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.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Southwest Road Trip Report

After our brief stay in Park City, we hit the road on a tour of some of the great Southwestern national parks on our way to Santa Fe. This is a brief summary of some of the memorable (and not so memorable) meals we had along the way.

We spent two nights in Springdale, Utah just outside the entrance to Zion National Park (where we had a fantastic time, by the way). We had 2 dinners and 2 breakfasts there (lunch on the trail). Both of the breakfasts were at Cafe Soleil, a very short walk from our hotel, where we enjoyed the burritos and excellent coffee (a rarity in Utah, we found). There was a very large and tempting assortment of baked goods for people who did not want the full breakfast, but we were fueling up for a day of hiking so we went for the maximum calories. Dinners, unfortunately, were not as successful although both were acceptable. The first night, our hotel clerk recommended the Bit & Spur where we had acceptable, but forgettable Mexican food. The highly touted (by them) margaritas were weak. I suppose you have to expect that in Utah, where alcohol is carefully measured. The beer was good, though. The second night we switched to the Spotted Dog which was somewhat more upscale. I had the pork loin which was good but not great...rather dry, but saved by a tasty sauce. Michael had pasta which seemed to be the choice of most of the patrons. A large portion of decent, again not memorable food. We did have a very nice Chateau St Jean chardonnay and I remarked that the wine prices were particularly friendly. Not fine dining in either case, but we were in Springdale, Utah, and our expectations were not high. Good thing, too.

After leaving Zion we headed to Bryce Canyon. Again lunch was an on-the trail affair. Dinner was at the time-warped (in a good way, kind of) Pines Restaurant just west of Bryce Canyon City. Imagine going to a roadside place in the 1950s and you will get the ambiance, with all of the pleasure (and dining peril) that implies. I stuck to the hamburger rule, only I made it an elkburger, and came up snake eyes. The burger was small...a little bigger than a McDonalds burger, although much tastier, and dry. Michael had the patty melt recommended by the informant which was indeed delicious. The restaurant is famous for pie so we could not pass up a piece...well, two pieces. Michael had banana strawberry cream and I had chocolate cream, both of which came with absolutely massive piles of whipped cream (real whipped cream, I think) on top. And the crust was good. Unfortunately the chocolate filling tasted canned. I shoulda known. The banana strawberry was better. We overhead the boysenberry being recommended and I am still kicking myself for not ordering it, but I did have a chocolate craving. Which excuses everything, always.

The next morning we hit the road, skipping the overly elaborate breakfast at the National Park lodge, and by 9 we were hungry, so we stopped in the little town of Escalante for breakfast at the Golden Loop restaurant. A little scary looking from the outside (and from the inside...the waitress was in need of some serious dental work) but there a few patrons there not driving pickup trucks and we sat (and parked) close to the door in case we needed to make a quick escape. Which was not, as it happened, necessary. Except from the food, maybe. Michael had a burrito approximately the size of a throw pillow which he said was pretty good. The juice choice was orange, in a bottle from the cooler. Coffee was bad diner coffee. I ordered pancakes and sausage. One of the three pancakes was burned so badly it was inedible. Fortunately the sausage was good and I certainly got enough nutrition from the other two. We can't recommend the Golden Loop, but there aren't too many other choices on Highway 12 (which is a spectacular drive in other respects).

After a brief stop at Capitol Reef National Park, where we just got a brief overview of some of the very interesting rock formations, we pulled in to the small town of Hanksville, Utah (a gas stop, really) and dined at Stan's Burger Shak [sic] advertising famous burgers. Leaving aside the delightful ambiance overlooking the fuel pumps of the Hanksville Shell station, we found Stan's burgers to be no better than OK. The fries would have been good...nice and crisp...but they were cold, alas. I thought about asking for fresh ones but decided not to. The shakes, however, were outstanding...enormous cups of very thick shake bordering on soft ice cream, in all sorts of flavors. If you should happen to be passing through Hanksville, I'd recommend you pack a lunch but stop in to Stan's for a shake.

This portion of our trip ended in Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border where we stayed in the View Hotel on the Navajo reservation, run by terribly well meaning and friendly tribal people who are still learning the hospitality trade (the hotel is only a couple of years old). After a long day in the car, we were ready for a drink and some dinner. Well, no drink unless it's iced tea...the reservation is dry, which we can certainly understand given the long and difficult relationship between Native Americans and alcohol.

Anyhow we took a brief hike up to a viewpoint near the hotel with a magnificent panorama over Monument Valley, then, there being little else to do, went down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. The service was not terribly polished but was awfully friendly and solicitous, especially after the initial very taciturn female waiter was replaced by a most chatty young man. We ordered "Navajo tacos" which are like regular Tex-Mex tacos except they come on (surprisingly delicious) fry bread, which is kind of like naan. Fortunately we'd ordered a portion to share because it arrived on a large platter, four tacos around the size of salad plates (each) and piled high with goodies. After this we could have just stopped eating, but I ordered the pozole, which was tasty although the pozole itself was kind of crunchy, which I don't think it should have been. Michael had the green chile stew which was remarkably improved with handfuls of salt and a good bit of ground pepper. Indeed, all of the food at the View Restaurant was characterized by a fundamental blandness, as though the chef had been instructed not to spice things up too much lest he disappoint the busloads of tourists that pass through the place. (And indeed, there was such a busload staying in the hotel...a group of elderly Japanese. The Japanese and Germans seem to be colonizing the West, from what we could tell).

Anyhow, while the food was neither exciting nor memorable, it certainly wasn't awful, and the view was sublime. It was also more food than the two of us could eat for $33, which is about the cheapest dinner check I have ever gotten in a place that had tables and waiters.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Chimayo: Big City Prices in Park City

After a day of hiking at Sundance Resort, we treated our friends and hosts David & Ann to dinner at Chimayo. Dave & Ann live in Park City during the winter so are a wealth of information about where to eat, what to do, and so forth and we had a delightful couple of days hanging out with them at the start of our trip (including awesome, albeit expensive, drinks at the fabulous and empty St Regis resort on the other side of town).

Knowing of our love of Southwestern food, they thoughtfully made a reservation at Chimayo, one of the most respected restaurants in the little but oh-so-chic hamlet of Park City. We did have a lovely meal there, although the prices were a bit shocking.

Ann and I started with duck enchiladas. What could be bad? Only the size...two tiny little rolls (more like the size of taquitos than enchiladas...think of a very thick pencil, but not as long). The flavor was delicious though. Ann and I stayed in tandem and both had the "london broil" of elk which was wonderfully flavorful and just gamy enough. Michael started with a stuffed avocado on greens and had, of course, salmon (this incarnation was mustard seed encrusted and grilled) which he reported was excellent. I forget Dave's appetizer but his main course was the buffalo flank steak (which was my second choice)...Dave said he should have had the elk as the buffalo was rather unexciting.

We had two bottles of wine...a Hogue Gewurztraminer which was delicious with a distinct but not overwhelming sweetness...and a Qupe Syrah which I found disappointing with a rather acid edge to it, not nearly as rich and soft as I was hoping for. Michael also had a glass of Conundrum with his salmon. Wine availability in Utah is much better than it used to be but pricing is still painful...the two bottles together were just about $100. In general the less expensive bottles seem to be marked up an inordinate amount, although maybe that was just this restaurant.

With entrees over $40, the total bill after tip for this...with no dessert or cocktails ... was well over $400. The meal was good, but not that good, especially since the room was very plain (bare wood tables and chairs) and service, while pleasant, was not very polished. Probably Chimayo suffers (or we suffer) from it being once of the fanciest restaurants in a very expensive resort town and the pricing attributable thereto.

Good food...arguably very good...but not a very good value.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Spices: A Misnomer

This will be a quick one. Michael had a craving for Chinese food last night. Well, as far as we have discovered there is no good Chinese food in Washington, not even average Chinese food, so we were reduced to ordering takeout from Spices which has the major benefit of being close to us. We had a large feast of tofu "fries", dragon dumplings, caramelized chicken, "shaking" beef, crispy vegetables, and curry laksa.

The tofu looked like fries (same shape) but were flabby and gummy, although pleasantly spicy. The dragon dumplings were reasonably tasty although doughy. The caramelized chicken was not. It was chicken pieces sauteed with onions in a generic brown sauce. The shaking beef was tough little cubes of meat with large untrimmed stalks of some green Chinese vegetable. The crispy vegetables were also not. Sauteed in the same generic brown sauce as the chicken, along with big square chunks of tofu (better than the fries, but not much). The laksa was good, I thought, moderately spicy with a hint of coconut milk (Michael wanted more coconut flavor) and with large chunks of chicken and green beans and with bean sprouts and noodles to be added. A decent value at $10 and the only successful dish of the bunch.

Hopefully the next time Michael gets a craving for Chinese food we can wait until it goes away. Otherwise, I will hold out for City Lights which while not truly authentic, was much better than this poor collection.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bardeo: Still our favorite neighborhood hangout

After a long and eventful week, neither of us really felt like cooking so we headed over to Ardeo/Bardeo for our Friday evening meal. I made an Opentable reservation (mostly to get the points) although I found out that this really applies to the more formal Ardeo side, while we prefer the usually more lively Bardeo part. Indeed, at 7:00 we got the last Bardeo table while as far as I could tell, Ardeo was seriously underpopulated. (You can get dishes from either menu at either place, so it's really a matter of atmosphere.)

We had, as usual, a delightful and delicious meal. Starters included fried rice balls (delicious), a dish of red peppers with sardine fillets (OK, but the peppers needed more seasoning), and squid ink risotto (rich, generous, and very filling). Michael then had a "medium plate" of steak chimichurri while I had a hamburger...both came with excellent fries. The hamburger for $12 must be one of the best bargains in DC.

For drinks we both started with a wine flight: Michael's included a Gruner Veltliner, Torrontes, and Muscatel, the latter from Spain, all of which were OK but not great. I had a more interesting flight that included a California Chardonnay (name escapes me, but good enough for Michael to order a full glass), Zinfandel and Cab (the Zin was great, the Cab a little heavy). I then followed by a glass of Touriga Nacional which I had wanted to try for some time...I thought it was very nice, well balanced and great with the food although not fruity and rich enough for Michael to have more than one sip.

We left very well fed and very happy. What a great place to have in the neighborhood. Would be even better if we could walk to it...well, maybe in the summer.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bourbon Steak: Just as good the second time

With friends Jeremy and Jen, we headed down to Bourbon Steak, the new(ish) Michael Mina restaurant at the Georgetown Four Seasons to celebrate...well, something. Snowmelt? The end of February? No matter, we were ready for a nice dinner with good friends whom we don't see often enough.

Actually, this was our second trip to Bourbon Steak...the first one, which went unblogged (sorry) was back in November with friends David and Ra'ed. That dinner was so memorable that we had long looked forward to a repeat visit. To be honest, Jeremy and Jen were not the most likely candidates since Jen is a vegetarian, but she is a good sport and always finds things to eat even in the most meat-heavy environments. Although she does refer to it as "the dead cow place".

Anyhow, I immediately caused a bit of commotion when I rejected the offered table, which was very close to the loud and not particularly good music emanating from the lounge next door. The staff was very nice about it, though, and quickly reset a better table closer to the windows and better for conversation.

As with our first visit, we were welcomed with the restaurant's signature trio of fries with three different seasonings and three different dipping sauces. Well, I never met a fry I didn't like, including these, although I did get the distinct impression that these fries were more than a few minutes out of the fryer. Tasty, but neither super-hot nor super-crisp. Probably my punishment for messing up the table arrangements. Unlike the first time, when they were addictive and devoured in a few minutes, these sat around and actually went unfinished.

Oh well, on to better things. Jeremy and I had the iceberg lettuce wedge with blue cheese dressing and lardons, which was excellent. OK, it's not exactly haut cuisine, but still good. They did a good job of not drenching the lettuce in the thick dressing...I had been afraid of it being a bit overwhelming but the proportions were exactly right. Michael had the yellowtail sashimi which he described as very fresh, delicate, and delicious, and the mint and grapefruit accompanying it were delicious. He was not wild about the presentation....the fish was served curled up rather than laid flat as is normal...and the portion seemed just a bit skimpy, but the quality was irreproachable. Jen had a green salad which looked fine from my vantage point.

Main course: Since there was no vegetarian main course, Jen made do with mushrooms, broccoli rabe, and brussels sprouts (normally prepared with bacon, but omitted for her). I sampled the first two and both were succulent and delicious. Michael and Jeremy had the red-wine braised Wagyu beef, which Michael generously shared with me. It didn't seem like such a big portion when it arrived but it was incredibly rich, almost like braised short ribs (which it might have been...the cut wasn't specified). It almost had the richness of eating foie gras, which I guess is the attraction of Wagyu. It was indeed terrific (inducing an eye-roll of delight from Michael when he first dug in) but very, very filling. Meanwhile, I went simple with a seared skirt steak which was one of the best pieces of meat I have eaten in a while. Ordered medium rare, it came perhaps just a little darker than that, but had wonderful flavor and also surprisingly tender. I had brussels sprouts (with bacon) which were also very good, chopped fine and cooked until just tender. I need to rethink my brussels sprout preparation at home...clearly I have been overcooking mine as these got Michael's seal of approval which is not easy to get.

For drinks, we started with a round of cocktails: I had a dangerously addictive pisco sour, just to do something different, while Michael had his standard Domaine de Canton negroni which he said was overly heavy on the Campari...that's the trouble with non-standard drinks I suppose. Jeremy had one of their speciality drinks...a Kerouac I think...about which I received no feedback, and Jen had a glass of Malbec which I tasted and which was unremarkable. With dinner Michael had a couple of glasses of Au Bon Climat chardonnay, which he liked very much, and the three of us shared a bottle of Vita Nova Merlot blend (including Sangiovese and Syrah) which was introduced by the very helpful and friendly sommelier. This wine was an interesting find...more French than Californian in its balanced acidity and complexity, not quite as obviously charming as the Shiraz I had my eye on but very good with the food selections, especially the steak.

In general wine prices at the restaurant are rather high (for example, the Goldeneye that we enjoyed at Blacksalt on Wednesday for $65 was $90 here) but there is a "secrets of the sommelier" list which includes a number of very good values, such as this one which was only $45. To be fair, there are a significant number of decent bottles in the $50 range and the pricing seems to be inconsistent: some things high, some things quite reasonable.

Bourbon Steak, based on our two visits, is among the best executed restaurants in DC. The food is reminiscent of that at Blue Duck Tavern, or what Blue Duck used to be, but the room is more attractive, the service a bit more polished, and the food more evenly executed. We will be back for another special occasion.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Black Salt: Still good, still pricey

My friend Bill and I headed to Black Salt on Wednesday for a long-postpooned catchup dinner. There was a snafu with the reservation...probably some screwup between me and OpenTable...but the helpful staff soon found us a table despite the crowds hanging around the bar.

We ended up having the tasting menu, which was five courses plus a perfect oyster and caviar as a starter. I cannot remember all of the was a salmon tartare with yellowtail sashimi, one was a sauteed block of mackerel or something similar, and the rest eludes me. It was all very tasty, though. The last course was a dessert presentation of chocolate pot de creme, chocolate cake, and ice cream. All very satisfying. Individual portions were small, as befits a tasting menu, but we did not leave hungry.

The tasting menu is $74 for 5 courses (which we had) and $89 for 7 courses, which would seem to be more of a bargain for people who want to eat that much, but this was a weekday and we are both trying to trim a few pounds. We drank a bottle of Goldeneye Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley which was terrific, dark, rich, and a bit on the heavy side...maybe not a classical pairing with fish but just what we wanted on a cold night.

Service was attentive (a bit too much so when they were trying to get our orders in) and reasonably professional although not overly warm. We also had to make our own call on the wine as I felt we were being steered to other things...glad we stuck to our guns.

With the wine and service, the bill came to well over $100 per person...nearly $150 after tip. Of course the cooking was excellent, we had an elaborate dinner, and fish is not a cheap meal. Nonetheless I could not escape my usual feeling when exiting Black Salt: good, but a lot of money for a meal in a very simple setting.

Monday, February 15, 2010

St Barts report

We spent a very relaxing and pleasant 10 days in St Barts, following our usual pattern. While there, we ate in a number of places, many familiar and a couple new to us. Here's a capsule report:

Esprit de Saline: One of our favorites as always. Beautiful outdoor (but covered) setting. The nasty smell from the salt pond which greets you as you exit the car does not penetrate to the dining room. Delicious, relatively simple food. As usual on St Barts, not cheap.

Bonito: This is a new place that took over the space of the old Mandala on the hill overlooking Gustavia Harbor. Beautiful white and blue space with some tables having a great view. We liked it so much that we went back for Valentine's Day with a couple of new friends. On the first visit I had scallops, which were good but not memorable, and Michael had the slow-cooked "cochon de lait" which was so good that I ordered it the second visit (outstanding both times). The restaurant specializes in ceviche which we had as appetizers and enjoyed very much.

Wall House: Another old standby. We had a very disappointing visit last year and this year's was considerably better. Service was still slow, although not as slow as last year (that was intolerable). Because of its position in the harbor it does not get much breeze and was very warm. I'd say, good but not great. Not at the top of our list.

Santa Fe: We ate here the last night. Very informal and quite small...about 8 tables on a terrace with a view of the ocean during the day (and blackness at night). Maybe the best food in St Barts. Very pleasant and friendly service.

Do Brazil: We had a post-scuba lunch here. Beautiful setting and delicious drinks including perhaps the best daiquiri I've ever had. Very expensive...over 100 euros for 2 drinks, a shared seafood salad appetizer and two hamburgers. Burgers were overcooked and dry although the fries were good. Nice setting, but better for drinks than food, I think.

Bouchon: A tiny stand by one of the local strip shopping centers in Lorient. One day we got pre-diving sandwiches which were an amazing value...4 euros for a ham and cheese sandwich occupying almost an entire baguette, 6.50 for grilled chicken! One would have been plenty for the two of parents ended up having lunch on the leftovers. Another day we went for a hamburger and pizza which were both very good although preparation was quite slow (I think our timing was bad). Maybe the best value in St Barts, although that's not saying much.

Wine: We paid a sentimental visit to La Cave. It has been taken over by the grandson of the founders, who is a very nice young man. We hope he succeeds. He is hampered by old inventory...most of the wine is, I think, well past its prime. We had a bottle of 04 Sancerre that was excellent and a bottle of NV Champagne from an unrecognized producer that was also very nice, if a bit austere. He is trying to update his inventory and I hope he succeeds as it would be a shame for this landmark to fail, although I sense he is struggling at the moment.

We had better luck at La Cave au Port Franc on the edge of town, where the charming owner (with very limited English) has a very nice and very well priced selection of wine, including enough Alsatian wines to keep us happy...we had a very dry Muscat as an aperitif with visitors and a bottle of Gewurz that Michael and I loved although it was not a hit with Mom and Dad.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bonterra in Charlotte

Through a series of travel complications too long and boring to relate here, we found ourselves in Charlotte, NC for the evening of Friday, February 5th on our way to St Barts. My first thought, when I knew we would be spending the night in Charlotte, was to look for a decent barbecue joint, but the bloggers and chatters at Chowhound suggested that there was really no good barbecue to be had within a reasonable distance. (I had a decent experience, years ago, at the 3 Little Pigs in Asheville...not really close...but nothing here).

Anyhow, through a little research I stumbled on this place called Bonterra, which boasted of being Charlotte's finest restaurant (always a claim that fills me with suspicion) and with the best wine list (which, if the website was accurate, seemed like a real possibility). It was close to our modest airport-area hotel so I figured, how bad could it be?

Well, the answer is, not bad at all. We were somewhat exhausted from our trials in escaping the "snowstorm of the century" -- the second one this season -- and were in need of a good drink and some uncomplicated food, which is exactly what we found. I will say that our options did not test the kitchen in any way and in fact we skipped entrees entirely and focused on a series of appetizers, but we were quite happy with the results.

Bonterra is in an old deconsecrated church and has nice high ceilings and a fairly simple decor. On a cold rainy night it provided a pleasant although perhaps slightly austere atmosphere...of course Michael spent part of the evening pointing out how the decor should have been done differently but that is to be expected. The service was very pleasant and very professional although the waiter seemed overtaxed...the restaurant was not terribly busy but it is a large space and there appeared to be only two people working the floor so the waits for things were a bit longer than ideal.

Bonterra has an extensive and excellent selection of cheeses and allows you to pick your favorites on an a la carte basis. They are very reasonably priced at $3 per selection. We chose probably our all time favorite, Humboldt Fog, plus Crater Lake Blue from Oregon and Black Diamond cheddar from Canada...maybe not the most adventurous selections, but they were all generous sized and in excellent condition. And delicious. We also had some Rosette de Lyon salami and Serrano ham ($5 each, both very good although the salami was a bit bland), a tub of chicken liver mousse (also $3, excellent and an amazingly generous portion) and a tub of mixed olives. This latter, billed as a "spicy mix", was the only real disappointment of the meal...rather watery, and not spicy at all.

Following this selection, we had a couple of Southern-themed salads: the Azalea, with apples, bacon, and blue cheese, and the Magnolia with goat cheese and almonds). Both generously portioned and with first class ingredients. We also had an order of duck spring rolls, which I thought were OK but not memorable, and Michael didn't like even that much.

Compared to the very reasonable appetizers and salads, the entrees seemed a bit pricey at $25-30 and up, so we were happy to economize and make a meal out of the starters. The chicken liver mousse alone could have served 4 as an appetizer easily.

The wine list was, I must say, truly extraordinary. It would have been a good wine list in New York or San Francisco and was exceptional for a modestly sized city in the South. The vast majority of the selections are available by the glass and there were also several interesting tasting flights.

Michael opted for the "Napa's best chardonnay" flight which included Trefethen, Cakebread, Robert Keenan, and Silverado. The Trefethen was a bit light and not so flavorful, but the other three were excellent...we're familiar with the Silverado but the other two were a nice surprise. Meanwhile I had a Pinot Noir tasting including two Oregon (Adelsheim and King Estate) and two California (Grey Stack and Testarossa). To my surprise, I liked the Californians much more than the Oregonians. The flights were not cheap at $18 and $16 respectively but made for an interesting drinking session. We followed this up with a glass of Mollydooker Verdelho for Michael and a glass of Hendry Block 7 Zinfandel for me, which were both as good as we remembered.

The total for all of this was $120, half of which was for wine, so I must say we ate very well for $60 (and drank very well too, for that matter). Certainly a place I would not hesitate to go back, or recommend, if I find myself in Charlotte again.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Paris: L'As du Felafel

Much has been written about the superb quality of this mostly takeout falafel joint in the Jewish quarter of Paris and I am telling you that it’s all true. The lines, the heft of the sandwiches, and the deliciousness.

We stopped by for the first time on Saturday afternoon, forgetting that of course a kosher restaurant would be closed on Saturday, and went back on Sunday about 2. Even at that time there were probably 25 people in line but it moves reasonably quickly and we weren’t in line more than five minutes or so. The staff is brusque but friendly in a Jewish-deli manner. The falafel sandwiches were delicious, a fresh pita bread stuffed with crispy fried falafel and topped with a delicious red cabbage slaw, tahini, and as much harissa as you care to ask for. It was so good that we went back on Monday for another visit….Michael had the schawarma this time which he raved about, while I stuck with the basic falafel. At 3:00 on a Monday, there was no line. We briefly considered going back for seconds but thought better of it…probably a bad decision.

Anyhow, it’s everything they say it is, and must be the best 5-euro lunch in Paris.

Paris: Les Bouquinistes

For our last dinner in Paris, we were at a bit of a loss, having uncharacteristically not planned ahead. I had neglected to call our first choice, Chez Josephine, on arrival and since they are closed on weekends, I wasn’t able to call them until Monday afternoon – only to find that they were completely booked for that evening. Suspecting that perhaps our rejection was due to my request being made in English, I called back a couple of hours later and asked again in French, but with the same result.

In any case, we settled on Les Bouquinistes, an offshoot of the Guy Savoy empire and within walking distance from our hotel. It was a bit pricier than we really had in mind but no attractive alternatives presented themselves and we were open to a little bit of a splurge for our last night. Besides, they could take us at our preferred time of 9 pm.

After a stroll through St Germain, we arrived at the dining room just about on time. The décor – a modern idiom with shades of faux-distressed plasterwork -- seemed a bit dated but we were there for the food.

And we did find the food, in general, excellent. We both had the menu degustation, which seemed like a good value at 75 euros. We started with an amuse-bouche of lobster puree thickened with cream, then the fun began. The first course was a few coins of foie gras, just the right amount, rich and creamy with good coarse bread on the side. It was followed by a lobster and crab salad, a small oblong of sautéed sea bass with uncommonly crispy skin (Michael passed on the skin), a creamy chestnut soup with wild mushrooms, sauteed chicken breast, and a melted chocolate cake with a vanilla shooter and pistachio ice cream. None terribly innovative, all very delicious…with the one notable exception of a tasteless and mushy stalk of artichoke heart accompanying the crab salad, which had no obvious reason for being there.
With the meal we drank a 2007 Gewurztraminer Grand Cru from [ ] which was rich, unctuous, slightly sweet, and an excellent pairing with the food.

Service was friendly but somewhat off. The wine wasn’t immediately available (the captain had to go fetch it from the cellar down the street, he explained) but he was nice enough to pour each of us a glass of the same wine from a bottle standing on a nearby table (leftovers from another group? It was never made clear) while we waited. The first three or four courses came out very rapidly, then there was a long pause before the chicken course and an almost interminable wait for dessert, this despite the fact that the dining room was more than half empty at that stage. Our very young waiter seemed a little overmatched, as though perhaps some of the staff hadn’t shown up when expected or perhaps if every table came at once, which didn’t seem to be the case.

All in all a delicious experience, but not a particularly polished one. Of course one doesn’t expect 3 star service at one star prices but this suggested a lack of organization uncommon in Paris in our experience.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Paris: 404

Very fun dinner at 404 on Saturday night. We were talked into the house “special cocktail” which turned out to be two of the most delicious mojitos we’ve ever had (and they ought to be for 11 euros each – that stung a little). We then had what amounted to chicken in wrapped in feta and fried (delicious) and Moroccan lentil salad (also delicious, but I thought a bit underspiced) as starters. For main courses, we both had tagines, Michael’s was chicken with preserved lemon and mine was lamb with prunes and raisins, both of which were awesomely tender and delicious. The restaurant is very atmospheric with stone walls, Moroccan lanterns, and music almost drowned out by the buzz of happy eaters.

One situation at the end marred the experience a little bit. One of the waiters…who spoke very little English, or claimed to…brought the bill and when confronted with a credit card, asked “how much should I make it for”. Well, this is not how it is supposed to work in France, where the tip is by law included in the price of the food. It seems uncommon for people to tip over and above the set amount…and if they do, it is by leaving a few euros in cash. So this rather blatant attempt to solicit a tip was rather offputting. What was worse is that Michael, a little confused, asked this server “isn’t the tip included in the bill” and was told “no”…which is clearly wrong. In fact so wrong that we mentioned it to the host on the way out and he kind of shrugged off our concern, saying “yes the tip is included but some people like to leave a bit more …it’s optional”.

Well, the meal wasn’t cheap at 118 euros including a bottle of pleasant but non-memorable Tunisian rose, but it was altogether enjoyable except for the shenanigans with the bill. However, the tip incident combined with the upsell on the expensive cocktails kind of leaves the impression that the restaurant has its hand in your pocket. On the other hand, as we joked on the way back, from what we’ve heard, that’s kind of how it is in Morocco.

Anyhow, a very atmospheric, attractive, and fun restaurant with very tasty food. Just keep your hand on your wallet while you’re there, and watch out for those cocktails!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bofinger: Good food, terrible service

We met up with our friends the celebrated artists Andrew Zega and Bernd Dams for dinner on Saturday night. They were nice enough to come by our part of town (the Marais) and to pick a restaurant, Bofinger, that was both atmospheric and within easy walking distance.

Well, with one thing (mostly champagne) and another we didn’t get out of the apartment until nearly 9:30, Andrew having explained that Bofinger was not taking reservations that evening by the time he called so we would have to take our chances. Fortunately the heavy rain of that afternoon had mostly stopped as we headed out and it was indeed only a five minute walk from our apartment.
We arrived to find a mob scene in the best French ski-lift tradition, with the “line” representing a mob in a roughly circular pattern around the host’s desk, spilling into the miniscule bar and out into the street. Being the best French speaker, Andrew was dispatched to see what he could do while Bernd went across the street to Le Petit Bofinger to see if things were any better (even worse, he reported). While we considered a “plan B”, we were told that we would probably get a table in 15-20 minutes, so it was not worth leaving and going somewhere else, which would take even longer. And we were all delighted to find our table ready just a few short minutes later, to the discomfiture of the many paired-off folks waiting in the bar.

The short report on Bofinger was good food, terrible service. Michael and I had the choucroute, a specialty of the house, and I can report that the sausages were excellent, even (or perhaps especially) the boudin noir, which even Michael enjoyed. There were at least four kinds of sausages, smoked pork loin, pork chop, smoked bacon (a bit fatty for me) and a mass of sauerkraut about the size of my head which even I could not make a serious dent it. For starters I had six impeccably fresh (and quite expensive) oysters and Michael had a nice salad. Andrew and Bernd had salads and a steak and steak tartare, respectively, which we did not taste.
Unfortunately, the wait staff decided, about halfway through the meal, to totally ignore us, to the point that we started pouring our own wine, and tried in vain to order dessert before giving up. I don’t know whether we annoyed someone or they got distracted with somebody more important, but I have rarely felt more ignored in a restaurant. Being with friends whom we didn’t want to embarrass, I was not tempted to make a scene, but it would have been the kind of situation where one was called for. And of course with the tip included, as it is in France, you can’t even make a point of your displeasure on the tip.

We had a perfectly serviceable bottle of Alsatian Riesling (somewhat less astringent than most) and a reasonable value from the mostly short and expensive list.
We had a lovely time catching up with our friends, and the company made the dinner memorable, but given our experience I cannot recommend Bofinger to anyone else. Perhaps not on a busy Saturday night…

Friday, January 15, 2010

Paris: Le Gaigne

On Friday night we ate at Le Gaigne, following a rave review from Mark Bittman in the New York Times in 2009. Well, Mr. Bittman’s taste is usually good in cooking and no doubt he had a very nice meal there, and there was nothing really wrong with our meal. Probably the biggest problem is that the restaurant got a rave review in the New York Times and therefore the clientele consisted primarily of Americans, which is not usually a good sign and not what we are looking for a Paris restaurant. I know, as American tourists it is somewhat hypocritical to rail against the presence of other American tourists, but nobody said we were logical all of the time.

Now, I must say that the welcome at Le Gaigne was charming and accommodating. I called at 7 pm looking for a table for that evening (!) and was delighted to be told that they could indeed fit us in, but only if we came at 7:30. Well, here it was 7:00 already, we weren’t exactly in our party clothes and had only just opened a bottle of celebratory champagne, so that was going to be tough. I managed to wheedle Madame into letting us come at 8:00 (plenty late enough for our first night). She was nice enough to explain that she had a party coming at 9:30 and we could come whenever we wanted as long as we were out by 9:30, which seemed reasonable enough. As it happened we were able to enjoy the second half of the champagne as a post-dessert treat.

To my discredit, I slightly miscalculated the distance and despite rapid walking, we arrived a few minutes after 8; I was apologetic and Madame was most gracious about it. She did blanch, however, when we tried to order the five course tasting menu, but I promised that we would eat quickly and would be able to accommodate their 9:30 deadline.

Le Gaigne is a tiny restaurant, with only 20 seats. The décor was minimal (Michael felt it was negative décor, as in “they would have been better off doing nothing than doing what they did” but it wasn’t really objectionable to me). As noted above, when we arrived it was populated mostly by other Americans but I was relieved to see that as the evening wore on the ratio of French to Americans improved. The meal was a good value at, I think, 35 euros for the menu. Unfortunately the food was only pleasant, really not memorable. Indeed, as I sit here four days later, I cannot remember a single thing we ate, except for a dessert of sautéed mandarins atop vanilla ice cream which I thought was a perfect light ending to a nice meal.

And we did finish and vacate right at 9:30, making everyone happy.
We both felt that Le Gaigne was a perfectly pleasant and I was pleased with it as a non-taxing choice for our first night in Paris, when we lacked the energy for anything more exciting. Perhaps our compressed schedule put unreasonable demands on the kitchen, but someone going and expecting the meal to be the high point of their trip to Paris might be disappointed.

Paris: Chez Georges

We landed in Paris at about 7:30 a.m. after a long, terribly uncomfortable, and mostly sleepless flight from New York, yet after taking the metro in from the airport, finding our small but rather charming rental apartment at the edge of the Marais, getting settled, and making the obligatory visit to a nearby patisserie for croissants and coffee, we felt energized and ready to spend the day wandering around Paris. The weather was cold and gray but that did not stop us from putting on our walking shoes and making tracks for some of our favorite haunts, including legendary kitchen store DeHillerin.

Michael suggested lunch at one of his old favorites, Chez Georges. He had had several memorable meals there in the past and had taken me there with great anticipation and enthusiasm on our first visit to Paris together in 2006. Unfortunately, that meal turned out to be flat and distinctly un-memorable, so it was with some concern that I agreed to the suggestion.

As it turned out, there was no reason for concern. We arrived a few minutes after 12 to find a completely empty dining room and actually took a turn around the block to see if anyone else turned up. Ten minutes later we walked in, were cordially seated at a small table in the back and joined a few other patrons…but by 12:30 the restaurant was packed. And this is French bistro-packed, where there is literally less than an inch of space between your table and the next one. The French figure that if there isn’t going to be walking room between the tables (and there’s nowhere near enough..the whole table has to be pulled away from the wall before the person on the wall side can get in or out), why bother to leave any space at all? The better to pack in a few extra tables.

We were taken over by a bossy but motherly waitress who clearly was not on her first day on the job. Michael ordered the signature frisee salad, which we had previously found inferior to the version at Petit Louis in Baltimore but which had perked up considerably since 2006, while I threw caution and my cholesterol count to the winds and ordered the goose rillettes as a starter. What arrived was a large crock…I mean large…maybe a pint of moist goodness. The idea, clearly, is not to eat the whole thing but to take as much as you want..the crock is then topped off and refreshed for the next patron. I did valiantly address the crock, putting away (with Michael’s help) perhaps a quarter of it, and was tempted to continue, but I knew there was a rich main course coming.

Michael had the “sole Georges”, a specialty of the house of course, which basically consisted of a generous piece of sole…probably a whole filet..swimming in a butter sauce in the best old French tradition. He raved about it. Michael likes sole more than I do, so I limited myself to a few bites, but I could see why he was so taken with it. I preferred my own entrée, scallops in a somewhat similar butter sauce, the scallops perfectly browned on each side and yet not in the least bit tough. My portion was similarly generous – probably a dozen good sized scallops…and yet I had no trouble finishing them off.

We tried to get a carafe of house white but Chez Georges’ wine list is heavily oriented toward reds and they don’t offer much in the way of whites. Our motherly waitress brought us a bottle of crispy and grassy Sancerre with instructions to drink as much as we wanted and she would charge us appropriately. Well, naturally there was very little --- which is to say, nothing – left in the bottle by the end of the meal!

We skipped dessert and coffee and yet the bill came to 120 euros, one of the more expensive lunches we’ve had lately and certainly in fairly modest surroundings. On the other hand the food was impeccable and incredibly delicious in a very old-fashioned French way that probably Julia Child would have loved, had she been there, so we treasured every moment and I was very glad that I had agreed to Michael’s wise suggestion.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Boston: Surprisingly good lunch at Kingfish Hall

After some business meetings in Boston's financial district, I had some time to kill before my flight home, so I wandered up to the Faneuil Hall area to grab a little lunch. I briefly considered the Union Oyster House, previously a favorite spot for dinner with the parents on their occasional visits during my tenure here many moons ago, but I decided that I didn't want to be that much of a tourist. The theme-park atmosphere seems to have taken over and I am no longer as enamored of the flour-thickened variety of clam chowder as I used to be, now that I (occasionally) make my own. Durgin Park was also considered but rejected as being too depressing for a solo diner.

Most of the eateries in the area are either fake Irish bars (or real Irish bars, for all I know) or variations on the theme park tune. I did happen on a place called Kingfish Hall, an offshoot of the burgeoning Todd English empire, and decided to give it a try. Not without misgivings, mind you, as our last foray to one of Mr. English's eateries, the flagship Olives restaurant in DC, was very disappointing if not an actual disaster.

The room was OK looking but undistinguished, with canvas-backed chairs and faux-rattan fans overhead. I feared some cuisine along the line of Bubba Gump's Shrimp Factory or some other monstrosity, but gee, it was only lunch, and I didn't have that much invested in it. I took a seat at the long, virtually deserted bar and decided to go for the full New England experience, ordering clam chowder and a lobster roll.

Well, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by both. Neither was the best I have ever had, but certainly respectable. The chowder was creamy and rich, with a reasonable amount of salt pork and potatoes in the bottom. I would have preferred more clams and the whole thing could have been improved by a richer fish base and a bit less cream. It was topped by a single perfect cherrystone clam, steamed, which was superb.

The lobster roll was also a pleasant surprise. Plenty of lobster in the proper top-split, buttered roll. The roll was a little too deep for the amount of lobster so I ended up leaving the bottom third, below the split, but that's a minor critique. It also had lettuce on the bottom which no Maine purist would tolerate, but at least there was no celery or other undesirable filler. It came with cole slaw that perfectly balanced the creamy and tangy (although the dressing was too watery) and some baked beans that had a nice bit of barbecued something mixed in, plus a generous portion of house-made potato chips seasoned with Old Bay that I ate more of than I should have.

The lobster roll was $21, which isn't bad when you consider the one at Red's Eats in Wiscasset is $17 and that's with no chips, no cole slaw, no beans, and no place to sit, and no service, and you stand in line to get it. It was not the best lobster roll I have had, but far from the worst either...even in Maine it could hold its head up with pride, if lobster rolls had heads that is.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

San Francisco: Short takes from a long trip

Short Takes in San Francisco

Here are some comments from recent dining experiences in the City that for one reason or another did not, in my view, merit a full-scale writeup.

1. Gold Mountain: We actually ended up eating here twice, once on Christmas night (when there was almost nothing open after our long flight from the East Coast). We had hot and sour soup (not adventurous, I know, but Michael had a craving and it was a model of its kind), crispy shrimp, and some kind of pork. I would rate the food as a 9 out of 10 and the ambiance as a zero out of ten. Of course it didn’t help that it was near closing but by the time we ate (quickly) and left we were the only people in the place, surrounded by a sea of empty tables (the dining room must easily seat 100) and linoleum. We went back for dim sum on our way to the airport. Quality, excellent. Ambiance, somewhat better since the room was more than half full (and with very few Caucasians, always a good sign). Selection, rather disappointing. Some tasty shu mai and buns appeared fairly early but much of the rest was a parade of uninspiring chicken feet, congee, sautéed bok choy, and those odd Chinese sweetened bean paste items. On the other, if we had been a little more patient or adventurous we could have stuffed ourselves for a fraction of the Yank Sing price…as it was our snack, hardly skimpy, was less than $18.

2. Yank Sing: Our usual go-to place for dim sum and we joined our good friends John and Glenn for a traditional New Year’s morning celebration here at the “new” location in the Rincon center. As usual it was clean, refined (by dim sum standards) and delicious but you really pay a price for it…with a Bloody Mary each and a good but not overwhelming assortment of stuff, it cost nearly $50 per person, which is staggering by dim sum standards. And not all of it was great, the Peking duck in particular which combined a doughy pancake, runny hoisin sauce, and skimpy duck pieces. I am not sure Yank Sing is going to be our go-to place for dim sum much longer if this keeps up.

3. Bi-Rite Ice Cream: Just to finish off our decadent New Year’s morning (or to start the year off right, take your pick) we went straight from Yank Sing to this little place in the Dolores Park area. Delicious ice cream in very unusual flavors. I had a wonderful combination of chocolate, toasted coconut, and roasted banana. Michael had a salted caramel that he raved about (apparently a specialty of the house). It wasn’t crowded when we were there…around 1 p.m….but I can imagine that it would be mobbed on the average summer evening. In fact they seem to be expanding into the next door space.

4. Dynamo Donuts: Rusty and JP insisted on taking us there on our first morning together and we were very glad they did. A little hole in the wall in the Mission near a plethora of Mexican and other Latino eateries. Michael and I split four of the unusual flavors: chocolate rose (chocolate cake with rose-flavored icing), bacon maple walnut (raised donut with maple walnut icing and bacon sprinkles), strawberry filled, and Meyer lemon with a huckleberry glaze. We liked the last one although the flavor could have been more pronounced. The strawberry filled wasn’t a winner (Rusty and JP concurred)…not bad, but the filling was overly sweet and it just wasn’t exceptional. The first two were terrific. Well, they can’t all be good when you’re trying to do something new. I was very content when we left (although sorry I hadn’t ordered a sticky bun to go along with…next time).

5. Garibaldi Café: We met a new friend, Grant Gibson, who writes a very interesting blog of his own (see blogroll) at this pretty little place in Pacific Heights. It does strike me a bit as a ladies-who-lunch kind of place but there is nothing wrong with that…if the shoe fits and all that. All three of us started with a carrot-saffron soup which was quite tasty. Michael and Grant had the house signature salad which was quite an impressive looking mound with plenty of grilled chicken scattered around. I was craving a burger and the Garibaldi version was truly excellent, cooked just as I ordered and so juicy that I had to eat it leaning over the table to protect my sweater. The terrific brioche bun caught most of the juices, but not all. The burger came with a nest of frites that as we all know can range from excellent to ho-hum. These were excellent, crispy and hot and totally addictive. They disappeared before I knew what had happened to them. Based on this one, rather undemanding, meal, I would be eager to see what else Garibaldi had to offer.

6. Sunflower Café: This is a little Vietnamese place within (strenuously hilly) walking distance of our hosts’ apartment. We popped in there on Sunday night for a casual dinner and had terrific food. JP, Michael, and I shared an appetizer sampler platter which included some grilled shrimp (nice, not exceptional) but the highlight was a make-your-own roll setup including 8 (!) rice paper wrappers, a large stack of impeccable romaine leaves, some shredded and seasoned carrot (not enough) and some crispy beefy chunks on a large bed of eminently edible rice noodles. The three of us had a ball making our rolls and adding some of the tasty fish-based sauce…the combination was delicious and quite filling. For entrees Rusty, who was avoided meat, had some sautéed eggplant which was among the best I’ve had. JP ordered grilled lemongrass chicken and was quite taken aback when it came in the same format as the appetizer…rice paper rolls, romaine, and all. It also seemed to be sautéed (and in small chunks) and not grilled. Tasty to be sure, but rather a repeat performance of the appetizer. Michael and I did better with a “shaking beef” and curried shrimp dishes both of which were both large and very tasty. More food than the four of us could eat. Great neightborhood place.

7. Goat Hill Pizza: Rusty, JP, and I wandered over there Monday night with two other friends of theirs. It is on the opposite corner from Sunflower…in fact that intersection is kind of restaurant central for the Potrero Hill neighborhood with three of the four corners being popular restaurants (the fourth corner has an Asian-themed bar with an attached restaurant seemingly in dormancy). Monday nights turns out to be “all you can eat night” at Goat Hill (a phrase that always sets my heart aflutter). Naturally it was mobbed so we had to repair to the aforementioned Asian-themed bar for a liquid libation while awaiting a table. The format is kind of frat-partyesque. Waiters emerge periodically from the kitchen with a pie of one kind of another and announce the selection (Hawaiian, pesto, onion and mushroom, or whatever) as they approach your table. If you want a slice, you take one. Otherwise, you wait for the next option. No judgement on those of us (no names mentioned) who may have had two or three pieces at a time piled on their plates simultaneously. Great format, great fun. Honestly, I didn’t think the pizza was compelling, the crust being a bit tough and thin for my taste, but the whole experience was a blast. Being with fun people helped of course, but it seemed like everybody there was having a great time. Really, how could you not?

8. Tartine. We were on our own for our first full day in San Francisco, Rusty and JP not having yet come back into town, so we drove over to Tartine, a famous bakery/breakfast café in the Mission District. I think Michael had heard of it but either hadn’t been there in years, or never, and I’m always up for a visit to a bakery any time. We got a bit of a late start and parking was a nightmare. Fortunately Michael dropped me off so I could get in line, since the line just to get in the door was easily 20 minutes when we arrived (and got longer). Tartine does not distinguish between those eating in and taking out. You shuffle around the perimeter of the room choosing items from the glass cases in front of you. If you want to eat in, you then grab a seat from among the scattered tables (despite the crowds, we did not have trouble finding seating). For some reason Tartine’s website advertises full breakfasts (e.g. cooked entrees) so we – Michael in particular – were quite taken aback to find when we got there that with few exceptions, it is baked goods only. (Not a problem for me, but I hate to see him disappointed). Well, having stood in line for 20 minutes, we were going to eat what they had. I started with a pain au chocolat, the standard against which all breakfast pastries ought to be measured, and Michael ordered a bowl of muesli. Further down the cafeteria line, we both ordered a piece of a tasty-looking quiche but I had a last minute change of heart and switched to a kind of open-faced croque monsieur. The verdict: Croissant was B quality…good size, using bittersweet chocolate (a nice touch), reasonably flaky, but nothing exceptional about it. Muesli was very Swiss in character, a bit sour in taste as though sour cream was mixed in with the yogurt, not a big hit with Michael. The quiche was delicious, very rich and eggy, and the croque monsieur was terrific, a kind of open-faced grilled ham sandwich and very generous with the ham by the way. All in all, Tartine was a nice neighborhood place with tasty food but we both agreed, certainly nothing that either of us felt warranted a 20 minute (or more) wait in line. It’s just not that special.

Out the Door for Breakfast

On our last day in San Francisco, we got out the door uncharacteristically early, no doubt to the vast relief of our hosts, and had a busy schedule before heading to the airport for the long trip home.

Since we are big fans of the food at Slanted Door, although not the ambiance, we were eager to see what Charles Phan, the owner, had cooked up in this more casual, less touristy venue. We had a delicious, very non-traditional breakfast there.

We started with a steamed chicken and steamed pork bun, which we shared. I thought the chicken bun was a little bland and a bit more doughy than ideal, although Michael disagreed. We both felt the pork bun was delicious, with the meatier and juicier filling being just right for the slightly sweet wrapping. I do prefer the baked buns to the steamed ones, I think, but I wouldn’t turn down one of these at any time. We also had a coconut pull-apart bun (one each) which was along the same model but delicious in a sweet rather than savory way. On first bite it was tasty but not exceptional, with a slightly sweet dough complemented by toasted coconut on the top, but further exploration yielded a treasure of sweet coconut paste in the center which was just the right amount. Delicious!

For main courses, Michael had the slow cooked eggs, the most expensive item on the menu by a significant margin ($13) which was paired with slow-cooked brisket and crispy potatoes. I am not sure what was slow cooked about the egg…barely cooked seemed to be a better description, along the lines of a very runny poached egg. It was a tad underdone for Michael’s taste (mine too, really, although I only got a small bite of it) but the beef was delicious.

I decided to go in a non-traditional way and had beef pho soup. The first spoon yielded some of the richest and most savory broth I have ever had. It was stuffed with thin white noodles and a modest amount of very tender beef, both fully cooked brisket with fat attached (even the fat was good, meltingly tender although normally I would have cut it off) and a couple of slices of very thin, almost raw, tenderloin which cooked in the hot broth. It was also served with traditional pho accompaniments of basil leaves, bean sprouts, lime, and sriracha sauce but I passed on all but the last two. What a delicious and filling dish!

With the meal we passed on juices but did have a large French-pressed pot of coffee which seemed rather weak and which wasn’t a good pairing with the pho in any case, although I think Michael liked it.

The room was empty when we walked in although eventually we were joined by two other couples. Service, being unstressed, was pleasant and professional. The room is very cold…literally…with the door open on a chilly San Francisco morning and me sitting on an uncushioned metal bench, it was quite definitely nippy. Like the Slanted Door there seems to be absolutely no consideration of acoustics as every surface is hard so I can imagine there being quite a racket when the room is full.

Great breakfast; I will be thinking about that pho on the cold winter mornings that are sure to be coming up in Washington.