Saturday, March 03, 2012

Dinner @ Alexander's (Bar Area)

To start, let me just say, this was not my frist time to Alexander's. I've been to the Cupertino location more times than I can count, for a variety of occasions: casual dinners with a few friends, team dinners, or even sitting at the Chef's table in the kitchen for a birthday party (all organized by me, of course!). While I prefer it over the San Francisco location (execution level of the food and the service tend to be a little higher), I still enjoy the San Francisco location quite a bit. Actually, let me re-phrase that, I absolutely love Alexander's: the fish appetizers, the seared foie gras, the steaks, the burgers, the desserts ... it is all so good. Such a complete package. They are trying creative things with plating, sauces, and flavorings and for the most part are much more successful than most places. I'm always happy to go back, be it for a fancy big meal or just casual burgers. Which is why this is such a mixed review ...

We had a rather interesting experience at Alexander's. The short version: absolutely amazing food, as always, and I discovered my new favorite burger (and confirmed my belief that they have the best foie gras) in the city. Service however, was disastrous. But, they completely made it up to us. So, a mixed review.

This was another case of me deciding late in the day that I wanted a good burger, and deciding to go to a fancy place, but sit in the bar area and get the burger (like when we went to Spruce a few weeks ago).

I'm a big fan of this style of dining - you get the quality ingredients and kitchen skills of a high end place, the little extras like amuse bouche, bread service, etc and you can add on great starters like foie gras and finish with excellent desserts, yet you don't need to make reservations, don't need to dress up, etc. Great food in a casual setting? Sign me up!

Everything started off great - a group of four, we were able to walk right into the bar area at 7:15pm and seat ourselves at a 4-top. Perfect! And then we waited. And waited. It took a little longer than expected to get noticed and place our drink order. And then a little longer than expected before we placed our dinner order. When I ordered my burger, I asked for it to be cooked however the chef recommended. The waitress acted like this was very strange and was like "no, how do you want it". I asked if the chef had a recommendation and she said no. Hmm, ok. These were just slight missteps, and seemed par for the course for sitting in the bar. But then, the service issues really started to add up.
  • We were initially given just a tiny fork. Then, before any food arrived, the tiny forks were taken away, and we were given a tiny spoon, a regular fork, and a steak knife. The tiny spoon was for the amuse bouche, which made sense. None of us ordered steak, so the steak knife seemed strange, but we figured perhaps that is all they have for knifes?
  • The amuse arrived, was cleared away, and then condiment trays were brought with ketchup, mustard, mayo. This was puzzling that they were brought before the appetizers and sorta filled up our table. And we didn't have bread plates, bread knives, share plates, or anything like that.
  • We order wine. A little tray for the wine shows up.
  • Lots of time passes. Eventually, the wine arrives. With another little tray.  Now we have two trays on the table.
  • Lots of time passes. Eventually, I ask about bread, since I know they normally do a bread service. Bread plates show up, butter shows up. No bread. At this point, people are eating the mustard by the spoonful to occupy themselves.
  • Lots of time passes. Finally bread! But our only silverware was the steak knives, so we awkwardly used them to butter our bread.
  • Lots of time passes. We ask about our appetizers. Share plates are brought out. Additional silverware is brought out.
  • Over one hour after we had sat down, our appetizers arrive. No serving utensils provided.
  • The servers show up with our burgers. Their hands are full. Our table is full of appetizers and share plates. Whoops, no one cleared those away?
  • One person ordered his fries without truffle oil. Hmm, his taste pretty truffle-y! And another's taste pretty plain.  Whoops, wrong fries!
  • Dessert menus arrive. I suggest a dessert to share with the table. One fellow diner questions me. I say it again. He questions me again. I say "the second one on the menu". He reads off something different. Ah yes, we have different dessert menus. And the one I wanted to order doesn't exist.
  • Cotton candy arrives! Uh, before we are given the dessert (this is usually a parting gift).
  • Dessert arrives and is finished. Uh, before the espressos arrive.
So yeah, service was ... interesting. It certainly seemed like no one was responsible for us and that something went wrong with our appetizer order. And while I don't expect the same level of service in the bar as I do in the main dining room, the number of issues we had really did add up. It got comical at some points, with us just starting to expect things to go wrong. After we got the bill and paid, I went to the bar manager and just let him know that we had a number of issues. I wasn't trying to be a jerk or anything, and intentionally waited until after we had paid so as to not make it seem like I wanted a discount or expected anything, I just wanted him to know, particularly as I'd still go back since I've had many fantastic experiences there, but I know some others wouldn't. He sent the GM over to talk to us, who then ended up comping the cocktails, starters, extra foie gras, dessert, and espressos. Wowzer.

The food was amazing, like always. See the photos below for individual comments on dishes, but I can safely say that Alexander's does the best foie gras I've ever had, and one of the top few burgers I've had. The plating is artistic and they are doing creative things with the dishes that are usually quite successful. It is somewhat pricey, but even when things aren't being comped, I think it is worth the price.

I'd go back in a heartbeat. In fact, I WILL go back. Next time I'll go on a non-Monday, sit at a real table, and get the amazing seafood starters and a great steak.
Ginger drop: fresh ginger, ginger beer ... other stuff.
This was a mocktail. The ginger flavor was incredibly strong, it was clearly made with fresh ginger. The ginger was almost too overpowering, making it not quite as refreshing as I expected it to be, but it was still pretty tasty. It just needed to be consumed in small sips, and got better as the ice melted and diluted it a bit.

Not pictured were other drinks at the table, well made, enjoyable cocktails.

Amuse bouche: Beet puree, carbonated grape, micro wasabi
I think this one was a little inconsistent. The others at the table got the wasabi flavors and the carbonation, where I just tasted a grape and a lot of beet. I may have been overlooking the other flavors because I thought the waitress said "pee puree" and I was really confused why there was nothing green on the plate, and why I tasted something more like beets. Oops.

This didn't do much for me, but the others seemed to find it interesting.

Acme olive bread with Straus butter. 
Bread service is a choice of Acme bread: green olive, whole wheat walnut, or baguette served with Straus Creamery butter and sea salt.

All quality components, but we have this bread every day at work, so it isn't exactly novel to me.

Hot seared Hudson Valley foie gras: grilled eryngi and chanterelle, yuzu buttermilk, noble no 5, crispy shallots, crostini.
So good. Alexanders really, really knows how to do foie gras. Every time I have this here I am reminded of how fantastic foie gras can be. Everywhere else I've had it recently has been good for sure, but this is in a league of its own. Perfectly seared, ridiculously creamy, so flavorful. ZOMG.

Also on the platter was an assortment of grilled wild mushrooms, crostini, and ridiculously delicious fried shallots.

The slate itself was warm, which kept everything up to temperature.

So ridiculously good.

Sweetbreads, with kataiffi, black garlic, edamame, granny smith apple, vadouvan. 
This dish was loaded with culinary trends - kataiffi! vadouvan!  If only it had been cooked on the plancha!

The sweetbreads were wrapped in the kataiffi and nicely fried. The coating had a nice crunch to it and complimented the interior nicely. The black garlic sauce was a nice mellow flavor and I wish there was more of it, as it was really fantastic. The apple was served two ways: fresh strips and vadouvan spiced cooked chunks. The spiced chunks were tasty, but I didn't think they necessarily went with the rest of the dish that well. The fresh chunks were fine and refreshing, but again, weren't necessary.

Houseground wagyu burger, with shortrib-shiitake mushroom ragoût, lettuce, onion, toma cheese. And topped with seared foie gras (not normally included). Served with shichimi-truffled fries and a pickle. 
This was a damn good burger. I have had a LOT of burgers in the past couple years, as I've organized a number of burger crawls. We've visited standard burger joints, had the burgers from a number of higher end establishments that just have burgers on the menu to appease certain guests, and had all of the "top" burgers from all sorts of lists. And this was in the top 3 for sure. More me, it beat out the famous Spruce burger, the Nopa burger, and the Marlowe burger. Yes, it was that good. Every component of the burger was good, I loved the default preparation (fancy cheese! mushroom ragout!), and I really appreciated that it didn't come across as overly fatty or oily, even though it obviously isn't a lean item.

The bun was the Acme Pain de Mie burger bun. A good bun for sure, but it mostly just served as vehicle for the burger. Didn't add or detract from it and held up well to all the juices.

The burger came with red onion slices and lettuce, which were nice and crisp and added a freshness to the burger.

It was topped with perfectly melted Toma cheese, which was delicious and very flavorful. I'd gladly pick this cheese to put on a burger anytime! Much more complex flavor than standard swiss/american/cheddar/gruyere options and it paired very well with the mushroom ragout.

Speaking of which, there was also a generous layer of mushroom ragout, made from assorted wild mushrooms and truffle. Very flavorful and delicious, paired perfectly with the cheese, and held up against the meaty flavor of the burger. When given the option, I usually add sauteed mushrooms to my burger, so this was right up my alley. I was delighted that this was part of the standard offering!

The meat was high quality and clearly freshly ground. It had a lovely sear on the outside but was still cooked perfectly medium-rare on the inside. Juicy, incredibly flavorful, and not very greasy.

This picture is of a fellow dining companion's burger, where he of course added the extra seared foie gras. The chunk of foie was HUGE and just like the appetizer, perfectly seared, ridiculously creamy, and amazing. How do I know this? Because being the generous man that he is, he shared some with the rest of us :) Thank you!

The pickle was totally unremarkable, perhaps borderline bad. Not great flavors, not crunchy.

The fries were shoestring fries, with truffle oil and shichimi seasoning. They weren't the most amazing fries I've ever had or anything, but they were well fried and the truffle flavor was addicting.


Ketchup, grainy mustard, mayo, dijon mustard.
We each received a tray of condiments to dress up our burgers, including standard ketchup, mayo, and some delicious mustards (dijion or grainy).

Bubble gum cotton candy!
Alexander's always brings you cotton candy at the end of the meal. The flavor is different every time. This time it was bubblegum. Pretty much exactly what you'd expect ... fluffy, sweet, addicting.  It is one of my favorite parts of the experience, whimsical and fun, and totally unexpected at a fancy place.  I love bringing people there for the first time and seeing their expressions when they get the cotton candy :)

Tropic Thunder: arare rice crackers, passionfruit, pepper sauce, vanilla pineapple chutney, rice pudding, coconut rum sabayon, mango sorbet. And creme anglaise (uh, more on that later).
I wanted to try this dessert, but last time we were at Alexander's we had a souffle that came with amazing creme anglaise. We finished our meal literally just drinking spoonfuls of the creme anglaise that time. So this time around, I ordered this dessert, but asked if we could get some of that amazing creme anglaise on the side. Somehow that was lost in translation, so when the dessert arrived, the waiter poured the crame anglaise on top. He must have thought that is what we wanted. It really, really did not go with the dessert at all!

Now, back to the dessert. The coconut rice pudding was tasty, the sorbet was a nice tart mango flavor, and the pineapple chutney went really well with the rice pudding. Unfortunately, a lot of the other subtleties of the dish were lost with the creme anglaise. Whoops!  Totally our bad.

Caramel corn, espresso chocolate cookies, grapefruit pate de fruit. 
And because we needed more sweets ... mignardises!
  • The caramel corn was kinda forgettable, no better than the stuff you can get at the grocery store.
  • The espresso chocolate cookies were not very flavorful and too crisp for my liking.
  • The pate de fruit had a good tartness from the grapefruit.

[ Originally posted February 13, 2012, moving here to blog ]
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Dinner @ La Folie Lounge


Another day, another random meal at a Michelin starred restaurant's lounge ...

Tonight we went to the La Folie lounge. It is next to La Folie, but actually a separate space. You can order off their lounge menu, or get anything off of their regular menu (normally 3/4/5 course menu) a la carte, or even order individual dishes off their special tasting menu (except you have no idea how much items cost if you order off the main menus, since those are priced as tasting menus. This leads to extra fun when the bill comes!)

The lounge was a really nice atmosphere, with a selection of different seating options: bar counter, side counter, plush armchairs, etc. Music was louder than in a restaurant, but much softer and more pleasant than a standard bar. We choose to sit in bar stools at the bar counter, right in front of the lounge chef!

We choose to order a mix of items from the lounge menu and the main menu. This resulted in us getting a mix of service too. We received 2 complimentary amuse bouches, something normally served in the main restaurant, and we didn't see anyone else in the lounge get them, even though lots of others ordered some things off the main menu. Sorta strange, but I think since we ordered so many things off the main menu, including something off the special tasting menu, perhaps they decided to include them for us? But we didn't get the bread service, palate cleanser, or petit fours that they give in the main restaurant.

Service was a mixed bag. There was one bartender/waiter and one chef running the entire place. They were both pretty busy the entire time. The bartender seemed too busy to bother with us most of the time. The chef on the other hand was great, and I really enjoyed chatting with him about all of the dishes he was preparing. Everything on the lounge menu is actually prepared right there in the bar area. It was pretty impressive to watch him quickly churning out these dishes, even though they weren't super complicated, they did have a number of plating details that required painstaking attention to detail, like specifically placing individual caviar on top of things with tweezers. He took great pride in his work, and was clearly a foodie, eagerly telling me all of the details of the dishes he was working on. I loved seeing how the items were made to order, what was prepared ahead of time to create his mise en place, etc. He wasn't just someone assembling the pieces either, for the house cured salmon lollipops for example, he told me about how he gets a side of salmon and cures it in house to make this dish. I was a little surprised to see how some of the dishes worked though. For example, for the mac and cheese, he cooks up a big batch of macaroni early in the day on Monday. This usually lasts him for 3 days. So people ordering the dish on Wednesday are getting pasta that was cooked a few days earlier. Then when someone orders the dish, he mixes the pre-cooked pasta with the truffle cheese sauce and puts it into a MICROWAVE to heat it up. Then he chops up some lobster, mixes it in, tops it with breadcrumbs, and throws it under a salamander to make it all crisp and bubbly. It looked amazing, and he said it was too. But I was still surprised at the microwave and old pasta aspects of it.

Anyway, back to the service. We weren't ever given share plates, or new silverware between our courses. This doesn't bother me in any way, but it was a little unexpected given the price point/caliber of place. We received our amuse bouches almost immediately after ordering, and our food from the bar menu quickly thereafter. And then we waited. And waited. And then the bartender told us he'd just gone to check on our other food and that it was coming. And we waited. And waited. Something clearly went wrong, and they told us it sometimes happens with tickets that go to the main kitchen, they just get lost. Hmm, ok. Our soup finally arrived, but without our salad. Doh! The bartender was on top of it though and made sure they tracked it down quickly. And the bar chef made us another dish complimentary. Our dessert arrived soon after we ordered it. So, definitely mixed, and the lounge kitchen/main kitchen don't seem very in sync.

Overall, a nice option for tasty food in a relaxed atmosphere. I'd go back to try the truffle deviled eggs, the truffled lobster mac and cheese, and the rossini sliders with truffle aioli, all of which were getting prepared directly in front of me all night long and looked awesome, but I didn't order since my dining companion doesn't like truffles.

See photos for full review of each food item.

Complimentary amuse bouche #1: They described this as their play on asparagus with hollandaise sauce. The waiter listed off everything in here, but I forget everything he said ... it involved truffles 2 ways though.
I wish I'd been able to write down the details on this one, as I forget everything that was in here.

I think it was a truffle oil on the bottom, then a creamy hollandaise like sauce, then crunchy bits of asparagus, and topped with a truffle shaving. Lots of flavors going on, and I loved the crunch of the asparagus paired with the creamy sauce.
Complimentary amuse bouche #2: Poached quail egg, cream, green garlic, crispy potato chip, chive, brioche toast.
Another one where I wish I'd been able to write down all of the details!

Inside the egg shell was a creamy soup (cauliflower perhaps?), a green garlic puree, and a poached quail egg. It was topped with a very thin crispy potato chip and had a toasted brioche stick on the side.

This was also pretty tasty, with really unique textural components. It was fairly rich from the cream and egg yolk, a little strange to eat by the spoonful like that, but the broiche dipped in it created a perfect bite. The potato chip was salty, crisp, and tasty, but I didn't really understand why it was there. And yes, there was a hole poked through it for the chive to stick up through ...
House Cured Salmon Lollipops, with herbed marscapone, pickled beets, cornichons. 
From the bar menu. These were house cured salmon, rolled up with an herbed marscapone, put on a stick, and then topped with some tiny little micro green and a tiny bit of caviar. Definitely a cute play on a more traditional smoked salmon and cream cheese sort of dish, this was flavorful and the herbs added a nice freshness.

On the side was a pickled red beet, pickled yellow beet, and some cornichons. I thought the beets were way too vinegary, but I'm kinda a pickled stuff snob. The cornichons were forgettable. I didn't really understand what any of the pickled stuff added to the plate though, as they didn't really go with the salmon.
Close up of the cured salmon lollipop, topped with a micro green of some sort, and some caviar. 
Foie gras soup, truffled cracker, seared foie gras and glazed baby turnips 
This came off the special tasting menu. I've read amazing things about the seared foie gras they serve at La Folie, but after the previous night's 8 course foie gras meal, I was not really wanting more foie gras, so we skipped ordering that. We asked about this dish and they said it was a small little mug of soup with a small piece of seared foie gras on the side. I figured the soup with "small" piece of seared foie gras on the side wouldn't be too much and would be a fun way to get to experience their famous seared foie.

Um, that piece of foie gras was not small. Apparently their normal preparation is 6-8 ounces, so compared to that it is. I'm guessing this was at least 4 ounces.

Unfortunately, I really did not like this dish. Partially, I was foie'ed out after the dinner the night before. But really, this was just way, way too rich. I finished this out of feeling bad about wasting foie gras, but really wish I hadn't.

The soup was an insanely strong foie gras liquid with some foie gras foam on top. It reminded me of a time where I accidentally bought stock rather than broth broth. It was just too much to drink, even by the little spoonful. Too rich, too fatty, just not good.

The truffle cracker didn't really taste like anything to me.

The seared foie was ok, but it was just too much foie gras, with nothing to cut it. I think I would have liked it with some bread or crostini or something, but there were just a couple little pieces of turnip under it, which helped, but weren't substantial enough. And taking a sip of soup certainly didn't help! And I really like having some form of sweet component with my foie, and there wasn't any of that here.

Overall, this dish was just a huge flop for me. Too rich, too fatty, too much foie, not remotely balanced.
Dungeness crab salad, on cauliflower panna cotta, topped with a yellow curry tuile. Served with curried spiced crab vinaigrette, caviar.
This came off the standard menu. What a beautiful presentation! This was good, but wasn't nearly as good as I was expecting, given that I love crab and cauliflower!

The bottom layer was the cauliflower panna cotta. I didn't like it at all. It was too creamy, too heavy, and threw off the balance of the dish, as it overpowered everything else. I wanted to taste the crab!

The crab itself was delightful. Local dungeness, super sweet, it reminded me of why I love dungeness crab, as it can be sooo tasty. It was mixed with some cucumber and herbs, super light, really delicious.

I didn't really pick up on the curry flavor of the tuile or the sauce, and found the tuile sorta annoying to cut through and eat.
Smoked Herring Terrine: yukon gold mashed potatoes, horseradish crème fraîche, caviar 
The lounge chef made this for us once he overheard us talking about how ridiculously long we were waiting for our dishes from the main kitchen. Unfortunately, by the time he had finished it, our other food had come and we were pretty full. But, I think this may have been my favorite dish of the night!

It certainly was the most balanced and refined dish we had. The smoked herring had a great smoked flavor to it. The mashed potatoes were well spiced and paired well with the herring. The horseradish cream gave it a little kick. But the best part was the caviar on top. Many of our other dishes had a little caviar on them, and in those cases it seemed more like a garnish, but in this dish, it added the perfect salty component. Really nicely done.

Huckleberry Baked Alaska: huckleberry and basil ice creams, sable cookie, lemon cake, huckleberry-pear panna cotta
One of the reasons I wanted to go to La Folie was the baked alaska. I've been craving it since having the "Baked California" at Haven last month. I've been ordering every merengue based dish I can find since, but nothing has satisfied me! I did a bunch of research on where to get the best baked alaska in SF, and La Folie was consistently ranked among the tops (Harris and Crustacean also ... have any other recommendations?)

I was stuffed at this point, but was determined to get my baked alaska! I should have taken a photo of the inside, but it was a sable cookie on the bottom, then a lemon cake, then basil ice cream, then huckleberry ice cream, all coated in merengue. On the side was what they called a "huckleberry-pear panna cotta", with some tiny basil leaves and huckleberries.

I didn't like the panna cotta. Flavors just seemed off, it was more like a strong jelly, and I didn't really know what to do with it. Eat it alone? Way too much like just eating a spoonful of jelly. Add it to a spoonful of the rest? There was already so much going on with the cookie, the cake, the ice creams, and the merengue that adding more in seemed strange.

The sable cookie was crunchy and buttery. It was hard to break apart with a spoon though, and made for a lot of unbalanced bites that either didn't have any or had way too much. The cake was moist and had an amazingly strong lemon flavor. The ice creams were both good.

Overall, I didn't like this all that much. Something just seemed off flavorwise. It wasn't too sweet, or too tart, or anything obvious like that, but just didn't really come together for me. Maybe I was just too full. Or I wanted it to be more like the Haven one. I'm not sure. Apparently the baked alaska is seasonal, and they do a peach version in the summer, I'd be interested in trying that one out.

[ Originally posted February 20, 2012 on Google+, moving content here ].
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Foie Gras Dinner @ Lafitte

Tonight we went for a special foie gras dinner @ Lafitte.  I'd never been there before, but its been on my list for a while, although not particularly high on my list since it gets such mixed reviews on Yelp (Then again, I'm starting to seriously doubt the Yelpers ...). The menu changes daily and things seem generally hit or miss. Tonight though was a special night - all foie gras!

The menu was advertised as being 5 courses for $89. In the end, it was 10 courses (a few extra passed appetizers, an extra entree, and 2 extra desserts). They also offered a drink pairing for an additional $45, featuring a cocktail, sparking rose, 3 red wines, and a port. While I didn't think the pairings necessarily matched the food that well, they were all very good, and it was really fun to have a cocktail and a port included in there, not just wines. And everyone was given a welcome cocktail as well. Overall, this was a really great deal, it was a ton of high quality food and drinks.

The food was all very good, see my comments below on individual photos for details. What impressed me the most was that the meal was all served at once, for the entire restaurant, and they managed to pull it off seamlessly. I'm not entirely sure how many people were there, perhaps 50 or so, but everything arrived hot and very well executed. How did they get perfectly seared foie gras to 50 people at once? I have no idea! Such an incredible feat, and it makes me grumpy thinking about all the rehearsal dinner/wedding reception/etc similar events where the food comes out horrible, and I give them the benefit of the doubt that it was due to the serving big group nature of the events. Or restaurant where I pay far more than this and get lukewarm food, or less well executed food. Well done Lafitte!

Even more impressive however, was that our group had a couple "difficult" patrons. One member was gluten free. And two of us were sharing a meal. They accommodated all of this seamlessly as well! The gluten free patron was given a few special preparations (in fact, some of hers seemed even better, more foie gras, less filler gluten!). They brought her the special dishes without pause. She also couldn't drink her full 7 drink pairing, and when they saw us sharing offered to bring out extra glasses. And with two of us sharing, they always brought an extra plate and sharing utensils. Water glasses were always full. Dishes and utensils were cleared away at the right time, never rushed, but always in advance of the next course. Pacing of the entire meal was spot on, never feeling too fast, but we were never bored between courses. Again, even in normal service at restaurants you don't generally get this consistently good service.

Overall, an incredibly impressive event, from food, to service, to the open, well designed, comfortable space. They have 5 more of these events coming up (one per month until the ban), and I can safely say that I'll be attending more of them. Please let me know if you want to join! (More details on their website: http://www.lafittesf.com/) They also have some amazing sounding specials on Monday nights - $35 for 3 course dinner, with 3 choices for each course, always including vegetarian option. I'll be checking out some of those as well. And they have a foie gras eggs benedict for brunch, which one of my friends went to last week and gave a glowing review.  I'm sure we'll be going back for that too.

Happy, ridiculously stuffed, and looking forward to more foie!
Banks rum punch, bitters.
This was a welcome drink, given to everyone while we were waiting to be seated. Not too sweet due to the bitters in it, but not particularly good. I sorta wish I hadn't finished this, it really wasn't worth it. Still, nice touch to give us all a drink while we were waiting to be seated.
Oyster, bacon, potato, foie gras.
Extra passed appetizer before seating. The bacon and potatoes were delicious. I didn't detect any foie in here, but they said there was some The oyster however wasn't cleaned properly. My first one had a chunk of rock in it and my second one was fairly gritty. If I knew was was in store for me for the rest of the meal, I certainly would have skipped a second one of these. Then again, bacon and potatoes are pretty awesome!
Strasburg Pie - toasted brioche, some sort of jam, foie gras.
Another extra passed appetizer before seating. A cute play on strasburg pie. The brioche was nicely toasted, the jam was sweet and complimented the foie nicely, and there was a decent chunk of foie on here. I wanted another one of these :)
Main menu for the night (missing passed appetizers and extra dessert).
Drink pairings for the night (missing extra starter cocktail).
Sweet bread, salted butter.
 Decent bread, I liked the sweetness to it. The butter was nicely salted.
Foie gras dumplings, foie gras consume, black truffle.
Dish #1. Not particularly memorable. The dumplings were like little tiny gnocchi. They weren't bad, but were just kinda there. The foie gras consume wasn't particularly flavorful. I didn't detect much, if any, black truffle. Not bad, but nothing really stood out here.
"Beyond Good And Evil": Brokers gin, aperol, quince, rosemary, lemon.
This cocktail was really nice. It was sweet, but the rosemary added a wonderful touch and aroma. I really enjoyed this. It was paired with the foie gras dumpling dish though, which I didn't really understand. It was sweet, that was savory, the rosemary didn't really seem to go ... puzzling pairing.
D'Orfeuille Touraine Brut Rose
This was just ok. One of our tablemates had a restriction and couldn't have carbonation, and was given a really nice dry white flat champagne-like drink instead. Hers was awesome. Since she couldn't drink this, they gave it to me complimentary. Score! And since she didn't want a full 6 course pairing, she gave us some of hers as well. Double score! Again though, I didn't really think this pairing made sense with the risotto.
Seared Foie Risotto: nettle puree & almond praelene
Dish #2. This was the winner of the night for me.

The foie was amazing. A generous piece. Seared perfectly. Creamy. And it had a fantastic sweetness from some sort of glaze applied to it. And then a crunch from the almond praelene. The risotto itself was very al dente. I'm not sure if it was purposeful or not, but I kinda liked the crunchyness of it. It did have a strange mouthfeel though, not exactly too creamy, but something seemed a little off.

The foie though was so amazingly good.
Lamb Sweetbreads: parsnip veloute, foie gras torchon, pickled green garlic, sherry.
I did not expect to like this one, as I'm not a fan of lamb, or sweetbread really (although, this was my second night having sweetbreads this week ...).

The sweetbreads were actually rice nice, super flavorful and a great texture. The parsnip veloute and green garlic sauce was awesome. I eagerly consumed every last drop of it, and perhaps would have licked the bowl if no one would have seen me. The garlic in particularly really made this dish, adding a complex flavor, but not blowing out your palate.

Unfortunately, I didn't really detect the foie here. I think it was in the sauce somewhere?

I'm discovering that one of my favorite things about attending events like this is that they force me to try things I wouldn't normally order. Sweetbreads are never near the top of my list of things to order, probably because I just haven't had that great of preparations in the past, and I've only had a handful. After this though, I wouldn't shy away from ordering them!
Roulade of Guinea Hen, cadroon-celery root puree, camarague red rice, foie gras, pain de spice crust
Another one that surprised me! The hen was moist and flavorful, with a tasty coating on it. The rice however, was really, really good, particularly mixed with the puree and sauce on the plate. I could have easily eaten a big bowl of this rice! Wonderful flavor, wonderful texture, noms!
Duck Pot au Feu: confit tongue, sauteed offal, duck prosciutto, foie gras, wild mushrooms.
This pretty much met expectations, but not for the reasons I was expecting. I'm not a duck lover, nor a tongue lover, nor an offal lover. But, I do love wild mushrooms and foie.

The mushrooms actually disappointed me - chewy, and not very flavorful. The duck parts were tender and better than I was expecting. But the broth was fantastic! Rich, flavorful, savory, salty, amazing! More please!

This paired really well with the fairly complex red wine it was served with.
Foie gras donut, coffee cream, foie gras vaudovan caramel, brandied foie gras cereal milk shooter .
Dessert. Noms.

Everyone else at my table was crazy and didn't like this. Crazy I say.

As a result, I consumed at least 2 full dishes of this. In retrospect, that was way too much. But I loved it, and couldn't stop eating it!

The donut was actually large large, not sure if you can see that in the photo. Nice and crispy and fried on the outside, soft and bready on the inside. It had a great spiced flavor to it. The caramel was amazing, thick, sweet, and well spiced from the vadouvan and foie. The cream was not sweet and completed a perfect bite of donut, caramel, and cream. Each of these 3 components on their own were good, but not outstanding, but I found that when I put them all together I just couldn't stop going back for more. And since the crazies at my table didn't like this, more was readily available (and my plate somehow kept getting filled up!).

The brandied foie gras cereal milk was also delicious. Sweet from the cereal part, milky and creamy, I loved it. Again, the crazies at my table didn't, so I got a few of these.

This all paired nicely with the port.

Basically, I made out like a bandit here, getting far more than my share o dessert! NOMS. Thanks y'all!
Chocolate chip cookie.
And if that wasn't enough, they came around with an extra cookie at the end.

"Vegan chocolate chip cookie" is what they said. I was stuffed. I'm kinda a cookie snob since I get great cookies at work all of the time. And a vegan cookie? I had my doubts. However, this was great! Soft! Moist! Flavorful! And the non-dessert loving folks at my table of course left behind big chunks of cookie for me to finish. More noms!  (I somewhat think they were joking about the vegan part, but I'm not positive ...)

[ Originally posted the day of the event (February 19, 2012) on Google+, but moved here ].
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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Out The Door, Ferry Building


The Ferry Building is one of my favorite places in San Francisco, filled with so many delicious things! I've spent a lot of time there over the years, and have tried numerous products from every vendor. On the rare days where I don't go out to eat, I'll post reviews of different Ferry Building establishments, so that you still have something food related to read!

Today's pick is Out The Door, part of the Charles Phan restaurant group (of Slanted Door fame). There is a kiosk located at the far end of the building that sells cooking kits and there is a fast food style eatery. The cooking kits are awesome - they are basically Slanted Door food at 1/2 the price, where in exchange you put in a minimal amount of effort (< 10 minutes of "cooking"), to get amazingly delicious, high quality food in the comfort of your own home. It isn't take out, more like having one of their souz chefs in your kitchen - all the prep is done for you already (beef marinated, everything measured out, etc), and you get the same high quality ingredients the restaurant uses. I'd even argue that it often is better than eating at the restaurant itself, since you can control the time from wok to table, which can really matter for this sort of food - no waiting for the food to be plated, for the waitstaff to come find it and bring it to you, etc, just wok to mouth, 30 seconds later. Noms. They have kits for many of the top dishes from the Slanted Door, and I highly recommend both the shaking beef and the caramelized shrimp kits.

They also have some surprisingly good baked goods, not at all what I'd expect from a Vietnamesse take out place. In particular, the black currant and orange scones are amazing! The following are notes I've collated through the past year or so. Subsequent tastings are inside brackets to separate out different tasting experiences.
  • Cookies
    • Oatmeal raisin cookie: Tasting notes: Decent, very nice and buttery.  [ Raisins good, cookie good ] [ again, pretty decent ] [ very buttery, yum ] [ very decent ] [ not very flavorful, kinda dry ]
    • Chocolate chip cookie: Tasting notes:  Good quality chocolate chips. [ meh, not very good flavor, crisp, dry ] [ nice and buttery, pretty decent ]
    • Ginger cookie: Tasting notes: good ginger flavor, thin but soft, pretty decent [ crispy, but nice ginger flavor ] [ crispy, but awesome ginger flavor ] [ intense ginger flavor ]
    • Peanut butter cookie: Tasting notes: good peanut butter flavor, nice and soft [ nice peanut butter flavor, buttery, yum ]
    • Oatmeal raisin + date cookie: Tasting notes: Awesome.  Nice buttery flavor, lots of fruit. [ really good flavors, sweet from date, yum! ]
  • Scones
    • Black currant and orange scone:  Tasting notes: Harder style, crystallized sugar on top, currants and orange zest throughout. Flavorful, buttery, nice. [ ridiculously buttery, almost caramelized on top, but so freaking good ] [pretty good. orange flavor really nice]
  • Cakes
    • Chocolate cake, with chocolate chips.  Tasting notes: Meh, nothing special decently moist, but just chocolate cake.
    • Lemon pudding cake: Tasting notes:  super sweet, not very good.
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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

TCHO Chocolate Reviews

My cousin was in town visiting for a few days, and today the weather wasn't exactly friendly for outside excursions. Rather than visiting standard museums, we decided to go on the TCHO factory tour!

The tour is offered twice a day, for free. It lasts about an hour, starting with a video and talk on how chocolate is made, then a walk through of the production facility, ending with a tasting of their 4 signature dark chocolates and 2 milk chocolates. The tour wasn't all that interesting to me, as I've been on a few chocolate tours, and they are all pretty much the same, but if you are unfamiliar with the process of chocolate making, it was well done. The factory wasn't really in operation, so the facility tour was a little boring, as we didn't get to see any fun machines in use. The tasting was slightly guided, with a brief talk on how to best taste the chocolate (break it to hear the snap, let it sit on your tongue, rub it between your fingers to open it up). I've been doing so many chocolate tasting events lately with more experienced tasters that this one was a little funny to me. The tour guide would ask, "So, what do you taste?" and people would respond "chocolate ..." or eventually she'd get them to say "fruity". I was laughing on the inside because I remember one of my first chocolate tasting events where I said "fruity" and got chastised for not specifying which fruit, in which form - I've now starting narrowing down from "fruity" to "cherries" to "dried cherries" to "dried bing cherries" to "sulfured dried bing cherries from Bella Viva orchards".

Anyway, on to the chocolate reviews! All bars are made with cacao beans, cane sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, and vanilla beans.  The milk chocolate bars have milk powder in addition. Their dark chocolate bars are all single origin.

Overall, I find TCHO to be good, but not outstanding. I tend to like dark chocolate more than milk chocolate (in fact, I'm generally just not that into milk chocolate), but TCHO is an exception, I actually like their milk chocolate more than their dark chocolate, and think it is some of the best milk chocolate I've ever had. (Patric's signature dark milk chocolate is still my favorite milk chocolate).

Dark Chocolate

  • 99%: Cacao from Ecuador and Peru. Tasting notes: Incredibly bitter, super intense. Not gritty at all like some super dark chocolate can be.
  • Chocolatey:  70% dark chocolate, Ghana.  Tasting notes: This has a very deep chocolate flavor, like a very intense fudge brownie.  However, I did not find the flavor to be very complex.
  • Fruity: 68% dark chocolate, Peru. Tasting notes: Smoother than the “Chocolatey”, with a  slight acidity.  Cherry notes.
  • Citrus 67% dark chocolate, Madegascar.  Tasting notes: I didn’t pick up on any citrus here, but instead got some floral notes.
  • Nutty 65% dark chocolate, Equador.  Tasting notes: Earthy, hints of chicory, but again not very complex.

SeriousMilk Chocolate

  • Cacoa 53% milk chocolate. Tasting notes: This is a fantastic milk chocolate.  You can tell it is a milk chocolate due to its creamyness, but it has intense flavor and is very dark.  One of my favorite milk chocolates.
  • Classic 39% milk chocolate. Tasting notes: Incredibly creamy, and if you want a more traditional milk chocolate that is still quality, this is a good one.
  • Mokaccino: Made with Blue Bottle Coffee. Tasting notes: Coffee undertones quite nice, creamy milk chocolate.

Treats

  • Dark chocolate drenched cocoa nibs: Tasting notes: Pretty tasty, good quality dark chocolate and a decent crunch from the nib.
  • Chocolate Covered Cashews: Honey roasted cashews covered in Fruity dark chocolate.  Tasting notes: I wanted to love these, but didn’t.  I enjoy honey roasted cashews.  I enjoy chocolate covered nuts.  Seems like they should go together really well!  I found that the honey roasted flavors were drowned out by the intense dark chocolate, yet at the same time the honey roasted flavor added a strangeness to the chocolate.  The ratio of chocolate to nut was also a little off, I wanted less chocolate.
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Chocolate Reviews, February 28

This week's chocolate reviews!

My weekly tasting this week had an interesting theme: chocolates from companies that were newer than the store. They also announced that it was the last Tasty Tuesday they would be holding :(  I still have a stockpile of chocolate left from Christmas, and I'll be attending the Chocolate Salon this weekend, so I have no fear that I'll run out of chocolate to review anytime soon!


Summary of the week's chocolates: I'm still loving chocolates by Patric and Xocolatl de David!

(Since I'm moving my content onto Blogger, I'm going to include my notes on all of the chocolate I've had by a particular maker when I write up, not just the ones from this past week.  This week's bars will be in bold.  Comments in [] are subsequent tasting notes, for when I try a bar more than once.)

Xocolatl de David
  • Almond & Pimentón: 68% dark chocolate from Boliva.  Contains cocoa butter.  “Marcona almonds fried in extra virgin olive oil, and seasoned with smoked spanish paprika, and fleur de sel”.  Tasting notes: This bar is amazing.  Smooth, glossy dark chocolate with a subtle bitterness, with whole flavorful almonds, a nice spice from the paprika, and an amazing salty finish.  The tasting experience is incredibly complex, starting with the bitterness and almond flavor, moving into some spice, and finishing with a great smoky, salty flavor. [ This bar is really good to have a small bite of, but it gets old fast.  After having it a number of days in a row, I’m pretty sick of it. ] [ After not having it for a while, it grew on me again.  Nice smokey flavor. ]
  • Brown Butter Bar:   “Brown butter (local sweet cream butter cooked, first to remove the moisture content, and second to caramelize the remaining milk solids), and mix it with a 72% chocolate from Ecuador, then add a little fleur de sel.” Contains cocoa butter. Tasting notes: Incredibly smooth, amazing buttery flavor.  This reminded me of a perfect dessert, turned into a chocolate bar!  It basically had all of the flavors of a lovely brown butter cake, drizzled with caramel and chocolate.  A complex tasting experience, and really quite delicious!
Patric Chocolate, LLC
  • Signature 70% Blend.  A blend (obviously) from 4 countries.  Contains cocoa butter.  Tasting notes:  This one disappointed me, there really wasn’t much going on at all.  Completely forgettable.
  • Signature dark milk.  Contains whole milk powder and cocoa butter.  Less sugar and higher cacao percentage than standard milk chocolate.  Tasting notes:  This may be my favorite milk chocolate (replacing TCHO’s 53% dark milk chocolate).  I dont’t tend to like milk chocolate very much, but this was pretty great.  The chocolatier said that it is also a bar that people who like milk chocolate and don’t like dark chocolate enjoy, sort of a crossover bar.  It was creamy in the way that milk chocolate is, while still having a fairly complex “chocolatey” flavor. [ creamy like mlik chocolate, but flavorful like dark. really good for a milk chocolate, really lovely smooth mouthfeel ]
  • 75% Madagascar.  Contains cocoa butter.  Tasting notes: Very flavorful!  Incredibly complex with both strong fruity flavors and strong bitterness.  This is everything I want a dark chocolate bar to be. [ dark, bitter, lovely flavors ]
  • In-NIB-itable Bar.  Contains cocoa butter.  70% Madagascar, topped with nibs.  Tasting notes: Like the 75% Madagascar, incredibly flavorful with both strong fruity (in particular, cherry) and bitter notes.  The nibs on top add a great texture, crunch, and additional bitterness.  When I’m in the mood for something with crunch, this would be a fantastic pick. [ nice dark chocolate, nice crunchy nibs, like it! ] [ Strong cherry notes again, smooth chocolate, love the crunch from the nibs on top ]
  • PBJ OMG.  “A smooth blend of dark roasted peanut butter plus cacao w/ naturally occurring jam-like bursts of berry flavor that results in one way-too-easy-to-eat chocolate bar.”  Contains cocoa butter, peanuts, salt.  Tasting notes: Loved it, as I’m a sucker for a great peanut butter and chocolate combination!  Also, how can you go wrong with a name like this? [ Again, loved it.  I love how the peanut butter is infused throughout the chocolate, making it creamy and silky, like a milk chocolate, but it doesn’t contain any dairy.  The flavor also combines so perfectly, unless something like a peanut butter cup where you get some bites with more/less of each component, this is just perfectly blended throughout with no separation of flavors.  Incredible! ] [ So smooth, so creamy, so peanut buttery, love it! ]
Dandelion Chocolate.  The bars I sampled were all 70%,  single origin, with no cocoa butter, no vanilla, no lecithin, etc.  It was really interesting to see the profound differences in the bars, given that they have the same cocoa percentage and no extra ingredients, so the real difference does come from the beans.
  • 70% Costa Rica.  Tasting notes: Fell short for me.  Flavors were ok but pretty forgettable and not complex at all.  They describe it themselves as a good starter chocolate since it is mild and not overbearing.
  • 70% Madagascar.  Tasting notes: Hello there fruit!  This was an incredibly fruity bar.  [ This was the first chocolate I’ve ever had that required opening up. At first bite, you kinda tasted nothing, and then a few seconds later it hit.  A very firm chocolate, with a snap to it when you bit into it.  I didn’t really like this, as the flavor wasn’t particularly pronounced and I like chocolate smoother and creamer. ]
  • 70% Venezuelan.  Tasting notes: Nice classic bitter dark chocolate.  My favorite of their bars.
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Dinner @ Amber India

Sigh.  Not all dining adventures are successes.  At least now you can know my reviews aren't always positive, I've just had a high percentage of great meals lately.  Tonight's dinner, unfortunately, does not fall into that category.

I've done a lot of fine dining lately.  Lots of "progressive american" or French, lots of Michelin stars, lots of foie gras, and lots of long, drawn out meals.  Tonight was I looking for a fairly simple dinner, something relatively fast (not fast food, but not a 3 hour tasting menu), and I wanted some seafood.  I haven't had indian food in ages, and it seemed like a good fit.  So we headed to Amber India, where I thought I could get both indian food and quality seafood.

I've been to the San Francisco Amber a number of times.  While it has never blown my mind, it has always been pretty reliable and decent, albeit overpriced (but, given its SOMA location and swanky, slightly fushiony menu, does seem fitting).  So while I wasn't expecting an awesome meal, I was expecting something decent.  Sigh.

The night started with our group of four being told the wait would be 20 - 30 minutes.  Not too bad, so we put our names down and went to check how long waits would be at neighboring restaurants as fallback options.  They told us an hour, so we went back to Amber, thinking 30 minutes wasn't so bad, and we'd already burned through 10 minutes of it.  Unfortunately, there was a private party in the bar area, so there was absolutely nowhere to wait.  The small entryway was packed full of people, so we waited outside for a while.  Unfortunately, San Francisco decided to turn back into winter a few days ago and it was pretty much freezing.  After a while, we checked on our status:  15 more minutes (Note: it had been more than 30 minutes at this point).  We ask them to take our phone number and call us when our table is ready, and head next door to Bluestem for drinks at the bar.  25 minutes (and some bad cocktails) later, the phone has not rung, so we go back to check on our status.  Another 20 minutes they say.  So we head back to the restaurant that had quoted us an hour to see what their waits were now like.  Still an hour.  So we start calling around to other nearby restaurants to see if they have availability.  No where does.  At this point we conclude there must be a conference in town or something, as these places are never busy like this on Tuesday nights!  Anyway.  Back at Amber, still waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Eventually (almost 2 hours after being quoted 20 - 30 minutes), we are seated.

We place our order immediately, as we had decided far in advance what we wanted to order.  Our waitress tells us that the appetizer we order is too small for four people and really strongly talks us into ordering more.  It turns out that the appetizer was not small at all and would have been completely sufficient.  Service strike #1.

Three people order drinks.  Two drinks show up a few minutes later.  I was actually a little surprised at how quickly they came.  But then a few minutes after that, the waitress arrives with the three drinks.  She looks confused that there are two drinks on the table already, puts down the third one, and still has the two duplicate drinks.  We offer to take them anyway, but her response makes it clear that she'd charge us for them.  Hmm, ok, nevermind.  She leaves with the drinks.  Service strike #2.

Appetizers come relatively quickly.  The food isn't good (more on that later), but no big disasters here.  But then ... we wait.  And we wait.  And we wait.  45 minutes go by.  At this point, I finally say something to the waitress, asking her if she can check on our food.  She does so, and comes back saying it will be out shortly.  I express my displeasure at this entire situation.  Her offered solution: we can just cancel our order if we want.  Service strike #3.

I was so put off by this response, that I ask if I can talk to a manager.  I'm really not one to do this sort of thing, but this was getting fairly ridiculous, as we were approaching the 3 hour mark.  The manager doesn't even act sympathetic.  He just says he'll check on the kitchen for us.

Anyway, eventually our food comes.  It isn't good (you can read the details below if interested).  The manager comes over at some point and offers to comp the appetizers (which, we tried to just order one of in the first place).  While I appreciated that, it was far, far too little, too late at that point.

I will not be returning.  And as much as I like the other locations, I'm bitter enough with this experience that I'm pretty seriously considering not returning to any of their locations, which is too bad, as the Mountain View location really does have quite tasty traditional indian food, and the new Amber Dhara in Palo Alto was really innovative and good as well.  I'd been looking forward to checking out the new Amber Dhara soon to be opening in the Mission.
Pepper Crab: Dungeness crab meat, ginger, black pepper and curry leaves
Pepper is the key word here.  The amount of pepper in this dish was overwhelming and not balanced out by anything.  My palette was blown after a single bite of this dish.  I can't comment on the quality nor taste of the crab, as this really could have been anything, the only flavor was the pepper.  I wish I'd been able to taste ginger or crab, as those are the ingredients I was looking forward to.  There were also large chunks of onion in the mix.
Tawa Seared Scallops: Couscous Pulao, tomato & fenugreek sauce
This was the best dish of the night. A generous portion of scallops (6).  They were cooked ok, but could have used a little more time (or perhaps hotter temperature) as the sear wasn't that great.  They were nicely spiced.  No real flavor in the scallops themselves however.  Also on the plate were some forgettable fried plantain chips.  The cous cous was decent, and the sauce on the plate was actually pretty tasty.  Probably my only enjoyable bites of the night were the cous cous with the sauce.  The asparagus was bad.  Really bad.  I have no idea what was wrong with it, but it tasted horrible.  I even took a second spear to try it out, thinking there must have just been something wrong with my first spear.  Horrible.
Sea Bass Kokum Curry: Sea bass, Maharashrian style kokum and coconut milk sauce.
The sea bass was overcooked.  Since it was in a curry sauce however, this wasn't too big of a deal, but it was not very tender nor flaky.  The sauce was ok, but I've had this dish in the past when the sauce was fantastic.  Anyone who has eaten indian food with me before knows how much I love coconut curry sauces, and I usually soak up all of the sauce with my rice/naan (or even just eat it by the spoonful!).  That did not happen this time.  The sauce wasn't bad, it just wasn't very good.  The only nice thing about it was the coconut flavor.
Arbi ke Kofte: Taro dumplings, almonds, raisins, cashew nut sauce.
These were awful.  I think they were fried, but the outside layer was just a kinda greasy mush.  The inside was an even nastier mush.  I didn't taste taro at all.  I don't really know what I tasted.  Just ... mush.  And again, I've loved some of Amber's cashew nut sauces in the past, and this one just did nothing for me.
Chili Cheese Kulcha: Leavened bread stuffed with “Amul Cheese” and Serrano chilies 
This was perhaps the biggest disappointment.  A few weeks ago we went to the new Amber Dhara in Palo Alto and got hooked on their "cheesy bread".  That one was a Manchengo Cheese, Onion & Piquillo Pepper Kulcha, and I figured this would be similar.  It was not.  There was very little cheese in the bread and it wasn't melty or gooey or delicious like the Amber Dhara one.  The chiles were perceptible, but barely.  And the bread itself was just kinda meh.
Mango brulee: Classic Crème Brulee infused with mango.
I love creme brulee.  I love mango.  But I don't even know why we were trying at this point.  This was fairly horrible.  Intensely sweet with a fake mango flavor.  It reminded me of really bad sugar free frozen yogurt.  The brulee layer was very thin and didn't add anything to the dish, in fact, the sweetness of the caramel was cloying with the ridiculously sweet pudding.  And the fruit was totally out of season and not good.  Seriously, leave off the fruit when it isn't seasonal!
Lemon grass panna cotta: Lemon Grass & Kafir Lime Leaves set Custard.
More out of season fruit.  Cute presentation, minus the fingerprints all over the glass.  I wouldn't really call this a panna cotta, but it was a thick pudding.  It had a "skin" on top, like what happens when you make pudding and don't cover it with plastic wrap as it sets, which seems like a really, really basic misstep in execution.  That all said, the lemongrass was a nice flavor and this wasn't too sweet at all, the dessert lover in me somewhat enjoyed this.  It was the only dish of the evening that we (ok, I) finished.

  
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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dinner @ Commonwealth

Tonight I had a special visitor in town: my cousin!  I wanted to take her somewhere to really show off San Francisco dining, but unfortunately, almost everywhere on my (very extensive) list is closed on Mondays.  I settled on Commonwealth, a place I'd been wanting to check out, but had never been high enough on my list to actually make it.

Commonwealth is a "Progressive American" restaurant, using seasonal ingredients, innovative cooking techniques (liquid nitrogen, souz vide, etc) and plenty of foams/mousses/gelees/etc.  The plating is fairly intricate and there are many components listed on the menu for each item.  Dishes are designed as "medium" plates, not exactly small plates and not exactly full size entrees. This category of restaurant is often amazingly disappointing, unless in the very top tier, so I was a little skeptical going in, and was very pleasantly surprised.  Everything was really quite good!  See below for reviews of the individual dishes.

A few major scoring points:

  • The components in the dishes really worked well together.  While there were many things on each plate, they combined into really amazing bites.  Someone clearly thought through the flavors and textures here.
  • Complimentary house filtered water or sparkling water. 
  • Service was spot on: Water glasses always refilled as needed, never too often to be annoying, never felt the need to conserve my water.  Plates were cleared soon after finishing, never so quickly it felt rushed, but never sitting there for long.  The pacing of the meal was spot on.  We were sharing things, and share plates and servingware were always replaced.
  • Really great atmosphere and vibe.  They somehow hit this perfectly - comfortable and casual, yet with excellent service and food. 
  • I didn't try it, but they do a 6+ course tasting menu for $65 ($95 with wine pairings) that looked like an incredible value (6 courses, including a course with a generous piece of seared foie gras, multiple amuse bouches, etc).  And they donate $10 of each tasting menu to a local charity.
  • Excellent value for the money!
This was a very successful meal and I'd very happily go back here.  I wish it were in my neighborhood!

House made potato chips with nori powder and vinegar mousse.
This was a nice change up from bread and butter.  Provided basically as soon as we sat down.  The chips were decent housemade chips, thin and crispy, with some nori powder on them.  The mousse to dip them in was intensely vinegary, and allowed you to create your own version of salt and vinegar chips.  Nothing to go out of your way for, but definitely fun, playful, and unique.
Root vegetable terrine, crispy maitake mushrooms, horseradish, shaved salad
This one was my cousin's choice.  I'm a little sick of root veggies so I wasn't super excited about this, but was surprised by how tasty it was. A lot of excellent flavors in here.  The shaved salad on the side was light and fresh, featuring some greens, radishes, carrots in a light refreshing dressing.  The terrine was filled with assorted cuts of cooked root vegetables (beets, turnips, parsnips) and was beautiful as well as quite flavorful.  The horseradish (the dots of puree on the plate) was what really made this dish, pairing perfectly with the root vegetables and giving a great kick to any bite you included it in.  I wasn't a fan of the crispy maitake mushrooms, there was too much tempura batter and too much of an oil taste to them, I didn't really taste the mushroom at all.
Sturgeon, brussel sprouts, ham hock, cauliflower, pumpernickel bread crumbs, tangerine 
This was our joint choice as we both wanted a seafood dish.  The sturgeon was well cooked, but not particularly notable.  The brussels sprouts however were fantastic!  (And I've been pretty sick of brussels lately).  They were served as individual leaves, lightly sauteed, with a great crispness to them.  The pumpernickel bread crumbs were also particularly noteworthy, crusting the fish and giving a great textural crunch to bites.  I probably wouldn't order this again, but it wasn't bad.
Egg custard, sea urchin, ginger,  mushrooms, sweet potato, wild greens, seaweed brioche 
This one was my choice, as I've been on a bit of an uni kick lately.  I've had a couple uni + custard dishes in the past few weeks (the uni cream brulee at Quince, the chawanmushi at Kiss Seafood), and I must say, I'm really starting to like this sort of thing, it is turning into a comfort food for me.  This preparation was good - a nice creamy custard with cubes of cooked sweet potato and tiny mushrooms in it, topped with ginger and scallions, some sort of foam, and of course, uni.  The flavors all combined together very nicely and I enjoyed the play of the textures.  The uni itself was not as flavorful, creamy, nor buttery as I would have liked, certainly not as good as the uni I have had at a lot of sushi places lately, but it was decent.
Blood orange sorbet, chantilly cream
Complimentary palate cleansers brought by the waitress.  The tables around us were all doing tasting menus (or were friends of the owners), and she didn't want us to be left out.   I'm so glad she brought us these!  Each was a very generous size, and easily could have qualified for a full on dessert at any restaurant.  The blood orange sorbet was among the best sorbets I've ever had.  I don't normally care that much for sorbet (it is usually just boring ... why have sorbet when you can have ice cream?  Or baked dessert?), but this was really refreshing and had a great tart flavor from the blood orange.  And it paired absolutely perfectly with the cream.  Really, really good.
Frozen chicory mousse, bruleed bananas, candied maple, clove yogurt 
This was my least favorite dish of the evening.  We ordered it only because I'd read great reviews on Yelp! about it (seriously, I should know better than to trust the yelpers by now!).  It was interesting, a frozen mousse sphere with a thin shell that broke apart when you cut into it, but I didn't really care for the flavor nor the texture.  The bruleed bananas were nicely caramelized on the outside, but weren't really that great.  The little crispy bits of candy were fantastic, reminded me of hokey pokey.
Peanut butter semifreddo, chocolate ganache, frozen popcorn, caramel
The winning dish of the evening!  My cousin and I were talking about how restaurant desserts are often not that impressive and usually aren't worth it.  And then this arrived.  ZOMG.  This was sort of like an upscale frozen Snickers bar.  I have no idea what the frozen popcorn was made out of, but it was basically salty frozen soft chunks of ... something.  You wouldn't want to just eat a spoonful of it, but you could mix in as much as you wanted with the other components to create sensational bites, as salt mixes perfectly with all of the other components: salty chocolate, salty peanut butter, salty caramel, you get the idea.  The main "bar" had a bottom crust of chocolate cookie, then a peanut butter semifreddo, all dipped in chocolate ganache.  Chocolate and peanut butter obviously go fantastically together, but even among this category of treats, this rates better than most.  The semifreddo had an incredibly intense peanut flavor and was a fantastic texture.  The cookie crumble on bottom again added a nice texture and more flavor.  And the chocolate ganache was fun to break through and was high quality dark chocolate, adding even more layers of complex flavor.  Add in some of the caramel sauce ... ah, near perfection.  Sweet, salty, perfectly balanced flavors.  I'd go out of my way to eat this one again!
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