Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Uni, foie, scallops @ Alexander's

Ah, Alexander's.  By now, you know that Alexander's is my favorite restaurant in SF.  But I didn't visit for a while.  Not because I stopped liking Alexander's, but because I just haven't been going out to eat in San Francisco.

It was time to change that.

The occasion?  Australian co-workers were in town visiting, and they had never been to the San Francisco Alexander's Steakhouse.  I took them to the Cuptertino location, once for lunch, when we ducked out of a conference down the street, and once for a really epic dinner where I first had Tajima F1 wagyu.  They also rave about the Alexander's Patisserie in Mountain View that they discovered on a previous visit.  How we never brought them to Alexander's San Francisco before now, I don't know, but I needed to correct this situation, stat.  (Side note: if you confused, because you remember me bringing Australian co-workers to Alexander's SF before, like when we discovered how amazing the pork belly, don't worry.  Those were also co-workers visiting from Sydney, but, different individuals.  I host a lot of Australian visitors!)

Anyway, I'll skip the basics about Alexander's, because you can read all about those in my slew of previous reviews, and focus just on this experience.

I'll be honest, the meal didn't start out amazing for me.  The initial dishes weren't ones I loved, due to my own preferences, but, in true Alexander's fashion, it did turn into a great meal.  As always, the highlights for me were the appetizers and the extra gifts from the chef, although dessert was also a strong point, always a plus for me!  There were a few slight service hiccups, like the sommelier visiting our table right when the food was presented, so I wasn't able to catch descriptions of some of the first courses.  The bread server didn't tell us what the different breads were.  But overall, the service was fantastic as always, and the staff friendly as ever.

I don't think I really need to say that I'll obviously return.
Bread #1: Manchego and Onion Gougère.
The first "bread" service to begin the meal used to be a cracker, sometimes interestingly spiced with something like za'atar or furikake, sometimes cheesy like the addicting Point Reyes blue cheese and walnut crackers.  I always liked the crackers, a welcome change from traditional bread and quite nice to nibble and crunch on.  Then again, I'm a sucker for snacky foods.

This time, the first bread service was a gougère (an interesting choice for a Japanese inspired steakhouse), served to us individually on our bread plates from a central basket.  The cheese was manchego, and it was studded it with both green and red onion.

It was delivered quasi-warm, not really with that "fresh from the oven" feel, but also not room temperature.  It was cheesy, herby, salty, and had a lot of flavors going on, but I don't really like manchego, so I didn't care for it.  The others all loved it, and gladly volunteered to take mine off my hands.  Ojan in particular loved this, but it was my least favorite of the bread line-up.
Amuse Bouche: Hamachi Tartar.
Simultaneously with the bread came our amuse bouche.

The amuse bouche is always one of my favorite moments at Alexander's.  They manage to put together some crazy flavorful little bites, like the toasted brioche with eucalyptus truffle cream from years ago, that I still remember to this day.

This meal began with hamachi tartar topped with fennel apple salad.  The hamachi was nicely chopped, the fennel gave a strong flavorful burst, and the apple was light and refreshing.  Very balanced, and a nice opener to a meal.  Of course, I don't really like hamachi, so another dish that I didn't love, just due to my own preferences.  I wish I liked hamachi and manchego!
Snacks:
Uni Toast: braised oxtail / uni / marrow toasted brioche. ($9 each),
Hamachi Shots: avocado / serrano / cilantro / yuzu-soy / garlic / radish ($5 each).
Now, we get to a few items we ordered.

The first section of the Alexander's menu contains "snacks", items either served as individual bites like these, or easy little share plates such as fried shishito peppers or edamame, designed to be quick little snacks to have alongside your cocktail or bubbly as you browse the rest of the menu.  These items always arrive lightening fast, and these were no exception.

We started with two selections: Uni Toasts and Hamachi Shots.

In my past life, I always skipped the snack section of the menu, that is, until I discovered the uni toast.  I obviously love uni, and so I tend to order any uni dish I come across, even though, I'll be honest, the first time I read the description of the uni toasts, I wasn't necessarily sold.  Oxtail?  But on my last visit, it was the dish of the night for me (although I did prefer the shortrib ragout version a few months earlier).

I fondly recalled the warm toasted brioche, the creamy thousand island sauce, the flavorful oxtail, and of course, the uni on top.  It reminded me of a (very fancy) reuben on that first encounter.

This time it was a slight letdown, but only because my expectations were so high.  The brioche base was a bit too rich and oily.  I still enjoyed the creamy thousand island, and thought the oxtail was perfectly braised, incredibly tender, but it was also quite rich.  Of course, I loved the uni on top.  Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for this tonight, or maybe I wasn't quite ready to move into such a heavy bite to start, as I obviously adore rich food.  It somehow was my second to least favorite dish of the night.

Several folks at the table also enjoyed the signature hamachi shots, with avocado, serrano, cilantro, yuzu-soy, garlic, and radish.  Since I don't really like raw hamachi, and I'm allergic to avocado, I skipped this course, but I've reviewed it before (sans avocado, of course).  The hamachi shots are an Alexander's signature dish, and the others all thought they were fine, but weren't wowed.  Best summed up by one diner as "a very approachable dish".  Anyone who eats raw fish would find these very easy to deal with, and be amused by the shot glass serving, but for the more adventurous, there are far more interesting options on the Alexander's menu, which we'll get to soon.
Bread Service #2: Parker House Rolls, Strauss Butter, Fleur de Sel.
The second bread offering remained the same as it has for a while now, although on our last visit, it showed up after our steaks.  This time, the Parker House rolls properly appeared alongside our next set of dishes, the first courses.

They were served warm, and I loved the fleur de sel on top.  Others were very impressed with the perfectly soft butter log on the side.

These were fine, soft little rolls, but I've had "real" Parker House Rolls from the Parker House in Boston, and, even though their catering service is lackluster, the rolls were the highlight of my meal there, and I preferred those.
First Course: Smoked Foie Gras: koshihikari rice / toasted nori / braised seaweed / charred scallion $38.
From the first courses, we had a hard time narrowing down to only a few selections.  The grilled Firefly squid with asparagus really caught my eye, but no one else was interested.  And of course, now that foie gras is legal again in California, I obviously wanted some foie. We had two choices, chilled or smoked.  Since the chilled one contained truffle, which Ojan doesn't love, we went for the smoked.

I've only had smoked foie gras one other time, at the final foie gras dinner hosted at Alexander's before the ban, but that was a totally different preparation (although, totally amazing).  It came served in the same earthen vessel as the uni chawanmushi I had once at Alexander's.

This dish was served warm.  In the bottom of the bowl was koshihikari rice, topped with egg, scallion, and broccoli raab.  It was creamy and rich, total comfort food.  Maybe because it was served in the same bowl that I remembered the chawanmushi from, it somewhat reminded me of chawanmushi, in that comforting way.

On top was the smoked foie, in five distinct chunks.  There were five of us, so this was perfect (did they do that on purpose?)  The foie was mild, it didn't have a really strong liver flavor.  I could have used a little more foie taste, but it was soooo creamy and I loved it just the same.  Topped with toasted nori for bit of crunch.

This was a real crowd pleaser, and we all agreed that it was pretty much perfect comfort food.  Some go for mashed potatoes or mac and cheese, well, we go for smoked foie gras :)  My second favorite dish of the night.

Others also enjoyed the scallops as a first course, which I ordered as my main, so I didn't partake of in this round, and I'll leave the review until later.
Gift from the Chef: Joe Uni.
During the lull between first courses and mains, a magical gift arrived from the kitchen.  I believe they called it "Joe Uni".

Given my love for uni, you can imagine how pleased I was.

I know this doesn't look like much.  And when I describe the components, it won't make sense.  But I assure you, this was phenomenal.

On the bottom, espuma.  On top of that, pie crust crumble.  On top of that, uni and strawberry.  Garnished with arare masago and jalapeño.

Yes, I know this sounds crazy.  And it was.  Crazy delicious, that is!

Let's break it down.  The espuma was creamy and delicious, made from mangalitsa.  Once he finished his plate, Ojan said "would it be inappropriate to pick this up and lick it?", which, of course, he did.  At one point, Ojan also said it tasted like "Big Mac Sauce", which uh, somewhat dumbed down the experience (and, once he said that, I totally tasted it too).

The pie crust I believe they said was "mango dough", perhaps referring to the mangalitsa too?  It was quite rich, and, as a dessert girl, I loved to see pie crust appearing so early in my meal.  It was more like a crumbly, soft biscuit than a pie crust really.

The strawberry was actually pickled, so it was quite tart, while still providing some sweetness.

So at this point, we basically had strawberry shortcake.  Doughy base, strawberries, and creamy component.  And then ... add on some uni.  Oh, did I mention the uni was drizzled with a blue fin tuna sauce?   I know this still doesn't sound delicious?  Who cares, it was.

Hands down, best dish of the night, and one of the best bites I've ever had from Alexander's.  While the earlier gifts didn't match my tastes (manchego, hamachi), this one just nailed it.

Even if you weren't catering to an uni-loving girl who grew up eating tons of strawberry shortcake, I think this was a stunner.  The whole table agreed. Yes, strawberry shortcake with uni and big mac sauce ... a winner.  Full of textures, so many complex flavors, and yet somehow, it all worked.

I want more now!
The Salts!
Since several folks at the table ordered Wagyu steaks, the impressive trays of salts were then brought out, with 12 unique salts.  They brought us two of these, even though one would have sufficed to cover those who actually ordered Wagyu.  They even offered to bring a third if we required it.  The staff wanted everyone to get a chance to taste the salts, even if they didn't select the premium steaks, a really kind touch.

As always, our guests found the salts fascinating, and the salt sommelier talked through many of the selections with our group.  Of course, he left a card behind as a cheat sheet to keep them all straight.

I always love the salts, and this was no exception.  We all occupied ourselves until the next round of food arrived tasting the salts, and picking our favorites.  They even provided little tiny salt spoons this time, which was nice, I always felt a bit silly licking my finger and sticking it in the salts (I mean, I didn't do that ...). 
Side: Grilled Asparagus: dry-aged beef hollandaise / lemon / bonito. $15.
All entrees at Alexander's are served a la carte, so sides are served family style for the table.

Now, I generally find the sides at Alexander's lackluster, at least compared to all the amazing starters.  That said, I've had a few standouts over the years, and one was an asparagus gratin.  So when someone suggested the asparagus this time around, I was up for it.  Also, I had grilled jumbo asparagus a few days prior that I was in love with.  Ah, spring!

The asparagus was thin style, nicely grilled.  The beef hollandaise was creamy and of course I loved it.  I'm such a sucker for anything mayo/aioli/hollandaise-like.  Bring on the eggs and fats.

On top was a ton of bonito.

This dish was fine, but, again, compared to the starters, it just wasn't something I'd go back for.  Least favorite dish of the night.
Side: Shichimi Fries: sundried tomato - tonkatsu aïoli / shichimi. $14.
We also ordered the fries.  Yes, the fries.

I remember the first times I had the shichimi fries, when I was splitting a burger with Ojan, and it came with fries.  We wouldn't have ever ordered them otherwise, who wastes stomach space with fries?  Except, I was stuffed that day, and still got totally addicted to them.  The same thing happened when we visited with Emil's family, and his sisters ordered the fries.  I'm the one who polished them off.  So addicting.

So when our Australian guests suggested the fries, I laughed slightly because they ALWAYS want fries, er, chips, but I didn't say no!

The fries were exactly as I remembered from all my previous visits.  Thin and incredibly crispy, nicely spiced from the shichimi.  Totally addicting.  And being a creamy sauce lover, I couldn't stop dipping them in the creamy tonkatu aïoli.

$14 for a side of fries might be high, and I usually prefer thick wedges over thin fries, but, these somehow always manage to impress me.  If you like thin fries, get these, for sure.
Tajima F1 Aus Filet, 3 oz. $48.
Ojan and one other diner both ordered the Tajima F1 filet, medium-rare.  I was really not in the mood for steak, so I didn't even demand a bite.  Ojan did say it was the least memorable of the fancy steaks he has had at Alexander's though.

Two others went for the regular filet mignon, served with bordelaise.  One added seared foie gras on top (extra $30).  As I've reviewed many times, Alexander's always executes the sear on the foie flawlessly.  I've had a lot of seared foie gras over the past few years, but no where has ever managed to do it as perfectly as Alexander's.  This was no exception.  The sear was perfect, the foie was perfect, and of course I know this, because the diner who ordered it decided to be generous and share with me immediately upon receiving his dish.  Later, as he approached food coma, he ceded the remainder to me as well.  Sadly, I have no photo, but let me assure you, it was foie gras perfection, a very sizable chunk of foie gras perfection at that.
First Course: Seared Scallop: pig tail roulade / chicharron butter / crispy polenta / radish / mustard seed. $27.
And finally, my main attraction.  As I said, I really wasn't in the mood for steak, and I knew we'd be ordering a slew of share dishes so I didn't want the single main dish seafood option on the menu, a whole roasted fish.  It sounded delicious, but I knew that would be way too much food.

So, I ordered the scallops for my main, even though they are technically a first course.

Just like uni and foie, scallops are some of my favorite items.  Yes, this meal was filled with all of my favorites!  Remember the time Chef Zare combined all these for me into seared scallops, with uni sauce, topped with seared foie gras, asparagus, and prosciutto?  OMG.

And, just like seared foie, Alexander's does seared scallops better than anywhere else.  I went to a cooking demo by Executive Chef Mark Zimmerman, and learned the secret: butter.  Oh, so much butter.

But back to this dish.  It came with two of everything: two scallops, two pig tail roulades, two polenta bites, etc.

The scallops were good, tender, mild, slightly sweet, but actually didn't have the a hard sear on them I was expecting.  I easily overlooked this though, as they were totally infused with chicharron butter, and the bits of crispy chicharrons on top added an awesome crunch.

Pork products showed up in the pig tail roulade as well, wrapped in mustard greens.  The crunch also re-appeared in the crispy polenta bites, which resembled tator tots in appearance.  I appreciated the crispy nature of these, but I didn't actually like it, as I generally prefer my polenta creamy.

Mustard seeds, tiny slices of radish, and mustard seed flowers completed the presentation.

Overall, this dish was good, and I really appreciated the salt level to it, presumably from the chicharrons.  The chicharrons were certainly the winning element.  But, compared to the uni and foie dishes, it wasn't as strong as a contender.
Bread #3: Rolls / Wagyu Butter.
And, the final bread service.  It was delivered alongside the mains, and the server didn't tell us what it was.  I think some kind of heartier wheat roll?

We recognized the butter immediately though, wagyu butter, served inside a marrow bone.  I sometimes think Ojan comes to Alexander's only for this butter (I'm only half joking).  He loves it.

Quote of this round again comes from Ojan, as he slathered his role in butter, and observed the more reserved way others were doing it: "If you can see the bread, you are doing it wrong".

Yes, simply use the bread as a way to eat more Wagyu butter.  Seriously tasty stuff.  Ojan may or may not have left with a container full.  Did I mention that Alexander's spoils us?
Decaf Americano.
Now, time to move into my favorite part of most meals: dessert.  Well, normally dessert is my favorite part of the meal, but I'll be honest, at Alexander's, I actually tend to like the savory food more than the dessert.  I know, this is unheard of for me!

Along with dessert, I also ordered coffee.

I asked for an Americano, and specified that I'd like it served alongside the dessert.  I always hate it when I order a coffee intending to pair the bitter goodness with my sweet dessert, and it arrives long before dessert.  I know some people want a coffee to ease them into dessert, but for me, it is all about the pairing.  This means I either sacrifice my pairing or let it get cold.  I've learned to just be clear about what I want, and, Alexander's obliged.  It arrived right as the desserts were placed in front of us.

Served with creamer, two types of sugar cubes, and a little almond biscotti.

It was fine, not notable, and for a decaf, that means it didn't have any strange decaf "funk" to it, so, not bad.
Dessert: “grasshopper” soufflé : mint creme sandwich cookies / mint chocolate chip ice cream. $16.
Alexander's always has a soufflé on the menu.  I never choose to order it, although most of the time I visit with a group, someone always wants the soufflé, like the last time we went with other Australian visitors and had the grand marnier soufflé, which was notable only because of the amazing crème anglaise, which Ojan took to drinking on its own.  If you want awesome soufflé, go to Cafe Jacqueline.

The soufflé arrived untouched, but the server poked a hole in it, and added a generous scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream tableside.  On the side were two mini sandwich cookies filled with mint creme.

Since I try not to have chocolate in the evenings, I didn't have much of this, but I did appreciate the minty chocolately flavors, always a nice combination.  I think people were either stuffed or didn't love it though, as some of this went untouched.
Dessert: Apple: fried apple pie / ricotta / caramel / celery / chicory ice cream. $13.
Next up, the dessert I had my eye on, called "apple".

The primary component was a fried apple pie.  It was warm, crispy, and absolutely covered in cinnamon and sugar.  It was delicious, and I really wished I wasn't sharing this dessert with others!

Alongside the pie was a cannelle of chicory ice cream, that melted perfectly slowly as we ate.

Under both of these was a really fascinating compote with compressed apple bits and caramel, and candied celery, as well as a celery root and white chocolate ganache.  Large shreds of salty ricotta and tiny sprigs of micro celery completed the stunning presentation.

Apple, celery, ricotta, white chocolate, caramel, chicory ... all in one dish, and all in harmony.  Sweet and salty, creamy and crispy, hot and cold ... it worked.  This was one of my favorite desserts at Alexander's.

We also had the cheese platter of three cheeses, including brillat savarin, and some interesting accompaniments.  Pickled sliced green strawberries I could identify, but there was some sort of mustarda that I wasn't ever able to place.  Perhaps it was rhubarb?  The others went for the cheese, and left the apple dessert behind.  I assure you, I took care of that.
Palate Cleanser.
And after our desserts, our palate cleanser showed up.  This was a bit of a timing and service falter, as it clearly should have come before the desserts.  Since it arrived in the midst of the dessert devouring chaos, I didn't quite catch what it was.  I think there was pickled mango involved?

I didn't really like it, but one diner found it quite fascinating, and kept remarking about it the remainder of our time together.
Strawberry Cotton Candy / Candies / Chocolate.
And finally, the signature end to any Alexander's meal: cotton candy, served in a special stand, with candies and chocolates.

The flavor of the night was strawberry, and it was sweet fluffy cotton candy, exactly as we've come to expect.  I really loved the caramel nut squares, perfect alongside my coffee, and the right ending to a delicious meal.
Alexander's Steakhouse on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Singapore Airlines Silver Kris Lounge, SFO

To begin my most recent journey to Sydney, my first stop was the Singapore Airlines Silver Kris Lounge at SFO.  I was flying aboard Air New Zealand, but they do not have their own lounge, and us thus share the Singapore lounge.

The lounge is very small, with limited offerings, but, sadly, that is pretty normal for SFO.  We don't really have any flagship lounges here, as I noted in my review of all the different OneWorld lounges.

The Space

Since the space is small, and serves so many airlines, they have strict entry requirements.  The entire time I was inside the lounge, all I could hear was the front desk attendant, saying over and over, "from the hours of 6pm to 9:45pm, the lounge is reserved for Air New Zealand passengers".  People's reactions to this news was fun to observe; some were polite and said they'd come back, others were adamant that they had United status, and blah blah blah, they should be let in.
Seating Area.
The main area is made up of brown soft armchairs, mostly in pairs.  They look perhaps comfortable, but looks can be deceiving.  Soft, yes, but plastic-y, strangely deep, and with arms that were too high to reach over.  I put my food and drink on the provided side table, and had to awkwardly reach up and over to get to my items.

I was eager to get out of the chair, and actually imagined the seat on the plane would be more comfortable (indeed, it was).
Side Seating, Bathroom.
Besides the one main area, there are a few more tables on the side, and a trio of bathrooms, all individual and unisex.  No showers.

Drinks

The drink area is ... limited.  Yes, there are hot beverages, cold beverages, and alcohol, but within each category, your options are few.
Nespresso Machine.
For warm drinks, there is an automatic Nespresso machine with a decent selection of 6 pod types (yes, 1 decaf), plus a hot water heater on the side with Taster's Choice instant coffee (because someone prefers that?) and two varieties of tea bags.
Cold Beverages.
The cold beverage selection is basic soft drinks (Coke, Diet Coke, 7 Up, Diet 7 Up, Ginger Ale, and Tonic), juices (pineapple or tomato), and beer (Heineken or Tiger).  Only still water, no sparkling.
Wine.
The wines on offer were a single red and a single white, from Jossda, in Napa.

I tried the red and it was highly unremarkable.  Not bad, not good, a decent table wine.
Bar.
The bar was stark with only 6 items: vodka, gin, campari, Bailey's, Grand Marnier, and scotch.

Food

Ok, moving on to what I always care about, food!
Buffet
Food is arranged in one buffet.  Plates are strangely at the other end.  It seemed like we must have entered from the wrong side, since it ended with cookies and began with plates, except, it was totally awkward to get to the other side, and the flow really didn't start there.
Chocolate Chip Cookies.
The only sweet item was chocolate chip cookies.  I don't really like cookies, and I already had full dinner and dessert before arriving, but Ojan took a cookie, so I of course tried it.  It was everything I hate in a cookie: hard, crispy, not buttery, just not good.  Sadness.
Jam and Butter.
Next were platters of generic packaged jam and butter.  I have no idea why.  Do people put jam and butter on their cookies, ever?  I am guessing they were left out from breakfast?
Snacks.
Next to the jam and butter were snacks.  The jam and butter didn't go with these items either.

Basic Chex mix in a big bowl, crackers, vegetables and hummus.  I went for the Chex mix, mostly because I love my mom's Chex mix, but this was just the standard stuff, and I never actually care for it.
Cereal.
Down below were some cereals, including Kellogg's granola and a bunch of Kashi cereals.  Since there was no milk anywhere I'm sure this is just where they stock them from breakfast hours, but, it was a decent selection of Kashi, and I do love Kellogg's granola.  I probably would have been happy enough with their breakfast lineup.
Salad, Fruit, Cold Cuts.
Moving along was a Caesar salad station, with romaine lettuce, dressing, parmesan, and croutons, so you could mix your own.  Kinda nice to do it this way rather than pre-mixed, so those who are gluten-free can avoid croutons or vegans the cheese, and the dressed lettuce doesn't get soggy.  There was also an asian noodle salad that I think had chicken, along with a dressing for it.  Nothing was labelled.

I quickly kept on walking, as the next platter was fruit, including watermelon, and I'm deathly allergic.  I glanced at the cold cuts, but they were adjacent to the watermelon, so I most certainly didn't give them another thought.
Soup, Chips.
I was amused by the next offering: cup of noodles!  Presumably you could get hot water from the drink station to prepare your noodles.

There was another soup as well, in a big soup bowl, but without a heat source.  Why wasn't it in a hot well of some sort? I guess they had no way to keep anything hot.  It too was unlabeled, but I tried it.  It was a thick, rich chowder.  It had little bits of fatty bacon and celery.  I'm not sure what else was in there, I didn't find much.  It was warmer than I expected given that nothing was keeping it hot, and it was decently seasoned.  I actually enjoyed my little bowl of soup.

The chips were just plain, salty chips.
Sandwiches.
And finally, sandwiches.

One on a decent looking bread, one on regular sliced bread, one wrap.  None were labelled.  I didn't try any.
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Monday, May 25, 2015

An The Go Food Truck

A few years ago, I visited Crustacean restaurant for dinner.  Crustacean is one of the An family of restaurants in San Francisco (they also own Thanh Long in SF, another Crustacean in Beverly Hills, Tiato in Santa Monica, and Anqi Bistro in Costa Mesa), and a food truck, dubbed An the Go.

The An family is famous for one thing in particular: "An's Garlic Noodles".  We had them at Crustacean when I visited of course, and I liked the garlicky flavor.  I'll leave you to read more about the restaurant's claim to fame in my previous review.
The Truck.
I'm not normally a big fan of food trucks, but as you've been reading the past few weeks, my company has been supplementing some of our dining options with food trucks, so I've been trying them out.  When I spotted the An the Go truck, I was actually excited, and thought there might be hope at this particular truck.  I was quite hopeful that they would be serving their signature dish.  I was in luck!

Service was fast and efficient, inside the truck was grill that was in constant action, and my food was handed over within a minute or two of my ordering, unlike many of the other, slower trucks I tried.
Menu for the day.
The menu was simple: An's Garlic Noodles, Lemongrass Chicken Skewers, and Mixed Veggie Stir Fry.

I mostly just wanted the garlic noodles, but decided to try the full meal.
An's Garlic Noodle ($7.50), Lemongrass Chicken Skewer ($2.50, Mixed Veggie Stir Fry ($2.50).
I eagerly dug into the garlic noodles.  They were fairly delicious.  The noodles weren't too mushy, although they were clearly not freshly prepared.  They weren't as buttery as I remembered from last time, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.  The garlic flavor was remarkable.  So, so good.  Serious garlic.  The serving of noodles was ridiculously generous, and somehow, I devoured it all.  Did I mention, so good!

The chicken had a good char on it, but was thigh meat, really not my style.

The mixed veggie stir fry contained broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, and tofu.  The veggies were decent, a bit overcooked, not super flavorful, but not bad.

But, the noodles.  Oh man, the noodles. So good!  I'd go back again in a heartbeat.

Update Review, May 1, 2015

An the Go, Frozen Kuhsterd.
Remember when I said I'd go back?  Well, I did!

My work group had a picnic in Golden Gate Park, and we were given the choice of all the Off the Grid food trucks to cater the event.  I knew the moment I saw the list where my vote was going: An the Go!  I eagerly told all my co-workers about the garlic noodles and encouraged them to vote for An the Go.  I may or may not have been accused of stuffing the ballot box.  Regardless, An the Go won.

We also picked a sweet treat, Frozen Kuhsterd (more on that soon).
Garlic noodles with mixed vegetable stir-fry and 5-spiced pork skewer.
The menu for the day was of course the garlic noodles, with veggie stir fry, and our choice of chicken or pork skewer.

Since I knew how large the garlic noodles serving was, I opted to split one box with Ojan, particularly since we had a ton of other snacks, and of course the frozen custard to look forward to.  I let him pick the skewer, since I wasn't really intending to eat it.  He went for pork.  I didn't try it.

The veggie mix was the same as my previous serving, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and tofu.  Unremarkable, perhaps a bit mushy and not particularly flavorful.

The garlic noodles let me down.  I guess I had really high expectations, but this time around, I just didn't taste much garlic.  The garlic is supposed to be their defining characteristic!  And again, like the last time I got them from the truck, they weren't buttery like at the restaurant.  I tried not to let my disappointment show, since I was the one who advocated so loudly for An the Go, but, they were pretty plain and boring.  I saw others asking for hot sauce to go along with the noodles, so I clearly wasn't the only one who felt this way.  I saw a lot of noodles go into the trash, but then again, the servings were huge.
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Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Bentley Restaurant, Sydney

As I've mentioned, we pretty much gave up on fine dining in Sydney after lackluster and overpriced meals at all the heavy hitters: Quay, Tetsuya, Sepia, Marque, Becasse.  Believe me, I tried to do fine dining in Sydney!  So on this visit, we focused on casual restaurants, and had much better success.

But, for our last lunch in town this time around, we decided to go to a fancy meal.  The motivation was a bit silly actually: I wanted to eat kangaroo.  They served kangaroo in my office cafe on a prior visit, and really liked it, so I figured if our office cafe could do it well, a nice restaurant would do it even better.  And where do you find kangaroo on menus in the US?  But, contrary to my stereotypical expectations, I didn't find roo offered in many places in Sydney either.  After looking at a slew of menus, I finally found one place that was well regarded and served kangaroo: Bentley Bar and Restaurant.  Except, I was confused, it was located in the CBD, in the Radisson Blu hotel.  I could have sworn I knew a restaurant by that name in Surry Hills.

A little research revealed the answer.  Both were right.  Bentley used to be located in Surry Hills, but moved.  Interestingly, I never visited the Surry Hills location, even though I lived there for 3 months, and literally walked by every single day.

Anyway, back to Bentley.  Unlike all the rest of our dining on this trip, Bentley is a fancy, pricy place.  We knew this going in, and everyone suited up accordingly; I even put on a dress.  We opted for lunch rather than dinner mostly because we just couldn't fit it into our dinner schedule, and the same menu is served, so we weren't missing out.

Lunch is clearly catered to the business crowd, everyone was in suits, in groups of about 4, which I guess makes sense at this price point.  No one just casually swings in for lunch.  We were seated next to a party of 20ish, which was impressive to watch.  The restaurant did a great job of serving them all simultaneously!

Service was good throughout our meal, very attentive, but I did have a few complaints.  First, dishes were just set down and the name from menu was repeated with no further explanation.  Given how highly conceptualized the dishes were, I would have really liked a better understanding as to what it was I eating.  Second, the pacing was off.  It started off rapidly: bread came before we even ordered, our amuse bouche arrived shortly thereafter, and our first course was served within a reasonable amount of time.  All fine so far.  But the lag before our mains was substantial, and the lag before our desserts even more so.  Our 3 course lunch took nearly 2.5 hours, which we were not expecting, given that we were supposed to be at work.  Not really business lunch appropriate.

Anyway, Bentley was more successful than other fine dining we did in Sydney over the years, but it still wasn't the best food we had.  If I wanted a good meal, I'd just go back to Pinbone, the clear winner of the trip.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what didn't wow me about Bentley.  The quality of the ingredients was evident, and I can't fault the execution of anything: every protein, every vegetable, everything was cooked correctly.  The plating was all well done.  But, I didn't love anything.  There were no memorable dishes.  No perfect bites.  Most dishes had an element or two that felt like they were just trying too hard.  I'm used to elaborate techniques (foams, gels, mousses, snows, etc), so it wasn't the concept of this style of cuisine that didn't work for me, nor the complexity of the dishes, it was that these specific dishes just weren't particularly tasty.  Again, everything was fine, but at this price point, I expected more.
Bar Area Seating.
The space is broken into two levels.  On the first floor entry level are small tables for walk-in bar seating, where they also serve a slightly different menu.  I imagine in the evening this is a bustling place.  For business lunch however, it was largely vacant.
Bar.
There is also the actual bar, with a few stools, again, vacant mid-day.
Open Kitchen.
The downstairs space is completed by an open kitchen, which I enjoyed watching from my perch in the dining room above.  I'm always fascinated by watching kitchens in action.  We were one of the first parties seated right at 12pm, and it was fun watching as the kitchen swung into action.  Things started off slow, but the pace quickly accelerated.  The staff never seemed frantic though, although they were in constant action by the end.  At one point, I saw a huge blow torch come out, a sign of all the advanced techniques that were to come.
Wine Room.
The new space is much swankier than the space in Surry Hills, decorated in black tones, offset by plenty of light from huge windows.  It is an architecturally interesting space.  I wonder what the ambiance is like in the evening, but during the day, it was quite light, even with the dark accents.

The kitchen and bar are on the first floor, but the dining area, and wine room, are upstairs, overlooking the first floor.

The main feature of the dining room is the huge wine room, on display just like the kitchen.  If I were there for a boring business lunch, I certainly would have had plenty to look at in this environment.
Place Setting.
Tables are wooden and set with classic fine dining settings: two forks, two knives, bread plate with butter knife, but no table cloth.  The napkins were tied with a twine, which was really annoying.  The person seating us made a point of picking them all up and untying them one by one, so it isn't like we had to do it, but still, annoying.  Looks over functionality, a bit of a sign of what was to come.
Iggy's Bread and Butter.
Before we even ordered, bread and butter were brought to the table.  I could smell the sourdough the moment the bread was placed down, so I avoided it completely.  I hate sourdough, and don't understand how it followed me from San Francisco to Sydney!

They don't bake the bread themselves, but source from a local bakery, Iggy's, and proudly tout this fact.  My dining companions enjoyed it, and our bread basket was quickly devoured.  A replacement was offered, but we declined.
Menu.
As a higher end restaurant, Bentley offers a 10 course tasting menu for $150, available at lunch or dinner.  A vegetarian version is available for $130.

But we were there for a slightly more casual affair, and decided to order a la carte.

The a la carte menu is broken into Starters, Entrees, Mains, Sides, and Desserts.
The starters list was:
  • Oysters
  • Sea Urchin + Crab + Carrot
  • Kingfish + Cured Pork Cheek + Apple + Cucumber
  • Honeybugs + Sea Blight + Buttermilk
  • Charred Beef Tartare + Beetroot + Plum + Cocoa
  • Selection of House Cured Meats
From what I could tell, starters are lighter, mostly raw or cured, and a bit smaller than the Entrees.  Starters ranged from $18-26.

The entree selection was more varied, all cooked, and priced $24-26:
  • Onion Broth + Jerusalem Artichoke + Brillat Savarin
  • Cauliflower Custard + Mushroom +  Black Garlic
  • Calamari + Kohlrabi + Roast Almond + Red Currant
  • Alpine Salmon + Malt + Mandarin + Black Sausage Crumbs
  • Pork Cheek + Garlic and Yoghurt Puree + Radicchio + Jamon
  • Quail + Smoked Celery + White Soy Dressing
For mains, there was a single vegetarian option: Charred Pumpkin + Black Rice + Broad Beans, for $36.  The rest of the mains were priced $42-46, broken down by type of protein.

Seafood:
  • Mulloway + Baby Pink Turnips + Brown Butter
  • Snapper + Clams + Sweetcorn +  Lemon Myrtle Infused Sorrel
Birds + Meat:
  • Duck Breast + Parsnip + Orange + Wattle
  • Veal + Eggplant+ Pumpernickle
  • Kangaroo + Purple Carrot + Riberry Sauce + Native Pepper
And some grilled beef selections, all done on their charcoal grill:
  • Rangers Valley Wagyu Skirt Steak + Fennel + Mustard + Olive
  • O’Connor’s Beef Sirloin + Asparagus + Salsify + Charred Onion
  • O’Connor’s Beef Fillet + Mushroom Broth + Red Kale
I'll get to the dessert menu later on.  As you can see, the dishes were all listed as 3-4 ingredients, leaving much up to our imaginations.
Amuse Bouche.
Immediately after ordering, we were presented with an amuse bouche.  I wasn't expecting this at lunch, but, since the menu is the same as dinner, it does make sense.

The amuse was a linseed toast, with a shiitake eggplant custard, and sesame seeds on top.

It was a delightful bite.  The base was crunchy and hearty.  The custard was creamy and smoky.  The sesame seeds on top added an extra pop of crunch.

We all really enjoyed this, and commented on how it was what we always wanted baba ganoush to be.  It really was like the most flavorful baba ganoush we'd ever had, served on a tasty little cracker.

My second favorite dish of the meal.
Starter: Sea Urchin + Crab + Carrot. $18.
For my starter, I had to go for the "Sea Urchin + Crab + Carrot".

As you know, I love uni.  I love crab.  So I was thrilled to see the two items together on the menu, even though I had no idea what to expect.

The dish was set down in front of me.  "Sea urchin, crab, and carrot" the server said.  I looked.  I saw no urchin, but I figured I'd find it as I dug into the dish.

I never found it.

The carrots were evident, piled in large shreds.  Underneath this was a very sweet orange sauce that I believe was also carrot.  In the sauce was little chunks of crab, quite delicate.  The right hand side of the plate was ...  snow.  It was cold and icy, not what I was expecting!  I'm assuming the urchin was in here, but honestly, I didn't taste it.  I wanted lobes of uni, but if I wasn't going to have full lobes evident, I at least expected to taste the strong, distinct taste of uni.  Sadness.

This dish was not at all what I was expecting.  It was light, a good ease into a meal, and the crab was fine, but it didn't come together for me.  I didn't want icy snow, and I didn't want huge shreds of carrot.  My 5th pick of the night, and I clearly wouldn't get this again.
Starter: Honeybugs + Sea Blight + Buttermilk. $23.
Ojan opted for the "Honeybugs + Sea Blight + Buttermilk".  Well, to be fair, I think I may have made an executive decision that he order this, just because we were really, really curious.  Doesn't it sound a bit horrible?  Bugs and blight?  Tasty!

The honeybugs turned out to be quite tender actually, well cooked.  But they were served on top of a very creamy and tangy buttermilk sauce that totally overwhelmed the dish.  I wanted to actually taste the honeybugs and understand them, but the buttermilk just took over.

The sea blight (a seaweed) was my favorite component, served in fairly large chunks, a bit crunchy, nicely charred.  I loved the charred flavor, and it somewhat reminded me of hearty Hen Of The Woods mushrooms.

I liked this much more than the crab and urchin dish, solely based on the tasty sea blight.  It was my third pick overall.  Price was perhaps a bit high for such a small dish.
Entree: Calamari + Kohlrabi + Roast Almond + Red Currant. $26.
Throughout the trip, I was hooked on calamari and squid.  They seemed to show up on nearly every single menu, and not just fried (although, there was plenty of fried seafood too).  While not rare in the US, they certainly aren't as common here as they seemed in Sydney.  And, it seems, the chefs in Sydney know how to properly prepare them, not just resulting in rubbery, tough pieces.

Thus, the calamari entree kept calling out at me.  But, in our group of four, one person opted to skip all starters and entrees, and order just a main dish.  The other, a vegetarian, ordered a starter and an entree, since he didn't care for the single vegetarian main option.  Ojan and I were already each ordering ordering a starter, and I knew we wanted the kangaroo main, and we all wanted dessert ... but I wanted this too.  It didn't seem right for us to do 4 courses, while others did only 1 or 2 (not that I really wanted a 4 course meal).  So, I decided to order the calamari entree as my main, particularly as it sounded better than the seafood mains anyway.

This was the best decision I made all day.

The calamari was excellent.  It was grilled, with visible grill marks, and the pieces were rolled into little curls.  Like the eggplant in the amuse bouche, and the sea blight in the starter, it had a lovely smoky flavor.  Expertly prepared.

The kohlrabi was four slices, also rolled up.  Light and crunchy, a bit bitter, fresh and tasty.

I believe the roast almond was the light sauce in the bottom, that reminded me slightly of a miso paste, a bit salty and sweet.

The red currants weren't particularly interesting, just a few scattered in the dish.

This was my favorite of the savory dishes, hands down.  I liked the smoky flavor contrasting with the sweet and salty, and the delicate nature of the entire dish.  $26 was again a bit high for the portion size, although as an entree, it was bigger than the starters, and with an amuse bouche, a starter, and dessert on its way, was certainly large enough to satisfy me.
Entree: Cauliflower Custard + Mushroom +  Black Garlic. $24.
Our vegetarian diner also ordered an entree for his main.  If I was able to pick another dish for myself, I would have selected this, as I love custards, mushrooms, and black garlic, so I was glad he ordered it.

On the bottom was the cauliflower custard along with some mushrooms, but on top of that was a crispy component, that he found hard to break through, plus some other soft ingredients.  It was fascinating, but he grew wary of the difficulty of eating it, and deconstructed it for ease of eating.

I stole a bite of the custard, and thought it was creamy and tasty, the cauliflower flavor quite strong.  I think the texture from the crunchy layer probably would have been nice to contrast against it, so I imagine I would have actually enjoyed this dish, but the person who ordered it seemed less than trilled.
Main: Kangaroo + Purple Carrot + Riberry Sauce + Native Pepper. $42.
And finally, the reason we were there: the kangaroo.  They also had a number of beef dishes available, and a duck that our other diner ordered, but, I was there for one thing: kangaroo!

The kangaroo was just how I remembered it.  A tender, lean meat, not very gamey.  They cooked it a nice mid-rare.  The sauce was made from riberry, a native Australian bush ingredient, that was quite tasty and sweet, and went nicely with the meat.  I believe the greens on top were the native pepper leaves.  I really appreciated how they used all native Australian ingredients alongside the kangaroo.

The preparation of this dish was far less innovative than the others.  The purple carrots were just roasted carrots.  There were also some slices of potatoes, again, just roasted.

This was all fine, and again, well prepared, but I didn't love it, making it my forth pick overall.  As a main, it was certainly much larger than the other courses, with three large slices of the kangaroo.
Dessert Menu.
And finally, dessert time!  I was actually quite full at this point, and no one really seemed interested in dessert, but I just couldn't pass it up.  Julie doesn't know how to NOT order dessert.

There were four sweet options:
  • Grilled Peach + Almond + Jasmin
  • Violet Ice Cream + Cocoa Honeycomb + Blueberry
  • Charred Milk Custard + Raspberry + Chervil Sorbet
  • Pineapple Sorbet + Liquorice + Coconut
Plus an assortment of cheeses, available as a selection of 4, or individually.

The dessert I read about in my research was the violet ice cream, so I wanted to order that, and others put in a vote for the charred milk custard, in the same way we all wanted the honeybugs and sea blight ... it just sounded a bit odd, so, why not try it?
Decaf Long Black.
To go along with the dessert, I also ordered a decaf long black, as I love pairing black coffee with sweet desserts.

The coffee came not too long after we ordered, but our desserts too a really, really long time to arrive.  I actually wished at one point that we had decided not to order dessert and had just gone back to the office, as this meal was taking far longer than I expected.  I didn't time it, but I wouldn't have been shocked if it was at least 40 minutes from the time we ordered desserts until they arrived.  My coffee was long gone by then.

The coffee was served in a little cup without a handle.  It was really hot, the cup included.  This made it quite difficult to drink.  Presentation trumps enjoyability, again.

The coffee was fine, but, I struggled with holding it while it was hot, so I tried to drink it slowly so I'd have some with my dessert, but alas, that was a lost cause.
Dessert: Violet Ice-Cream + Cocoa Honeycomb + Blueberry. $20.
And finally, our long awaited dessert.

The violet ice cream was creamy and mildly sweet.  I didn't taste violet exactly, although, I'm not sure I know precisely what violet actually tastes like.

The blueberry was both a jam and fresh berries, and I liked them for the color, but otherwise, they weren't particularly interesting.

The cocoa honeycomb was my favorite component, crunchy and sweet.  I'm a textures girl, so I really liked having something crunchy with the creamy elements, plus, it was really just quite good.  I like honeycomb and always eat as much as possible in Australia (like in the butter at Bills!) since we don't really have it here in the US, but this was my first time having chocolate honeycomb.

Interestingly, the primary element of this dish was not one of the listed ingredients.  In the center pf the dish was a cream (the violet ice cream was just the quenelle on the side, not the large mound in the middle).  The cream was strangely thick and a bit off putting in its texture, and very tangy.  Like the buttermilk in the earlier dish, I felt this tang just took over from the other flavors, and, in the case of this dessert, cut the sweet too much.

No one else liked this, so I ended up eating most of it, but I didn't love it, and wouldn't order it again.
Dessert: Charred Milk Custard + Raspberry + Chervil Sorbet. $20.
And finally, the curiosity dessert.

It was just as fascinating as anticipated.

The charred milk custard was the most unique element, I appreciated the creamy aspect, and yes, it indeed tasted charred!  And ... I liked that flavor.  As you can tell, the theme of grilling and smoky elements is what I enjoyed throughout the meal, from the smoky eggplant amuse, to the grilled sea blight and calamari, to this.  I guess I was in a smoky mood?

The chervil sorbet was ... very herby.  It tasted incredibly healthy.

No one else liked this at all.  One bite and they were all done.  I was ready to follow suit, but ... I can't waste dessert!  It actually grew on me over time, until I reached a point where I appreciated its lightness and refreshing qualities, and yes, I somehow finished this one too.  Yes, I have a dessert problem.

This dish reminded me of the Evergreen dessert from Lumi, with its sorrel sorbet and microgreen garnish, that we had on our first night in Sydney, in that it was a very herby, light dish, incorporating greens into a sorbet and a dessert, but I liked this more.
Dessert: Croagh Patrick Cheddar, Hard Cow’s Milk, Ireland. $10.
Our vegetarian diner was still a bit hungry and wanted some protein, so he ordered one of the cheeses.  It came served with both toasted bread and crackers, plus what we decided must be lemon curd.

I only nibbled on a cracker and dipped it in the curd just to try it, but the others did like the cheese.
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