery. It was not only whimsical and entertaining, but really tasty.

As though all of this were not enough, along with the check was a homemade cinnamon lollipop presented in a miniature brass pot. The lollipop tasted like cinnamon toast candy with a hint of saltiness to accentuate the sweet cinnamon flavor. As I walked out of the restaurant at the end of my transcendent meal, it felt like I was waking up from a really great dream.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Ad Hoc vs. Canteen: Where the Prix-Fixe Menu Rules

Ad Hoc Restaurant
6474 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Chefs Thomas Keller and Jeffrey Cerciello
Dinner Thursday through Monday
Tried: November 2006

817 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
Chef Dennis Leary
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday
Brunch Saturday and Sunday
Lunch Wednesday through Friday
Last tried: May 2007

Canteen on Urbanspoon

Ad hoc was impressively satisfying, beyond just the glow of Thomas Keller's pervasive reputation. On the night I visited, the $45/person four-course menu consisted of a beautifully fresh gem lettuce salad with sweet cherry tomatoes, briny black olives, and crunchy, buttery croutons, drizzled with delicately creamy blue cheese dressing; a generous platter of perfectly fried chicken, with deep golden crunchy flakes of buttermilk batter on the outside and tender meat on the inside dripping with glistening juice, spiked with fried sprigs of thyme and rosemary and dressed with pancetta collard greens and garlic whipped potatoes; Capriole Farmed Old Kentucky Tomme cheese with poached quince and toasted pecans; and ending with an apple and cranberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream. Apart from the cobbler, which was overly doughy and rather clunky, even for a cobbler, everything was perfectly conceived and well executed. The servers, outfitted in grey bowling shirts decorated with blue-white ad hoc labels, were appropriately casual yet knowledgeable and clearly experienced, especially with the short but interesting wine list.

As good as Ad Hoc was, given the choice, I would rather skip the drive up to Napa Valley and head for Canteen in the Commodore Hotel. Chef Dennis Leary's prix-fixe menus at this little diner, served now on Tuesdays of each week (previously Wednesdays), are more extraordinary and inspired than most formal restaurants (including Rubicon, which has declined considerably since he was executive chef there). Leary has no patience for foodies, reviewers, or anything that hints at culinary pretension, yet I would be hard-pressed to find chefs of his level of command of ingredients and flavors in the kitchen doing all of the cooking and touching every dish that comes to the table, or in this case, the counter. Unlike most chefs, Leary is equally as proficient with desserts as he is with savory courses.

When Canteen first opened, the wines were limited to one or two whites and reds and one sparkling wine, unidentified on the menu, available by the glass. The wine selection has since expanded to a noteworthy list of Old World and New World picks, most of them under $50 a bottle with a number of choices for white, red, dessert, and sparkling. With the "mostly fish" prix-fixe menu offered on this particular evening, we had a 2004 Collovray-Terrier Pouilly-Fuisse ($53/bottle). The round fruit of the Pouilly-Fuisse, balanced with sharp acidity and citrus flavor accents, was the perfect finishing touch to complement the varying shades of the 5-course seafood focused menu ($50/person) and even the buttery homemade Parker House rolls that were served with the meal.

The first course was a rockfish ceviche, the freshest white and meaty miniature filets with just a hint of the lime juice still present in the soft yet firm fish, accompanied by sweet avocado chunks and toasted hazelnuts to balance the acidity of the ceviche and add nutty and creamy dimensions to the flavor profile. This ceviche was better executed than any I had tried in any Peruvian restaurant.

The ceviche was followed by an Autumn Vegetable Salad, topped with fried pork. The pork had been fried to crisp cracklings but with pieces of tender meat still studded inside the fried exterior. The salad, composed of shredded red cabbage, bits of white onion, and shreds of parmesan, dressed with a pomegranate vinaigrette, was both refreshing and heartwarming at the same time.

The best part of the meal was the pumpkin and prawn soup. The pureed pumpkin broth was creamy, sweet, and thick, spiked with reduced shrimp stock and olive oil, which made the combination taste more refined and luxurious than even the best-prepared lobster bisque. The large and tender prawns that decorated the soup were cooked to that exact point where they are no longer translucent but before they get the least bit rubbery, and had been cooked separately with a bit of lime juice and a dash of red pepper before being combined into the soup. This level of care and attention to detail is what makes Leary's creations stand out, and this soup exemplified his perfectionist tendencies.

The last savory course, three crab dumplings surrounding a mound of creamy celeryroot, decorated with bright red tomato dice, in a paprika sauce was similarly beautiful, although not my personal favorite. The crab dumplings tasted like a fresh crab cake made without the fried batter, and the paprika sauce was perfectly seasoned. Because fresh crab was used, the inevitable pieces of shell had to be picked out of the dumplings, which always disrupts the experience for me in this type of preparation. The dish was nonetheless gorgeous.

To conclude, our server brought over a shotglass of quince and grapefruit "trifle" with a fluffy yellow triangle of butter cake. The fresh grapefruit juice with pieces of quince and chunks of grapefruit sorbet on the bottom and topped by grapefruit foam were all sweetened exactly right to the point of highlighting the quince and grapefruit, without overwhelming the delicate elements or losing the freshness of the ingredients. The butter cake was so moist, sweet, and tasty that I wanted to run into the kitchen and steal a whole tray. And as always, Canteen's coffee was dark, rich, and freshly brewed. A perfect end to a perfect meal.

The last couple of months at work have been particularly heinous for me. It was a pleasure to be able to enjoy two such spectacular restaurants in succession. Right now, it is unclear whether Ad Hoc will become a permanent establishment and also unclear whether Dennis Leary will continue with Canteen after his lease runs out. In the meantime, I hope to squeeze in as many Tuesday night prix-fixe dinners at Canteen as possible. Where else can you find a chef of his caliber personally cooking for you?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

French Laundry Revisited

6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Chef Thomas Keller
Chef de Cuisine Corey Lee
Lunch Friday through Sunday
Dinner nightly

French Laundry on Urbanspoon

Last tried: September 2006

The last time I dined at the French Laundry was over six years ago. It felt like no other dining experience I had ever tried before. The only comparable experience, in terms of the depth and surprise of my reaction, is when I first got eyeglasses and saw my surroundings and outlines clearly for the first time. How does someone create food like this? This quietly elegant stone cottage with its manicured garden and wood bench outside felt like a different time and place, a million miles away from the cramped streets of San Francisco. A place where every whim and wish, conscious or not, was satisfied by a team of smiling servers.

Fast forward to the present. The Laundry has been recognized as the Best Restaurant in the World two years in a row and listed among the top five since 2002 to the present. The restaurant continues to receive award after award, and its list of kitchen alumni is like a Who's Who among the country's elite restaurants. In the span of a little over a decade, Keller went from being fired by a hotel for being impractical and headstrong to culinary legend to restaurant god. If it was difficult to procure a reservation at the French Laundry before, it is now about as easy as winning the lottery.

A few months after my sublime experience at Chef Keller's Per Se in New York, I was fortunate enough to return to the French Laundry, a special treat for my eleventh wedding anniversary. The decor was as inviting and lovely as I remembered. The salmon tartare "ice cream cone" filled with creme fraiche and golden puffs of cheesy gougere are still offered to begin the meal. Whereas Per Se was sleek, spacious, and modern, the Laundry was cozy with intimate rooms leading off the winding staircase. The ten-course prix fixe menu was $210 per person, service included, the same price as Per Se.

Because the menu changes daily, the restaurant does not offer wine pairing with each course. I did note that some of the introductory courses were the same as, or similar to, those I had tried at Per Se, such as the cauliflower panna cotta with oyster glaze topped with sevruga caviar, the hearts of peach palm salad, and the foie gras torchon ($30 supplement). Although the panna cotta was more of a thick custard than "panna cotta" in texture, the pronounced cauliflower flavor and sweetness of the cream offset the salty caviar beautifully. The hearts of palm salad was accompanied by sweet heirloom beets and shaved Granny Smith apples, highlighted with apple cider gastrique. The creamy, pink foie gras torchon was accompanied by buttery-cinnamony gingerbread crumbles, tiny sweet-tart grapes, and a sweet riesling vinegar reduction.

Busy in conversation, I had failed to notice the triangles of buttered brioche toast delivered on a separate small plate to go with the foie gras torchon. When our server whisked it away and brought over a new plate of fresh brioche, he got my attention. Apparently, this was done to replace the previous toast points that had gotten "cold" in the 60-90 second window when I had overlooked them. Did I mention service is still at a level unequalled by most restaurants?

If I'm going to really nitpicky, the only flaw in the precisely orchestrated service throughout our meal was that while we waited for the sommelier to free up and answer questions about the wine list, we were left without anything to drink for the first couple of courses, after we had finished our glasses of champagne. (Because I was curious about Mark Aubert chardonnay and French Laundry is one of the few places that carries this wine, I decided to splurge and try the 2004 Lauren Vineyard, after listening to the descriptions of the different Aubert chardonnays on the list. Conclusion? It was nice and quite well balanced for a California chardonnay, but not really worth the price tag.)

The third course consisted of Nova Scotia bluefin tuna tartare with a nicoise olive crust, accompanied by fennel bulb compote and an espelette pepper sauce, and a sauteed filet of red snapper with a sea urchin emulsion. Although the tuna was somewhat overpowered by the seasoning and the accompaniments, the snapper was perfectly cooked with a moist interior and crispy exterior, with the creamy sea urchin sauce lending a rich and savory element to the delicate fish in perfect harmony.

The next course consisted of lobster fricasse with gnocchi, pan-fried in butter, served with a mixture of artichokes and Toybox tomatoes and a rabbit jambonette accompanied by peach coulis. The final savory course was an herb-roasted miniature veal chop, with savoy cabbage, tiny fried sweetbread dumplings, baby carrots, and grilled matsutake mushrooms in the Japanese mother sauce of soy/sake/mirin.

The cheese course, Brebis des Pyrenees, a sheep's milk cheese described as "perfume of the mountain," served with black figs and toasted Marcona almonds, marked the transition to desserts. The plum sorbet with pistachios and aged balsamic vinegar was both refreshing and rich. By the time we got to the chocolate parfait with mint syrup and the mignardises, however, we could not eat another bite.

So is the French Laundry the best restaurant in the world? It is certainly among the best I have tried. The issue for me right now is that I can't help but compare French Laundry with Per Se. Jonathan Benno is more experienced than Corey Lee, and that distinction becomes more pronounced in sampling similar menus over a relatively short period of time. In the end though, it it somewhat like trying to figure out whether Brad Pitt or George Clooney is better looking, or comparing a red Ferrari to a yellow one.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jazzy Flavors of Limon

524 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Chef Martin Castillo
Lunch and Dinner daily

Tried: August 2006

I was beginning to think that my bad restaurant streak was never going to end, and then I ended up at Limon. Limon is noisy and crowded for a reason. The food is plentiful, well-spiced, reasonably priced, and thoroughly satisfying. Add to that an extensive list of Spanish, Chilean, Argentinian, German, and Austrian wines, all well matched with the cuisine and most priced under $50 a bottle, and you end up with a great meal.

We started with the ceviche de pescado-- raw strips of fresh halibut marinated in lime juice to a pearly opaque color, served with a generous mound of large white kernels of Peruvian corn and a wedge of pale yellow yam, and topped with thin slices of pickled red onion. The corn kernels were pleasantly starchy, in constrast with the tart lime juice and seasoning on the fresh pieces of halibut, with the translucent pickled onions adding a nice piquant edge. The crisp and floral 2005 Albarino recommended by our server matched perfectly with the flavors of the ceviche dish. Our dinner was off to an excellent start.

The next dish, vieres con foie gras, was the favorite of the evening. Three circles of golden brown pan-seared scallops, with no trace of grit or sand, each about the size of a quarter in circumference and about a half-inch thick formed the foundation for a generous slice of foie gras, seared to perfection. The scallops had been cooked exactly right to the point that they yielded to the fork like a custard. The mild sweet and salty sea flavors of the scallops set off the rich, meaty, buttery flavor of the foie gras, each bringing out the best of the other. Eating this incarnation of scallops, I remembered how much I used to like them before they became hackneyed. The creamy yucca puree accented around the rim with a drizzle of thick, almost black fig reduction sauce was the perfect backdrop to this magnificent blend of flavors and textures.

We then moved on to the anticucho de res, marinated top sirloin grilled on skewers and served with roasted potatoes and Peruvian addresso sauce. The mild spice of the addresso sauce (made of tomatoes, white wine, garlic, butter, and red peppers) highlighted the flavors of the tender steak and the bits of tasty char on the outside. With a glass of racy rioja, it was beyond scrumptious.

Although still fairly tasty, the least successful among the dishes we tried was the crispy whole red snapper. The presentation, with the bone and head of the snapper deep-fried to form a "basket" holding the deep-fried snapper filet pieces, was impressive. However, the delicate flavor of the snapper got lost in the deep-fried batter, making it taste not much different from fish sticks. A small piece of fish I was able to pry away from the skeleton basket where the heavy batter had missed was significantly better. The rocoto curry sauce on the side would have been great for another dish, but it too was overpowering for the delicate fish. The coconut pieces in the slightly mushy rice were a bit too tough and chewy, creating a disquieting combination of textures. Given that everything else we tried were so spot on, the slight missteps in this dish seemed more glaring.

The evening ended on a high note, with the homemade sorbet/ice cream combination. The sweet and icy coconut sorbet complemented the tropical fruit flavors of the lucuma ice cream and cherimoya ice cream, as though this combination were always meant to be.

A note about service: Limon may be casual and crowded, but our server would have been equally at home in a four-star formal establishment. He took charge from the moment we sat down and handled all of our requests and needs flawlessly (as well as all of the surrounding tables on the mezzanine floor), from menu and wine recommendations, pacing, replacing plates and silverware for each course as though we were doing a chef's tasting menu, to even refolding napkins when a member of our party left the table to use the restroom.

Ah, it is nice to be back in the land of good food.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I Miss the City ...

I am in South Bend, Indiana for a week. Everyone is very friendly, every house is huge, and gas is $2/gallon. The entire town seems to revolve around the University of Notre Dame, which is quite an impressive and beautiful campus.

The food, however, is another story.

Everything seems to be deep fried. Vegetables, when they can be found and are not deep fried, are cooked until all of the color is gone. Al Dente could only be recognized as a man's name. It is certainly not a cooking term that any restaurant in "downtown" (appears to be a three-block radius) would utilize.

I had dinner last night at The Vine. I ordered steak, medium rare, which came with mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. Although well-seasoned, the mashed potatoes were cold and lumpy. Interestingly, the grilled asparagus were plated underneath the mashed potatoes, effectively steaming them. If they were not overcooked before they were plated, they certainly were by the time they arrived at the table after sitting under the mound of mashed potatoes. The steak, a 7 oz. piece of filet mignon, was grey on the outside, and the criss-cross grill marks on top looked like they had been painted on (and actually tasted that way as well). If I had the nerve to throw it on the floor, I am almost certain it would have bounced. I have to admit that the inside was technically pink, but still had a grey tinge that made the steak look like old tuna. The stringy and chewy texture of the meat further reinforced this comparison.

On the upside, service was friendly and attentive, despite the fact that the restaurant was short-staffed as a result of one of the servers having called in sick right before the dinner shift. I also quite enjoyed the extensive wines by the glass on their wine list, the most expensive of which was a mere $8.50! (most were $6). I enjoyed an apricoty 2004 Perrin Cote du Rhone Blanc, followed by a robust and earthy 2003 Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendoza.

On another night, I declined to feast on the pizza ordered by my colleagues, which scared me off with its thick, squishy crust and stringy ropes of cheese, apparent from just watching the slices being pulled apart. Instead, I decide that a liquid dinner would be the lesser of two evils and opted to make do with a Coors Light.

I would have killed to come across a Cheesecake Factory or California Pizza Kitchen. At least the hotel has a Starbucks in the lobby.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Must-Have Dishes

After ranting about mediocre meals in my last post, I started thinking about the dishes that I have delighted in and look forward to having again and again. I can't include them all since it would take too long, but here is an excerpt of that list which fills my daydreams, in no particular order:
  • Crusty, New York style cheese pizza at Za (except Friday and Saturday nights)
  • Chewy, elastic crust and clean flavors of the Pizza Margherita at either A16 or Pizzeria Picco
  • Beautiful fettucine and homemade salsiccia at Vivande Porta Via
  • Asian chicken salad with shredded white meat chicken, cold iceberg lettuce, peanuts, fried noodles, and sesame vinaigrette at Sushi House
  • Fragrant, intoxicating Kobe beef pho at Bong Su
  • Tender, melt-in-your-mouth Shaking beef made with Filet Mignon at either Bong Su or Tamarine
  • Seared foie gras with Monterey squid (with extra bread for the verjus sauce) at Piperade
  • Pumpkin foie gras pot de creme at Bushi-Tei
  • Pork belly with grilled scallions at CAV Wine Bar
  • Anything on the menu at Terra, Canteen, or Picco
  • Thick, juicy pastrami on rye with French fries and cream soda at Katz's
  • "Dictator's Special" (potatoes, two types of sausage, curry sauce, and sauerkraut) at Hallo Berlin
  • Chef's tasting menu with wine pairing at Le Bernardin
  • Beer sausage with grilled onions and spicy mustard at Rosamunde
  • Fried bone marrow with caviar and beet sorbet at Coi
  • Moules Mariniere with Frites and a bottle of crisp white wine at Plouf
  • Steak frites with a bottle of lusty, spicy Rhone wine at Florio or Acme Chophouse
  • Racy, spicy Hunan scallops at Hunan
  • Chicken foie gras ravioli and baby back ribs at Oola
  • Steak taco and ahi tuna burger at Pearl
  • Quesadilla made with homemade tortillas at Villa Corona
  • Kurobuta Pork tonkatsu at Yuzu
  • "Egg, bacon and toast" at Silk's
  • Kaiseki at Kaygetsu
  • Omakase sushi at Sushi Sam's
  • Carnitas at Tres Agaves
  • Sacripantina at Stella Pastry Caffe
  • Hot & sour heirloom tomato consomme and foie gras PB&J at Frisson
I am now thoroughly starving. Better not go grocery shopping in this state.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Recent Dining Excursions

Due to work getting in the way of life, as it often does, I have been quite remiss in posting on my latest dining excursions. The other problem has been that most of my recent dining experiences have been lackluster-- not bad, just not exceptional or noteworthy. I find it to be more enjoyable and satisfying to write about places I liked than those I was not crazy about, despite the fact that very few places interest me so much that I plan to return. I do, however, have several unfinished posts and copies of menus with my notes scribbled on them, waiting to be completed, including a couple of restaurants from Austin, Texas, one from Seattle, Washington, and another from New York City, as well as several from the San Francisco Bay Area. They each had their wow moments and their not-so-wow moments.

Some trends I have noticed (or maybe I am just cranky today), "small plates" are getting quite expensive, although to be fair, they are also not that small either. To illustrate my point, a small taste of cold cucumber soup would be refreshing, but a giant bowl of pureed cold cucumber feels like I'm being punished. In addition, despite the common refrain, "we have small plates for sharing," I often have to chase down servers to get share plates or additional silverware. Not to mention, while I do not expect a fresh plate and silverware for every dish, it would be nice to get replacement clean plates at some point during the meal when I order multiple small plates, so that my pasta does not taste like my salad and the sauce from my beef tenderloin does not get mixed up with the lemon juice from the crudo. Speaking of sharing, what is up with all of these communal tables? They are completely impractical for business meals and utterly undesirable when I am going out to unwind-- is there no place where I can escape from having to make small talk with strangers?

Work makes me grouchy. A mediocre meal makes me grouchier. If I'm using up credit limit and calories, I want both expenditures to be worthwhile.

Monday, July 31, 2006

This Is How I "Iron Chef" ...

Even though business travel has long ago lost its glamour, I can sometimes still find the silver lining in the cloud of drudgery of having to endure yet another series of long plane flights and generic hotel rooms. Or should I say the iron lining?

In the last year and a half, I have managed to squeeze in opportunities in between billable hours to check out La Rochelle in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, Rokusan-Tei in the Ginza district of Tokyo, Morimoto in Philadelphia (and recently New York), and Bar Americain and Babbo in New York City. Whose cuisine reigns supreme?

The seafood dishes at Hiroyuki Sakai’s La Rochelle were as good as I would have expected from an accomplished Japanese chef. Disappointingly, the meat and dessert courses did not live up to the initial promise of the opening courses. Although the menu, with smiling photographs of Chef Sakai and glaring shots of the food bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a Denny's menu, the wine list was quite impressive, including a wide selection of older Burgundies (I had a 1990 Vosne Romanee), as was the service, which was suitably formal yet friendly. The restaurant is sumptuously decorated, like a wealthy grandmother’s antique living room, which contrasted with the tourists in sweatshirts packing the dining room but the glittering panoramic city view was spectacular.

What about the invincible Rokusaburo Michiba’s Rokusan-Tei? Chef Michiba’s interpretation of Kaiseki-ryori (traditional Japanese seasonal tasting menu) alone is worth the plane trip to Tokyo, especially the unique sashimi offerings and the most amazing and tender duck individually cooked on a ceramic charcoal grill at the table. The desserts, however, may be somewhat sketchy for the American palate, e.g., mixture of fruit, rice dumplings, and sweetened gelatin cubes. Be warned that while the food at Rokusan-Tei is quite international, incorporating multicultural influences from Europe, the restaurant itself, including the staff, is very traditionally and exclusively Japanese, meaning that there is no English spoken or written anywhere and the bathrooms have squat toilets only.

Morimoto in Philadelphia was delicious although not quite as innovative as I would have expected based on what I had seen of Masaharu Morimoto on television. The tasting menu is similar in concept to Nobu in New York but significantly better executed, particularly the toro with caviar. Service, however, was a bit on the unpolished side, such as dumping off dishes with no explanation (In New York, service was substantially better, but the food was unspeakable).

What about Iron Chef America? I have not had a chance to try Mesa Grill or Bolo, both of which have garnered critical acclaim, but Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain was disappointing. The $100 seafood appetizer platter was mundane and heavy-handed in seasoning, and most of the raw shellfish items were quite a distance from fresh. The moules frites with green chile broth, however, was solid. The orange, retro-60’s d├ęcor is quite au courant, and the service was as smooth as you’d expect from a notable Manhattan eaterie. After this, I approached Babbo with cautious skepticism. Although Babbo lived up to its hype, I still think A16, Quince, or Delfina in San Francisco could give Babbo a run for its money.

One last note: None of the name chefs were in residence on the nights that I visited these restaurants. Nonetheless, I am still curious to check out Chen Kenichi’s restaurant in the Akasaka district of Tokyo and one of Bobby Flay's original ventures in New York.

Allez Cuisine!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Nectar Lounge: Treats for Wine Geeks

3330 Steiner Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
Chef Jason Moniz
Dinner/lounge hours nightly
Retail hours 2pm to closing daily

Nectar Wine Lounge on Urbanspoon

Last tried: August 2006

Even though I adore Nectar Wine Lounge, a wine bar/wine store/restaurant where you could taste all kinds of wines, order small plates (or a full dinner) to go with wine, and also shop for and buy bottles of wine, I never really took full advantage of the benefits of this hybrid concept apart from occasionally stopping in for a glass of wine. Nonetheless, I always liked that it was there, like an outfit you buy because you fell in love with it but somehow keep forgetting to wear.

Nectar Wine Lounge recently started a Court of Master Sommelier style blind-tasting wine event led by sommelier Jennifer Knowles, with a matching prix-fixe dinner prepared by Chef Jason Moniz. Each participant brings a wine (between $15-$30 per bottle) to be dissected according to color, viscosity, smell, taste, and finish. You can geek out with every single descriptor you have ever heard of in Sideways, or just sip and eat. The fun part, for both wine geeks and wine novices, is that this event helps you separate out what you smell and what you taste, based on the guidelines and tasting format of the Court of MS examinations, in a fun, low-key setting, while also enjoying a fabulous multi-course dinner.

We were welcomed with a glass of sparkling wine-- was it Prosecco, Cava, Cremant, California, or Champagne? It was fun to try and discern, even though we all guessed wrong (The reveal showed that it was a 2002 Gramona Gran Cuvee Cava). To pair, we were presented with a crunchy, buttery bread salad with sweet heirloom tomatoes drizzled with an olive oil vinaigrette and topped with a mound of fresh haricot verts dressed in a creamy sherry crema.

The next course was a pan-fried Alaskan halibut on a bed of sauteed summer vegetables including yellow and green beans, potatoes, and porcini mushrooms, with a smoky bacon pan sauce. A sprinkling of pungent, freshly ground black pepper on the halibut highlighted the salty flavor of the crispy skin, while the moist white flesh underneath melted in my mouth, creating a pleasant startling contrast with the light crunch of the perfectly cooked fresh vegetables and fluffy insides of the crispy potatoes. The mystery wine was a 2002 Morgon Beaujolais, which everyone guessed to be a much older Burgundy.

The last savory course was roasted pork loin surrounded by a swirl of spicy pasilla chile pan reduction, accompanied by a summer corn and zucchini bread pudding and a small salad of arugula and yellow and red cherry tomatoes. The flavor of the tender and juicy pork was accentuated with the chili and cumin spicing which brought out the sweetness of the meat, echoed by the sweetness of the corn in the creamy bread pudding. A tangle of fresh cilantro microgreens on top made the entire dish come alive. The final wine reveal was a 2004 Emmanuel Dunaud Crozes Hermitage-- a perfect match with the spices and hearty summer flavors of the dish.

Last but not least, we had one of the best chocolate pot de cremes ever for dessert, with a side of shortbread cookies and fresh strawberries. Although I normally do not care for pot de creme due to either the texture (too waxy, too sticky, or simply just too much like canned frosting) or the sweetness level being off, this one mastered both elements. I was quite curious to see what the sommelier would pair with this multi-dimensional dessert. She brought over a glass of Lustau, Don Nuno Oloroso Sherry. The nutty sweetness of the wine made the pot de creme taste even more chocolatey while matching beautifully with the buttery shortbread.

I never realized that a learning experience could be so much fun. Not to mention, in how many restaurants can you ogle bottles of Pingus and Lafite (that you can buy to take home) en route to the restroom?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Winter Coming to Winterland

2101 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
Chef Vernon Morales (previously Sous Chef Restaurant Daniel, Chef de Partie El Bulli)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday until July 15, 2006

Last tried: July 2006

One of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco is closing at the end of this week. What did I like so much about Winterland? I loved Vernon Morales' daring and adventurous cuisine, which remained anchored in solid techniques and flavors without veering into the weird-for-weirdness sake world of molecular gastronomy. Even though not everything worked, I appreciated his continuing to push the envelope with things like poached egg in asparagus foam broth with bacon ice cream and octopus carpaccio with sweet-tart grapefruit segments (recently changed to mango) and salty sea beans. I am quite sad that notwithstanding his creativity, which I would have expected to flourish in a food-obsessed town like San Francisco, Winterland is closing at the end of this week.

Was it the ever-powerful influence of a less than stellar review from the San Francisco Chronicle? Except that the review, read in its entirety, is enough to pique the interest of any frequent restaurant diner, notwithstanding its two-star conclusion.

Was it the location? Four previous restaurants have failed in this location, but that was before the gentrification of the neighborhood, which is now firmly established as "Lower" Pacific Heights.

I have no idea. I am merely sad that something so promising is disappearing after only a year and a half, before the chef really had a chance to show his stuff.

I will miss the sweet intensity of the corn chowder with huitlacoche. I will miss the transparently thin ribbons of serrano ham, cleverly presented with grilled whole grain bread smothered with sweet diced tomatoes seasoned to bring out the delicate yet rich flavor of the ham. I will miss the meltingly tender braised short rib, topped with golden rings of crispy, hot tempura-fried onion, with a sweet-savory red wine reduction on a bed of chewy wheatberries that complement the meat better than any other side dish I could imagine. I will miss the creamy gruyere macaroni and cheese with a crust of buttery, crunchy breadcrumbs, accompanied by a pleasantly bitter fresh arugula salad wilted slightly by the zingy vinaigrette. I will miss the perfectly seasoned, moist inside/crisp outside duck confit drumstick decorated with a salty, glistening homemade potato chip. And I will miss the most amazing dessert I can recall ever tasting in any restaurant-- the caramelized "French Toast," a buttery brioche turned into a custardy bread pudding with heavy cream and sugar, topped with a creme-brulee like candied crust of hard sugar on top (but perhaps pastry chef Boris Portnoy may be persuaded to make this creation available at Campton Place).

The restaurant business is horrendously difficult (especially with pain-in-the-rear picky diners like yours truly around). I started this blog to get food writing practice, as part of my dream of ultimately transitioning to a non-legal career, but maybe blogs also make restaurant reviews more democratic?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Terzo: Not as Expected

3011 Steiner Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 441-1496
Chef Mark Gordon
Dinner nightly

Terzo on Urbanspoon

Last tried: January 2007

I had heard so much positive press about Terzo that I was quite happy to be able to get in, even with the hostess warning me that we had to vacate the table in an hour for the next reservation. The old Pane e Vino spot had gotten a complete facelift, with vanilla walls accented by dark chocolate colored wood, large mirrors, hanging lamps with yellow filament bulbs (I did like the giant single bulb chandelier over the six-top in the back of the restaurant), and of course the de rigeur communal table (am I the only person who dislikes this trend?). In short, it was appropriately stylish and chic, perfect for the yuppie cow hollow neighborhood.

I was instantly intrigued by both the menu and the wine list. About twenty small plates ($7-$12) and thirty different wines by the glass, from California, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy ($8-$15), perfect for my noncomittal and short attention span tendencies. While sipping some 2004 Vinho Verde from Portugal and a glass of sparkling Huet Vouvray, we perused the menu and selected six plates ranging from soup to fish to meat.

The white corn chowder with creme fraiche arrived first. The smell was intoxicating but the taste did not correspond. Although the texture was pleasantly coarse and thick as one would expect from corn chowder, the corn flavor was very faint and the soup tasted diluted as though someone had accidentally dumped in too much water. This muted, diluted flavor seemed to be a constant theme in several dishes, including the wild king salmon. Although it had great, moist texture and was perfectly cooked with a translucent center, the salmon tasted like the kitchen had forgotten to season it before sending it out. The accompanying fennel salad was crunchy and fresh but again flavorless, with none of its characteristic licorice scent, and desperately needed more dressing.

Things improved with the next several dishes. The grilled asparagus with fried egg and romesco was both refreshing and hearty. The sweet fresh asparagus, enhanced by grilling, was accented beautifully with the fried egg and robust tomato/roasted bell pepper/onion/garlic mixture. The pepperoni and salami in the next dish, house cured meats with burrata cheese, were chewy, salty, and fantastic. Among the three meats presented, the pork rillette on grilled bread was my favorite, with moist salty fatty pork confit spread out on the charred bread. The small mound of burrata in the center, however, was disapppointingly bland and grainy in texture, instead of the creamy, poached-egg white texture I was expecting. (By the way, if you want bread, you must ask for it. When you do, you will get three or four slices of squishy white bread slices on a plate. You only get one slice of the delicious grilled bread with the charcuterie plate.) Next, the hand-cut noodles with butter and truffles were delicate and delicious, with the microthin slices of black truffles practically melting into the noodles and butter.

Unfortunately, the last dish, roasted Niman Ranch beef, again suffered from the persistent lack of seasoning problem. The beef was tough and chewy and remained underseasoned even after we added a liberal amount of salt and pepper (like the bread, you must also ask your server in order to get salt and pepper shakers). The accompanying two or three cipollini onions and two lonely wedges of potato, also lacking in seasoning, did little to improve the dish.

Although I love the concept of Terzo, I was not enthralled by the execution. Perhaps after the hype and my expectations have been appropriately adjusted, I may be able to appreciate it better.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Le Bernardin: Defining Haute Cuisine

155 West 51st Street
New York, NY 10019
Chef Eric Ripert
Lunch weekdays
Dinner Monday through Saturday

Le Bernardin on Urbanspoon

Last tried: August 2007

While all of the preparations were as lovely and well-executed as ever, the menu felt a bit formulaic on this last visit, with every single course being some form of seafood served with a variation of sauce poured tableside. Although Le Bernardin continues to be among my favorite restaurants, I must admit that I missed the chef's creativity and flair from previous visits. (Eric Ripert made several promenades across the dining room during the course of the evening, similar to Jean Georges Vongerichten stepping into a well lit corner of the dining room at Restaurant Jean Georges as if to announce, "see I'm here!" Physical presence, though, means less than the manifestation of the chef's personal involvement in the menu-- as I learned from Charlie Trotter's.)

Previously tried: June 2006

Even without the numerous wine stewards walking around the dining room with silver tastevins hanging around their necks, the atmosphere at Le Bernardin feels quite old world. The light caramel-colored wood that dominates the decor looks comforting and bright, rather than sleek, dim, and modern. Quaint little glass bowls filled with floating flowers and candles decorate the tables covered with thick pink-cream tablecloths. Service is also quite formal, although I have found it to be more form over function on occasion-- for example, the captain whisking away my first course upon seeing that bread and butter had not yet been delivered to my table, so that same dish sits on the side table across the dining room while runners scramble to follow the proper serving sequence, or a server being scolded to replace the burnt out candle in my flower bowl with a fresh new arrangement even though all I am waiting for is the check. But the food at Le Bernardin! Eric Ripert's cuisine is so pristinely divine that I would still go back there even if all of the servers went on strike and I had to serve myself.

Of course food at this level comes at a price. On my last visit, the Chef's tasting menu (six courses plus two dessert courses) was $155 per person with an additional $140 for wine pairing), the Le Bernardin tasting menu (five courses plus two dessert courses) was $130 per person with an additional $85 for wine pairing, and the four-course menu with a la carte selections from the "Almost Raw," "Barely Touched," and "Lightly Cooked" plus dessert was $105 per person. For either the Chef's tasting menu or the Le Bernardin tasting menu, the same must be ordered by the entire table. I always opt for the Chef's tasting menu since it is a compilation of the best of the kitchen's offerings, as it should be but not necessarily so at every restaurant (except for once when I could only get a reservation time that was too late in the evening to be able to do the Chef's tasting menu). If circumstances permit, I will also always indulge in the wine pairing. As magnificent as the wine list is at Le Bernardin (including a number of 1982 first growth Bordeaux and 1990 grand cru Burgundies), the flavor profiles of the food are so refined and finely calculated that I would rather defer to the expertise of the sommeliers-- the tastevins are not just for show.

To start, I received an amuse bouche of lobster claw topped with parmesan foam bathed in a shallow pool of cold cucumber soup. (Note: If you show up a few minutes earlier than your reservation time and order a drink at the bar while waiting for your table, you will receive a plate of savory, buttery parmesan fillo twists-- try not to eat them all as they are filling and you will want to save your appetite.) Lobster for an amuse! The parmesan foam was extremely delicate with just a hint of the nutty and creamy scent and flavor to highlight the tender bite-size morsel of lobster. The cold cucumber soup was refreshing and soothing, adding a contrasting accent of freshness to the other rich elements. This beautiful starter led right into a transcendent terrine of foie gras as the first course, served on top of a buttery brioche round and topped with dashi gelee and accompanied by a tiny salad of hijiki seaweed and micro watercress greens. To pair, the sommelier presented a 2002 Domaine Blanck Riesling from Alsace. The dashi gelee was quite rich and savory, which worked well with the creamy foie gras (actually I tried this same combination, except with yuzu added to the dashi, by the indomitable Jean Georges Vongerichten which was not as successful as this incarnation). Although I could not noticeably detect the taste of the orange zest dusted on the plate, every element of the dish and the wine complemented one another seamlessly.

Just when I was thinking that nothing could taste better than that foie gras, the caviar tagliolini arrived. A delicate mound of Batali-worthy al dente pasta noodles with a creamy but not-too-thick carbonara sauce, mixed with bits of pancetta and topped with a perfectly cooked quail egg whose runny yolk broke across the grey salty pearls of Osetra caviar. I nearly died at how amazing this tasted. What to pair with this amazing dish? A full and oaky California chardonnay, 2002 Tantara. Despite being from California, this chardonnay had nice acidity and fruit to balance the richness of its pleasantly woody notes and paired quite well with the sublime pasta.

The next course was an olive oil poached escolar topped with fried shallots, served in a saffron lemongrass emulsion with microscopically thin strips of scallions floating in the golden pool of broth, garnished with mildly pickled cherry tomato wedges and sweet-tart white grapes. The succulent fatty fish in the sweet-sour-savory emulsion was intoxicating, as was the white bordeaux paired it-- a 2000 Smith Haut-Lafitte.

The next two courses were also fish, gradually increasing in intensity of flavor and the accompanying sauces, starting with monkfish. Three single-forkful size pieces of perfectly pan-fried, tender monkfish with a chorizo-albarino sauce, topped with diced zucchini, red peppers and onion and accompanied by "patatas bravas," roasted potato wedges decorated with alternating red and white stripes of fiery pepper coulis and mayonnaise. The only tiny imperfection was that one of the potato wedges was slightly undercooked and still crunchy but with the incredible spicing and sauces, this minor flaw was barely noticeable. Spanish ingredients executed with French precision, making the American diners all quite happy. The final fish course was barely cooked, still translucently bright orange wild salmon, with a sauce of morel mushrooms, asparagus tips, peas, and truffle butter, finished tableside and poured on top. It took all my restraint not to grab the little copper pot from the server in which he had mixed the sauce in order to lick the remnants before he took it back to the kitchen. With the monkfish, I had a 2001 Tardieu-Laurent Hermitage blanc. With the salmon, I was given a choice between a 2002 Meursault and a 2002 Domaine Daniel Rion Nuit St. Georges. The Meursault was nice but the Nuit St. Georges was killer, especially with the morel mushrooms and truffle butter.

The final savory course was Ripert's version of surf and turf: on the left side of the plate, a small square of pork belly with juicy almost-confit consistency meat underneath crispy salty skin, decorated with microbasil and parsley, and golden-brown pan-fried pieces of skate wing fanned out on the right, like angel wings. The pork and skate wing were accompanied by a gingered squash mousseline and a sauce of brown butter jus of soy and sake, tomato, shallots, and Belgian endive. What to pair with this unusual and delightful combination? The earthy 2000 Domaine de Longue Toque Gigondas was just the ticket.

Unlike so many restaurants that excel through the savory courses only to lose steam with desserts, Le Bernardin continued to carry its lofty level of culinary excellence through the final two courses. The "Egg," contained milk chocolate pot de creme, in the consistency of soft-boiled egg (reminiscent of the famous Arpege egg, a variation of which is also offered by David Kinch at Manresa), with maple syrup on the bottom, topped with caramel foam, and sprinkled with Maldon salt crystals. Eaten out of the brown egg shell with a tiny spoon, it was rich yet delicate, and the sweet-savory combination of the chocolate, maple syrup, and salt was spectacular. To conclude, I received a small scoop of yuzu-green tea ice cream, topped with crispy caramelized rice bits, candied grapefruit, and a thin triangle of sugary, crunchy meringue. The flavors were clean and well-balanced, yet surprisingly sweet and satisfying. With a glass of 1999 Domaine Disznoko Tokaji Aszu (5 Puttanyos), both desserts were perfection.

So this is what Michelin three-stars tastes like ...

Babbo: Living Up to the Hype

110 Waverly Place
New York, NY 10011
Chef Mario Batali
Executive Chef Frank Langello
Dinner nightly

Babbo on Urbanspoon

Tried: May 2006

Even though I am a huge fan of Mario Batali (Molto and Iron), I was skeptical about trying Babbo. Given Mario Batali's television schedule and the proliferation of his restaurant empire, can Babbo really be any good?

The first impression that struck me when I walked in the door was a feeling of festive abundance. The restaurant was crammed full of people from the foyer to the bar to the dining area, with servers bustling along the narrow spaces in between boisterous diners, transporting wine glasses and large platters of food. There were towering flower arrangements at the bar and at the large wooden table in the center of the dining room, where wines were decanted and also set aside in between service. No one seemed to mind that the tables were so close together you were practically sitting on top of your neighbor, and every single seat along the long bar was filled with people enjoying dinner, while those standing nearby eyed their seats and plates with envy.

Upon being squeezed into our table, we received an amuse bouche of mini bruschetta, smeared with black olive tapenade and topped with crunchy whole chick peas, drizzled with sweet extra virgin olive oil and tart balsamic vinegar. Although my personal preference still leans toward the traditional tomato-basil variety, the bruschetta was crunchy, nutty, salty, and lovely. As we polished off the bruschetta, the sommelier helped us navigate through the thick binder of wines, landing on a magnum of 1997 Ciabot Berton Barolo, quite reasonably priced at $175 (around $100 retail), and it was one of those barolos whose elegant perfume is so intoxicating, I could just sit and sniff it indefinitely (but of course we drained it pretty quickly).

Babbo offers an eight-course tasting menu (six courses plus two desserts) for $70 per person and an all-pasta tasting menu (seven pasta courses plus dessert) for $64 per person. Because either tasting menu is required to be ordered by the entire table, our dining party opted to proceed a la carte. From the antipasti ($9-$16), we ordered sardines with lobster oil and caramelized fennel and a charcuterie plate consisting of lardo, olives, beef tongue, pickled hearts of fennel, and prosciutto. I am generally not a fan of beef tongue, but Babbo's version, which looked and tasted like slices of sausage, was not bad. This was also the first time I ate lardo straight. It tasted like thin slices of, well, fat but had no discernible flavor. Although the warm melting texture was pleasantly interesting, I am not sure I need to repeat that experience.

What I would like to repeat, as soon as I can get back into Babbo, are the pastas. Of the nearly twenty different pastas on the menu, ranging from $17 to $25, I was only able to sample the three-mushroom garganelli, pappardelle bolognese, and half-moon ravioli, called "lune," filled with sweet potato and sage. The elastic texture and shape of the pastas seemed to blend in with the flavors and accompaniments of each different dish until you could not tell where the pasta ended and the sauce began. The wide ribbons of chewy pappardelle captured generous amounts of the rich and meaty Bolognese sauce, with bits of carrots adding sweetness. The handkerchief-shaped garganelli pasta intertwined with the fragrant mushrooms and olive oil to create an ethereal taste that was indescribably rich and savory, not to mention perfectly matched with the earthy barolo we were drinking. The lunes, on the other hand, were sweet and delicate, with a hint of amaretti accentuating the opulence of the sweet potato and sage filling.

I was not quite as blown away by our selections among the Secondi ($23-$33). The skirt steak with asparagus and salsa verde was too salty and overpowered by the barbecue seasoning. In contrast, the osso bucco with saffron orzo and chestnut gremolata was underseasoned. Moreover, both meats were a bit tougher than I would have liked, particularly the osso bucco, which required all too much effort with a knife.

Babbo came back strong with desserts (all $12 each). The gingerbread and chocolate biscotti were well balanced in flavor and sweetness, with just enough crispy crunch to be satisfying, and the almond meringue melted in my mouth dispersing delicate and nutty almond butter flavors. The saffron panna cotta was creamy and jiggly in exactly the right way, with the rhubarb sorbet providing a delightful sweet-tart accent.

Next time, I plan to force everyone to do the pasta tasting menu with me. After reading Heat by Bill Buford, describing the madness, genius, and energy of Mario Batali, I may even want to try Del Posto.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Bong Su in Bloom

311 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
Chef Tammy Huynh
Dinner nightly

Last tried: June 2006

Bong Su on Urbanspoon

Expanding on the success of Tamarine, Anne Le and her chef aunt Tammy Huynh have unleashed their talents in creating a second upscale Vietnam restaurant in the Bay Area, this time in San Francisco's South of Market district. The formerly generic space at the bottom of a large apartment complex that used to be Max's Diner on the corner of Third and Folsom has been converted to a lush, sexy, and cosmopolitan restaurant and lounge, with enormous stone scultures imported from Vietnam, silk and satin fabrics swathed over windows and walls in shades of taupe, caramel, eggplant, and coffee, and large communal tables made of bamboo along the center of the long corridor in the dining room. In the back of the spacious bar area is a vast wine cellar behind glass walls, containing a beige stone buddha sculpture in the center surrounded by rows and rows of bottles bearing impressive labels.

As good as the restaurant looks, the food is even better. While maintaining some of the classic favorites from Tamarine, such as the melt-in-your-mouth-tender shaking beef, the Bong Su menu offers its own line of sophisticated yet hearty Vietnamese dishes from North, Central, and South Vietnam. A substantial number of menu items may also be made vegetarian upon request.

Among the dishes listed as starters ($7-$16), the Goi Kampachi, a sashimi style dish garnished with transparently thin slices of jalapeno peppers and fried shallots in a light drizzle of chili-lime fish sauce, was delicate yet packed with flavor. Despite the kick of spice and the accompaniments, the sweet, creamy flavor of the kampachi shone through, and the fish was as fresh as you would get from a top notch sushi restaurant. The Hue rice rolls, described as stuffed rice flour crepes, were actually more like soft dumplings filled with ground veal and woodear mushrooms. The translucent rice flour shell is chewy, sticky, and mildly sweet like Japanese mochi, and imparts a rich and starchy texture, complementing the richness and earthiness of the slightly salty veal and mushroom mixture inside. Eaten solo, the rice rolls are creamy and luxurious. With the accompanying sweet chili sauce, they become spicy and intense. With the kampachi, General Manager William Redberg paired the 2004 Setzer Gruner Veltliner from Weinvertal, and for the Hue rice rolls, a tart-sweet 2004 riesling from Reingau. Having assembled the expansive yet well-articulated wine list for both Tamarine and Bong Su, Redberg knows the cuisine and the wines inside out, and his quiet expertise makes the sublime dining experience at Bong Su complete. (Sommelier/Maitre d' Peter Greerty, who recently joined Bong Su from the Ritz Carlton Boston, will be conducting Asian wine pairing seminars, but to date I have only tried the pairings by William Redberg.)

The riesling also matched beautifully with the duck wraps-- tender and moist five-spice duck confit with diced mango and cucumber, rolled in bitter mustard greens, flavored with a sweet hoisin type sauce. The honey roasted, five-spice quail stuffed with sweet sticky rice, shiitake mushrooms, and scallions, is also listed among the starters, but is hearty enough to be an entree. In fact, this dish was served after the appetizers and soups on both of my visits. Given the strong spices and the opulence of the quail meat, this sequence made more sense in the overall presentation of the meal. If you can, select all of the dishes you would want to try from the menu, then leave it to the kitchen to course out the meal then ask William Redberg to do a wine pairing. This takes some time, especially with the somewhat inexperienced serving staff, but worth the wait and time. With the quail, Redberg selected a 2003 Rousanne from Carneros. The honey-apricot tones of the wine highlighted the spicing and flavors of the quail exquisitely.

Among the soups/salads/noodles, priced between $11-$16 each, I tried the Ha Long Bay soup, Kobe beef pho, and the crab garlic noodles. The garlicky glass noodles were pleasantly chewy, and the large chunks of crab meat, expertly extracted from the shells and claws, were tender and soft. Beware of the giant pieces of ginger, which are difficult to visually distinguish from the crab meat chunks in the low lighting. For me, this dish was too garlicky, and I could not really taste the crab among the strong garlic, ginger, and peppercorn spicing. The Ha Long Bay soup, on the other hand, was balanced and lovely. The crab asparagus wontons were elastic on the outside, soft and creamy inside, and not the least bit overcooked (unlike most wontons or dumplings in soups), and the broth of lime, coconut milk, chicken stock, and cilantro was delicately spicy and sweet at the same time. I could not think of a single thing that would make this soup better-- until I had it with a sip of the pear sparkling cider, Bordelet Granit, that Redberg suggested. The effervescent sweet pear was an ideal match with the crab, the coconut milk, and spice.

The dish that haunts my memory and makes me yearn to go back to Bong Su is the Kobe beef pho. Owner Anne Le said she has been searching the Bay Area for good pho and decided that the only way she was going to get the kind she remembers from Vietnam is to have her aunt make it. It seems Chef Huynh shares the same obsessive perfectionism and attention to detail as her niece. The clear beef stock infused with cilantro, basil, star anise, cinnamon, and fennel, poured over the mound of fresh, crunchy white bean sprouts and thin slices of jewel-red Kobe beef at the table, creates an intoxicating fragrance that is better than any aromatherapy I've ever experienced. The hot broth wilts the sprouts slightly and cooks the beef slices to a melting tender medium rare, resulting in a soothing and satisfying soup that tastes as incredible as it smells. Redberg then unleashed his magic touch with a 2004 Grenache Rose by Paul Jaboulet. Who knew that a Cote du Rhone rose would match so perfectly with pho?

For entrees ($17-$26), I tried the Alaskan black cod glazed with a sauce of caramelized molasses, garlic, black pepper, and onion, the grilled pork chops marinated in soy and lemongrass accompanied by deep-fried taro cakes, and of course I can never forego an opportunity to have the shaking beef with watercress salad. The cod tasted virtually identical to the miso-glazed black cod ubiquitous in most Asian restaurants, but could hold its own with the best of them (and I have not yet tired of that dish even though it is everywhere.) Although tasty, the pork was rather chewy, like the barbecued pork in Chinese pork fried rice, and the flavor was quite similar as well. I was more intrigued by the deep-fried quenelles of taro that accompanied the pork, which tasted like whipped sweet potatoes surrounded by a crunchy panko crust. Among the side dishes, do not miss the mushroom medley, a mixture of hon shimeji, crimini, and shiitake mushrooms in a five-spice sweet soy-flavored sauce and the Empress Rice, sticky rice flavored with garlic, fried leeks, ginger, and topped with fried quail eggs.

Desserts and service are the two areas where Bong Su could use improvement. The tapioca was mushy and had none of its characteristic chewy pearliness, and the sugary flavor was unbalanced. The star fruit was unripe, hard, and sour. The service, while friendly and well-intentioned, seems like they are still in training. On my first visit, the server had a difficult time remembering the names of the dishes being served, never mind the intricate garnishes and ingredients, and even forgot part of our order. On my next visit, the server, while being very enthusiastic about our request for wine pairing with the food, forgot all about the wine and proceeded to serve the courses. (Fortunately Redberg smoothly rectified the problem by bringing over the pairing for the first course then proceeded to pace and sequence the rest of the courses with the appropriate wines.)

But that Kobe beef pho ...

Friday, June 02, 2006

Getting Spoiled at Restaurant Jean Georges

1 Central Park West
New York, NY 10023
Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten
Chef de Cuisine Mark Lapico
Lunch weekdays
Dinner Monday through Saturday

Jean Georges on Urbanspoon

Last tried: May 2006

After dining at Restaurant Jean Georges, I got the distinct impression that you could not work there unless you can read customers' minds and anticipate their every wish. Of course, seamless coordination of every step of wine and food service is a given. Perhaps Jean Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller have an elite service school set up somewhere where they train their respective staff under some sort of culinary navy seal program.

To give a small example of their attention to detail, when I asked about a particular wine among the pairings that I really enjoyed, the wine director gave me the label off the bottle, embossed in a plastic cover. (At the end of the evening, he gave me all of the labels for each of the wines in the wine pairing that way so that I would have them all, just in case.) At no point in time did my eyes ever search the room to locate a server to ask for anything, as they unobtrusively took care of every detail without hovering. No one ever asked, "is there anything else I can get you?" because whatever I may have needed or wanted was brought over or cleared away as soon as the desire crossed my mind. The level of service at Restaurant Jean Georges highlighted the level of the food, creating a thoroughly pampered dining experience.

The Jean Georges menu offers three options: a three-course menu, with each course to be selected from eight a la carte choices in each category, plus desserts, at $95 per person; a six-course signature tasting menu, plus desserts, at $125 per person; and a six-course seasonal tasting menu, plus desserts, also at $125 per person. The tasting menu is not required to be ordered by the table, so we decided to try all three menu options. (Note: The portions are not diminutive although not large to the point of sacrificing elegance of presentation or flavor.)

To start, we received an amuse trio: an espresso cupful of white asparagus soup with a layer of raspberry vinaigrette at the bottom; a sourdough crouton topped with peekytoe crab confit, lemon mustard dressing, and daikon sprouts; and a single forkful of charred fava bean "salad" with pecorino vinaigrette. These contrasting flavors and textures, spiked with the tanginess of raspberry, lemon mustard, and pecorino, danced in my mouth as I moved from through each amuse. The amuse transitioned beautifully to the first course-- a liquid scrambled egg served in the shell with the top quarter shaved off, topped with vodka whipped cream and caviar. Not quite as mindblowing as the sherry cream egg with chives at Manresa, but still fabulous, and I loved the combination of the rich chicken egg and salty fish egg served inside an egg shell. The other first course was just as tasty-- a miniature toasted buttered brioche sandwich with a quail egg yolk inside, topped with caviar and dill. Thankfully the dill, which I usually find overwhelming in most contexts, provided just a hint of pickly scent and flavor, which brought out the grilled cheese-like taste of the brioche egg sandwich, and the caviar added a dimension of vibrant saltiness to this very rich taste.

Next came a crudo of translucent white snapper decorated with muscat grapes and a buttermilk ranch emulsion, topped with chervil, tarragon, thyme, and a bit of Thai chile. The fish was sashimi fresh and could easily be eaten alone, but the sweet grapes, the creamy rich sauce, the earthy and minty spring herbs, and the zingy kick of spice from the chile were delightful and harmonious together. The other raw dish, hamachi with grapefruit sorbet and jalapeno emulsion with grapefruit zest, was not quite as successful. Each of the elements by themselves were superb but together the sweet and buttery flavor of the hamachi got drowned out. I was also not crazy about the crunchy crystals of maldon salt on top, which was pretty to look at but unnecessary.

To pair with these first series of courses, the sommelier picked out a half bottle of the most amazing gewurztraminer, 2004 Domaine Paul Blanck from Alsace (which I plan to look for and acquire for future consumption, aided by the handy label he gave me to keep). The citrus, floral, mineral, and honey flavors of the wine were perfect solo and also paired well with the egg and seafood. With the next series of courses, he served a 2004 Condrieu by Les Chaillets, another impeccable selection.

Although I am still in recovery from multiple overdoses of seared scallops from the late 90's, Jean Georges' version, served with charred cauliflower bits and a nutmeg balsamic emulsion, was exquisite. I must admit, however, that I was still more in love with the cauliflower bits that were almost creamy inside the charred exterior (normally I am not particularly fond of cauliflower) than the scallops. The foie gras brulee with candied pistachios, sour cherries, lime zest, and white corn gelee was technically flawless in execution. The flavors matched, the textures were interesting, and the combination unique. Yet I found myself missing the comforting familiarity of a plain terrine or a seared slice of oozing foie gras with a crispy exterior. As a subsequent course, I did get that seared foie gras I was craving, along with a fabulous glass of 1999 Chateau Rieussec Sauterne. The dashi-yuzu foam, although lovely alone, did not quite work with the foie gras, but the dried apple pieces provided desired sweetness and chewy texture.

The following courses, asparagus with asparagus puree and morel mushrooms in hollandaise sauce, and garlic soup with fried frogs' legs, were both immaculate. The sauce on the bright green asparagus spears, a combination of morel mushrooms, hollandaise sauce, and pureed asparagus puree was so incredible that I sponged my plate clean with bread to soak up every bit of it. The garlic soup was soothing and flavorful, without being overly rich, and the aroma of fresh spring garlic mixed with the scent of butter and cream wafting up from the steaming bowl was hypnotizing. The frogs' legs were tender and moist inside and fried to a perfect golden crisp on the outside, flavored with exactly the right amount of saltiness to accompany the soup. After I ate every piece of meat I could extract from the bone and licked the garlic and spices off my fingers, I was presented with a sterling silver finger bowl filled with warm rose lemon water, along with a fresh linen napkin.

With the next series of heavier seafood courses, the sommelier served a 2003 1er Cru Pommard from Domain de Courcel. Even though I am generally not fond of the 2003 vintage for Burgundy (most are too sweet and extracted, like many California Pinot Noirs), the opulence of this wine actually worked quite well as a pairing. The poached Scottish cod with buttery purple potato fondant and charred eggplant topped with roasted garlic and crunchy bits of levain croutons, with a streak of poblano pepper puree providing an accent of tart spiciness, was hearty yet refined. The moist and creamy tenderness of the arctic char was emphasized by the slice of crispy, salty fried skin placed on the side like a potato chip. With roasted porcini mushrooms, diced jalapeno peppers, and garlic, the arctic char was an explosion of flavors and textures that miraculously blended together like they were meant to be. (The only wine pairing I was not crazy about was the 2002 Domaine Clusel-Roch Cote Rotie paired with the squab described below. I have yet to taste a 2002 Rhone wine I have really liked, and this one was no exception, with unbalanced acidity and lackluster fruit.)

The last series of savory courses consisted of turbot, poached lobster, roasted veal tenderloin, and broiled squab. The turbot was pleasantly firm and meaty, and the accompanying zucchini and tomato dice with jurancon sauce, reminiscent of lobster bisque in flavor, was simultaneously refreshing and rich. The lobster, poached in butter and served with fresh pea shoots in a lemongrass fenugreek broth, was enhanced by a light dusting of dark orange, salty dehydrated lobster roe on the plate. The veal with meyer lemon, however, was less impressive than the other dishes. The lemon tended to overpower all of the other delicate flavors, including the veal and the snow peas. We ended on a high note with the squab, which was tender, juicy, and well-spiced with a mixture of cumin, cinnamon, and curry. The slice of seared foie gras on top of the squab and the miniature corn pancake with sweet pear puree on the bottom were likewise incredible, with each individual component prepared perfectly and combined skillfully in flavor and texture.

At this point, we had to raise the white flag. We had been too greedy in our attempt to eat through the menu to be able to follow through with desserts. The server nonetheless insisted that we take a package of petit fours and Jean Georges chocolates to go.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Smooth Engines of WD-50

50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002
Chef Wylie Dufresne (formerly sous chef Restaurant Jean Georges)
Sous Chef Mike Sheerin
Dinner nightly

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

Tried: May 2006

Interesting. That word sums up the dining experience at Wylie Dufresne's WD-50.

Like the food, the atmosphere at WD-50 exudes casual chic. Opaque lamps shaped like wine bottles hang across the bar, and the decor is otherwise sparse and minimalist, including the unisex restrooms with a trough sink. Several rows of dark wood tables line the long, rectangular dining room, with a large window at the far end opening into the kitchen. The low lighting in the dining room in contrast with the bright lights in the kitchen made the expediting window look like a large television screen, with all of the characters on-screen dressed in white with identical vertical black-and-white-striped aprons.

Upon being seated and presented with menus, we received a basket filled with thin crackers that were so tall they almost created a vertical barrier between diners. The crackers were actually flatbread made from crushed sesame seeds and were so thin that I could practically see through them. As I munched on these delicately salty and nutty crackers, I observed the dishes being served at adjacent tables-- not difficult as the tables are set so close together, it almost felt like everyone was seated along a long communal table-- and noted that the a la carte dishes were quite sizeable. Our group opted for the tasting menu (twelve courses for $105 per person; $55 for wine pairing), which is required to be ordered by the entire table.

Napkins? Refolded when diners left the table. (I have an OCD thing about used napkins being refolded when diners leave the table during a meal. While I realize that it is an accepted and even expected practice in more formal dining establishments, my personal preference is to not have soiled napkins touched and refolded by a server. As an alternative, some restaurants replace napkins when diners get up to visit the restroom. In one place, I have even seen silverware being replaced as well as the napkin, which is a bit overkill, even for me, but I was impressed.)

The first course was a smoked oyster with a strip of rhubarb, topped with lilyroot puree and decorated with a mustard microgreen. Although I generally prefer oysters fresh, the smokiness worked with the sweet and tart rhubarb and the tiny bit of bitterness from the mustard green. Next came a faux fried egg. The egg white was a cardamom coconut gelee and the yolk was a carrot ginger jelly, which broke open in similar consistency to a real egg yolk. Topped with fresh ground pepper, it looked and (sort of) tasted like an egg. A glass of cava rose was served with these intriguing starters and matched both quite well.

The next course was a terrine of foie gras shaped into a cylindrical disk, resting on top of what looked like a mound of bright green sand and decorated with candied olives. The sand was actually crushed, dehydrated peas. The server instructed us to cut the terrine across the center first before eating. As I sliced into the terrine, a dark red viscous liquid oozed out. The center had been hollowed out and injected with liquid cherry. Fun with food. The sweet cherry worked well with the terrine, but the foie gras was somewhat bland and not otherwise noteworthy. I found myself enjoying the candied olives more than anything else. The green pea soil was visually interesting but rather tasteless. The pairing, a non-vintage madeira, was a safe choice.

Following the foie gras, we had a shrimp "cannelloni," which looked like a miniature egg roll. Both the cannelloni and the filling were made of shrimp, with the "pasta" shell made of mashed, steamed shrimp. The cannelloni was served with a chorizo sauce and accented with micro-red Thai basil. A glass of 2004 Oregon pinot gris provided the right flavor profile for the elements of this dish. As with the foie gras, I was more entertained by the concept than the taste, which was fine but not exceptional. The texture of the shrimp was a bit gummy, and I would have liked the chorizo sauce and spices to have more presence in the dish. Also paired with the pinot gris was a deconstructed BLT, Wylie Dufresne style. The "B" was a thin slice of beef tongue, the "L" was a sprig of green herb, and the "T" a tomato-molasses marmalade, accompanied by deep-fried cubes of mayonnaise. This is probably the only time I have ever enjoyed beef tongue, as the thin slice had none of the slick, slimy texture I normally associate with tongue. The deep-fried mayonnaise I absolutely loved-- how twisted and lovely.

Next came a miso soup with shiitake mushrooms and finely diced scallions, showing that when it decides to, this kitchen can execute basic flavors flawlessly. Tiny squeeze bottles with red caps, which looked like kindergarten glue bottles, accompanied the soothing, milky beige-brown soup. They contained liquid sesame tofu, intended to create instant noodles upon being squeezed into the soup. The noodles failed to form, as the soup was not hot enough and the soup bowl too small for this chemical equation to work successfully, but the flavors were still quite pleasant. The 2002 Rosso di Montalcino by Sassetti Livio that was paired with the soup, however, did not work. Against the Asian flavors in the soup, the wine tasted tart and bitter. The wine worked slightly better but still fought with the next paired course-- smoked eel with peanuts, snow peas, peppers, caramel foam and lime salt.

The last savory course, duck breast with spaghetti squash, dotted with bits of ricotta and cocoa nibs and tied together with a black vinegar gastrique, was the best flavor combination of the evening. The spaghetti squash, acting as sweet and mildly crunchy pasta noodles with the creamy bits of ricotta, and the rich duck meat highlighted by the intensity of chocolate and black vinegar gastrique were fantastic. The 2004 vin de table from Yves Leccia was also a nice match.

Of the desserts, my favorite was the corn bread ice cream, which tasted like cold and creamy sweet corn bread. Having these familiar flavors and textures in a new context was a delightful twist. The dehydrated bits of corn caramel brittle on top of the ice cream tasted like a black-tie version of Cracker Jacks. The second dessert was a cashew tonka bean brulee with pine nuts and cherry sauce, dusted with dried powdered cherries. The brulee was not quite sweet enough and cherry sauce a bit too tangy but the overall taste combination was still quite pleasant. The last dessert was a smoked chocolate ice cream with caramelized banana, topped with Guiness foam. Although the chocolate and stout combination was better executed at Silk's in San Francisco, this was still an outstanding dessert. To conclude, we had red beet jellies served on a black slate slab. The soft, sugared jellies quivering on the black slate were still warm to the touch and dissolved satisfyingly as soon as they touched my tongue.

While it is probably the best "scientific" cooking restaurant I have tried, I could not help wondering what Chef Dufresne's cooking is like when he is not "experimenting." (In the interest of full disclosure, the chef himself was only there for a short period the night I tried WD-50; apparently he had surgery for appendicitis the day before but still came in, as he does every night according to our server.) Although I quite enjoyed his novel creations, I must admit my brain was more entertained than my tastebuds.

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