Monday, March 12, 2012

Dinner @ The House


Tonight I wanted something different ... not foie gras, not fine dining, something just casual and tasty.  So, we went to The House, an asian fusion restaurant in North Beach that has been on my list of places to check out for ages.  They have over 2,000 Yelp reviews, with a 4.5 star average.  That is kinda insane.  As much as I don't necessarily trust the Yelpers, with that many reviews and that high of an average, it seemed like there was no way it wouldn't be good.

I went with high expectations, and as always, a plan on what we'd order based on the reviews.  I was very excited, particularly for their signature crème brûlée, as you may recall I've been on a quest for good crème brûlée for a while now.  We ordered all of the dishes the Yelpers rave about, plus all of the ones that appealed to me that also had good reviews.

Presentation was fairly elaborate for a casual place and this price point, with layered components and things sticking out.  Portions were generous for all courses, not skimpy individual sized appetizers or desserts, clearly designed for sharing.

They are known for their sauces, and as expected, they were the main focus of the dishes, with most dishes either coming with a dipping sauce or containing several different sauces on the plate.  Almost every dish had some sort of roe included as well.

The food and service matched the price and casual nature of the place.  Everything was fine, but nothing was all that memorable.  Everything was cooked well enough, no major execution issues, but we all agreed that we get food just as good daily at work.  Service was fine, we waited maybe 15 minutes to be seated even though we had a reservation, water glasses were refilled, share plates brought, dishes cleared quickly, etc.  Food came quickly once we ordered, this was not a meal for lingering around, as they had a constant line of people at the door.

I wouldn't be opposed to going back if someone really wanted to, but I have no real reason to return.  I certainly would not rate it 4.5 stars.  And it was really heavy - the appetizers very deep fried, the mains very oily, and the desserts creamy.  Ooph.

Pickled squash with sesame seeds.
Complimentary little starter brought to us right after we ordered.  This portion was for 4 people to share, which was tiny and a little strange, given that there were just 7 pieces.  It didn't really matter, as no one really wanted it.  Very, very tangy and not particularly interesting.
Ahi tuna tartare with roasted nori chips.
It is hard to see in this photo, but this was a three layer tower of the chips with tuna on the center ends.  Nice plating.  Underneath the tower was a little cucumber and carrot slaw, and on top was a radish and some roe.  The sauces on the plate were very pretty, but not very flavorful, I couldn't really identify what was in them.  The tuna was decent quality and had a better flavor to it than a lot of the tuna I've had at mediocre sushi places lately.  It was coated with a wasabi sauce that gave it a little kick and added some good flavor.  The chips were crisp on the exposed layers, but soggy where the tuna was.  Given how quickly this dish arrived, I almost wondered if they had some of these pre-assembled already.  It seems surprising that the chip would get that soggy that fast, and it was hard to eat the soggy chip.

Overall fine, but it just made me want the ahi tuna appetizer from Boulevard again.
Deep-fried salmon roll with chinese hot mustard.
This is their signature appetizer and the one that the Yelpers all go crazy about.  Four pieces (2 small, 2 large) of the roll, cut on the bias, leaning up against each other.  Served on top of a slaw, with dipping sauce on the side.

The spring roll had a nice crispy fried exterior, and as you can see, the salmon was cooked on the outside layer but still fairly raw on the inside.  I liked the contrast of the crunch of the fried shell and the softer fish inside, and the contrast of the two doneness levels of the fish.  There was a generous amount of fish in this dish.  The slaw was fresh and crunchy, and had a bit of a kick to it and included some roe which added a nice crunch.  The sauce that everyone just absolutely raves about was a thin mustard sauce, made hot from wasabi.  It was definitely flavorful, but I can't say I understand the hype, nor did I think it went particularly well with the salmon.  Still, a creative dish and again nicely plated.
Maine crab cake with pickled ginger remoulade.
Uh.  Crab ... cake?  More like crab volcano.  Also on the plate was more of the flavorless pretty green and yellow sauce we saw with the tuna tartar, the remoulade, some sauteed scallions, some more roe (because as we realized at this point, every dish needs roe!), and a fried thing sticking out on top.  Cute plating ...

I love crab, I love mayo based sauces, and I love crab cakes.  So we ordered this one mostly because I really wanted crab cakes, and because it did get good reviews.  This form factor didn't work very well, as it turns out, crab cakes are normally cakes for a reason - the surface area to filling ratio is important.  While the outside of this was nice and crispy, the inside was just super mushy.  The crab meat inside was all shredded and mixed with filler, no lump meat.  It wasn't particularly well spiced and you couldn't taste the crab really, even when eating a bite of just inside without fried exterior to mask the flavor.  The ramoulade helped, but it too was really lacking any real flavors.  For a place known for its sauces and flavors, I was pretty surprised by how bland this was, particularly given how it looked like it should have more intense flavors.  The roe and fried thing were mostly just decoration and didn't add anything to the dish.
Miso black cod
Yes, the cod was topped with a california roll.  And more of the fried things.  Interesting.  Also on the plate, under the fish, was some sauteed gai lan.  This wasn't on the main menu and was a special, but it sounds like it is pretty much always available.

This was my favorite dish of the evening.  The fish was nicely cooked, with a very crisp exterior, yet very moist and flaky inside.  The sauce was awesome and totally made the dish.  This is much more of what I was expecting from the place!  I really wished I'd had some bread or something to lap up more of this sauce.  I used the fried things, but they didn't work all that well.

The california roll was such a strange thing to have included on this plate.  Cold sushi on top of hot fish?  Heat was transfered into the roll, making the rice strangely warm and the nori soggy.  I can't say I understand why on earth they put these things together.  While this wasn't a particularly good california roll at all, crab mixed with mayo?  I'm all in.

The gai lan went well with the fish and I was glad to have a veggie side, although this was so covered in sauce and sauteed it didn't exactly lighten the dish up any.
Grilled sea bass with garlic ginger soy, sauteed snap peas, garlic noodles.
And the signature, much raved about, main dish.  I didn't like this much at all.

The snap peas were just oily, although well cooked.  I guess I'm biased because I had some really great simply steamed snap peas last week, ones that really allowed the flavor of the fresh peas to shine, and I was saddened by all the flavor of the vegetable getting lost in the greasiness here.

The noodles were also well cooked, al dente, but again, just oily and greasy.  They didn't have much flavor at all.

The fish didn't have much flavor on its own and was a rather strange texture, very soft.  The much raved about sauce was necessary to make anything of this, but I found it just rather salty and not that great.  I didn't detect much garlic or ginger.

I wish I'd skipped this dish.
Seared scallops.
This dish was also a special, and technically an appetizer, but we had it as a main.  Also on the plate was more of our favorite flavorless pretty sauce, a radish with some more roe, and microgreens.  What, no fried things sticking out?

The scallops were decently cooked.  I prefer a better seared crust and a more rare interior, but I didn't expect that caliber of execution here.  For the price, these were definitely well cooked and had a decent sweet flavor.  The sauce and microgreens didn't really add anything to the dish.

This dish normally comes with 3 scallops, but since there were 4 of us, the waitress asked if we wanted 4 of them.  I was already planning on asking for that, but I was glad she noticed and offered!
Mango tapioca pudding.
Ok Yelpers, you lose.  So many people described this as the best tapioca pudding they'd ever had.  People talk about just ordering it to go whenever they want awesome dessert and don't want to eat out.  We all know that I love desserts, and pudding is no exception.  Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for this, as I've had a lot of pudding in the last few days, but I really didn't think it was good.

Given the name, I was expecting a mango flavored pudding.  Instead, this was a plain pudding, with medium size tapioca balls, topped with a creamy sauce and a mango sauce.  It was pretty!  But ... the tapioca was all sorta gloopy and clumped together, and not distributed throughout the pudding.   The pudding itself was flavorless.  There was TONS of the overly sweet creamy sauce (evaporated milk perhaps?).  The mango sauce was actually really good, but there was very little of it.  Very disappointing.

No one else at the table liked this at all, and they weren't even really willing to give it a chance, so I ended up eating pretty much the entire thing myself.  I kept hoping and wanting it to be something better.  And when I got a bite with the mango sauce, it was *almost* good, so I kept having more.  I was totally stuffed at this point, and really reget finishing this.  I'm grumpy at this pudding!
Coconut crème brûlée.
And ... the moment we've all been waiting for.  The crème brûlée!  As previously mentioned, I've been on a crème brûlée quest lately.  And this gets pretty great reviews.  After a fairly lackluster meal however, I had re-set my expectations.

I was nervous and slightly anxious to take the first bite.  From a glance, it looked like it had a very thick, very caramelized sugar topping, exactly how I like it.  I took my spoon, and tapped on it.  It didn't break through.  Yes!  It was indeed a thick layer.  Several taps later and I had my first spoonful ready.  The custard immediately under the shell was warm!  The shell had a delicious, slightly bitter, burnt caramel flavor!  Score!  This part was better executed than all other crème brûlées I have had in recent memory.

The custard itself wasn't particularly noteworthy.  It claimed to be "coconut crème brûlée", but I didn't taste any coconut whatsoever.  It was just kinda standard plain custard, slightly thicker than a pudding, but not quite as thick as I'd like.  But without the coconut or more common vanilla flavoring, it was a little boring. I didn't mind that much however, as the caramelized sugar chunks added plenty of flavor.

The crème brûlée is also normally topped with a passionfruit puree, but we had one diner who does not like passionfruit, so we got that on the side.  It was really quite good.  Had this actually been coconut flavored, I could see the passionfruit and the coconut going together really well.  As it was, I enjoyed it with bites of the custard that didn't have any sugar shell, but didn't think that it combined with the burnt caramel flavor very well.

I wish they made a vanilla bean version of this.  I'd go back, even if I didn't order anything else!
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