Friday, July 13, 2012

Dinner at Lot 7, again!

As you may know, I've replaced my foie gras crawl with an uni crawl.  Not that I haven't been eating uni all along, as I generally order it whenever I encounter it, but now, I'm actively seeking it out.  (Know of any great uni dishes?  Let me know!)  We started off the crawl last week with the simplest form, sushi at Zushi Puzzle.  This week, we wanted to go less traditional.

I recently saw a photo of an uni creme brûlée being offered at Lot 7.  Oh, you know me and savory custards - this was right up by alley.  And, they also have local salmon on the menu, probably my favorite cooked fish these days.  However, I'd went to Lot 7 3 months ago, and as I have a huge list of places I haven't yet been and want to try, I rarely return to place unless it was downright phenomenal, or special for some other reason, like being conveniently located or an old classic.  Lot 7 was good, but it isn't convenient.  On my previous visit, I did declare the crab cake to be the best crab cake I'd ever had.  And, at the time, I declared the fish and chips to be the best I'd ever had (more recently however, I visited the east coast, and had some downright amazing fish and chips.  Not really a fair contest, since they get to use fresh local haddock rather than rock cod, which is just a zillion times better.  Know any other great fish and chips in the bay area?  I'm also always on the lookout for those!).

So, even though I wouldn't normally return, these dishes sounded like ones I would enjoy.  But more compelling to me was the fact that the chef, Greg Lutes, really seems to care deeply about the evolution of his dishes, and I've been following his dish inspiration on his blog, iculinaire And I was impressed with the quality of the seafood, the creativity, and the cooking execution last time we were there, even when it was really quite new.  So, I decided to make the return trip, with my same dining companion as before, and two others, both of whom had just been at Lot 7 the week before, and liked it so much, that they wanted to come back a week later!

Since I've already reviewed the restaurant once, I'll skip a general review this time, and focus only on the dishes we had.  I left the restaurant feeling almost exactly the same as I did last time: this is high quality product, well prepared, expertly seasoned, served at moderate prices, in a casual setting with a great atmosphere, with a chef and owner who truly care about the experience they are creating.  Such a rare combination.  The food overall was even better this time, except, like last time, we really did not like the desserts.  This is clearly not their strength.  

The most impressive part of our visit is that it managed to achieve yet another "best ever" status.  As I said already, last time I declared it the best crab cake and the best fish and chips.  This time, it was the best tuna tartare I've ever had.  See below for the full details.  I really wish Lot 7 was in my neighborhood, I honestly think I'd visit several times a month!  I highly recommend, and I'll definitely be back.
Dungeness crab mac ‘n cheese.  $14.
The first time I was at Lot 7, this dish caught my eye, as I do love both mac and cheese and crab.  But, I also felt like it might be the sort of dish that sounds awesome, but often isn't, so we didn't order it.  When I saw the owner eating it that night, I almost reconsidered, because if he was picking it, it must be good right?  One of my dining companions this time had it before and loved it, and said that even though he just had it a week ago, he wanted it again.  Clearly, we had to get it this time around.

It was served in a giant ramekin, heaping full.  The pasta was shells, one of my favorite form factors for mac and cheese.  The pasta was cooked perfectly, not al dente, but not mushy, exactly how you want for mac and cheese.  It had a nice crispy top layer.  Served piping hot, clearly fresh out of the oven.

The cheese sauce was a classic mix of cheddar and monterey jack, nothing fancy.  Unfortunately, I really dislike monterey jack, so I didn't care for the sauce.  It was really creamy, and the others really enjoyed it.

The crab came in several forms, some of it shredded up inside the mac and then some lump crab meat on top.  There was a fair amount of it, but as expected, it was overshadowed by the cheese sauce.  You weren't really ordering this to taste crab though.

This was a well executed dish, but due to the monterey jack, just not one I really liked.  My least favorite of the night, but second pick for the other diner who rated it.  The serving size was enormous and $14 was a good price.
Ahi tuna tartare: ginger / toasted sesame / crispy lumpia / plum and sweet chili sauce.
Next, we received a surprise from the chef, ahi tuna tartar!  A few days prior, I had started doubting that I really liked red tuna, after a bunch of disappointing pieces at Zushi Puzzle.  This dish totally changed my mind.  It was the best tuna tartare I've ever had.

The tartare was fresh and had a great ginger flavor in it.  It came topped with cubed cucumber and mango, shredded lumpia,  micro greens, and tobiko.  The cucumber and mango were fresh, crunchy, and a great pairing.  Like the tuna, they were light, and made this feel like a real summer dish.  I absolutely loved the crispy shredded lumpia strips, they added an awesome texture and crunch to the dish, in a much more fun way than a standard chip pairing.  There were also both black and white sesame seeds for a little extra flavor and crunch.  Also on the plate was a plum and sweet chili sauce.  This stuff was delicious.  Perhaps too sweet to just lap up on its own, but the plum flavor was really infused in it, and came through strongly in the finish.

Speaking of flavor.  I can't even describe the powerhouse of flavor that this dish was.  It was incredible.   Such intense flavors, particularly from the plum and ginger, but somehow they all just combined together magically.  A bite with all of the components in it was really extraordinary.

This dish was really, really good.  Great flavors, great textures, just fantastic.  It was, hands down, everyone's favorite dish of the night.  We'd order again in a heartbeat.  Thank you chef for sharing this treat with us!

(There is a ahi tuna tartare on the regular menu as an appetizer, normally $11.  I'm not sure how it compares in size to what we received, I'm assuming a little larger.  I think it also has a different sauce, as the chef described the plum sauce as one he was currently working on.)
Dungeness crab cake: Brentwood sweet corn relish / sweet corn dill veloute / peppercress / uni.
Last time I was at Lot 7, I obviously loved the crab cake, as I declared it the best crab cake I'd ever had.  I was tempted to order it again, but I wanted to try more new things.  I was very torn about the decision.  Do I risk trying something new, when the chances are higher that I'd like the thing I'd liked before?  Or, worse, what if I get the dish I'd liked before, and this time my expectations are too high, and I don't like it as much?  Such a conundrum! Last time, it was a springtime preparation with asparagus, and this time, it evolved into a summer version with corn.  I love sweet corn!  It took all my restraint not to order this in addition to what we were already ordering, or to get it again and skip trying something new.

Somehow, the chef seemed to have read my mind, as this showed up for us to enjoy anyway!

Like last time, it featured a pan seared crab cake topped with additional lump crab meat.  I again loved having that extra fresh crab on top, really highlighting the crab flavor that is so often easily lost and masked in a crab cake.  The cake itself had plentiful amounts of crab, very little filler.

There was also a sweet corn veloute replacing the asparagus soubise from before.  I liked having a sauce to drag the cake through, but I didn't find it particularly memorable.

The sweet corn and cherry tomato relish was fantastic.  The corn was amazingly sweet (gotta love fresh, in season, Brentwood corn!) and paired perfectly with the crab.  The cherry tomatoes were slightly cooked, juicy, and incredibly flavorful.  The corn and tomato worked great together.  The peppercress added a little spiciness and crisp texture as well.

And then, there were some small chunks of ... uni!  I'm pretty sure they are not normally part of the dish, but we surely enjoyed them.  Crab and uni, two of my favorite seafoods!  For one member of our dining party, this was his first time ever having uni.  (He's actually the same person I introduced to foie gras at the first Alexander's foie dinner we went to as well.  I'm glad he's up for my adventures and willing to try whatever we throw his way!)

Thank you again chef, I'm so glad I didn't leave with buyer's remorse over not getting to try the crab cake!  Of the two of us who rated it, this was our 3rd favorite dish of the night.  I'm so curious to see where the chef takes this crab cake next.

Again, I'm not sure how this compares to the version on the regular menu, $15.  I'm guessing this was smaller, and I don't think the regular version has uni.
Uni creme brûlée: Fort Bragg uni / yuzu tobiko / salmon roe / paddlefish caviar.  $15.
And ... the dish I was most excited for.  I'm a sucker for custards, like panna cotta or creme brûlée, savory or sweet.  I've been seeking out savory custards in particular, whether they be vegatable based (like the asparagus panna cotta from The Village Pub or the English pea and green garlic panna cotta from Radius) or foie gras based, (like the foie custard parfait at Cyrus, the foie gras panna cotta at The Fifth Floor, or the foie gras creme brûlée at The Village Pub).  And I sure love some great uni, so I've been loving uni custards all over the place as well, like the uni creme brûlée from Quince, the uni flan from Fifth Floor , and the uni chawanmushi at Alexander's and Commonwealth.  I was excited to try yet another variation!

As with most savory preparations, this was a play on a traditional creme brûlée.  It was served in a small metal container, rather than a traditional ramekin.  This threw me off at first, but I think it was really crucial in realigning my expectations.  I no longer expected a cold custard, with a hard sugar top, served on its own.

The creme brûlée was instead served warm and accompanied by some crostini.  The custard itself was creamy, but not particularly uni flavored or remarkable.  The custard part at both Fifth Floor and Quince were far more intensely uni flavored.

I don't know if the top of it was actually brûléed, if it was, it was lost beneath all of the toppings.  I'd normally be sad about missing out on the fun part of cracking a creme brûlée top, but these toppings were far more exciting than a sugar layer!  It was topped with uni and an assortment of roe (tobiko, salmon, paddlefish).  The uni was amazing.  Clearly high quality, fresh, with good flavor, and very generous strips.  The assorted roe added some saltiness, pop, and fun texture.

It was served with some nicely toasted crostini.  They were warm, and not too crisp nor too soft.  I enjoyed spreading the custard and roe onto the crostini, not something I would have thought to do originally, but it worked, making this really more of a spread than a creme brûlée.  I think the dish could use a re-naming, but then again, calling it a creme brûlée is what got me interested!

This was a good dish, and the roe was the most successful topping to a uni custard that we've seen so far.  The uni was among the best I've had anywhere, including sushi restaurants.  I just wish the custard had more flavor infused in it.  I'd order again just for the uni.  My 4th pick of the night (two others didn't try it, and the other didn't rate it).

$15 was a rather insanely good price for this dish.  You can't see it in the photo, but there was a ton of uni on here.  I pay more than $15 for this much uni at a sushi restaurant, where it is only accompanied by some rice!
Pan roasted wild salmon: lentil and bacon succotash / fresh porcini /dino kale / summer truffle emulsion.  $26.
For our mains, three of us got the salmon.  I'm just loving local salmon these days!

I have pretty strong opinions on salmon.  I think this is true for all dishes/ingredients that I love, I want them a very certain way.  I actually really, really dislike fully cooked salmon.  It always seems fishy, too firm, and just like a waste.  On the other hand, I love raw salmon in sushi.  For a cooked entree, I want it somewhere right in between, medium-rare on the inside.  For bonus points, give it a great crispy skin.

The salmon was a nice size chunk, but more cooked than I prefer.  The thickest part actually was more medium-rare, but the piece varied quite a bit in thickness, and the thinner parts were medium.  The salmon had fantastic flavor and was very moist, clearly a high quality product.  The amazing part of this dish however, was the skin.  One of my fellow diners actually immediately removed the skin upon receiving his dish, and my heart stopped.  I somewhat aggressively told him that he needed to eat it (sorry for being a jerk, I just really didn't want him to miss out!).  It was perfectly crispy.  Perfect.  It doesn't get better than this.  It was also nicely seasoned, with a great salt level that made it like eating an insanely delicious chip.

Accompanying the salmon was a lentil and bacon succotash.  It had a smokiness and saltiness to it from the small pieces of bacon, more delicious sweet corn, and lentils.  I'm not sure I've mentioned this before, as I never order lentils because I truly hate them, but uh, I hate lentils.  I still ordered this dish because I really wanted the salmon, and I'm glad that I did.  I did not like the lentils at all, but I acknowledge that they were well cooked, not too mushy, not too crisp, and if I liked the flavor of them, I could imagine it going well with the heartiness of the mushrooms and kale.  And the other flavors in the succotash were well balanced and nicely done.  But ugh, totally not my thing.

Also on the plate were chunks of porcini mushrooms and dino kale.  They were both nicely cooked, perfectly salted.  The mushrooms were very flavorful and earthy.

The sauce on the plate was a summer truffle emulsion, made with black truffles and some cream.  It was absolutely delicious, creamy, earthy.  I was very full and still had some crostini left over from the uni, and I couldn't resist using it to lap up all remainders of this sauce.  Such a good sauce.  Amazingly, my dining companion who can't stand truffle also enjoyed this.  I think at this point that we have determined that what he finds repulsive must be white truffle oil, not real truffles.

This was a perfect portion size, and $26 was great for this quality of fish.  Almost everything about this dish was really well done, and in particular it was great execution on the cooking of the fish.  Second favorite dish of the night for me, and had it not had lentils and been slightly more rare, I would have been ecstatic.  The others who had this dish ranked it as their least favorite of the savories however.

The other diner at our table ordered the rare grilled ahi tuna, accompanied by roasted artichoke and marble potatoes in a meyer lemon emulsion with pickled garlic.  She said it was good, but preferred the tuna tartar.  In particular, she really liked the artichokes included in the dish.
Warm banana bread pudding: white chocolate / butterscotch / cashew brittle.  $8.
When the waitress brought out the dessert menus, everyone had already declared themselves stuffed.  But you know I'm a dessert person.  And the dessert menu basically read like one created just for me, featuring only 5 items, but every single one of them falls in my list of favorite desserts (in fact, I'm not sure there is a dessert category that I don't like more than these 5!).  Even the accompaniments were among my favorite ingredients.  We HAD to get dessert.  I clearly wanted them all: creme brûlée with raspberries, panna cotta (cheesecake flavored no less!), warm bread pudding, warm crisp and ice cream, and chocolate mousse with candied pecans and cherries.  Oh man.

One dining companion immediately ruled out the panna cotta, as he doesn't like it, and we have it all the time (hence the fact that it even has a tag on my blog).  He also ruled out the creme brûlée for similar reasons, and given our experience with it last time, I was inclined to agree.  And we didn't want caffeine at night, so we ruled out the chocolate mousse.  I pressed to get the two remaining desserts, but there were only 4 of us, with one person saying he wanted none, and the other two saying they only wanted a bite, so we asked the waitress which she recommended, and she told us the bread pudding.

I love bread pudding.  For breakfast, for dessert, anytime.  Serve it warm with whipped cream, yes please!  And I've been on a white chocolate and butterscotch kick lately too (as froyo toppings mostly), so this sounded great.  Unfortunately, desserts are clearly not their strong point, which is sad given how appealing they sound.

The bread pudding was served as several slices, garnished with powdered sugar, drizzled with butterscotch sauce, with some bits of cashew brittle scattered on the plate.  One thing I love with bread pudding is having a crusty exterior and super eggy moist interior, and this didn't have that.  Given the form factor, it reminded the others of french toast, one of them declaring that this should have been called banana french toast instead.  It was also very bananay, which I didn't like.  This is my own fault however, I somehow missed the word "banana" in the description in my over-joyous reading of the desserts.  I don't hate banana, but I'm just a little sick of it.  There were also a ton of golden raisins.  They were plump and fine, but far too many of them, as many bites were dominated by them.  It was served warm, which I liked.

The butterscotch sauce was sweet and a good accompaniment.  I'm not quite sure where the white chocolate listed in the description was, perhaps in the whipped cream?  I mistakenly mis-remembered the dish description and thought this one came with ice cream, and took a huge spoonful of the cream, thinking it was ice cream.  Oops!  It was decent with the bread pudding, but a big mouthful of it wasn't very enjoyable.  It was rather firm for a whipped cream however, we weren't quite sure what to call it.  It didn't have any particular flavor.

The cashew brittle was my favorite part of the dish.  It had a great crunch, it was sweet and salty at the same time, quite delicious.  It paired well with the rest of the components, and I would have gladly eaten it on its own.

Overall, I really didn't like this.  Some of it was personal preference: I prefer my bread pudding in a different style, and just wasn't in the mood for banana.  But the others seemed to agree, all ranking it as the second to last dish of the evening.  None of us would order again.

$8 was a good price for a dessert this size.
Red wine poached local berry crisp / vanilla gelato.  $8.
After we finished the bread pudding, I was feeling pretty unsatisfied.  I was so impressed with the earlier dishes that I really wanted to end the meal on a good note.  And I just adore a warm fruit crisp/cobbler/etc with ice cream.  So, I convinced my tablemates that we needed this, even though they were all beyond stuffed.

As you might be able to see from the photo, calling this a "crisp" is a bit of a misnomer.  I know crisps can go in a variety of directions with the topping, and some go a little overboard with the amount of crisp on top, like the plum and white nectarine crisp we had at Baker & Banker.  But this wasn't crisp at all.  The topping was basically just a very thin layer of some oats (and a few nuts) scattered on top.  They weren't crispy, and didn't seem to be mixed with butter, sugar, or anything.  They were just ... there.

The fruit filling was a mix of blueberries, strawberries, and (I think?) blackberries.  The fruit was sweet and soft, not extraordinary, but much better than some of the other fruit we've had recently.  The strawberries in particular were very good, and seemed to have absorbed a lot of the poaching liquid.  The filling wasn't actually very hot, it definitely would have been better served warmer.

On top was a rather forgettable vanilla gelato.  It paired nicely with the sweetness of the fruit and certainly needed to be there to give the flavor and temperature contrasts, but wasn't anything special.

$8 was a good price for this size dessert.  Least favorite dish of everyone else, my 5th pick.  I wouldn't order again.
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