Monday, April 23, 2012

Lunch @ 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, so I won't bother repeating myself here.

I've been going to the location in San Francisco, but Alexander's actually has its original, and Michelin starred, location in Cupertino.  Back when I worked in the south bay, that Alexander's was my place to go for special events.  I had many memorable fantastic meals there, including one where we sat at the chef's table inside the kitchen, and were able to jump in and help prepare our own dishes.  I hadn't been back to that location in at least a few years though, since I no longer work down there, and with a location in San Francisco, I have no need to journey all the way there for a great steak.

But ... the menus at the two restaurants are actually fairly different (other than what cuts of steak they offer, and a few signature items like the hamachi shots and caesar salad).  And the Cupertino location has been posting images of all sorts of dishes they have been creating, which I've been just drooling over.  So when I found out I'd be in Cupertino for a conference for work for a few days, I knew Alexander's was on my agenda.  I quickly made reservations for dinner, but also noticed that they were open for lunch!  I'd be at the conference for two days, and as soon as I saw the conference food, I knew that I needed to go to Alexander's one day for lunch and the next for dinner, to try out both menus.  The lunch and dinner menus are also completely different, with lunch being more salad, burger, sandwich based, and significantly lower priced (of course, there are still plenty of steaks and foie gras to be had as well!).

The restaurant was just as gorgeous as I remember.  I love walking into Alexander's.  To enter, you walk past a room where the meat is all being aged.  Huge slabs of meat everywhere.  And then you walk past another area where they have all of the different cuts out on display.  You can see the incredible difference in marbling with all of the high end wagyus.  And then you reach the hostess stand and small seating area, with a roaring fireplace.  A swanky bar comes next.  The dining area is separated into a few different rooms, keeping the space feeling imitate and the noise level down.  To reach most tables, you walk by one of the open kitchens and the tanks of live lobster.  By the time you are seated, you basically want the entire menu!

I had no idea what to expect from lunch.  Would it be more casual?  Would it include an amuse bouche, bread service, cotton candy, etc?  (yes, no, yes).  It was certainly more casual, but not in a good way.  Rather than the precision service one is accustomed to at Alexander's (and any Michelin rated establishment), service was really quite sloppy and off.  At one point, a server started bringing over some of the entrees, only to reach the table and realize that it hadn't been re-set from the appetizers, so we had no silverware.  So they brought out the silverware, and then brought out some burgers, delivering them to the wrong diners.  This was made even more confusing as they were declared to be cooked to doneness levels that weren't what people had ordered.  They were taken away again, but the same burgers ended up coming back, so I'm not sure if they just said it wrong the first time, or if they just hoped people would not notice.

The biggest issue however was lack of coordination between the kitchen and the servers, resulting in food arriving cold and not at the same time.  I was seated with full view of the open kitchen, so I could see everything going on.  For entrees, our table ordered three regular burgers and then some other dishes.  I watched the first burger (ordered rare) come up, and start sitting under the heat lamp.  It was there for several minutes while the other burgers were being cooked more.  Eventually all of the burgers were up and under the lamps.  At this point, the server tried to bring them over, realized the table hadn't been re-set after the appetizers, and returned them back to the kitchen, but not under the heat lamps.  When the burgers finally came back, the one that was ordered rare had been off the grill for at least 10 minutes, and, as you would expect, the person who ordered it said it was cold (he hadn't been watching all the shenanigans either, so had no idea just how long his burger had been sitting).  Even more strangely, the rest of us did not receive our food at this point, even though the burgers had obviously been ready for quite a while.  It took several more minutes for the other dishes to slowly trickle out, while the burger eaters sat there trying not to be rude and start eating, but knowing that their burgers were getting even colder.  This is soo different from what I am used to at Alexander's, where normally the servers swoop in and serve everyone at once!

A few other strange service issues stuck out.  One person ordered a burger, and asked to have it topped with a piece of seared foie gras.  On the menu, you can always add a piece of seared foie gras to any steak, and this diner always adds it to his burger in San Francisco.  It has never been an issue there.  But the waitress said that they couldn't do it, but that she could bring it as a side, and that he could construct it himself.  This seemed rather odd, but ok, he could transfer it from the side to the top of his burger.  But what he received wasn't a side of seared foie gras, it was the appetizer preparation, with elaborate plating, and a bunch of other components, which he clearly wasn't going to use with the burger.  This was also more expensive than just adding a piece of seared foie gras, and certainly not what we were expecting.  And another diner, when ordering his burger, asked to have it prepared however the chef recommended.  The waitress wouldn't accept this for an answer, just repeating over and over that it needed to be prepared how HE wanted it.  Again, odd.  Normally they are happy to tell you that the chef recommends medium-rare.  And finally, we were running really late and needed to be back at the conference, so we asked for the bill.  The waitress came back quite some time later, asking if we wanted dessert or coffee.  No!  We asked for the bill because we really, really needed to leave.

Overall, our meal was ok, but with all of the service weirdness, and some execution issues on the food, I probably wouldn't be back if I didn't know Alexander's reputation already.   When I returned the next night for dinner, it was a radically different experience (review coming soon), and was what I expected from Alexander's.  The value at lunch is certainly higher than dinner, particularly with the crazy lunch set (see below for full review).  If I'm in the area again for lunch, I'll try it out again, as I think they are still just working out some issues with lunch service, as it is relatively new.

Amuse bouche: cauliflower soup, bacon and cheese roll.
This was a pretty substantial amuse bouche, particularly for lunch!  But the idea of a little starter soup does go perfectly with lunch.

The soup was creamy, a little salty, and rather thick.  It was fine, but nothing particularly memorable.

The roll was served cold.  It had a nice topping of cheese, but not much bacon flavor at all.  This was served in lieu of a formal bread service.
Seared Foie Gras: mango gastrique / charred mango / apple-almond relish / brioche / mango chips / togarashi.  $28.
Is it possible to go to Alexander's and not get the seared foie gras?  They always do it so well at the location in the city, I'm fairly addicted.  And in our dining party, we had one person who had never had foie gras before, and one person who had just had it for the first time the night before.  And we all know that I basically order all of the foie gras on the menu wherever I go these days.  And paired with mango?  I love mango!  So even though it was lunch time, and even though I'd had foie gras most of the previous nights, this had to be ordered :)

The mango came three ways: charred, a gastrique, and chips.  The charred mango was just some cooked chunks, not particularly interesting.  The gastrique was sweet and flavorful, and paired well enough with the foie gras.  I love seeing all of the different fruits that chefs pair with foie gras, and this worked pretty well, perhaps a little too sweet though.  The mango chips were crisp and tasty, although they didn't go that well with the dish itself, I enjoyed just eating them on their own (and in fact, when the second order of this arrived as the "side" to the burger, I just ate all of the mango chips on their own).

The apple-almond relish was tiny little cubes and paired better with the foie gras than the mango, as it was a little tart.

The little chunks of brioche were fine, but not very substantial given the amount of foie gras.  You basically got to try one bite with some brioche and that was about it.

There was also some foie powder on the plate.  I just love foie powder, love dipping just about anything in it.  A little bit of the seared foie, dunked in extra foie powder, with a tiny amount of apple relish was definitely the best bite for me!

The foie gras was a decent size and very creamy.  It was however, over-seared.  I love a good sear on my foie, but as you can somewhat see this in the photo, the crust was just too much.  It tasted a little on the burnt side.

This was probably the weakest execution of seared foie gras I've ever received at an Alexander's, with the mediocre fruit pairing and the over-searing.  The second order of this came slightly less over-seared and was much better.  At $28, this was pretty standard pricing.
Shaved foie gras “nachos” / shrimp chips / citrus salsa / kabayaki / avocado / pine nuts.  $18. 
There was only one preparation of foie gras listed on the menu (the seared one), but I asked the waitress if they had anything else available.  I wanted the folks who were just learning about foie gras to get to experience another type too!  She said that there was also a torchon.  I quickly ordered that to treat my newfound foie eaters to a cold preparation too!

We were rather surprised when this arrived.  When she said a torchon, I kinda expected ... a torchon with some brioche.  But, I had read about the foie gras nachos on their Facebook page, and was sad that it was no longer on the menu, so I was excited to get to try this.  It sounded pretty unique, and shaved torchon can be quite tasty too!

The nachos had shrimp chips as the base rather than tortilla chips.  They were crispy, rice based, but didn't really have much shrimp flavor.  They were shaped into little wavy cups that worked pretty well for filling up with the other components and eating as finger food.

The citrus salsa had some really flavorful kumquat in it, that paired well with the foie and I really enjoyed.

There was also some shaved radish, carrots, and avocado chunks which all added some freshness.  It was drizzled with kabayaki sauce for a little extra flavor.

The foie gras itself was really lost though.  The shaved pieces just weren't really substancial enough to taste.  I was sad that the folks who had never had a cold foie preparation before had this as their first experience!

While I thought this was a creative and fun dish, and it really was a fairly accurate play on nachos, it just didn't work very well.  The flavors all just competed with each other, with nothing really coming through.  I wouldn't order this again.

The lunch set: hamachi tartare, beef tataki, crab and prawns, crab cakes, ramen with prawns and lobster dumplings.  $29.
ZOMG.  Described on the menu as "Our version of a bento box. Multiple small plates combined on one that offer a multi- coursed lunch at one time."  The lunch set changes every day, and is made up of whatever the chef wants to throw in.  I was super excited by this, as it seemed like a great way to get to try out a bunch of the dishes!  When the waitress listed off the things included that day, I was sold immediately.  Crab cakes! Lobster dumplings!  Hamachi!  More crab!  All things I love!  And I thought, a bento box is a cute little thing!

I was a little worried about it being far too much food given the foie gras starters, the fact that it was lunch time and I'd had a pretty sizable breakfast smorgasbord at the conference just two hours earlier, and that I had dinner plans for an elaborate dinner just four hours later, so I asked the waitress how sizable this was, and she said it was just a taste of each item.  And at $29, I figured it couldn't be that big, particularly given that it was going to include a bunch of big ticket items.

Um, this thing was an insane amount of food.  I wish there was something in this photo that could be used as a measure of scale, as it is rather hard to tell from the photo just how enormous this was.  The ramen dish alone was bigger than any dish of ramen I ever had in Tokyo.  And that is when I'd be ordering ONLY a dish of ramen, and at dinner time!  Not only was the bowl of ramen enormous, it came topped with two huge fried prawns, cubes of tofu, and two giant lobster dumplings.  That single "small plate" alone was far more than I needed for an entree, even if I hadn't had all the starters, a big breakfast, and upcoming dinner plans.  And then throw in the tartare, tataki, other seafood, and two crab cakes?  Insanity.  I can't believe this was only $29.  This is an absolutely incredible value for the amount of food, particularly given that it was all seafood.  I could have easily split it with someone, and still probably not finished it.  I applaud them for the crazy value, but I hate wasting food, and this just wasn't appropriate for a lunch portion.

Anyway, on to the food ...

There was a lot of variety on this plate, starting with a raw dish, then moving on to cold dishes, and finally the hot dishes.  It was basically like getting the chance to have a huge variety of appetizers, which tend to be my favorite dishes anyway, so I was into this sampler style.

Moving from upper left, clockwise:

The hamachi tartare came topped with trout roe, squid ink crumble, tempura green beans, and popcorn.  Yes, it was actually just popcorn.  Given Alexander's reputation for playful fun creations, I figured this was something else made to look like popcorn, but it was indeed just popcorn.  It totally did not go with the tartar and I have no idea what on earth it was doing on this plate.  The hamachi was fairly fresh and a decent cut, but not particularly flavorful.  The trout roe added a good salty component and a nice pop.  The tempura bean was cold, over battered, and too oily.  I didn't find the squid ink crumble that the waitress said was there.  Overall, this was a fairly generic hamachi tartare preparation, not bad, but not particularly notable.

The steak tataki came topped with lotus root chips and was served over a bed of smoked avocado chunks.  The lotus root chips were salty, crispy, and tasty, although not really necessary.  I only had a tiny chunk of the smoked avocado since I'm allergic, but I didn't get much of a smoked flavor from it.  The tataki however, was delicious.  Insanely flavorful, with a great crust on the steak, but also nicely rare on the inside.  Tender and served at a good temperature (cold, but not too cold).  Like all of the "small plates" this was a generous portion, 7 or so slices.  By far the best component on the entire lunch set.

Next was a rather strange dish.  Two poached prawns, several chunks of crab meat, chunks of asparagus, on top of a tomato based sauce, topped with a little bit of nori.  It was all served cold.  This was the weakest dish of the set.  The crab was a little on the fishy side and not particularly flavorful.  The prawns were really, really fishy.  I didn't like them at all.  The tomato sauce was nice and went well with the prawn.  These components didn't really come together at all, although I get that it was supposed to be a light, fresh, dish.

And next was not one, but two crab cakes, topped with mustard aioli and bonito flakes.  I love crab cakes, and this was a dish from the normal appetizers menu that I had been wanting to order the next night anyway.  These were pretty good, with a nice sear on the outside, and plentiful, shredded crab meat on the inside.  It was a fairly standard preparation, nothing all that surprising, and not nearly as good as the last crab cakes I had at Lot 7!

And finally, the vat of ramen!  It came with a rather amusing paddle like spoon, that wouldn't even come close to fitting inside my mouth, but did match the size of the dish :)  The noodles were ok, fairly firm, but were all clumped together.  The broth was miso based, had a nice level of saltiness, but didn't really have anything to it that made you want to go back for more.  The tofu cubes were just standard medium-soft tofu cubes.  You can't see them in this photo, but there were two giant butterflied prawns.  They were really hard to eat.  Since they were inside the soup, they were wet and slimy, but were still inside their shells, so you needed to extract the meat.  I was trying to use my fingers, but that was very messy, and I'm not sure how I would have ever done it with just chopsticks.  There were also two sizable lobster dumplings, about 6 bites each (I'm not exaggerating here, they were massive, they just don't look it in this photo since you can't tell how huge the bowl is!)  I was really excited for these, as they were another item on the dinner appetizers menu that I had wanted to order.  Unfortunately, they weren't very good.  Far too doughy, with the ratio of filling to dough being off.  And the filling was kinda just a mush, not particularly flavorful, and I couldn't detect any actual lobster meat.

Overall, I really liked the idea of this lunch set, but I didn't actually like the experience of dealing with it.  I love trying lots of things, and I love appetizers, and I liked the sounds of everything on here, but it was just too much, too overwhelming, and everything was fairly mediocre.  One big problem, perhaps enhanced by things not coming hot enough out of the kitchen, was that it all comes at once (by design).  But if you want to start with the cold dishes and follow a normal meal progression, by the time you get to the hot items, they are no longer hot.  I felt rushed and scattered, wanting to start with the tartare and tataki, but then knowing my crab cakes were getting cold ...

Again though, this was an insane value.  $29, for 6 spoonfuls of tartare, 7 slices of tataki, 2 small prawns, 2 large prawns, 4 chunks of crab meat, 2 crab cakes, 2 lobster dumplings, a bowl of ramen, and all of the other stuff on the plate.  Incredible.  I would actually totally be willing to try this again, I'd just be certain to split it with someone instead of ordering it alone!
Niman Ranch Cheeseburger : 10 oz. / toma cheese / shortrib-shiitake ragoĆ»t / cherrywood bacon.  $16.
This is what half our table ordered.  They all were rather blown away by how big it was.  Not a single person at the table was able to finish it.  Not pictured is the other burger ordered, the "Beef & Reef" ($24), which came topped with lobster salad and pepperjack cheese, on a totally different bun.  The person who ordered that really seemed to enjoy it.  Someone else also ordered the prime rib french dip ($22), and he also seemed to really enjoy it.  There were also a few orders of the classic parmesan truffle fries ($10), which were, as usual, crispy, salty, and full of cheesy goodness, but arrived on the cold side.  The waitress also tried to convince us to order even more fries than we did, saying that each order was appropriate for a single person, but I knew better than this, and encouraged people not to order one each.  Even with only two ordered, more than half of them went unfinished.  She also tried to get everyone to order salads or other sides as well.  Did she really not realize how much food this was, with the foie gras starters, the giant burgers, and all those fries?  I hate seeing food go to waste, and try as we might, we just couldn't get through all of this food.  The burgers all were very reasonably priced for quality components, but $10 for fries seemed a little steep.

Not pictured, is the conclusion of our dinner, the signature Alexander's cotton candy!  Pina colada was the flavor of the day, and it was pineapply, coconuty, sweet, and a nice finish to the meal.  I love seeing people who have never been to Alexander's receive the cotton candy for the first time, as they are always so surprised!
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