Sunday, April 10, 2011

Max's Cafe

To anyone who happens to be reading this, thanks for sticking with us through the long hiatus, caused by job changes, relocation across the country, and general distraction. However, Michael and I are back and intend to start keeping up with the blog (which I know you will all understand is somewhat of a labor of love).

Anyhow, I will kick off the rejuvenated blog with a review of Max's Cafe in Santa Fe, which we visited for the first time last night. Let me start with the bad, which is that the visuals of Max's are, shall we say, unprepossessing. It is down a small and not particularly attractive back alley of Santa Fe. The entire restaurant is a smallish rectangle in which a large chunk has been taken out for the kitchen, leaving an L shape with a few oddish paintings on the wall and a rather unfortunate neon "Open" sign of the type usually found in roadside bars. There are, I am guessing, about 10 tables and seating for maybe 35 guests at a time, plus a tiny bar and service area (complete with cash register) protruding into the dining area. The few windows look out onto an abandoned parking lot.

To find the beauty at Max's, it is necessary only to look at the food. The menu is not extensive, but it is excellent with a number of intriguing choices. Michael went for the "two hour egg", very slowly cooked until it appeared to be the most tender and delicate poached egg ever, topping a bed of crispy polenta and a mound of reduced wild mushrooms. Just delicious. I had the special appetizer which was a torchon (the size and shape of a minature hot dog) of foie gras, perched on a log of rather sweetish brioche, with some dabs of blood orange puree and gelee on the size and nestled under a tangle of frisee. The foie gras was excellent...pure and rich flavored, although I could have used a little more of the pleasantly astringent citrus to balance the richness of the foie and brioche.

Michael's main course was a Wagyu flank steak which came in a series of slices over a kind of blue cheese stuffed enchilada. We both felt that while the steak/blue cheese combination was excellent, the pungency of the cheese was a little overpowering for the rather mild steak. Concept good, but a slightly more mellow blue might have worked better. I had zero complaints about my "suckling pig tasting platter" (and what could be wrong with that)...a triple confection of the most tender pork loin, pork confit under a shatteringly crispy top, and braised shoulder wrapped in chard (which tended to fall apart, so it didn't look as neat after being attacked, but it sure tasted good).

We spotted what looked like a chocolate bombe going by and had that for dessert. To our pleasant surprise, it was a chocolate shell which melted away when hot creme anglaise was poured over it, leaving a chocolate-flavored liquid studded with chocolate bits and other goodies I was too sated to fully identify.

With dinner we drank a bottle of Van Duzen (Oregon) Pinot Gris, which was crisp in the Oregon style, and very good with the food. One criticism I had of Max's is that the wine list is rather bipolar, with just a few selections in the under $50 range and many trophy bottles in the $100 or even $200 range, which seems a bit out of sync with the very casual setting and moderate prices. Max's needs to add a few more midrange options, particularly on the white wine side, as the list reads as though it might represent the leftover cellar of some defunct high end restaurant, salted with a few less expensive options.

Prices were reasonable for the quality with a bill of about $150 before tip, including the wine. There is also a chef's tasting menu for $76 but this seems very expensive for a restaurant with apps in the $10-15 range and mains for about $25-35.

All in all, though, the food was some of the best we have had in Santa Fe and we will definitely be back soon.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

NYC: Calle Ocho

In town for a short visit with my brother and sister-in-law, who took me to this Latin-themed place near their home on the Upper West Side. Active and crowded bar and front room was no surprise, but walking back through a corridor leads to a cavernous high-ceilinged room that looks like it might have been a temple of some exotic religion in a former life. Hard surfaces, but fortunately the high domed ceiling keeps the noise level to a tolerable level.

After a long day for everyone, we started with a round of drinks: pisco sour for me (tasty, if not particularly sour), cosmo for Ilene, strawberry mojito for Steven. I tasted both of the latter and they were certainly OK if not memorable.

It was restaurant week in New York and with 3 appetizer and 3 entree choices we just made life easy and picked one of each. Appetizers included bacon wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese (the best thing I ate there), some fresh but rather bland ceviche, and some kind of potato croquette (quite bland). Main courses included salmon (predictable...farmed, no doubt), a flattened beef with crispy potato sticks (quite delicious...same texture as good Chinese double cooked pork) and carnitas with mashed potatoes, which was OK but a little fatty and bland.

Desserts were acceptable to good...unremarkable chocolate cake, rather doughy doughnut balls, and tasty coconut ice cream in a chocolate shell. The first two served with good ice cream on the side.

Good value for $35 on the RW menu, and not a bad local place, but hardly a destination. On the other hand, maybe the regular menu is better and it's not really fair to judge a place on the basis of a single RW experience.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Fore Street: Return to an old Favorite

Having just sailed a boat up to Maine, I took the opportunity to visit my old friend Malinda (who was nice enough to pick me up in Camden and drive me to Portland). I was happy to repay her kindness by treating her to dinner at Fore Street, one of my favorite restaurants in the whole country. I always have a wonderful meal there. It is not always the most sophisticated cooking, and not everything I have eaten there is innovative or even interesting, but the overall welcome and feeling I get there, and the anticipation with which I walk through the door, is one I have hardly felt elsewhere...certainly not anyplace I have eaten comparably often (this last visit was probably about my 12th at Fore Street).

For a slender, attractive young woman, Malinda is an eater, and an excellent dining companion. After a round of drinks while waiting for our table (it was July 5 and the place was, predictably, packed) we took our seats in the dark, brick-walled dining space with its warm copper-topped tables. Malinda, being a somewhat frugal girl of Yankee origins, suggested splitting an appetizer but I was, of course, having none of that. Especially after I spotted the sampler platter of pates and terrines at the bottom of the appetizer list. Malinda and I agreed on the pork terrine, rabbit rillettes, and sweetbread sausage. All of these were sublime, especially the latter which was served in 4 small coins. We could have also had chicken liver mousse or smoked pork, which I will have to try another time. As a companion first course, Malinda ordered a lettuce and pea salad, which was OK, but I found it rather dull, somewhat underdressed, and completely unremarkable (an example of the occasional miss at this restaurant).

There were no misses with the main courses, however. We agreed to share the sauteed scallops (as good as scallops should be, and generously portion) and an absolutely wonderful halibut, which was a dense block of perfectly cooked, flaky yet meaty white fish served in a small iron skillet and with a complementary acidic sauce (some kind of vinaigrette, I am guessing, livened up with mustard and possibly lemon juice). We also had, as an adventurous note, a side dish of chard with bacon, which was wonderful, and most welcome as the halibut came completely unadorned and ungarnished except for the sauce.

For dessert, Malinda, bless her heart, is a fellow chocolate lover and we had both of the chocolate desserts on the menu...a chocolate torte (good....kind of mousse-like) and chocolate cake (wonderful...intensely chocolate). The cake came with a kind of nectarine sorbet and the mousse with vanilla ice cream, but we decided that they worked better with the other desserts and ended up switching them.

With dinner we drank a bottle of Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir from Oregon, which was clean and elegant. I might have wished for something a little richer and fuller-bodied, but I should have known better, having had many bottles from this producer.

With all of that the bill before tax was slightly under $200....not cheap by any means, but a meal that I can still savor two weeks later, and how do you put a price on that?

Camden, Maine: Avoid Cappy's

After a 4 day nonstop sail from Annapolis to Camden, my crew and I disembarked (conveniently, right around lunchtime) and headed into downtown Camden for a well-deserved relaxing lunch. I was joined by my friend and co-skipper Steve and owners Hemant and Sonal, with whom I had made this trip two years ago with a great deal more difficulty. On that earlier trip, the three of us had dined at Cappy's Chowder House, a local institution in Camden in which I had had quite a few acceptable meals over the years. The dinner in 2008 was unremarkable but not actually offensive; after the ordeal we had been through, we could all barely keep our heads out of the soup anyhow.

July 5 was a very hot day in Camden as it was on much of the East Coast, and Cappy's is not air conditioned, although I think it is hard to fault a place on the Maine Coast for not having air conditioning, which is only needed a few times a year. Too bad Monday was one of those days. We were quickly shown to a table in the drab upstairs dining area, where a fan provided welcome air movement.

OK, the bottom line. I had a lobster roll and it was lousy. While it may not have been the worst lobster roll I have ever eaten (that honor most likely goes to a mercifully forgotten storefront somewhere down in the Kennebunk area) it certainly is in the bottom two or three. Finely chopped lobster meat (always a warning sign) with no taste, excessive and runny mayonnaise, untoasted and unbuttered bun. Not actively offensive, but so far from the concept of what a lobster roll ought to be that the people at Cappy's ought to be ashamed. They certainly know better. However, the curly fries that came with it were good. They ought to be, because they weren't included but carried a supplemental charge.

I regret that Steve followed my example and had the same disappointing lobster roll. Sonal had some kind of haddock chowder, which she seemed to enjoy (I thought it was way too hot for soup myself, but she'd just come from 4 months in Delhi, India). Hemant had a Reuben sandwich which looked much better than the lobster roll.

The price for all of this pleasure, with 6 beers and a cocktail among the four of us, was about $100. At that price, and for that food, what Cappy's says to me is...tourist trap. Stay away.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Charleston in Baltimore: Another winner

We dined at Charleston, the best restaurant in Baltimore (easily) and possibly in the mid-Atlantic, with Mom and Dad, catching up on much family business that had taken place over the past month or so.

Our favorite waitperson, Leslie, had moved rooms so we dined in a small back room lined with wine bottles and with only two other tables (both quite large -- 8-10 covers each). One table went through an inordinate amount of wine, so much so that they had to keep the bottles on a side table in the corner. In due course we recognized famous wine writer and rater Robert Parker who was dining with the staff of his Wine Advocate...well, that certainly explains the massive wine consumption.

At our table consumption was comparatively modest. We started with a bottle of Pinot Gris from Zind-Humbrecht and it went so well with everything that we continued with a second bottle. The Charleston format, most refreshing, is not to divide food into courses but to allow diners to pick their own multi-course formats from among the list of available options. Menus are priced according to the number of courses chosen, starting at $74 for 3 courses (plus dessert, which everyone gets) and going up at the rate of $15 per extra course.

Well, I apologize that I cannot fully report on what everyone ate because there were too many courses crossing the table for me to take accurate notes. I do remember that Michael had the seasonal menu of five courses (plus dessert) which is a relative bargain at $89, but I wanted too many things that were not on that menu. Michael did admit later that it was probably one course too many for him to enjoy comfortably, as he ended up being only able to manage a little sorbet for dessert. My mom started, as usual, with fried green tomatoes with crabmeat which is one of Chef Cindy Wolf's signature dishes although not often on the actual menu.

I started with...well, I'm embarrassed to admit I can't remember the first course. I think it was a salad of some type. I then followed up with tuna, then duck breast, then buffalo tenderloin. The last one was of the finest pieces of meat I have ever had, as tender as a filet mignon but with infinitely more flavor. My dad had the same two final courses with a salad as a starter. For dessert I had a warm Venezuelan chocolate cake....with the traditional, possibly even cliched, molten center. However this was more cakelike (i.e., more cooked) than the traditional cake and was accompanied by sublime, and quite appropriately bitter, coffee ice cream.

Service as usual was highly professional although the flutter of activity around Robert Parker's table made us feel a bit like second class citizens for a while. On the other hand we did get 3 separate visits from the chef, which is unusual.

For a wide variety of options, a flexible menu, a pleasant setting with perfect service, Charleston is hard to beat.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Grenadines: Best Beach Lunch Ever?

Recently got back from a week sailing in the Grenadines with friends Adam and Jeremy. Ate (and drank...and drank) on the boat for virtually the whole trip rather than eating ashore. Did have one extremely non-memorable meal at the marina in St Vincent before heading south, which shall not be mentioned further in this space.

The one meal we did have ashore, however, was a standout. It was at the beach bar/restaurant/hotel in Saltwhistle Bay on the little island of Mayreau in the Grenadines. I cannot remember the formal name of the restaurant but since it is the only restaurant on this particular beach, it is easy to find. Saltwhistle Bay is itself a picture-perfect little harbor fringed by palm trees and with the wind blowing through a cut between hills.

After having spent a couple of days anchored out on the very unspoiled Tobago Cays, we sailed over to Mayreau on our way to Union Island. We seemed to be the only patrons and had our choice of large stone and concrete tables. Fortunately the large and placid lady who also took our order brought some cushions; otherwise it would have been quite uncomfortable.

We ordered a round of beers (as we had agreed not to drink hard alcohol while sailing). Unfortunately the only choice was the local Hairoun, pronounced by us Hair-on (as in, "there's a hair on my beer") but we managed to force down a couple of rounds. Meanwhile, Adam had inquired from Large Lady about the "local curry" as in "what kind of curry is it?" The bemused response was, "well, the normal kind". Being an adventurous type, Adam ordered it anyhow. Jeremy had the fisherman's platter and I opted for a simple fish sandwich with fries.

There then ensued a very long wait. We could have taken a stroll around the harbor, but we had already done that, so we sat and drank our beers and waited. Eventually the waiter/bartender appeared staggering under the load of two massive platters, plus my fish sandwich.

All of the food was fantastic. We quickly surmised that the curry was conch...and very tender indeed, which is not easy to bring about. The curry was quite mild but very flavorful. The fisherman's platter had a very large portion of delicious snapper plus vegetables and rice (also with the curry). My fish sandwich was large, on fresh bread, and stuffed with lightly fried version of the same snapper.

It was one of the simplest and most perfect al fresco lunches I can remember, on a deserted beach overlooking a beautiful harbor, and all for about $60. Hard to beat that! Kudos to the chef at Saltwhistle Bay.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Santa Fe Report: May 2010

Hi everyone, sorry for the long delay between postings but we took a break from eating out, mostly, while Michael was creating his spectacular room at the DC Design Show House (which took up a lot of April and May).

However, we are just back from a trip to the Southwest including 3 glorious days in Santa Fe, our spiritual second home, so I am happy to report on the restaurant scene there as we experienced it, even though the reviews themselves are uneven.

1. La Boca: This was touted by our friend and real estate guru Todd Davis as one of the hip new places in town. It is in a small cozy space downtown just a couple of blocks from the Plaza, and is clearly quite popular. It is a tapas restaurant which allowed us to try a number of dishes. Of these, the boquerones (small sardines) and cucumber/avocado soup were standouts. The roasted asparagus and the Mediterranean salad were good, although the figs and honey-laced vinaigrette of the latter made it quite sweet. The flatbread with chorizo and cheese was not...kind of a thick doughy pizza with very muted flavors.

With a couple of glasses of wine each, the bill came to about $150. Service was provided by a slender young man with spiked hair and plenty of attitude, who was efficient but not particularly welcoming.

I supposed if you lived in Santa Fe and were anxious for a change of scene, we might drop in on La Boca every once in a while, but as casual visitors, we would not put it very high on our list for a return visit. We can get tapas at home, better than this.

2. Bumblebee's: Dropped in here for lunch after a morning exploring downtown. Good as ever. Michael had the usual taco sampler, while I, having learned that the shrimp tacos are the best, concentrated on those. Good, quick, cheerful. Always a winner. We were glad to see it hadn't gone downhill since our last visit.

3. La Choza: We had had a great traditional New Mexican meal on our first visit and were anxious to get back. After an evening strolling the galleries on Canyon Road, we showed up at about 8 to find a waiting room of people and an estimated half hour wait. Fortunately, two seats opened up at the bar and we sat almost immediately.

Unable to choose from among our favorites, we both opted for combination plates: I went for an enchilada, carne adovado, and chile relleno. Michael's was, I think, similar, but it was hard to tell. All of the food was excellent without being fancy in any way. The meal came with a small amount of rice and a nice helping of pozole. We also had some green chile stew (we shared) to start. Plenty of food. Unlike most similar places, La Choza charges for chips and salsa ($3.75) and they were not worth it...hard and oily. Salsa was good, but not outstanding. Guacamole is even more. The sopaipillas that came with dinner also were not up to the old standard, but otherwise the food was excellent. We drank two rounds of killer margaritas whipped up at the bar, and weaved our way home.

3. Tune-up Cafe. This had been one of our favorite little unpretentious SF places on two previous visits but it has really gone downhill in our experience. For lunch Sunday we were both craving green chile cheeseburgers. I ordered mine medium rare with cheddar, while Michael's was medium with jack. Well, surprise, they mixed up the orders. They also forgot the green chile, which we didn't notice until we were halfway done. The counter person, who had messed up the order, seemed rather unfazed...she did put in an order for extra green chile but after waiting 10 minutes for it we gave up and finished our chili-less burgers. The fries were crispy but not hot. Big disappointment. We went back for breakfast on Monday and also had a disappointing experience: my burrito was filled mostly with potato and Michael's basic breakfast was, well, basic. Based on these two lackluster meals, I'm sorry to say that we can't recommend this place any more, although we will give it one more chance.

4. Cafe Pasqual's: We saved this for our last dinner and it was as outstanding as we remembered. Michael started with a simple arugula and grapefruit salad -- similar to what we make at home -- while I had a special appetizer of skewered dates wrapped in prosciutto with some cheese. Very tasty, but a little skimpy (two skewers, one date each). However, we'd had some cocktail snacks at home so it was just as well. For the main course Michael had enchiladas with mole sauce, which he couldn't stop raving about. Being a sampler by nature, I opted for the Plato Supremo which offered a chile relleno, taco barbacoa, and one of the chicken mole enchiladas (so Michael didn't have to share), all of which were excellent. We shared a chef's sampler platter for dessert which was excessive with a slice of very good chocolate budino cake, banana cream pie, coconut cake, and some sort of vanilla-y ice cream. Oh, and chocolate mint bark scattered around the plate, as if the above wasn't enough. With dinner Michael had a couple of glasses of viognier and I had some Mt Difficulty Pinot Noir from New Zealand, which tasted much better than it did at the winery back in October!

We had very professional and very friendly service. One particularly nice thing is that any available waiter seems to be willing to serve any given table, which makes things much more efficient. Pasqual's has some of the best food in Santa Fe. It is decidedly not fancy, and not the place to linger (despite our full menu, we were in and out in a bit over an hour). So it doesn't necessarily appeal to someone wanting an "occasion" meal, but we love it.