Saturday, March 17, 2012

Another dinner @ Alexander's

We just can't seem to get enough of Alexander's Steakhouse!  For two of us, it was our second time there this week.  For another, it was his third time this week.  And we can't seem to get enough foie gras!  We had 4 courses of foie gras tonight, even after a 8 course foie gras dinner last night (still need to write up that review, waiting on photos from my fancy photographers who attended the dinner with me).

Since I've written about Alexander's so many times in the past, I'll skip the standard details here (good Acme bread service, nicely balanced cocktails and mocktails, etc) and just focus on what was unique.

Getting to the restaurant was a bit of an epic journey - it was pouring rain and cabs were not available, so we decided to walk.  By only a few minutes into our walk, all of our umbrellas had turned inside out, one person had run into a pole, and we were all soaked.  This meal better be worth braving the conditions!

Since everyone else in the city seemed to be hiding inside, Alexander's was relatively empty, and we were able to get a table for five in the main dining room, at prime dining time, without a reservation!  I do love bar and lounge dining at Alexander's, and prefer it for a casual mid-week meal, but sitting in the main room is a nicer experience, far more comfortable, and much better service (which, was spot on tonight!).

Tonight's dinner re-solidified my key feelings on Alexander's, and what makes me keep returning time and time again.  There are a few things that make up their style, creating what I call "Classic Alexander's" (which are not exactly "classic"):
  • Beautiful plating, from the serving-ware used (slates!), to the way the components are laid out (dots, drizzles, etc), to the garnishes (tiny little flowers!  tuilles!).  (But they also don't take this too far, keeping things still casual and not spending way too much time plating such that foods get cold, a huge pet peeve of mine!)
  • Successful use of innovative cooking techniques/molecular gastronomy: mousses, foams, gelees, carbonation, soils, candying, etc.  (Lots of places try this, but I often find them more gimmicky and for novelty points, but at Alexander's they just work at all levels, adding visual and textural interest AND tasting good).
  • A slew of components in every dish, all of which combine perfectly together, from both flavor and texture perspectives.  (Again, lots of places try to do this, and you are often just left overwhelmed, unsure of how to combine things, and with a bunch of extra things thrown on the plate that aren't necessary, detract from the main flavors, and clutter everything up.  Here, they look intimidating at first glance, but you quickly realize how everything works, and you can have fun creating the most amazing bites of food.)
  • Great texture combinations, bringing together crispy, creamy, firm, soft, small, large, etc, etc.  All in balance, making the food a pleasure to eat for your mouth, as well as your tastebuds. 
  • Fun and whimsy, they aren't taking things too seriously (pop rocks!  cotton candy!)
  • Strong flavors!  If there is truffle in there, you are going to taste it.  And with multiple strong flavors in every dish, it would be easy for these to overshadow each other, or combine in bad ways, but they never do.
  • Unique ingredients. Almost every time I go, I have an ingredient I've ever never had before, or rarely have (wakamomo! chive blossoms!)
  • Friendly, knowledgeable staff.  I really appreciate how the servers explain all of the components on the plate when they bring a dish over to you.  And if you engage them in conversation, they are happy to provide even more information.  (Tonight we went to look at some of the cuts of waygu they offer, a took a peak at what we'll have at the next foie gras dinner: the Sher Full Blood.  That was a seriously marbled piece of meat!)
Basically, the food looks good, it tastes good, and is fun to eat.  This is really what defines Alexander's for me: they really know how to make flavors come together, artfully arranging all of the components on the plate, and allowing you, the diner, to have fun and create the most amazing bites of food, with all of the components bringing the others to new highs.  You can often mix things together in multiple ways with amazing results, making each bite a brand new experience.  Dishes do not bore and they do not get old!

Our meal started with a nice glass of complimentary sparkling wine (or sparkling lemonade for the non-drinkers).  What a nice way to settle in and relax a little after our treacherous journey.  Thank you Alexander's!
Amuse Bouche: Toasted brioche, mushroom filling, eucalyptus truffle cream, chive blossom.
This was awesome.  One of the best little bites of food I've had.  The brioche was nicely toasted and filled with a mushroom spread.  On top was eucalyptus truffle cream, and a tiny little chive blossom.

Everything about this just worked and was in perfect balance.  Particularly noteworthy was the proportions, with enough of each component to really taste the flavors, yet with no component overpowering another.  The combination of textures was totally in balance as well, with the brioche crispy and cream ... creamy.

The mushroom filling was incredibly flavorful, with the earthy tones from the mushrooms coming through.  The cream had a lovely mouthfeel and a strong truffle flavor.  The real surprise was in the chive blossom.  It was tiny.  It looked so pretty.  Clearly it must just be a garnish, right?  No way, this thing was a flavor powerhouse, bringing an incredibly strong chive flavor to the table.

I loved this.
"Liver & Onions".  Seared foie gras, compressed apple, caramelized onions, foie gras powder, crispy onions, onion sprouts, crostini, tamarind sauce.  $24.
I was a little on the fence about getting more foie gras, as we had 8 courses including it last night, and were planning on two other foie dishes in this meal.  But then I saw that they had changed up the seared foie gras preparation to be very similar to the one we had at the last foie gras dinner, which I absolutely loved.  (I was expecting the menu to still have the last preparation of the seared foie gras, which featured mushrooms instead).

So, we had to get it.

Since I loved this at the foie gras dinner two weeks ago, I had high expectations.  It pretty much met them, as it was almost exactly the same.  The sauce was slightly different, this one using tamarind instead of noble no 5, and the complexity level of this dish was taken up a few notches, with more components added (foie gras powder, onion sprouts, crispy onions, crostini), but essentially, it was the same dish, just scaled up in grandeur of "classic Alexander's" style.

The main component was a generous chunk of well seared, creamy foie gras on top of a bed of incredibly flavorful caramelized onions.  This chunk of foie gras was slightly less creamy than the one I had last time and had a stronger liver flavor to it.  I initially did not like the flavor as much, but when combined with the sweet flavorful onions, it really worked, with the stronger flavor and the sweetness complimenting each other.  As expected, I loved the caramelized onions, the crispy onions, and the surprisingly flavorful onion sprouts.  And there was something very fun about dipping straight foie gras into foie gras powder ... even more foie flavor!  The crostini added a crunchy component, and fun chance to play with the food - I may or may not have created my perfect little bit atop a piece of it, put down my knife and fork, and made this into finger food.  No one saw that, right?  Like last time, I didn't like the compressed apple.  I know fruit and foie gras combine well together, but somehow this just hasn't really worked for me either time I've tried it.  I'm not sure why.

What I really needed was a nice glass of red wine with this, I think it would have added a lot to the dish.  I'm starting to understand why people do wine pairings!
Foie gras popcorn: sweet kettle corn / foie gras butter. $8. 
We ordered this mostly out of curiosity.  It also sounded like it could be fantastic, as I clearly love foie gras, and I adore kettle corn, eating it several nights a week at home.  And since using foie gras in place of butter seems to make many things better, this had potential!  (And we've had so many preparations of foie gras recently, but hadn't yet crossed popcorn off our list!)

Unfortunately, this falls into the not-very-good-novelty category for me.  The popcorn was sticky and sweet, but missing the salty component that really defines kettle corn for me.  And I didn't really taste foie gras.  It was really just slightly fattier tasting sweet popcorn.  Had it tasted more like foie, or had some big sea salt crystals (or ... caviar!), I could imagine liking it.  Still, creative and fun.
Gift from the kitchen: Foie gras mousse, foie gras powder, candied kumquat, crostini.
Wow!  Everyone at the table loved this.  I think it was the favorite dish of evening for everyone but me (I liked the amuse slightly more, but this was very good).

These were components I'd seen before.  The mousse was very similar to the filling from the yuba crepe dish and the macaroon from the foie gras dinner and the powder and crostini were in the seared preparation (and many dishes at that dinner).  As before, the mousse was creamy, but didn't have a particularly strong foie gras flavor, but the foie gras powder again impressed me with its flavor.  How do they get so much flavor into that powder!!! And seriously, how fun is it to have a spoonful of foie gras mousse that you then roll around in MORE foie gras powder?  It paired amazingly with the candied kumquat.  The candied aspect added a necessary sweetness, but the kumquat also brought in a tartness and bitterness.  The candied piece also added texture to the dish.

An absolutely phenomenal bite could be composed of a piece of crostini, topped with mousse, topped with candied kumquat, rolled in powder.  Soo good.  Actually, bite of the evening for me, hands down.  Thank you chef!

The only reason I don't say this was the dish of the night was that the proportions were off for me.  I wanted more of the kumquat and less of the mousse.  Once I was done making my perfect bites, I had run out of everything but the mousse, which I didn't enjoy much on its own.

Palette cleanser: tangerine and ginger shooter.
This was perhaps the most successful palette cleanser I have ever received.  The ginger flavor was incredibly strong and really, truly, refreshed your palette.  The tangerine was sweet and delicious.  But what was really fun about this was the consistency.  It was carbonated on the bottom and super frothy on top.  Like drinking a sparkling wine topped with latte foam (don't imagine those flavors, just the consistencies!)  Delicious and fun.
Uni risotto: katsuo bushi / negi / mitsuba $11.
This is the dish I came in for.  I've been really craving uni recently, and I've been really into warm, comfort food style dishes featuring uni (like the warm egg custard topped with uni at Commonwealth, the uni crème brûlée at Quince, and the uni flan at The Fifth Floor).  Or, my other experience with uni risotto from Chotto.

This was a very creamy uni flavored risotto, topped with a small chunk of additional uni, crispy fried negi, and mitsuba.  I loved the crispy bits of negi, they added a nice textural crunch to the otherwise creamy dish, and of course, I just love the onion flavor.  The little chunk of uni on top wasn't particularly flavorful nor creamy.  I've been spoiled by high quality fresh uni at sushi restaurants, and this just didn't compare.  The flavor of the uni was pretty strong in the risotto, almost too much, it needed something to balance it out.  That said, I ordered this as just a side of uni risotto, not the dish that was actually on the menu, which includes a full lobster.  As a bunch of the other creamy uni preparations I've had lately have included chunks of crab, I can see how that would go together really well, and probably would have balanced it out better, but I just wasn't really in the mood for lobster.  Or if I had treated this as a side dish and just had a small portion, it also probably would have been more appealing, but I had it as my main, so it was a big portion of the risotto, which just became overkill, monotonous, and too strong once I ran out of crispy negi bits.  That all said, I did enjoy it, and did finish it, and even went back to scoop up the remaining sauce with some of my dining companion's fries ...

Overall, I just did this wrong.  I wouldn't order this as a main dish again, but I would as a shared side, or if I was wanting lobster, I'd try the real version.
Houseground wagyu burger, with shortrib-shiitake mushroom ragoût, lettuce, onion, toma cheese. Served with shichimi-truffled fries, a pickle, and a condiment platter of ketchup, grainy mustard, mayo, dijon mustard.  $18.
I've reviewed this burger before, so I won't go into details again here.  It was yet again a very, very good burger, with incredibly flavorful meat and executed perfectly with a great sear on the patty, medium-rare on the inside, and melty cheese.

There is a bunch of shortrib-shitake mushroom ragout topping this burger.  Last time, I had it on the burger as prepared and loved the flavors it brought to it.  But this time, I had a lot of it on its own, as it fell out of my dining companions burger, and he didn't want it.  This stuff is delicious.  The shortrib is incredibly flaky and tender and the mushrooms really flavorful.  I think it would make an amazing sauce over some thick ridged pasta.  With thick shreds parmesan cheese.  Mmmm ... if Alexander's wasn't a steakhouse, I'd totally suggest this menu item to them!

We had two of these burgers at the table.  One came standard with the shichimi-truffled fries, and the other was ordered "de-truffled", since the person ordering it doesn't like truffles.  Both people had tons of fries left over, and were offering them up to the table.  We all joked that there was no reason to even try the non-truffle version, as the truffle version must be clearly superior.  But ... it turns out, we all actually liked the non-truffle version better!  Both versions were shoestring fries, well fried and crispy.  The truffle ones were salty and had a strong truffle oil flavor, along with the shichimi seasoning.  They were slightly less crispy than the non-truffled ones, probably due to the oil making them a little soggy?  Anyway, the non-truffled ones turned out to be incredibly spicy.  I don't know what spices were on them, but these things had a punch!  It was almost too much if you ate the fries plain, but if you dipped them in the mayo or ketchup, it cooled them off, and was delicious.  Totally addicting.  I was incredibly stuffed, and couldn't stop eating these fries dipped in mayo.

Whenever I want a good burger, this is the burger I'll return to.  I still think it is the best burger I've had in the city.  And, I might even consider ordering the non-truffle fries myself!
Grilled fillet mignon: foie gras bordelaise / chive.  10 oz, $47. Plus pan seared foie gras, $20.
We were at a steakhouse, so someone had to get a steak, right?  Actually, the person who ordered this had been here 3 times this week, so had already had the burger and the seafood.  He also had the seared foie gras on his burger earlier in the week, went to the foie gras dinner last night to have 8 courses of foie, and is the one who insisted that we get the seared foie gras appetizer tonight.  And ... he added another lobe to his steak.  Craziness!

He gave me a generous portion of the steak to try.  Served very simply, grilled, with a little sauce.  Well, and with more seared foie gras.  I wasn't really in the mood for steak, so this didn't appeal to me much this evening, but it was very tender, and like everything else, perfectly seared on the outside.  I did really like it when I made a bite of steak, plus foie gras, plus the mushroom-shortrib ragout from the burger.  The mushrooms combined really well with the foie gras, as I expected from having the last seared foie gras dish on the menu that included mushrooms rather than onions, and they combined really well with the steak, which I expected as they combined well with the ground form.  Good solid steak, just not really what I was wanting this evening.
Brussels sprouts: charcoal-smoked marrow / yamagobo / late harvest viognier-honey vinaigrette. $8.
Nicely seared, but too salty.  These again cemented my opinion that the sides at Alexander's are their weakest dishes.  I wouldn't order these again, as there was nothing special about them at all.  I'm also pretty sick of brussels sprouts, I love them, but have had so many this winter, including some at lunch today.
Cotton candy!
And every meal must end with cotton candy!  Today's was pina colada flavored, more sweet than anything, but it did have detectable coconut and pineapple notes.

We didn't receive any petit fours, perhaps because we only ordered espresso and tea, and not desserts?  We were all stuffed at this point anyway, as we had all had a ton of food just an hour or two earlier at TGIF, and none of us were actually intending to go out to dinner tonight, it just sorta happened ...  That said, if the panna cotta we had two days ago had still been on the menu, I'm pretty sure we would have ordered it.  I'm so sad that dessert is gone!

Overall, another fantastic meal at Alexander's, and my uni and foie gras cravings are successfully satisfied ... for  few days :)

By the way, the entire menu from the last foie gras dinner is still available at the restaurant for anyone to order.  If you didn't pick up on this fact already, I loved that meal and highly recommend it!
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