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.