Saturday, March 03, 2012

Dinner @ Alexander's (Bar Area)

To start, let me just say, this was not my frist time to Alexander's. I've been to the Cupertino location more times than I can count, for a variety of occasions: casual dinners with a few friends, team dinners, or even sitting at the Chef's table in the kitchen for a birthday party (all organized by me, of course!). While I prefer it over the San Francisco location (execution level of the food and the service tend to be a little higher), I still enjoy the San Francisco location quite a bit. Actually, let me re-phrase that, I absolutely love Alexander's: the fish appetizers, the seared foie gras, the steaks, the burgers, the desserts ... it is all so good. Such a complete package. They are trying creative things with plating, sauces, and flavorings and for the most part are much more successful than most places. I'm always happy to go back, be it for a fancy big meal or just casual burgers. Which is why this is such a mixed review ...

We had a rather interesting experience at Alexander's. The short version: absolutely amazing food, as always, and I discovered my new favorite burger (and confirmed my belief that they have the best foie gras) in the city. Service however, was disastrous. But, they completely made it up to us. So, a mixed review.

This was another case of me deciding late in the day that I wanted a good burger, and deciding to go to a fancy place, but sit in the bar area and get the burger (like when we went to Spruce a few weeks ago).

I'm a big fan of this style of dining - you get the quality ingredients and kitchen skills of a high end place, the little extras like amuse bouche, bread service, etc and you can add on great starters like foie gras and finish with excellent desserts, yet you don't need to make reservations, don't need to dress up, etc. Great food in a casual setting? Sign me up!

Everything started off great - a group of four, we were able to walk right into the bar area at 7:15pm and seat ourselves at a 4-top. Perfect! And then we waited. And waited. It took a little longer than expected to get noticed and place our drink order. And then a little longer than expected before we placed our dinner order. When I ordered my burger, I asked for it to be cooked however the chef recommended. The waitress acted like this was very strange and was like "no, how do you want it". I asked if the chef had a recommendation and she said no. Hmm, ok. These were just slight missteps, and seemed par for the course for sitting in the bar. But then, the service issues really started to add up.
  • We were initially given just a tiny fork. Then, before any food arrived, the tiny forks were taken away, and we were given a tiny spoon, a regular fork, and a steak knife. The tiny spoon was for the amuse bouche, which made sense. None of us ordered steak, so the steak knife seemed strange, but we figured perhaps that is all they have for knifes?
  • The amuse arrived, was cleared away, and then condiment trays were brought with ketchup, mustard, mayo. This was puzzling that they were brought before the appetizers and sorta filled up our table. And we didn't have bread plates, bread knives, share plates, or anything like that.
  • We order wine. A little tray for the wine shows up.
  • Lots of time passes. Eventually, the wine arrives. With another little tray.  Now we have two trays on the table.
  • Lots of time passes. Eventually, I ask about bread, since I know they normally do a bread service. Bread plates show up, butter shows up. No bread. At this point, people are eating the mustard by the spoonful to occupy themselves.
  • Lots of time passes. Finally bread! But our only silverware was the steak knives, so we awkwardly used them to butter our bread.
  • Lots of time passes. We ask about our appetizers. Share plates are brought out. Additional silverware is brought out.
  • Over one hour after we had sat down, our appetizers arrive. No serving utensils provided.
  • The servers show up with our burgers. Their hands are full. Our table is full of appetizers and share plates. Whoops, no one cleared those away?
  • One person ordered his fries without truffle oil. Hmm, his taste pretty truffle-y! And another's taste pretty plain.  Whoops, wrong fries!
  • Dessert menus arrive. I suggest a dessert to share with the table. One fellow diner questions me. I say it again. He questions me again. I say "the second one on the menu". He reads off something different. Ah yes, we have different dessert menus. And the one I wanted to order doesn't exist.
  • Cotton candy arrives! Uh, before we are given the dessert (this is usually a parting gift).
  • Dessert arrives and is finished. Uh, before the espressos arrive.
So yeah, service was ... interesting. It certainly seemed like no one was responsible for us and that something went wrong with our appetizer order. And while I don't expect the same level of service in the bar as I do in the main dining room, the number of issues we had really did add up. It got comical at some points, with us just starting to expect things to go wrong. After we got the bill and paid, I went to the bar manager and just let him know that we had a number of issues. I wasn't trying to be a jerk or anything, and intentionally waited until after we had paid so as to not make it seem like I wanted a discount or expected anything, I just wanted him to know, particularly as I'd still go back since I've had many fantastic experiences there, but I know some others wouldn't. He sent the GM over to talk to us, who then ended up comping the cocktails, starters, extra foie gras, dessert, and espressos. Wowzer.

The food was amazing, like always. See the photos below for individual comments on dishes, but I can safely say that Alexander's does the best foie gras I've ever had, and one of the top few burgers I've had. The plating is artistic and they are doing creative things with the dishes that are usually quite successful. It is somewhat pricey, but even when things aren't being comped, I think it is worth the price.

I'd go back in a heartbeat. In fact, I WILL go back. Next time I'll go on a non-Monday, sit at a real table, and get the amazing seafood starters and a great steak.
Ginger drop: fresh ginger, ginger beer ... other stuff.
This was a mocktail. The ginger flavor was incredibly strong, it was clearly made with fresh ginger. The ginger was almost too overpowering, making it not quite as refreshing as I expected it to be, but it was still pretty tasty. It just needed to be consumed in small sips, and got better as the ice melted and diluted it a bit.

Not pictured were other drinks at the table, well made, enjoyable cocktails.

Amuse bouche: Beet puree, carbonated grape, micro wasabi
I think this one was a little inconsistent. The others at the table got the wasabi flavors and the carbonation, where I just tasted a grape and a lot of beet. I may have been overlooking the other flavors because I thought the waitress said "pee puree" and I was really confused why there was nothing green on the plate, and why I tasted something more like beets. Oops.

This didn't do much for me, but the others seemed to find it interesting.

Acme olive bread with Straus butter. 
Bread service is a choice of Acme bread: green olive, whole wheat walnut, or baguette served with Straus Creamery butter and sea salt.

All quality components, but we have this bread every day at work, so it isn't exactly novel to me.

Hot seared Hudson Valley foie gras: grilled eryngi and chanterelle, yuzu buttermilk, noble no 5, crispy shallots, crostini.
So good. Alexanders really, really knows how to do foie gras. Every time I have this here I am reminded of how fantastic foie gras can be. Everywhere else I've had it recently has been good for sure, but this is in a league of its own. Perfectly seared, ridiculously creamy, so flavorful. ZOMG.

Also on the platter was an assortment of grilled wild mushrooms, crostini, and ridiculously delicious fried shallots.

The slate itself was warm, which kept everything up to temperature.

So ridiculously good.

Sweetbreads, with kataiffi, black garlic, edamame, granny smith apple, vadouvan. 
This dish was loaded with culinary trends - kataiffi! vadouvan!  If only it had been cooked on the plancha!

The sweetbreads were wrapped in the kataiffi and nicely fried. The coating had a nice crunch to it and complimented the interior nicely. The black garlic sauce was a nice mellow flavor and I wish there was more of it, as it was really fantastic. The apple was served two ways: fresh strips and vadouvan spiced cooked chunks. The spiced chunks were tasty, but I didn't think they necessarily went with the rest of the dish that well. The fresh chunks were fine and refreshing, but again, weren't necessary.

Houseground wagyu burger, with shortrib-shiitake mushroom ragoĆ»t, lettuce, onion, toma cheese. And topped with seared foie gras (not normally included). Served with shichimi-truffled fries and a pickle. 
This was a damn good burger. I have had a LOT of burgers in the past couple years, as I've organized a number of burger crawls. We've visited standard burger joints, had the burgers from a number of higher end establishments that just have burgers on the menu to appease certain guests, and had all of the "top" burgers from all sorts of lists. And this was in the top 3 for sure. More me, it beat out the famous Spruce burger, the Nopa burger, and the Marlowe burger. Yes, it was that good. Every component of the burger was good, I loved the default preparation (fancy cheese! mushroom ragout!), and I really appreciated that it didn't come across as overly fatty or oily, even though it obviously isn't a lean item.

The bun was the Acme Pain de Mie burger bun. A good bun for sure, but it mostly just served as vehicle for the burger. Didn't add or detract from it and held up well to all the juices.

The burger came with red onion slices and lettuce, which were nice and crisp and added a freshness to the burger.

It was topped with perfectly melted Toma cheese, which was delicious and very flavorful. I'd gladly pick this cheese to put on a burger anytime! Much more complex flavor than standard swiss/american/cheddar/gruyere options and it paired very well with the mushroom ragout.

Speaking of which, there was also a generous layer of mushroom ragout, made from assorted wild mushrooms and truffle. Very flavorful and delicious, paired perfectly with the cheese, and held up against the meaty flavor of the burger. When given the option, I usually add sauteed mushrooms to my burger, so this was right up my alley. I was delighted that this was part of the standard offering!

The meat was high quality and clearly freshly ground. It had a lovely sear on the outside but was still cooked perfectly medium-rare on the inside. Juicy, incredibly flavorful, and not very greasy.

This picture is of a fellow dining companion's burger, where he of course added the extra seared foie gras. The chunk of foie was HUGE and just like the appetizer, perfectly seared, ridiculously creamy, and amazing. How do I know this? Because being the generous man that he is, he shared some with the rest of us :) Thank you!

The pickle was totally unremarkable, perhaps borderline bad. Not great flavors, not crunchy.

The fries were shoestring fries, with truffle oil and shichimi seasoning. They weren't the most amazing fries I've ever had or anything, but they were well fried and the truffle flavor was addicting.

Ketchup, grainy mustard, mayo, dijon mustard.
We each received a tray of condiments to dress up our burgers, including standard ketchup, mayo, and some delicious mustards (dijion or grainy).

Bubble gum cotton candy!
Alexander's always brings you cotton candy at the end of the meal. The flavor is different every time. This time it was bubblegum. Pretty much exactly what you'd expect ... fluffy, sweet, addicting.  It is one of my favorite parts of the experience, whimsical and fun, and totally unexpected at a fancy place.  I love bringing people there for the first time and seeing their expressions when they get the cotton candy :)

Tropic Thunder: arare rice crackers, passionfruit, pepper sauce, vanilla pineapple chutney, rice pudding, coconut rum sabayon, mango sorbet. And creme anglaise (uh, more on that later).
I wanted to try this dessert, but last time we were at Alexander's we had a souffle that came with amazing creme anglaise. We finished our meal literally just drinking spoonfuls of the creme anglaise that time. So this time around, I ordered this dessert, but asked if we could get some of that amazing creme anglaise on the side. Somehow that was lost in translation, so when the dessert arrived, the waiter poured the crame anglaise on top. He must have thought that is what we wanted. It really, really did not go with the dessert at all!

Now, back to the dessert. The coconut rice pudding was tasty, the sorbet was a nice tart mango flavor, and the pineapple chutney went really well with the rice pudding. Unfortunately, a lot of the other subtleties of the dish were lost with the creme anglaise. Whoops!  Totally our bad.

Caramel corn, espresso chocolate cookies, grapefruit pate de fruit. 
And because we needed more sweets ... mignardises!
  • The caramel corn was kinda forgettable, no better than the stuff you can get at the grocery store.
  • The espresso chocolate cookies were not very flavorful and too crisp for my liking.
  • The pate de fruit had a good tartness from the grapefruit.

[ Originally posted February 13, 2012, moving here to blog ]
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