Monday, May 07, 2012

Dinner @ Spruce

Sunday dining options are always ... limited.  Many places are not open.  Or ones that are, often do not have their executive chefs around that night.  I'm always searching for good Sunday night venues.

Spruce just announced that they were bringing back their "Burgers and Burgundy" promotion on Sunday nights, something they did a few years ago.  Basically, they have their famous burger available in the dining room and lounge, and then offer some additional toppings (besides the additional ones they always have: assorted cheeses, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, foie gras, fried egg, etc) to "spruce" up your burger.  And then they pick three different burgundies that they offer by the glass, or you can do a flight of 2 oz pours.  This sounded kinda fun!

I'd been to Spruce before to dine in the lounge and had the burger, and while I thought it was good, it wasn't one of my very top burger picks.  It has won so many "best burger" awards though, that I figured this would be a pretty good Sunday night option.  But, the real draw was their foie gras and waffles - perhaps the most memorable preparation of foie gras I've ever had (certainly in the top 5 ... and I eat a lot of foie gras), and I was really eager to get back and have it again (with seasonal variation of course).

My first trip to Spruce I sat in the lounge area, and this time we sat in the actual restaurant.  We were seated at a nice corner table in the back room.  There is plentiful space between tables and it felt really private.  As an added bonus, the chairs had purse hooks on them!  Dining in the dining room was otherwise a pretty similar experience, starting with an amuse bouche and bread service, and finishing with some petit fours.  The only striking difference from my last trip was how much less dressed up diners were.  The Sunday crowd is much less formal than the mid-week crowd!

Service seemed about the same in both locations, generally good and knowledgeable, however we had one major service issue.  Our appetizers came out, and the server almost reached our table, only to realize that our amuse bouches had not been cleared away, and that we had no appetizer plates or utensils.  He disappeared with the dishes, someone else came to clear our old plates and set out new ones, and then ... we waited.  Several minutes went by.  I made a comment to my fellow diners about how I hoped that our appetizers weren't just sitting there getting cold, as they were really temperature sensitive items, and they reassured me that the kitchen would re-fire them.  I was skeptical. Anyway, several minutes later the appetizers are brought to us.  It wasn't really enough time for our dishes to have been re-made.  And ... they were cold.  And it really, really effected the quality of the dishes (see full comments below).  The amazing foie gras and waffles was not only not amazing, it was actually kinda bad.  So when the waitress came back to ask us how things were, we hesitated, and then were honest.  She apologized and offered to send us a new batch.  We accepted, and as we hoped, it made a difference.  They certainly made up for the issue by bringing us a new dish, but this really shouldn't have happened in the first place.

Besides that hiccup, I was really impressed with our server.  She was incredibly knowledgeable, particularly about the wines being offered, and could talk about them at length.  She also seemed genuinely interested in the wines and food being served, and talked about elements of them that she appreciated.  She also could suggest good wine pairings to bring out different aspects of the dishes.

But ... overall, this was a fairly disappointing meal.  I enjoyed my time at the restaurant, but the food didn't meet my expectations, which were formed from past experiences.  Perhaps it was the Sunday thing?  I'm not sure about going back soon.  On one hand, I'd like to go and try my luck again at getting great foie gras and waffles.  On the other hand, there are only a few more weeks left, and so many other foie preparations out there.  Did we just have an off night?
Amuse bouche: Carrot and ginger soup.
The amuse was a creamy carrot soup.  I thought it was a little too thick, with a strange mouthfeel.  The ginger was very refreshing however, and I really liked the carrot + ginger combination.

Not pictured is the bread service.  Last time we had the choice of a roll or a really nice cranberry bread, but there was no choice this time, only a roll offered.  It was hot, with a slight crust on the outside, moist on the inside.  Decent, but nothing particularly memorable.  The rolls again came with two types of butter: standard butter or a garlic and chive butter.  The garlic and chive had good flavor and was more interesting than plain butter, but I preferred the honey butter we got last time.  Mmmm ... honey butter!
Hudson Valley foie gras: vadouvan waffle, strawberry, pistachio.  $23.
The moment we were all waiting for ... foie gras and waffles!  Two of us were familiar with this dish from our last trip (and he had actually had it again more recently as well), and one person had not yet gotten to experience the foie gras and waffles masterpiece.  Since the first time I had the dish, I've literally raved about it whenever someone mentions foie gras.  I was so excited to get to have this again, and to share it with the newcomer!

The dish looked basically the same as before.  Two quarters of waffle stacked up, with one ball of torchon rolled in pistachio on top, one on the side, and a seared chunk of foie gras.  The other aspects of the preparation were changed up to be more seasonal.  The pear slices were replaced with strawberries.  And the syrup poured on tableside was a rhubarb syrup rather than pear syrup.  There was no replacement for the pear jelly.

Unfortunately, that is where the similarities ended.

The waffle was cold.  It was kinda spongy.  It was honestly no better than a waffle from a breakfast buffet that had been sitting for hours.  This was a sharp contrast to last time, when it was crisp and rather perfect.  The waffle was improved in our replacement version of this dish, as it was at least warm that time, but it still was a little spongy, not crispy, and the vadouvan spicing, which I loved so much last time, wasn't noticeable at all in either version.

The foie gras torchon balls rolled in pistachio were exactly the same as our previous visit.  Creamy, great flavor and consistency, paired well with the pistachio.  The first time I had this dish, these balls were the most amazing component, as they melted into the waffle like butter.  In our first serving this night, since the waffle was cold, the foie didn't melt in at all.  So while it was tasty, it was just torchon spread on nasty waffle, so it totally did not create the same "waffle and melted butter" experience that had been so amazing the first time.  When we got our replacement version of the dish, the waffle was warm, and the foie balls did again melt into them.

The seared foie gras was really nicely executed.  Lovely sear on the outside, slight charred flavor, creamy, high quality foie.  Of course, the first time we received it it was cold, but the second time it was warm.  This was a really nice seared chunk of foie and I enjoyed it very much.

The strawberry chunks were just strawberries, not particularly good or bad.  I didn't think they went as well with the pistachio as the pears had.

The syrup poured on was a slightly tart, slightly sweet, rhubarb syrup.  Like last time, they poured a little over the top waffle, and then took it away!  This meant that the second waffle didn't really get any syrup at all, and was just dry, and lacked the sweet component to pair with the foie.  When we got the replacement dish, we asked to keep the syrup, and it was much better to be able to add some on.  I didn't like the rhubarb syrup nearly as much as the pear syrup.  It didn't seem to compliment the foie gras nearly as well, nor did I really like it with the waffles alone.  Last time I remember thinking that I could easily enjoy regular waffles with the pear syrup rather than standard maple syrup, and this time, I certainly wouldn't have wanted this syrup.

This dish was clearly much better when served at the proper temperature, with the warm waffle, melty foie torchon, and hot seared foie far better than a cold soggy waffle with torchon smeared on it and cold seared foie on the side, but it still did not come together as well as the last variation.  Some of it was execution of the waffle (not crispy, not spiced), but  I think the biggest thing missing was the sweet component to really enhance everything.  The rhubarb sauce just didn't do it and there was nothing in place of the pear jelly.

I paired this, at the server's suggestion, with a half glass of Tokaji.  It was sweet and lovely, and only $4.50!  I loved that they let me do a half glass!

Overall, this was still creative and good, but it paled in comparison to the previous version.  I'd certainly order it again if I went back, and I'm curious to see if they'll have another version before July 1.  $23 is a great price for the dish, particularly as it includes both seared foie and the balls.
Bellweather ricotta gnudi: asparagus, sweet onion emulsion.   $16.
At the Taste of the Nation event a few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of eating Spruce's dish: Bellweather ricotta gnudi with spring peas.  It was one of the best dishes I had that night, soft, pillowy gnudi, delicious fresh peas, in a fantastic sauce.  We were shocked at how wonderful it was, particularly in that setting as they were preparing it on a little burner and plating it rapidly to pass out to the hoards.  When I saw this on the menu, I was very excited, as it sounded like exactly the same dish, but with asparagus in place of peas.

It wasn't. At Taste of the Nation, the gnudi were traditional gnudi.  That is, they were little balls of basically ravioli insides.  These were instead a large format, with a pasta wrapper.  They reminded me far more of pierogies than gnudi, particularly as the filling seemed to have potato and they were finished with a butter and onion sauce.

The pasta was well executed, slightly al dente, with a slight chew that was enjoyable to bite into.  The filling was soft and indistinguishable from mashed potato.  Not bad, but not at all what I was expecting given that we ordered gnudi, and that I'd had traditional gnudi from them before.

The asparagus came as a couple spears and a couple shaved stalks.  Executed fine, slightly crisp.

The sauce was salty, but not all that flavorful.

This dish was all fine, but forgettable.  I wouldn't bother ordering it again.
Spruce burger, fries (split).  $16.
And ... the famous Spruce burger.  Like last time, I was splitting this with someone else, and they split it onto two plates for us.  This also meant they doubled up the toppings and fries, and they don't charge a split fee.  Score?

They offer a bunch of options to add to the burger: gruyere, cheddar, or blue cheese, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, fried egg, foie gras, bacon, pancetta, and probably a few more things I'm forgetting.  At future Burgers & Burgundy nights, they'll be offering special add ons that they don't normally have.  We added blue cheese, and the other diner of course added foie gras.  The foie was nicely seared just like our appetizer, thought it was fairly small.  It was only $12, so this was a good value, and really did enhance the burger quite a bit.  How is it that not everyone orders foie on their burgers!  And perhaps it just seemed small after seeing the foie that Alexander's allows you to add to their burger, which is rather ridiculously large (literally, as big as the burger itself) and far more suited to adding to a steak (which I think is what most people do).  Anyway, good topping selection.

On the side of the plate comes a bunch of things to dress up your burger yourself: lettuce, pickled onions, thin slices of pickled zuchini, and tomato.  The tomato was better than last time, but still not great.  Alas, it is not yet tomato season.  The lettuce was nice and crisp.  I loved the pickled stuff, and ate my entire serving, plus all of that of my fellow diners.  I enjoyed it on the burger, but also just on its own.  Sour, vinegary, yum!

There was also standard ketchup and mustard.  They seemed like generic versions from a jar.  Compared to the amazing mustard at Alexander's, this is also a letdown.

The bun was the same as last time, english muffin style, and smaller than the patty.  I found this made it a little annoying to eat, as I always run out of bun in the first place, and the small size just exacerbates the problem.

The burger patty itself was not good.  We ordered it medium-rare, and it came medium, perhaps even medium-well.  It was dry.  Not flavorful.  And it had hard bits of gristle in it.  It was far better last time I was there, when it was properly cooked medium-rare, but it wasn't particularly flavorful then either.

The fries were really not good.  Last time, they were kinda standard and not anything noteworthy, but this time, they were actually bad.  Insanely oily and tasted just like grease.  I really couldn't taste any potato at all.  At least they were crispy?  I don't think any of us had more than a few of these.  Really, really not good.

I wouldn't get this again, as the only enjoyable part was the pickled accompaniments.  I don't understand why people love this burger so much.  Perhaps they have just never had the one at Alexander's?

Alongside the burger, we tried the flight of Burgundies, $16 for pretty generous pours of each.  Not full glasses, but certainly more than standard flight pours.  The three wines were all completely different, and we all really liked one of them, thought one was good, and thought the last was pretty bad.  It was fun to compare, and this may have been the first time we all agreed on liking things in the same order!  The wines did arrive after the burgers however, which was unfortunate.  It would have been nice to have them to try both before the burger, and with the burger, and two of us were planning to order a full glass of whichever one we liked the most to go with the burger, but since they arrived so late, we never did.
Honey yogurt panna cotta, oat streusel, rhubarb.  $10.
And ... on to dessert.  I've got a thing for custardy, puddingy, desserts, including panna cotta, so we had to try this.

The panna cotta was described by the waitress as being not too sweet, nicely balanced, with a honey flavor.  Since we had one diner who doesn't like sweets, this sounded like he might possibly like it, particularly as it was paired with sour rhubarb.  However, it was insanely sweet.  It was creamy, and the consistency was nice, but otherwise, it was just far too sweet and not very good.  I liked the crumble on the plate to mix in with it.  I'm not sure what the strands were that it was topped with.

The rhubarb cubes were stewed, slightly tart, and tasty enough.

The streussels were rolled, very buttery, very flaky filo dough filled with something.  I couldn't really identify what it was, just kinda sweet.  These weren't particularly good.

I would not order this dish again.
Carrot cake, cream cheese bavarian, fried carrots, orange ginger granita.  $10.
Next up was the carrot cake.  The server told us this was somewhat of a play on carrot cake, with a few non-traditional elements.  In particular, she said the sweet cream cheese frosting was instead replaced by a creme fraiche topping, and that it was sour rather than sweet.  Again, seemed like perhaps our non-sweet liking friend would tolerate this.

The cake itself was really generic.  Moist enough, carroty enough, but incredibly uninteresting.  Granted, I'm a carrot cake snob as my great aunt has a carrot cake recipe that just blows away all other carrot cake (super moist, it includes crushed pineapple and nuts ... soo amazing).

On top of the cake, in equal parts, was the "cream cheese bavarian".  I'm not sure why it was called that, as it wasn't really anything like bavarian cream, nor did it really taste like cream cheese.  It was more like what the waitress had described, more creme fraiche like.  It was indeed not too sweet, but it wasn't particularly good.  It needed some more flavor or something, and the equal ratio of this to the cake seemed really odd.

The top layer was some form of sweet jelly.  I'm not really sure what it was.  Perhaps carrot?

And on top of that, was crispy fried candied carrots.  These were awesome.  Sweet, crispy, fried goodness.  I ate them all.

When the dish was brought out, one person asked for clarification on the granita.  The server said it was pineapple.  It wasn't.  It was, as the menu had said, orange.  It was sour, decent enough, but melted very quickly, and didn't really go with the carrot cake.  Why would I want cold granita with my carrot cake?

Overall, not a very good dessert.  The only thing I really liked was the fried candied carrot curls.

Alongside my desserts, I also had a decaf coffee.  As is my standard practice these days, I asked how the decaf coffee was.  The server told me it was pretty good, a swiss water process decaf, individually brewed.  It was actually pretty good, very, very strong and intense.  Still a decaf, but not bad.
Petit fours: Almond financier, apricot jam.
And one final little bite of dessert ... these had a base layer of almond, a thin layer of pastry cream, a  layer of cake, a thin layer of apricot jam, and another layer of cake.  Not noteworthy in any way, they were basically just a sum of their mediocre parts.

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