Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dinner @ State Bird Provisions

State Bird Provisions opened on January 1st, and has been seriously hyped ever since.  I've been interested in checking it out, but assumed most of the hype was just due to the novelty of their original concept: "Californian" cuisine, but served dim sum style!  ZOMG!  Reservations have become impossible to get, other than booking the furthest date out the moment it hits the online reservation system.  I was awake at 3am one night a month or so ago, and found an open reservation, so I decided to book it, even though I was still skeptical.  I'd forgotten about the reservation, until last week, when several prominent food critics published their reviews, and I realized my reservation was approaching.  They liked it!  In fact, every review I could find was incredibly positive, both from the masses on Yelp (who mostly were just amazed at the concept) to food bloggers and critics everywhere.  Everyone raved about ... everything.  I was excited to try it out!

Walking into the restaurant was a little overwhelming.  It was packed.  You enter in a long narrow hallway, one side lined with people waiting, and the other filled with people standing and dining.  Yes, you read that correctly.  In case you didn't make your reservations a month ago, you can show up and wait for one of these standing tables, which are walk in only.  These were added recently, and are a pretty fascinating move by the owners.  They didn't have space to put in more tables and chairs, but people standing along the counter take up very little space.  And they wanted to be able to accomodate some walk-ins.  In exchange, people dining in this space also get to watch over the open kitchen and get first pick of the food as it comes out.  I'm not sure I'd want to eat my entire meal standing up like this, but the tradeoffs are pretty interesting.

The host stand is at the end of the hallway, and we had to kinda fight our way through the people waiting to get to it.  Although we had a reservation, we had to wait about 10 minutes for our table.  I didn't mind, as we were able to watch the dishes coming out, and get a sense of what was available.  It was also fun to watch the open kitchen.  And I got some tips from another person waiting on what dishes were the best (he was a repeat customer).

Once seated, we were presented with a wine bottle full of water (a nice touch, we could easily refill our own glasses) and a brief explanation about what to expect.  It was your basic dim sum setup: there would be a cart offering some cold items, servers with trays offering small hot items, and then there were additional larger hot main dishes and desserts we could order from a menu.  Everything was small plates and designed to be shared.  This concept works well with dim sum because most of the items are individual, or at least, easily cut up.  This was not the case for the dishes served here, although I can imagine plenty of "Californian" dishes that would be fine for this format.  In fact, most of these dishes were incredibly difficult to share.  We were not provided with any serving utensils, and no dishes were cut up in any way by the servers.  I really don't understand this, as the entire concept is that it is tapas style.  I'm dining with friends, and I'm not all that concerned about germs, but it really would have helped to at least have a real knife to cut things and a spoon to use to serve some of the sauces.

It was also incredibly loud in the restaurant.  The space was all hard surfaces, and there just seemed to be nothing to dampen the noise.  We were only a group of three, at a small table, and absolutely could not hear each other without considerable effort.  This made making joint decisions on what to order even more fun.

Prices were shockingly low.  Yes, they were small plates, but I think the average dish was about $7.  Really, not bad at all.

The flow of the meal was a little odd, but this can be fairly common at dim sum.  There were plenty of lulls of no food making its way to us.  We were seated about halfway through the restaurant, and a number of dishes ran out long before they reached us.  Clearly, sitting closer to the kitchen results in a much faster dining experience, and you get much hotter, fresher, items.  We actually passed on a few items that we'd seen taking way too long to make their way to us (like one that looked particularly good, but had a poached egg, and had been circulating for about 8 minutes by the time they finally reached us).

There was way, way too much oil used in everything.  I'm not worried about a little extra fat in my food, but it really overpowered and ruined a lot of the dishes.  That said, there was one dish I really loved, and two that I found quite good.  But the rest ... they just weren't very good.  I don't really understand the rave reviews.

I'll keep following the reviews of this place, and if they stay consistently positive, and the menu changes up, I'd consider going back and trying it again, but I'm definitely in no rush to go back, and would not order most of the dishes we received again.
Smoked trout with bread salad.  $6.
First to arrive at our table was the cart.  It contained cold dishes only, including this one, described as a smoked trout mousse with bread salad.  This sounded really great ... but really wasn't.  My least favorite dish of the evening.

The smoked trout was supposedly mixed with a whipped crème fraîche to form a mousse.  I didn't taste any trout at all.  Nor smokiness.  Nor did I get any tartness from the crème fraîche.  In fact, it just didn't taste like anything at all, just a creamy substance with a strange mouthfeel that coated the inside of your mouth when you ate it.

The bread salad was made up of very crisp, very oily, chunks of bread and some pickled vegetables.  The pickled vegetables were fairly good, but everything was just drowning in oil, as you can see in the photo.

Tasteless mousse, hard bread, and a vat of oil?  This was not a good dish at all, I'm really not sure what they were going for here.  SKIP!
Hass avocado with seafood ‘salsa’.  $8.
Also from the dim sum cart, a cold seafood 'salsa'.

This one was rather ridiculous to share.

It contained two tortilla chips, each of which were incredibly hard.  We struggled trying to break these in half to share. They were also insanely oily, as you can see the glistening in this photo.  They weren't particularly good.

The seafood mix included a few chunks of shrimp, two slices of scallop, and a single mussel.  Um, very hard to share.  The seafood was all cooked well enough, but wasn't particularly noteworthy.  It was tossed with lime, jalapeno, and Dirty Girl tomato sauce, which was really light, refreshing, and tasty.

This was all on top of a whipped avocado base, which I didn't try, as I'm allergic to avocado.

Overall, there were some good things going on here, with a fun play on chips, salsa, guac, and seafood, but it really didn't work as a share plate, and just wasn't that great.  Fourth worst dish of the evening for me, and I wouldn't order again.
‘green garlic bread’ with burrata. $8.
One of the dishes from a tray.

This was, hands down, the dish of the evening for me.  I LOVED this.  The others at the table thought it was ok, but weren't all that into it.

The 'green garlic bread' was super crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.  Insanely fried and oily, but in a way that worked.  It reminded me of the fried dough I used to get at the state fair as a child, except that it was savory and infused with green garlic flavor, rather than powered sugar.  The use of green garlic was perfect, as it was fairly intensely garlicky, but not in a bad way.  The garlic went really well with the oil, the bread, and the cheese.

It was topped with fresh burrata, which had a really good flavor, and was a nice contrast in texture as it was incredibly creamy, and the bread was crisp.

The burrata was topped with, you guessed it, more oil and some cracked pepper.  The oil seemed very unnecessary given how oily the bread was.

It was also really difficult to share.  We had only butter knives, which couldn't really cut through the crispy bread.

Even though this was just about the most unhealthy thing imaginable, I loved it, and would order it again.  I had far more than my portion of this dish, and if anyone else had seemed remotely interested, would have ordered another one that night.
Red trout, mandarin, hazelnuts and garum brown butter.  $9.
This was one of the main dishes that we ordered from the menu.  Available in two sizes, we opted for the small.

And another really hard to split dish.  The trout was served with the skin on, making it really hard to cut up with our butter knives.

The trout was crusted in rice flour, skin on.  It was well cooked, moist, and flavorful.  The skin/crust was really crispy and salty, and reminded me of a chip.  Good execution all around here.

The brown butter sauce paired very well with the hazelnut, and had a complex nutty flavor.  The mandarin and the greens were necessary to lighten up the dish, and were a successful flavor pairing as well.

While not a huge piece of fish, for $9 this seemed like a very good value.  This was my third favorite dish of the night, and I'd order it again.
Eel special.  $7.
Earlier in the day, they posted a photo to Facebook of a huge eel.  And then, our server mentioned to us that they had an eel special that night.  We had no idea what to expect, but figured it was worth trying.

I've never had eel like this before.  In fact, I think I've probably only ever had eel at sushi restaurants.  The eel was served skin on, and was such a strange texture.  It was sorta spongy and gritty.  I didn't much care for it.

There were tons of shimeji mushrooms in the dish as well.  They were kinda slimy, but I enjoyed them.

The whole thing was in a soy lime and eel stock based broth that was a little salty, and not very good.

This was my third least favorite dish of the evening, and I would not order it again.
Asparagus ‘frites’, anchovy & parmesan.  $5.
From a tray.  We ordered this mostly because we had a really, really long lull in food at this point.  We were bored and wanted some food.  Also, it is asparagus season, so we thought it might be good.

The asparagus was breaded, fried, and incredibly oily.  All I could taste was oil.  Seriously, had I been blindfolded, there is no way I could have possibly identified the asparagus.  The breading layer was thick, not very flavorful, and fell off when you bit into the fries.  I hated these.

On the other hand, the anchovy sauce and parmesan had really nice flavor and paired together well, in a classic caesar sense.  I stripped the nasty breading-oil off of one piece of asparagus and just dipped it in the anchovy sauce and parmesan cheese, and it was actually really nice.  Had they just grilled the asparagus and served it with this sauce and cheese, it might have been pretty good.

At least this was easy to share?

My second least favorite dish of the evening, would certainly not order again.
CA state bird with provisions. $8.
This is their signature dish.  None of us really care for quail, and had decided that even though it was their signature dish we were going to skip it, but the guy standing next to me while we were waiting insisted that this was amazing.

So, we ordered the small size from the menu.

The quail came breaded with the same coating as the asparagus fries, although it wasn't quite as thick and wasn't quite as oily.  It still wasn't that good, but it was nice and crisp.  The quail was moist and better than I expected, but, it was still quail, which meant that it was loaded with bones and was really just a pain to deal with.  So much work to get a little meat off of it, particularly when breaded.  And, speaking of hard to share dishes, how on earth do you share this?

The "provisions" were onions stewed in lemon and rosemary, that were incredibly soft and actually fairly tasty, and some large shavings of parmesan.  The parmesan didn't really seem to go with the quail.

Fifth least favorite, and I wouldn't order again.
Duck liver mousse with almond financier. $5.
I've clearly been on a foie gras kick, and have been loving mousses and pates of all sorts, so I was very much looking forward to this dish.  I saw several other tables with it, and had read about it, but it hadn't made its way to us yet, and we were pretty much done with trying things at this point.  So, we asked about it, and it arrived.

The mousse was really creamy.  It had a very, very strong liver flavor.  It wasn't particularly complex nor did it have any other flavor components to balance it, but the mousse itself was pretty successful.

The almond financiers sounded like a really interesting pairing.  I love baked goods and sweets, so I thought this could be really good.  And, I still think it could, except the execution on these was horrible.  They were, like so many things that night, way, way, way too oily.  They were also really mushy inside, like they hadn't cooked properly.  But the overwhelming issue was how oily they were.  It not only ruined them, but it ruined the pairing as well.  You didn't want oil with the mousse.

This dish was on to something though.  The mousse was good, and I can sort of imagine that if the financiers had been better, this really could have worked ... I think.  It would have benefited from another component however, like a huckleberry compote or something.  Still, for $5, this was a good value.

My 5th favorite dish of the evening.  I'd try ordering this again, as it seems like something had just gone wrong with the financiers.
Caramelized white chocolate ice cream sandwich, pecans. $6.
And, time for dessert!

On the bottom of the plate was the caramelized white chocolate puree.  This was basically a thick, sweet, pretty tasty, caramel.  I didn't really taste white chocolate at all, but it was good, and I certainly devoured all of it.

The ice cream sandwiches were made up of crispy chocolate cookies, which were sweet, delicious, and had a really interesting texture, I think from cocoa nibs.  Sort of a cross between a cookie and a chocolate bar.  Inside was fairly generic ice cream.

They were topped with some chopped up pecans.

This was a little hard to eat.  If you pick it up to eat it with your hands, as you would an ice cream sandwich, you don't get any caramel or pecans.  But we were provided only with spoons, which you definitely couldn't use to cut through the frozen cookies.  I ended up picking it up, and then using the spoon to scrape up the caramel, and kinda plop on spoonfuls of the caramel onto a bite before I'd take it, placing a pecan on it as well.  I think these components in a different form factor would have been more successful, like an ice cream sundae with the cookie chunks broken up as a topping.

No one else liked these, so splitting wasn't an issue, as the entire dish was mine.  I'm not sure why they didn't like it, as I found it really quite delicious.  Chocolatey and sweet, ice cream, pecans, and caramel ... kinda hard to go wrong?  $6 seemed like a reasonably price.

Second favorite dish of the night, I'd get this again.
‘world peace’ peanut muscovado milk.  $2.
This was the other dish I'd read about and was really excited for.  Described as a “liquid peanut butter cup”.   Oh man.  It is basically a "milk" made from toasted peanuts, that have been steeped in milk, cream, and sugar.

It didn't really interest me too much though. It was just ... peanuty, slightly sweet, milk.  Enjoyable enough, my 4th favorite of the evening, but I wouldn't order again.
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