Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Dinner @ Alexander's Steakhouse, Cupertino

If you have been following my blog, you know that the restaurant I eat at the most often these days is Alexander's Steakhouse.  You can read all my past reviews on why I love Alexander's so much (best summed up here), so I won't bother repeating myself.  And you know that I normally vist the location in San Francisco, but that I was down in the south bay for work last week, so I was finally able to return to the original Cupertino location for the first time in a few years.

On the first day of the conference, I went for lunch, and had a somewhat lackluster experience, due to lack of coordination between the kitchen and servers, and general service issues.  I was still excited to return for dinner the next day, as my previous experiences at Alexander's Cupertino, and my plethora of experiences at Alexander's San Francisco, have always been so fantastic.

I'll skip the basics here, as I wrote about them in my lunch review, and instead focus this review only on the things that were different between my visits, and on reviewing the individual dishes.

The difference between lunch service and dinner service was night and day.  If I didn't know better, I wouldn't have known I was at the same restaurant.  Not a single issue that existed at lunch existed at dinner.  Dinner service was exactly the Alexander's experience that I remembered from this location, and have come to expect at the San Francisco location.  The service was spot on.  Waitstaff were formal yet friendly.  Table settings cleared promptly, but not rushed, and always replaced before the next course arrived.  Pacing of our courses was perfect.  We ordered so many appetizers that the waitress suggested turning them into multiple courses, which I really appreciated.  I can't imagine getting them all at once!  Dishes arrived synchronized.

The food was well executed and presented.  I think the plating at the San Francisco location is slightly more precise and artistic, but this could just be a difference in what we ordered.  Like the San Francisco location, dishes were composed of many elements, with unique ingredients and cooking techniques, intense flavor combinations, and fun contrasting textures.  The menu, while containing the same major ingredients as the San Francisco location, was pretty radically different.  It was exciting to get to try all new dishes!

We also got to meet the general manager and the executive chef (thanks to a hook up from a Twitter friend!).  They were both incredibly friendly, and I really appreciated the opportunity to meet them.  The chef in particular was really interesting to talk to, and had been at the last Alexander's foie gras dinner in San Francisco, so we got to hear his opinions on some of the dishes that night (which, we totally agreed with!)

One final note.  I got to witness something rather incredible that night.  Both Alexander's locations have an item on the menu called the "Tomahawk Chop".  Instead of listing the size of this steak in ounces, it just says "big".  I've seen it go by before, this massive steak with a huge bone sticking out of it, but I haven't seen it that up close.  That night, a guy at the table directly next to us ordered it.  I figured that some really large portion of the dish must be the bone, but as we watched him work his way through it, I was shocked to see how little of it really was bone, and how much meat was on it.  I can't even begin to imagine eating that much steak in a single sitting.  I'm curious how many people ever finish this!  Which ... this guy did!  It was so ridiculously impressive.  He was eating that steak for a very, very long time.  The rest of his dining companions, who had ordered all various steaks, finished long before he was even half way.  He kept taking breaks, completely setting down his knife and fork, and I was convinced that he was giving up.  But he persevered.  It was really, truly, amazing to watch.  I wanted to go congratulate him at the end, but felt like that would have been rude.  But honestly, such an impressive feat!

Anyway, on to our meal!  It was very good, and I'll gladly go back to this Alexander's when I'm back in the area!

European butter, sea salt, prune cream cheese with chives.
The meal began with bread service, which came with these sides.  Different from the San Francisco location, which comes with just a salted butter.

The prune cream cheese was really tasty, full of chunks of prune, and thus nice and sweet.  This was unique, but didn't go with most of the bread offerings very well, working only really with the plain baguette.  Still, it was so good, I got the plain baguette just to go with it!
Bacon cheese roll, cheesy flatbread.
Bread service had four offerings: Acme baguette and Acme green olive bread, like the San Francisco location, but then the other two choices were a bacon cheese roll and a flatbread.

The bacon cheese roll was the same as we'd had at lunch the previous day.  Disappointingly served cold, it didn't have much bacon flavor, and was rather oily.  I didn't care for this at all, whic is sad, because it sounded like it should be perfect - bacon and cheese in a sweet roll!

The flatbread was basically a cracker with seeds and topped with a lot of cheese.  It didn't go with the butter or cream cheese spread.  The amount of cheese totally overwhelmed it, and I wouldn't have known there were seeds in it, even though it was loaded with them, as all I could taste was fried cheese.    Much more like a frico than a flatbread.  Which, is pretty tasty.
Kumquat Cooler: Kumquat / ginger syrup / lemon.  $9.
Our group of four included two non-drinkers, so to start off the meal, we all ordered fun mocktails.  Often mocktails are pretty useless and just sweet, but we knew that Alexander's makes all of their own syrups and really puts some thought into their mocktails (and, obviously, their real cocktails), so it seemed worth trying them out.  It was hard to pick just a few, as they all sounded absolutely fascinating and full of really excellent ingredients.

This one had a really crazy strong ginger flavor, and was nicely refreshing.  I didn't taste the kumquat as much as I'd like, but it was balanced and not too sweet.
Fireball: Blood orange / clementine soda / fresno chile.  $9.
This was perhaps the most interesting cocktail I've ever had, mock or not!  The fresno chile came through very strong, with an intense smoky flavor.  Yet, it didn't overwhelm, which is incredible since it was such a strong chile flavor.  This somehow managed to be just amazingly balanced, and left you with this amazing finish from the chili.  Such an excellent concoction.
Shiso 'berry: strawberry / shiso / ginger ale / yuzu.  $9. 
Another great drink!  This one had a good berry flavor and a great freshness from the shiso.  It was also really, really refreshing, and again, really nicely balanced.
Amuse bouche: Tofu, miso glaze, citrus dashi.
Hmm, tofu for an amuse?  Interesting choice, not one I've seen before.  The tofu was pretty standard, a little creamy.  The miso glaze was tasty, with a strong miso flavor that I enjoyed.  It was topped with a tiny little herb, hearts of fire perhaps?

Overall, this was a fine little bite, but it wasn't particularly memorable.
Angry Birds: kara-age / togarashi / fresno chiles / tamago sauce.  $16.  
I'd read really good reviews about this starter, but I'm not really one to ever order chicken at a restaurant.  Its just ... chicken, right?  Wrong!  I'm glad one of the other diners decided to order this, which he did because he wasn't into all the seafood and foie gras appetizers I graviate towards.

This was really quite good.  Little chunks of moist, tender, fried chicken.  The batter was delicious, not too thick, and really crispy.  Although obviously fried, it wasn't oily and didn't feel that heavy.  There were also some chiles that packed some heat.  And a delicious dipping sauce.

It was served with two picks to use to skewer the chicken, a fun touch.

I still prefer the seafood or foie gras appetizers, but if I were to ever want fried chicken, this is what I'd want.  High quality meat, fried perfectly.  Everyone else at the table absolutely loved it.

Onigara king crab legs: dynamite glaze / tobanjan butter / cucumber / arare.  $40.
One of my previous meals at Alexander's in Cupertino was for a special birthday dinner, where we sat at the chef's table, inside one of the kitchens.  At that meal, we watched orders of crab legs go by repeatedly.  One of the diners, who was a vegetarian at the time, loved crab legs in her previous life.  She couldn't take it any longer, and ended up ordering the crab legs halfway through the meal.  I think they were served just roasted, perhaps with some sauce?, and they were absolutely amazing.  Whenever I think of crab legs, I'm transported back to that dish.  Besides the roasted Dungeness crab at Camino's crab fest, I've never had any crab nearly as good.

The San Francisco location does not have crab legs on it, I think because they do not have the tanks required to hold the crabs?  When I saw crab legs on the menu, I had to order it.

I was too excited to really pay attention to the menu, and didn't really realize what I was ordering.  I was expecting just a big plate of crab legs, so when this was set down in front of us, I at first thought there was a mistake, as I didn't even see crab :)  The crab legs came very generously topped with  sauce, cucumber and radish slices, some other greens, and arare.

Given everything else going on, you couldn't really taste and appreciate the crab very much.  It was however clearly well cooked, not at all chewy.

The cucumber and radish were light and refreshing, and went well with the crab, and were a good contrast to the heavy sauce.

Speaking of which, the sauce was creamy and delicious.  I thought it was some form of spicy mayonaise, but the menu says "tobanjan butter", so spicy butter?  Hmm, it seems too creamy to be butter.  Anyway, there was a lot of it slathered all over the crab, which I did love, once I got over the fact that I wasn't going to really taste my crab meat.  I sure do love mayonaise-like dressings and crab and mayo go together oh so well.  The crab legs were also glazed with the dynamite sauce, which seemed like a soy based sauce.

The arare was super crispy, and crunched between your teeth with every bite.  Totally just a fun component.

My only criticism of this dish is that it was a little hard to eat.  The legs were served in the shell, and although split open, still required some work to get the meat out, which you couldn't really do all that well with a fork.  It was far easier to pick it up and just try to eat the meat out of the shell, or use one hand to hold the shell and the other to extract the meat, but this got really messy as it was coated in sauce, and didn't really seem appropriate.

I'd order this again, although it did seem a little pricy.  I'm not really aware of the going rates for king crab these days though.  I also noticed that there is an option to add crab legs to any steak.  My guess is that the preparation used there is not coated in sauce, and probably more like what we had before.  I'd really like to try that next time.
Tokaji-Aszú, Château Pajzos, 5 Puttonyos, 2003
The waitress asked if anyone would like a glass of sauternes or tokaji to go with the upcoming foie gras. I've only recently come to really understand how good wine pairings can really enhance the experience of eating food, and although I was trying not to drink much, I love the pairing of a sweet wine and a foie gras torchon, so I really appreciated this suggestion.  This was sweet and delicious, and, as expected, was a great pairing.  The only criticism I have is that it arrived well in advance of the foie gras, so warmed up a bit too much by the time the foie arrived.  I'm not exactly sure how much this cost, as it didn't show up on my bill.  Thank you! :)
Foie gras torchon: cocoa and cognac / huckleberry / kumquat / smoked foie powder .  $19.
As in the previous day at lunch, there was only a single foie gras preparation listed on the menu, the seared one.  But, I asked if there were any other versions available, and the waitress said we could also order the torchon that was part of their special "foie centric" tasting menu (a totally awesome sounding $250 prix-fixe that requires participation of the whole table, which we couldn't do since we had a non-foie eater in the group).

This sounded awesome.  Cured with cocoa and cognac, with huckleberries and kumquats, and my favorite, foie gras powder!  It was also served with slices of brioche.

The torchon was pretty good, decently creamy, although I didn't taste the cognac nor cocoa.  I found one fairly large vein in it as well.

It paired well with the slightly sweet and slightly tart huckleberries and kumquats, although I would have preferred the fruit be a jam or puree form, to better spread and integrate with the foie gras.  Of course, the flavor of everything was heightened by dragging it through the additional foie gras powder.

The broiche was too buttery, almost soggy from the butter.  I didn't like it much at all.  However, as we ran out of the first slices (there were only four), a fresh set magically appeared, nice and hot.  What a wonderful touch, not providing it all at the start so it would get cold.

For $19, this was a good size torchon and decently done, but it didn't wow me, not the pairings nor the torchon itself.  Perhaps that is because I loved the torchon I'd had just a few days earlier at Commonwealth.
Seared foie gras: yuzu den-miso / black sesame brioche / strawberry.  $28.
We didn't order this, as we'd had the seared foie gras there at lunch the day before, and the night before that we'd had it at Fly Trap, and of the four of us, one person doesn't eat foie gras, one is pretty sick of it since he's been on most of my foie gras excursions lately, and the other had just had it for the first time at Fly Trap.  But, I clearly love foie gras, particularly seared, and I wasn't about to turn down the offer of additional foie gras!

This was a totally different preparation from the one we had the day before at lunch.  It was far more successful.

The strawberry and yuzu den-miso both worked much better than the mango pairing.  They were sweet and balanced out the richness of the foie well.  The black sesame broiche was just a few tiny chunks of the bread, not particularly sesame flavored, and pretty lost given that there was just the tiny shreds for the large chunk of foie gras.

The foie gras was a very sizable chunk, considerably bigger than we'd received the day before.  It was also executed much better, although it still seemed slightly over-seared to me, but not burnt seeming like before.  It was good and creamy, although a little stringy.

The diner who had just had foie gras for the first time two days earlier loved this.  It was really exciting to see him enjoy it.  And lucky for him, he was visiting from Australia, where foie gras isn't being banned!

I thought this was a solid seared preparation, but I've been spoiled by having a lot of fantastic foie gras lately, and I think that in particular, the Alexander's in San Francisco does a better job with this dish.
Shaved foie gras “nachos” / shrimp chips / citrus salsa / kabayaki / avocado / pine nuts.  $18. 
And another foie gras dish we didn't order :)  We had this exact dish the day before at lunch, and my review of it is essentially the same: fun, playful, but it doesn't work that well, with the foie just getting lost in it.  I did think this version came out better - the citrus elements seemed more tart and pronounced, and the shaved foie gras was saltier, resulting in better flavors than the previous one.  The shrimp chips however were a little on the soggy side.
Palette cleanser: lychee berry sorbet.
This did not cleanse my palette!  It was way, way too sweet and cloying.  Others didn't seem to mind it however, and gladly ate mine.
Tajima F1 Australian Wagyu Filet (half portion): simply served / demi-glace / beurre blanc / truffled potato puree.  $110.
Ruined.  I am ruined.

That is what my tasting notes say in all caps, circled.  Sigh.

Let me rewind.  I've never been that into steak.  My mother occasionally grilled it when I was growing up, but it was always served well done, and we just coated it with A1.  We didn't go to steakhouses.  So partially, I had no exposure.  Once I reached adult life, it wasn't something I ever sought out, but on rare occasions when I'd wind up somewhere where I was supposed to eat steak, I'd do what I knew: order it well done, get the petit fillet, and cover it in steak sauce.  Somewhere in the past few years, I started learning that I didn't want it well done, and that steak could be tender and pretty tasty, but again, wasn't really something I ever sought out or really cared for.

Then I had a few good steaks at Alexander's and Harris's over the past few years years, and started liking it a little more.  But again, it just never really did it for me.  But ... at the first Alexander's foie gras dinner I attended, I was blown away by the filet mignon with foie gras sauce.  It was insanely tender, and the sauce and accompaniments were just incredible.  They didn't ask how anyone wanted it prepared, it just arrived medium-rare. What a revelation!  So much better!  And then, at the next Alexander's foie gras dinner, my life changed even further.  The steak served that evening was the top of the line: the Sher full blood wagyu strip steak.  ZOMG.  It was incredible.  (You can read my full review notes for each of those steaks for more details).

Anyway.  Since we were ordering so many appetizers, two of us decided to split a steak.  We decided that since we were splitting, we'd splurge and get something other than the standard filet ($48).  We went for the cheapest Wagyu available, the Fajima F1.  At $110, it was just barely double the price of the regular filet, so if we'd been getting the standard filet each, it wasn't that much more pricey.  (Or at least this is how we justified it to ourselves!)  Of course we got it medium-rare.  The kitchen split it for us, so it arrived on our own individual plates, with a potato puree fondue on the side.

The potato puree was described as a "fondue".  I tried eating a spoonful of it as if it were mashed potatoes, and thought it was awful.  It had a really strange mouthfeel and was just too creamy.   So, I took their word for it, and tried to use it just as a dip for my steak.  I didn't like it like that either.  It was intensely truffle flavored (in a truffle oil way).  Meh.

The steak was topped with a duo of sauces, one was a demi-glace, but I'm not sure what the green one was (clearly, not a beurre blanc as the menu said).  Both sauces were salty (in a good way) and I enjoyed them very much.  I know steak purists criticize Alexander's for the saucing, but I really love it, and find that their sauces, while incredibly flavorful, somehow don't detract from the taste of the meat itself, but rather enhance it (but in general, I'm a sauce girl!  I'm always the one lapping up the sauce left on plates, and dishes that come with dipping sauces are often favorites of mine).

Speaking of the taste of the meat.  ZOMG.  This is why I am ruined.  It was incredible.  I had no idea that steak could just taste so downright amazing.  The meat itself just had so much flavor.  From seeing how marbled this steak was before cooking, and how there was no discernable fat when we received it, I think the insane flavor must come from the fat just being rendered out in the cooking process (which was even more extreme with the Sher fullblood strip steak we had at the foie dinner).

The steak was cooked perfectly.  Lovely sear on the outside resulting in a good crust, thick enough to give it some texture, but not too thick to overpower or be hard to cut.  It was insanely tender inside.  Perfectly medium-rare.  These folks know how to cook a steak!

The other two diners at the table order the standard filet.  One of them ordered it medium-rare and one ordered it well done.  It was striking to see the difference in the cuts of steak they received (the medium-rare one was much thicker).  But far, far more striking, was the difference between our steak and the standard filet.  We did a side by side comparison, I think hoping that there wouldn't be much difference, so that next time, we could go back to ordering the standard steak.  These were both filets, presumably cooked by the same person, with the same sauces.  And the cooking execution on the standard filet was fantastic too (although it might have been a little bit more cooked than ours).  But, the difference between the steaks was night and day.  The standard one was good, don't get me wrong.  It was well cooked.  It was tender.  It was a good steak.  But, it basically represented how I'd always felt about steak before.  It was just a steak.  It was fine, but I'd just never really go out of my way for it.  Whereas ours ... was phenomenal.  Sigh.  It turns out, there really is a good reason to get the higher end steak.  I'm ruined, and I'm never going back ...

I also indulged a little in a fabulous Syrah.  It turns out, steak really just goes so well with red wine (or ... perhaps red wine goes well with steak?).  I'm really starting to appreciate how much a wine can enhance food.  This makes me much more interested in doing wine pairings in the future, something I've not done much of, usually because that is just far more alcohol than I want to drink (but, I've also discovered that a lot of places will let you do a half pairing, which works far better, allowing you to get the experience of the pairing, but not actually drinking too much).

Anyway.  Alexander's knows how to cook a steak.  And they know how to sauce it.  And, it turns out, the Tajima F1 really is a zillion times better than standard filet.  I still have a really hard time imagining regularly ordering a single item that costs this much, but at the same time, I honestly don't know how I'd go back to ordering the standard one, when I had it made so clear how much better the F1 was.  Sigh.  And to think, we got the lowest end wagyu, there are 6 others on the menu, ranging from $110 - $300. Ruined.  Perhaps I need to just go back to the burger :)
Decaf french press, chocolate truffle.
We asked the waitress how the decaf coffee was.  She told us that people say it is pretty good, that they can't tell it is decaf.  That is about the best thing you can say about a decaf, so we gave it a try.  It was decent, with a pleasant bitterness.  Certainly not as good as a caffeinated coffee, but for a decaf, decent.

The chocolate that came with it was great.  Dark chocolate shell, with a nice shine and snap to it when you bit into it, with a rich chocolate taste.  Inside was a creamy milk chocolate filling.  I'd consider ordered this again just to get another chocolate :)
Textures : white chocolate namelaka / coco sable / chocolate milkshake foam / raspberry / tonka.  $15.
This photo doesn't really explain this dessert very well.  I wish I'd gotten a before picture, or better yet, a video.

The plate arrived with just the white chocolate namelaka on it, atop the cocoa sable.  It also had a chocolate sphere on top of it, which was a chocolate ball filled with raspberry.  Then, tableside, they added the "chocolate milkshake foam", which was described as a liquid nitrogen frozen milkshake.  And then, the real magic happened.  They poured hot fudge over the whole thing.  This melted the chocolate sphere in the middle, unleashing the chocolate and raspberry all over the plate.

Named "textures", this dessert really was a play on a lot of textures.  There was the light, airy, cold, frozen milkshake.  And the hot, liquid fudge.  And the crunchy cookie.  And the creamy white chocolate layer.  And then a couple tiny meringues, and a chocolate curl.  Aptly named!

The white chocolate namelaka was pretty lost in all of the chocolate.  It did add the creamy texture, but flavorwise, I didn't get any white chocolate.

The cocoa sable cookie base was again a good textural component, but not very memorable flavorwise.

The frozen milkshake was interesting, fluffy yet frozen, but not particularly chocolately.

But the hot fudge was killer.  Decadent, thick, rich, chocolately, warm, amazing.  Yes, I finished every last drop of that fudge.  Particularly when combined with elements from our other dessert ...

I'm not sure I'd order this one again myself, but if anyone else wanted it, I'd gladly eat the fudge.  Or, I'd just order a pitcher of the hot fudge :)  $15 seems a little high for a single dessert, even one involving liquid nitrogen and tableside preparation.
Fire to the Rain:lemongrass crème brûlée / strawberry / rhubarb / almond-basil / coconut / chia.  $12.
Another case of a photo not being nearly sufficient.  All evening long, we saw dishes going by on fire.  Yes, on fire.  When I saw the dessert menu, I was instantly suspicious that the flames were indeed this dish, the "Fire to the Rain".  The waitress confirmed my suspicions.

A dish arriving on fire is almost interesting enough to make me order it regardless of what it is, but this was also one of my favorite desserts: crème brûlée!!!  I was beyond sold.  I'm still on a never ending quest to find a good crème brûlée.  (Side note: I'm also totally curious what the burning time is on this, as the fire went out very soon after it arrived, but it had been lit out of sight of our table.  I wonder how they orchestrate that ...)

Anyway, this dessert came with two very separate sides: the crème brûlée and then everything else.  It was a really strange pairing.  I'm all about creating the perfect bite, yet I couldn't really figure out a way to combine all of the elements.  Cake with crème brûlée?  Hmm.  Cream on crème brûlée?  Hmm.

Unfortunately, this crème brûlée went the way pretty much all crème brûlées do.  Disappointing.  The flavor wasn't that great, perhaps I'm just not that into lemongrass, although the lemongrass flavor was pretty subtle.  But the real problem was the consistency.  A good crème brûlée needs to find the balance between being too soft and runny (like a pudding) and too thick, and this one went way too far in the thick direction.  It was also sorta eggy, almost quiche like.  One of my favorite things about a good crème brûlée is the contrast in temperatures from the warm top and the cold custard.  This was warm throughout, probably due to it being fairly thin and on fire for so long.  The caramelized crust on top however was really nice and crisp, and a good thickness.

On the other half of the plate was a plethora of items.  A sphere, that burst open with sweet strawberry puree when you cut into it.  Some curls of fresh, crisp rhubarb.  Little chunks of really moist cake (almond-basil?).  Some other puree (the chia was in here, not sure what else).  The quenelle was just a cream.  These were all fine, but as I said, didn't really pair with the crème brûlée, and if I wanted a cake dessert, I would have ordered that ...

However, the random side components did allow me to create the dessert bite of the night: moist cake, strawberry puree, and cream from this dessert, covered in hot fudge from the other one.  Delicious!

I wouldn't order this one again, my quest for good crème brûlée continues ...
Strawberry pâtes de fruit / white chocolate caramel corn / huckleberry madeline.
The mignardises were a bit of a letdown.  The pâtes de fruit didn't have a very strong strawberry flavor.  The white chocolate caramel corn was just caramel corn, I didn't taste any white chocolate.  The huckleberry madeline was nice and buttery, and loaded up with juicy huckleberries.

And of course, our meal concluded with cotton candy.  It was pina colada, just like the day before.
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