Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dinner @ Little Star Pizza

Tonight we took our visitors to one final place: Little Star Pizza.  They had been on past trips, and asked to go back.  Back when I used to eat pizza more regularly, I often went to Little Star, but it had been probably a year since I'd last been, so I was looking forward to this, as a simple, casual, tasty meal.  And a big change from the other places we'd taken them: Alexander's for a full on fancy meal, Cafe Jacqueline for a very long drawn out meal of savory and sweet souffle, and Commonwealth for the tasting menu.

Any other time I've ever been to Little Star, I"ve had to wait.  Perhaps only for 30 minutes, but generally more like 45 - 60 minutes.  Tonight we approached, and saw no crowds outside.  We gingerly pushed open the door, expecting it to ram into people crowded in the doorway.  There was not a single person waiting. Nor a single person at the bar.  And about half the tables were empty.  Sure, it was a little early (7pm), but I have never seen such a thing before.  We were seated immediately.  I have no idea what was going on.  This also made it quiet.  I've never actually be able to have a conversation with the people I've been seated with at Little Star before.  So strange.

A very large part of the reason I go to Little Star is not for the pizza.  It is for the cheesecake.  They make a really, really incredible cheesecake.  I've been known to just get it to go when I'm in the neighborhood.  And I have friends who have just purchased entire cheesecakes and stocked their freezer with it.  It is seriously good stuff.  Yes, the pizza is good, but good pizza plus amazing cheesecake?  Now THAT is a meal.

You may notice that there is not a picture of the cheesecake below.  Unfortunately, it is not due to the fact that we devoured it before I could take a photo.  It is because ... they were out of it.  At 7:30pm on a totally empty night.  Serious, serious disappointment.  I honestly would not have gone had I known they wouldn't have cheesecake.  (Maybe that is why no one else was there?)

And ... the pizza just wasn't nearly as good as I remembered.  I think I'm putting them on my banned list ... who runs out of cheesecake by 7:30pm?
Mixed Salad – Mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, red bells, red onions, gorgonzola cheese and chopped walnuts, tossed with a housemade vinaigrette dressing. $7.
This is just a simple salad, but always pretty good.  Fresh, crisp mixed greens, tiny chopped peppers, onions, walnuts, a sprinkling of gorgonzola, and some cherry tomato halves.  All lightly tossed in an equally simple, but again tasty, vinaigrette.  Not overdressed, not fancy, but solid.  This was the small size, a good value at $7.
Classic Deep Dish – Sausage, mushrooms, onions, green bells.  $19.
The deep dish pizzas at Little Star are all the same construction: thick cornmeal crust. tons of melted mozzarella cheese, then the toppings, then a very thick layer of zesty, chunky tomato sauce, and then more cheese.  This is not a light pizza.

The cornmeal crust is usually my favorite part of the pizza, as I love the extra crunch, grit, and flavor from the cornmeal.  This wasn't as flavorful as I remembered, and the crust was really buttery/oily.  It was nice and crisp however, almost a little hard to cut through, making it strong enough to actually hold and eat with your hands.

There was just too much cheese for my liking.  Perhaps my tastes have changed, but I found it overwhelming, both in feeling too heavy and in drowning out other flavors.  It was perfectly melted however, and made everything a fun, stringy mess.

The classic is always my favorite pizza.  How can you go wrong with meaty sausage, mushrooms, onions, and bell peppers?  Such a "classic" combo!

But ... the toppings came in all the wrong ratios.  What I love about this particular pizza is the sausage and the onions, and there was very, very little sausage or onion on this pizza.  It seemed to be just all mushrooms and tomatoes.  I think my slice contained one, possibly two, tiny tiny chunks of sausage.  Not only was the number of chunks lacking, but the ones that were there were too small to really taste.  Same with the onions and the peppers.  There were plenty of mushrooms though, and a ton of the sauce, which contains huge chunks of tomato.

I don't know what went wrong here, we all agreed that we had only mushrooms, so it wasn't like just my slice happened to miss out.  All I tasted was tons of sauce and cheese.  Perhaps inconsistencies like this are why no one else was here?
Little Star  Deep Dish – Spinach blended with ricotta and feta, mushrooms, onions, garlic.  $19 .
This is usually my second favorite pizza.  Like the classic, it had the same crust that wasn't quite as cornmealy as I remembered, and was again too oily.

The spinach/ricotta/feta/garlic blend was tasty as always, reminding me of the filling often used for stuffed shells.  It had more garlic to it than I remember, but this was flavorful and welcome.  But again, like the classic, there was way too much mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce, dominating the flavors.

This post concludes without cheesecake.  Serious sadness.
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Tasting Menu @ Commonwealth

A few weeks ago, I went to Commonwealth for the first time, and thought it was great - an incredible and rare mix of a casual setting, great service, reasonable prices, and serving interesting, tasty, seasonal food.  And, they are even open on Mondays!  So when my visitors wanted to eat some great food, and get a unique San Francisco experience, this seemed like a perfect fit - and it was!

On my first visit, we just tried a few items off the regular menu.  This time we were headed to try out the tasting menu.  It is an incredible value: 6 courses, plus chips, two amuses, and parting truffles for only $65 (and out of that, they donate $10 to local charity)!  Complete with complimentary house sparkling water!  Insane value, as it isn't like the courses are made out of cheap ingredients - this is high quality, good portion sizes, and includes ingredients such as caviar and foie gras.  Even more incredibly, they are extremely accommodating with switches to the tasting menu.  They offer the standard tasting, or a pescatarian version, or a vegetarian version, but if you want to just switch out a single item, they'll do that too.  In fact, every person in our 6 person group changed up something (sorry for being so difficult Commonwealth!).

Continuing in the insane value, you can add wine pairings for only $30!  This includes a pairing for every dish plus a sparkling wine paired with the amuses.  And continuing the theme of being incredibly accommodating, they allowed two uf us to split a wine pairing, pouring us each separately.  While this in itself is notable, what is even more amazing is that the two of us had different courses (since we'd each switched out something on the main tasting menu), and they even gave us totally different wines.  The drink pairings were nicely done, and I really appreciated that the server would explain to us, in detail, why each drink was paired with each course, describing elements of the dish and the wine, and how she felt they'd compliment each other.

Just like last time, I loved the atmosphere.  Open, bright, casual, relaxing.  It just feels really great to be there.  Service was again spot on, with elements of formality like clearing our silverware between courses, but also completely comportable.  The entire experience just matches itself so well, quality but not stuffy.  I'm really not sure how they pulled off getting everything so right here!

I will certainly return, for the regular menu or the tasting menu.  I just wish it were in my neighborhood!
House made potato chips with nori powder and vinegar mousse.
Every table receives some chips and vinegar dip when they arrive.  These were the same as last time, so I won't review them again.
"Naughty Eskimo": grapefruit, Fino sherry, tarragon, litsea, liquid nitrogen.  $11.
One member of our group ordered this "cocktail", intrigued by the ingredient of liquid nitrogen listed on the menu.  This was much more of a slushie than a drink, and was best consumed with a spoon.  So not what he was expecting when he ordered it, but quite fun!  Nicely sour too.
Amuse bouche #1: fluke crudo, grapefruit, fava, onion blossom.
This was a fun start to the meal.  The grapefruit component was a gelee used to wrap the entire bite.  Inside was the fluke, which was a decent quality piece of fish, a little bit soft, but very mild in flavor.  The sourness from the grapefruit gelee complimented it well.  On top was fava puree and a couple onion blossoms.  I didn't quite get the grapefruit + fava + onion combination, but it was clearly seasonally inspired and fresh.  The onion blossom was shockingly full of flavor.  I had my first chive blossom in an amuse bouche at Alexander's Steakhouse a few weeks ago, and felt exactly the same way.  I never knew little blossoms could pack sooo much punch!
Amuse bouche #2:  Chilled pea soup, lemon oil, aleppo pepper.
Another seasonally inspired dish, as peas have just come into season!  As you raised this up to drink it, the aroma from the aleppo pepper immediately hit.  It was really a fantastic scent.  I had high hopes for this, as I love fresh peas, but unfortunately the pea flavor wasn't quite as strong as I was hoping for, and the soup was fairly thick, a consistency that didn't work that well for drinking.  It did have a nice minty flavor to it that almost balanced it out in a refreshing way, but didn't quite hit the mark.
Meyer Lemon-Tarragon Soda.
I recently read about how Commonwealth makes their own house sodas, so one of the non-drinkers ordered this.  You can find the recipe online.  The tarragon flavor was really intense, so do not order this if you aren't into tarragon!
Course #1: caviar, textures of potato, crème fraîche, fine herbs, scrambled egg mousse.
There were so many components on the plate, I had a fun time trying to combine them in all sorts of interesting ways.  I just love constructing that "perfect" bite!  There were a lot of great flavor combinations to be had here!

The "textures of potato" were potato in four forms: crispy chips, potato puree on the bottom of the dish, and then chunks of purple and white potatoes simply cooked.  The chip was really, really good.  Perfectly crisp, perfectly salty, and actually really full of potato flavor.  I thought these were outstanding (which is interesting, because the house potato chips that they give everyone as a starter weren't that special).  The potato puree was basically creamy mashed potatoes, I think the crème fraîche was in there as well.  The pieces of cooked potato were the least interesting thing on this plate, and they didn't really add anything to the dish at all.

In addition to lovely edible flower petals, the herbs included very flavorful fresh chives and dill, which complimented the potato really well.  Now I remember why my mom puts dill in potato salad, and why people top baked potatoes with sour cream and chives!

The scrambled egg mousse was really delicious, and had a smoky flavor to it

The caviar gave a good salty flavor to everything, and of course, a fun little textural pop.

So what was the perfect bite?  A chip, dipped in the potato puree and scrambled egg mousse, with a little of the caviar and fresh herbs.  Fresh, salty, delicious!  So many flavors popping all at once.  I'm not sure if I was really supposed to be eating this with my hands, but it was really fun to create that bite, and how else do you eat a chip?  I really enjoyed this dish, it was my second favorite of the evening, and I'd gladly eat it again.
Course #2: oat crusted foie gras, rhubarb, brioche soldiers, hearts of fire, ginger.
Of course, this was the dish I was most excited about, as I've been rather obsessed with foie gras lately.

The foie gras was a generous slice of torchon.  It was creamy, salty, and just absolutely delicious.  Topped with some big chunks of incredibly flavorful salt as well.  The oat crusting was a little lost on me, but I loved this so much that I didn't really care.

The rhubarb came in two preparations: plain chunks and a sweet compote.  The compete was really well balanced, both sweet and tart, and went perfectly with the foie gras.  The rhubarb pieces I didn't care for, but I historically have not liked rhubarb (you can read all about why on my last encounter with a foie gras and rhubarb pairing at one of the foie gras dinners at Alexander's).

The brioche soldiers were warm and toasted.  So crisp and buttery that they almost seemed fried.  I thought they were absolutely delicious, but several others thought they were too buttery and rich, particularly when paired with the foie gras.  I really liked them.

The hearts of fire were cute I guess, but I didn't think really needed to be there.  I didn't detect the ginger.

This was all paired with a sweet white wine, that was delicious and again, complimented the foie gras really well.

This was the best dish of the night for me, I absolutely loved it.  So balanced, and that foie was just sooo good.  I want more of this now!
Pescatarian course #3: bacalao croquetas, almond gazpacho, seaweed salad, grape, saffron oil, espelette.  $14 if a la carte.
The pescatarian menu included this dish off the a la carte menu, rather than the foie gras.  I didn't get a bite of the croqueta, but did try the seaweed salad, which was flavorful, fresh, and crisp.  The almond gazpacho was also tasty, and I used my extra brioche soldier to soak it up.
Course #3: shaved carrots and radishes, ash coated goat cheese, quinoa, walnut, dill.  $12 if a la carte.
Wow, what a beauty!

The base of this was a slew of fresh, crisp assorted micro greens, herbs, arugula, and flower petals.  The dill again really stood out as fresh and flavorful.  It then had the thinly shaved carrots and radishes, which were raw, added some crispness, and were surprisingly flavorful given how thin they were.  The goat cheese was a soft style, crumbled.  I really don't like goat cheese, but everyone else loved this component.  The quinoa seemed toasted and was integrated throughout, adding nice little crispy texture.    The walnut was in a powder form, which I didn't really detect.  Finally, the salad was lightly dressed with a carrot puree based dressing.

I thought this was pretty and creative, but didn't really enjoy it much, perhaps due to the goat cheese, or perhaps because I was coming down off my foie gras high.  It also seemed like a strange placement in the meal progression, it would have been more appropriate before the foie?
Course #4: sweetbreads, prawn, favas, horseradish, fregola sarda, smoked pork jus.
This was the main dish from the standard tasting menu.  I'm not that into sweetbreads, and the a la carte menu had a dish I really wanted to try, so I subbed this out.  However, once everyone else at the table started exclaiming how amazing it was, I had to at least try a bite!

The sweatbreads were just perfectly cooked, flavorful, a good texture, and had a really nice crust.  One of my dining companions, who has eaten a lot of sweatbreads in his day, said this was perhaps the best preparation he has ever had.  I think this dish could make anyone who was squeamish or uncertain about sweetbreads change their mind!  It was served with well cooked fregola and a really delicious light broth as well.

The pescatarians at the table received a beautiful looking piece of cooked rainbow trout.  Unfortunately, they all ate it before I could get a bite of the fish (or a photo!), but I did try the accompanying components, including ramps and miner's lettuce, more seasonal vegetables that were just impressively crisp and fresh.  There was also some mushroom that was nice and earthy and balanced out the freshness.  The hollandaise sauce had a strange mouthfeel to it that I wasn't a fan of, but perhaps it worked better when enjoyed with the fish.
Alternate course #4: sea urchin, sea beans, kumquats, quail egg, brown rice cracker, pickled wasabi leaf.  $16 if a la carte.
Along with foie gras, I've been on an uni kick.  I guess this makes sense, as uni is "the foie gras of the sea"!  The tasting menu did not include any uni, and I had to fix that!  So, I subbed this in as my main dish.

It is hard to see in the photo, but there were three generous chunks uni.  The flavor wasn't quite as good as you would get at a high end sushi restaurant, but it was pretty nice and creamy.

The sea beans, herbs, flowers, and pickled wasabi leaf were all pretty, but I didn't taste them much at all.

There were plentiful kumquat slices, which I really enjoyed.  They were super flavorful, tart, and a good balance to the uni.

The quail egg was hard boiled.  It was cute, but not all that flavorful, and I didn't really think it mixed that well with everything else in the dish.  It wasn't bad, it just didn't really seem necessary.

The brown rice crackers added a good crispy element.

The perfect bite?  A brown rice cracker, topped with uni, topped with a few slices of kumquat.  Crunchy, creamy, rich, tart, all at once!  Again, I probably wasn't supposed to be eating this with my hands, but it made for such a great bite, and how else do you eat a cracker?

At $16 on the normal a la carte menu, this was a really good value, given the amount of uni on the plate!
Palette cleanser: blood orange sorbet, chantilly cream.
This was the same palette cleanser that I had a few weeks ago, since our waitress brought us the palette cleanser from the tasting menu that day.  It didn't blow my mind quite as much as last time, perhaps because I had high expectations this time, but it was still really quite good.

The sorbet was fruity and quite flavorful.  The chantilly cream was creamy and just downright delicious.  I love the contrast in this dish of the icy, cold, somewhat sour, sorbet and the creamy, sweet cream.

This is a fantastic palette cleanser, refreshing from the sorbet and sweet enough to leave you craving the real dessert course!

The Australian visitors thought this reminded them of a "fancy splice".  The splice is classic ice cream bar,  vanilla ice cream wrapped in pineapple and lime sorbet shell, on a stick.  It was one of my favorite treats while visiting there, and I can totally see the comparison!
Dessert: peanut butter semifreddo, chocolate ganache, frozen popcorn.
This was the same dessert I had last time as well.  When I had it before, I had no expectations at all.  This time, I went into it knowing that last time I thought it was the best dessert I'd had all year.  It didn't live up to those expectations, but it was very good.  Same salty, awesome, frozen "popcorn", sweet delicious caramel, and of course, the very rich peanut butter semifreddo, encased in chocolate ganache, and sitting atop a chocolate base.
Alternate dessert: yogurt, meringues,  kumquat, hibiscus.
This was an alternate dessert ordered by a fellow dinner who wouldn't have much chocolate at night due to the caffeine content.  I was also concerned about caffeine intake, so I split this with him.

The yogurt came as a frozen yogurt sphere that really was just ... frozen yogurt.  It had a very strong, tangy, yogurt flavor to it.  It was perched atop a crumble, I'm not sure what it was made from, but it had gotten kinda soggy and wasn't that good.

The meringues had a strange mouthfeel to them, and I didn't really like them.  I forget what flavor they were.

The kumquat slices were covered with a sweet syrup and were delicious.

The hibiscus came as marshmallows (the purple disks), that were fluffy, sweet, and quite good.

Overall, there were a lot of flavors and textures at play in this dish, and I can't really pinpoint anything wrong with it, but it wasn't really anything I'd want again.
Coffee truffles.
And ... a little parting chocolate.  This was really quite good - a strong coffee flavored creamy filling, dark chocolate shell, and rolled in cocoa powder.
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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pie and Ice Cream @ Chile Pies (Sweet & Savory)

After a disappointing dinner that failed to include dessert, I was left seriously unsatisfied.  I wanted something to make me happy.  And what is more comforting than a warm slice of pie a la mode?  (At least for me, I grew up eating a lot of pie, so this is really just a total comfort food for me, not a rare special occasion sort of thing).

I'd been to the Chili Pies and Ice Cream in NOPA once before.  I didn't love it then, but I knew there was a location in the Mission a few blocks from where we were, so it seemed worth checking out.

Like the other location, they offer up a variety of sweet pies (as well as savory ones), including some fruit pies, a few chocolately pies, and on weekends only apparently, some cream pies.  They'll heat them up and serve them a la mode, with your choice of ice cream from Three Twins.  There is a decent selection of both pie types and ice cream flavors.  You can also just get a cup or cone of ice cream, or if you are feeling adventurous, a "pie shake", where they blend up a slice of pie, a scoop of ice cream, and milk, into a shake, full of chunks of pie, and top it with whipped cream.  This actually sounds pretty good, in a crazy decadent sort of way, to me, and I'd still like to try it out sometime.

I'm not a huge fan of Three Twins.  I don't actively dislike the ice cream, but it hasn't ever impressed me.  I tried three more flavors today, and still feel the same way.

Last time I visited, I sampled the signature pie: the green chile apple pie with a cheddar crust and walnut streusel.  It was ok, but the chili flavor was pretty strong and I felt like it dominated the whole thing.  I grew up having warm apple pie with cheddar cheese melted on top though, so the idea of the cheddar crust was really appealing (like the warm apple pie with cheddar ice cream at Spruce!).

Last time I was there, I settled on the country peach pie.  My memory (and tasting notes which I just found) said that the crust was delicious, the nut streusel topping was amazing, and the filling was kinda just meh.  I recall visiting when peaches weren't in season though, so thought it might have been my own fault that I picked one without a very good filling.
Strawberry-rhubarb pie, Three Twins lemon-cookie ice cream.  $9.50.
I had assumed this would be just like the peach pie - great crust, awesome stressel, and hopefully, since they are starting to be in season, delicious strawberry filling.  I was wrong.

The crust was not very good at all.  Crisp, crumbly, no flavor to it at all.  Not buttery, not sweet, just there.  The crumble topping was equally tasteless, and definitely not the nutty, sweet delicious one from the peach pie.  And the filling was really over-floured, mushy, with a bad mouthfeel.  There was far more rhubarb than strawberry, and I don't actually care for rhubarb, so this sort of ruined it for me (I wouldn't normally pick something with rhubarb, but the other strawberry pie was vegan, so I assumed that one would be less tasty, and the other fruit pies weren't in season fruits ...).  It was also served kinda as a jumble like this.  No presentation points here!  I do like that they warm it up, but it was more lukewarm than warm.

The ice cream was the best part, but I didn't particularly like it either.  You can see my tasting notes of that on my Three Twins review page.

I kinda doubt I'll be going back here, although I could be convinced if someone would want to go try a pie shake with me!


Ok, so I went back :)  But this time, it was because they were celebrating the anniversary of their opening, and were sampling a bunch of their pies and giving out free scoops of ice cream.  And since I can't resist freebies ...

My opinion of the place remains unchanged.  I just don't care for their pies, and don't like most of Three Twins flavors, although the Lemon Cookie ice cream is pretty good.  I really want to like this place more than I do, as I love pies, and they do look so good.  I'm glad I got a chance to try it again though, and my ice cream cone was really quite enjoyable on the hot sunny Mission afternoon!
Single cone of Lemon Cookie Ice Cream.  $2.50.
My  Three Twins review page has all the details on the ice cream, so I'll keep this brief.  Lemon Cookie is the best flavor I've tried from Three Twins, by far.  I love the balance of the tart lemon flavor and the sweetness of the ice cream, and the texture added by the cookies.  $2.50 seems like a decent price for a cone these days.  I actually really liked the cake cone, it didn't seem like the same generic cardboard like Joy cup, and instead had a nicer crunch to it.

[ Not Pictured - Samples ]
  • Mexican Chocolate Pecan Pie: I was super excited to see samples of this, as it is one I've always wanted to order.  Unfortunately, it just didn't seem like much.  I didn't detect anything "mexican" about it, I was assuming that would be some spicing?  It was kinda just mushy, sweet, but flavorless.
  • Strawberry-Apple Pie: I think this one may have been vegan.  It reminded me of the strawberry-rhubarb pie I'd had before, mostly just mushy fruit.  Neither the crust nor the streusel topping were very good.  Sigh.
  • Chicken and Greens Salad:  I had no idea they served salads!  I knew they had savory pies, but salads?  Hmm.  Anyway, I don't really like chicken, so this wasn't very interesting to me.  It ... tasted like chicken? 
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Froyo @ Nubi Yogurt

I've got a thing for frozen yogurt.  I haven't posted many reviews here (yet), but I eat a lot of frozen yogurt.  I love places that carry a variety of flavors and let me sample them all first.  I love self-serve places where I can combine the perfect toppings with my chosen flavors to create perfect bites.  I like it tart with fresh fruit or I like it sweet and creamy with candy toppings.  It just depends on my mood.

But in general, I'm never THAT satisfied.  I always want it to be better than it is 90% of the time.  There are times that it is spectacular (like when the peanut butter flavor at Yoppi is really creamy, really peanut buttery, and topped with dark chocolate shavings ... or the insanely good peanut butter flavor at JP Licks in Boston, in a cone, with sprinkles ... drool).  But for the most part, froyo in San Francisco just always leaves me wanting something better.

I recently read about a place I hadn't tried yet - Nubi Yogurt, in Portero.  It gets great reviews.  The weather was warm and sunny Saturday, so I went to check it out.

It is a self serve place, with 12 different flavors, some sweet, some tart, a sorbet, a non-sugar option.  Tons of toppings, ranging from dry ones (cereals, nuts, candy, etc) to wet ones (sauces, poppers, fresh fruits).  Unfortunately, I didn't find a single flavor that I liked much.  The frozen yogurt was overall too icy and not creamy enough for my taste.


Tart:
  • Plain tart (non-fat):  Just tart, not very interesting flavor, icy.
  • Pomegranate-Raspberry (non-fat): Kinda icy.  Sweet, yet tart at the same time.  Decent berry flavors.  Favorite of the day.
  • Lychee (non-fat): Just sweet, not good flavor, icy. [ Nice balance of tart and sweet, good flavor, but fairly icy. ]
  • Taro (non-fat): Decent tartness, good taro flavor on the finish, but a bit icy.
Sweet:
  • Sweet Coconut (low-fat): Slight coconut flavor but mostly just sweet, icy.
  • Very Berry (non-fat): Icy  and runny, not much berry flavor.
  • French Vanilla (non-fat): Not creamy, not vanilla flavored, really quite bad.
  • Chocolate (non-fat): Not creamy, icy, very dark, rich but not in a real chocolate way, not good.
  • Coffee (non-fat, no sugar added): Icy, ok coffee flavor.
  • White Chocolate Macadamia (non-fat):  Medium icy, sorta strange flavor, not really able to pick up on white chocolate or macadamia.
  • Snickerdoodle (non-fat): Good cinnamon flavor but icy.
  • Red Velvet Cake (low-fat): Creamiest one I tried (hmm, I think being low-fat rather than non-fat had something to do with that!), but not much flavor.
  • Oreo Cheesecake (non-fat): No real flavor at all, not oreo, nor cream cheese.  Creamy though.  Sad, as this sounded great!
  • Gingerbread: Great ginger flavor, lots of spicing, pretty good, particularly swirled with eggnog.
  • Eggnog (non-fat): Very creamy, very good spicing, one of my favorites.
  • Peanut Butter Macaroon (low-fat): Some peanut butter flavor, but not any macaroon.  Fairly creamy.
  • Caramel Cookie (low-fat): Way too sweet, some caramel flavor.
Sorbet:
  • Dole's Pineapple: Sweet, icy but that is expected with sorbet, refreshing, good pineapple flavor.


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Monday, April 16, 2012

Dinner, and a TON of dessert, at Alexander's Steakhouse

I have some co-workers visiting from Australia, and when I suggested going out to dinner to them, there was of course one place that immediately rose to the top of the list: Alexander's Steakhouse!  It has become my go-to place for just about every sort of meal, from the special foie gras dinners, to amazing burgers or just appetizers and desserts in the bar, to more classic steak dinners.  I've reviewed Alexander's so many times (in particular, I give a good summary of why I love the place here), so I'll skip the usual ramble here and just focus on anything that was particularly different this evening, and on reviewing the individual dishes.

We had a fantastic meal, as expected, including a bunch of shared appetizers, some steaks and burgers, and pretty much every dessert on the menu, plus extra desserts!  I felt a little bad that half our party ordered the burger rather than the obviously much more expensive steaks, but I'd raved about the burger so much that they all really wanted it.  Whoops.  And after having some of it tonight, I'll continue to proclaim it the best burger in the city (and I say that having had four burgers this week!).

Service was impeccable.  It began with a warm welcome when we arrived and some complimentary bubbly to get us started and continued to be steller through the entire meal, concluding with an incredible spread of desserts with a customized message for our visitors.  Every single person we interacted with was friendly, knowledgable, and made for quite a pleasurable evening.  Our every needs were met and then some.  I also really appreciated them taking the time to explain all of the details of the dishes to me, as I frantically wrote down notes.  I know that can be totally annoying, and they seemed happy to do it.

The bread service included a new option!  They still had the Acme bread choices (green olive, baguette, walnut), but now also offered a house made bacon roll.  It was warm, soft, and somewhat sweet, with little chunks of bacon studded throughout.  The bacon had a nice smokey flavor, and this was a pretty good roll.

Thank you Alexander's, for yet another fantastic meal.

Amuse bouche: White asparagus gelee / furikake / dashi soy pearls.
I generally adore the amuse bouches at Alexander's.  They tend to be creative and feature really strong flavors that combine together in incredible ways.  Some of my most memorable bites of food have been amuses here, like the one I had at my last visit, which I really do think was one of the best bites I've ever had.

The white asparagus gelee had a fairly subtle asparagus flavor to it, I would have liked it to be stronger.  The dashi soy pearls had a ton of flavor infused in them, and burst nicely when you bit into them, releasing the flavor in a really fun way.  They were a cute play on roe.  Overall, this was good, but not as memorable as other amuses I have had in the past.
Gift from the kitchen: Foie gras mousse, / freeze dried grapes / Belgian beer syrup.
Oh how I love foie gras mousse.  So creamy, so rich, so absolutely delicious.  While it is hard to pick a favorite preparation of foie gras, mousses have been among my top picks lately.  Something about the creaminess just really does it for me.

The liquid nitrogen freeze dried grapes were amazing.  They were incredibly crisp, a fun contrast to the creamy mousse, and somehow had the most intense flavor.  The fruit and foie were a good pairing.  The syrup was good, but I'm not much of a beer liker, so it wasn't really my thing, and I found it a tad bit bitter.

We all enjoyed this dish, although, the last foie gras mousse I had was the best version I've ever had, so I couldn't help but compare (that one had additional foie gras powder and candied kumquat ... soooo good!)

The plating of this on the log was stunning.  Thank you kitchen for this treat!
Uni chawanmushi / bacon dashi meringue / yuzu crème fraîche / lobster crumble.  $22.
We had decided on what to order when the waiter stopped by and said, "Does anyone here like uni?"  I may or may not have enthusiastically, and rather embarrassingly, proclaimed/screamed "YES!" And he goes on, "we have a special tonight, only four orders are available".  The next few moments were filled with a description that involved about a zillion of my favorite things.  Sold!  We promptly reserved three of the four orders.

Like uni?  I love it!  Like warm custard savory dishes?  Can't get enough of them these days.  This dish sounded like my absolute fantasy.  Unfortunately, while it was good, it sounded a lot better than it actually was.

The egg custard itself was creamy, warm, and a decent comfort food, but it didn't really have any flavor to it.  I was expecting it to be uni flavored, like other uni custard dishes I've had lately (uni chawanmushi at Commonwealth, uni crème brûlée at Quince, uni flan at Fifth Floor), but instead it was just an egg custard.

On top were a couple of the bacon dashi meringues, adorable little meringues with an intense bacon flavor.  These were fantastic and paired really well with the custard and the uni.  Who doesn't love bacon?

Aslo on top was the lobster crumble, which added an interesting textural contrast with the creamy custard, but I didn't really get any lobster flavor from it, and it had a really strange chalky mouthfeel that I didn't enjoy.

There were also onion sprouts which gave a burst of flavor, and apparently a yuzu crème fraîche, which I didn't taste nor see.  Perhaps it had all just melted into the dish.

There was also a small amount of uni, which was pretty lost in the dish.  No intense flavor, and just a very small portion.   This was the most disappointing part, as a bunch of people at the table had never had uni before, and I was excited for them to get to taste it.

Overall, there were a lot of good ideas and textures in here, but the flavors just didn't really come through, and this was fairly disappointing.  There was a nice smokiness from the bacon that I really enjoyed, but besides that, it fell fairly flat.  I had very high hopes though, given that it included so many ingredients I was excited about.
Foie gras torchon: Hudson valley / pastrami spice cured / pretzel / sundried tomato miso.  $24.
And finally, we get to an item from the regular menu.  By the time this course came, half our group was saying they were full already :)

I've had foie gras in about a zillion preparations at Alexander's, given all the foie gras dinners we've attended and the crazy amount of seared foie we've ordered there, but I had never ordered their standard cold preparation before.  It was time to change that!

This was the weakest foie gras preparation I've had at Alexander's.  The torchon was creamy, but a little slimy and stringy.  It was over-salted for my taste.  I didn't taste the pastrami spices.  I'm not really sure where the pretzel was.

It was served with walnut crostini (not pictured) that were too oily, and just really crisp.

The brussels sprouts were tasty and had a nice citrus flavor to them.

The sundried tomato miso wasn't very flavorful, which surprised me, as sundried tomato and miso can be such strong flavors, and Alexander's tends to wow me with flavor intensity.

Others at the table liked this, so perhaps I'm just super critical about my foie these days, having had so many outstanding prepartions!
Niman Ranch pork belly: soy-braised belly / katsu crepinette / bok choy / japanese curry.  $17. 
Surprise dish of the night!  Half our group was sharing the foie gras, and the other half was sharing the pork belly.  I gladly passed on this, thinking "pork belly?  Meh.  Just fatty and slimy and never good".  And then they started eating it.  Two of the three people having this dish downed their portions in seconds, exclaiming how good it was.  The diner with a little left also proclaimed its goodness, and foolishly, offered some up.  How do you say no?

This was insanely good.  The pork belly was amazingly tender and flavorful.  The sweet soy sauce with it was just awesome.  There was also some whole grain mustard that made all of the flavors pop.  And curry seasoning in the beurre blanc.  Damn.  So many flavors, so intense, so awesome.  There were a bunch of other elements on the plate as well, but I didn't get to try them.

I'd totally order this in the future to get to experience the whole thing.

[ Not pictured - Intermezzo.
Mango lime gelee / raspberry coulis ]
Like the amuse bouche, the intermezzos at Alexander's can be particularly impressive.  This was was just ok, not as intensely flavored as I'm accustomed to here.
Grilled filet mignon: 10oz  / foie gras bordelaise / chive.   $48. 
Another diner ordered this, but luckily, we'd had so many courses at this point, that he was willing to give me a few bites.  It was phenomenal.  Tender, perfectly medium rare, absolutely fantastic sear on the outside, and great foie gras flavor infused it in.

Note to self: next time, order this.  So good.
Dry-aged ribeye steak:  15 oz / ramp pistou / kizami wasabi / miner’s lettuce .  $60.
Asparagus gratin: dungeness crab / kani miso / hollandaise.  $14.
I was feeling adventurous, and asked the chef and the waiter for recommendations on a steak.  They both recommended the dry-aged ribeye.  I haven't really ever been a fan of ribeye before, but I figured if they were recommending it, this was a good time to re-try it and see if I just hadn't had very good preparations before.

I really didn't like it.  It was cooked fine, but was just so not my thing.  Way too fatty and chewy.

Aslo on the plate were a pair of purees: watercress and ramp.  They were both very flavorful and quite nice.  It was topped with some crispy fresh miner's lettuce, and of course, some butter.

I won't get this again, but I suspect this is really just a personal preference sort of thing.

The asparagus gratin came from the sides menu.  In the past, I've been fairly critical of the sides at Alexander's, having never actually really enjoyed any of them.  They've certainly been the weakest points of the meal.  This however, was fantastic.

Every element of this dish was amazing.  The asparagus was clearly fresh, flavorful, and perfectly tender.  There was a generous amount of sweet crab meat.  The sauce was absolutely incredible, some sort of cheesy hollandaise with miso and crab infused in it.  Insanely good and addicting.  I was stuffed, but couldn't help myself from soaking up all of the remaining sauce with my bacon-bread.  Sooooo good.  And all of the components paired together perfectly. Would order again in a heartbeat.

 [ Not pictured
House ground wagyu burger / shortrib-shiitake mushroom ragoût / toma cheese / shichimi-truffled fries.  $18. ]

I've had this a number of times before, and got to enjoy a few bites  tonight as well.  It was, just as before, absolutely fantastic, and I again proclaim it to be the best burger in the city.  Soooo much flavor in the patty, seared with an amazing crust on it, yet perfectly medium rare interior, with uber flavorful mushroom-shortrib ragu, delicious melty toma cheese, and accompanied with some fantastic mustard.
Black and White: Black Out: black sesame panna cotta / cassis sphere / black sesame sponge cake. White Out: steamed meringue / yogurt sphere / marscapone / yuzu curd / coconut.  $12 each.
And thus began our epic dessert excursion.  Our waiter told me that he'd prepared quite the extravaganza for us, and he certainly didn't disappoint!

We began with the "Black and White", which was a pairing of two desserts from the standard menu, the "Black Out" and the "White Out".  On the plate was a welcome message for our visitors.  What a lovely touch!

I've had the White Out before, and didn't much care for it, so I only had a few bites this time.  It was pretty much the same as last time.

The Black Out contained a few items I'd seen before in past desserts at Alexander's.  The black sesame panna cotta was again very strongly black sesame flavored and nice.  The sponge cake was rather forgettable (I'm just really not into sponge cake!).  The cassis sphere was crazy flavorful and super delicious, although I'm not sure it really paired with the other elements all that well.

Overall, I didn't really like either of these desserts that much, but they were beautiful, and I loved the contrast of the pure white and pure black desserts on the plate!
Rise ‘n’ shine: grand marnier souffle / macarons / crème anglaise.  $15.
Another dessert selected by our waiter, that I've had before.  The souffle was fluffy and light, and had a good orange flavor to it, but wasn't particularly memorable.  Just a fairly standard, decent, souffle.   The  server hollows out the center and pours the crème anglaise in tableside, and then leaves the pot of it  behind.  The crème anglaise was, as before, absolutely delicious.  We again enjoyed it by the spoonful, without the souffle.
Apple of My Eye: Mutsu apple confit / fennel streusel / shiro miso ice cream / apple caramel / pomegranate gel.  $12. 
This one we actually ordered, but before the other desserts came out.  I had it a few months ago and recalled loving it.  Had I realized how much other dessert we were getting this evening, I would not have ordered it in addition, since everyone else was stuffed and not really dessert lovers, so this was a LOT of dessert for me to consume.  But ... it was my favorite.

This dish is hard to explain.  It arrives on a hot platter, sizzling.  On the plate is the compressed apple confit, fennel streusel, caramel sauce, pomegranate spheres, and some ice cream.  It has all of the elements of an awesome apple pie dessert: hot, tender apple flavors, addicting crumble/streusel, sweet caramel sauce, and cold ice cream, but is deconstructed, allowing you to combine all sorts of perfect bites.  I practically licked this plate clean.
Chocolate ganache, passionfruit sorbet, walnut crumble.
And just when we thought we were done, two of hese came out, more "gifts from the kitchen"!  We were all stuffed.  We'd had so much dessert.  But ... this was pretty spectacular.  Somehow, they were devoured in seconds.  Yes, they were that good.

The chocolate ganche was creamy, chocolatey.  There was additional chocolatey soil with it.  The sorbet was super sweet and intensely passionfruit flavored.  The walnut crumble added more fun texture.  I can't say the passionfruit and chocolate pairing made that much sense, nor did the ganache and sorbet pairing.  But they were both good on their own, and these were devoured in seconds.

[ Not pictured - Watermelon cotton candy ]
And of course, every meal at Alexander's ends with cotton candy.  Today's was watermelon flavored.  Sweet, fluffy, good as always.  And our Australian visitors call it "fairy floss".  How cute.
Alexander's Steakhouse on Urbanspoon
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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cooking Demo: Garcon Resaurant

Today's demo was by Chef Arthur Wall, from Garcon Restaurant.

I hadn't heard of Garcon before, but it is a french restaurant in the Mission.  The chef has a really interesting background: from New Orleans, but trained in classical French cuisine, but has been cooking in the bay area for a while now.  So his food has elements of the south, uses french techniques, but is largely influenced by using fresh, local, seasonal components.

He gave a really, really great demo.  I've been attending pretty much every cooking demo at the Ferry Building, Macy's, and Williams-Sonoma for the past year, and I can safely say, that this was the most informational AND the most enjoyable.

He provided many tips on cooking, not just on the particular dish he was preparing, but on cooking in general.  He emphasized how important technique was, and how you could give a bunch of chefs the same basket of ingredients, the same recipe to follow, and how you'd get totally different dishes.  He jokingly explained that this is why he wasn't worried giving away his recipe to us, because he wasn't scared we'd take his job :)  Cooking isn't just about math, it is about feeling and passion!

The biggest takeaways were about the importance of tasting, seasoning, and adjusting to really get the flavors right.  He talked about how you want to start out under-seasoning, because you can always adjust later, but you can't undo it if you throw in too much salt and in the blink of the eye ruin three days worth of marinading and work.  He also talked a lot about layering and building complex flavors, and how the little extras like browning the butter or adding additional herbs is really what separates out chefs from home cooks.

In addition to being really informative, the chef was engaging and fun.  He told fun little personal stories, included funny quips about cooking with booze and butter (don't be afraid of it!  If it kills you, you'll die with a smile on your face!), etc.  His passion for food, for ingredients, and for cooking really came through.  You could tell that he genuinely loves the process of creating a dish for others to enjoy, and that he really respects the farmers and ingredients he sources.

The demo ran longer than most (over an hour, rather than the standard 45 minutes), but I don't think anyone in the audience minded.  We were all throughly enjoying ourselves, learning a lot, and listening to his stories.  When he finished, I don't think I"d ever heard such strong applause before!  Really, really well done Chef!
Gnocchi with artichoke, mushroom, baby carrot, green garlic, chard in artichoke and white wine broth, topped with parmesan cheese.
The gnocchi were soft, fluffy, delicious little pillows of potato-y, cheesy, goodness.  The chef mentioned that if he were preparing this dish at the restaurant, or at home, he'd pan cook the gnocchi with the vegetables and sauce, rather than just tossing it all together at the end as he did today in order to serve the large group.  The gnocchi themselves were a little bland, so I think the additional cooking time with the other flavorful components would have helped infuse some flavor into them.  It also would have added a bit of a crispy crust to them, which would have been an additional enjoyable textural aspect.  That said, they were still quite good even like this.

The assorted fresh vegetables were all delicious, tender, and really made this a light, very spring feeling dish.  I was particularly surprised by the artichoke, as I don't tend to like it all that much, but they were just tender and fairly tasty.

But the standout was the broth!  Intensely flavorful, yet very light at the same time.  The chicken flavor really came through, adding dimension to the sauce.  The assorted herbs (thyme, rosemary, cloves) that the chef used really imparted a lot of flavor as well, and although I couldn't distinguish particular herbs, you could tell that there were a bunch of things at play here, creating a really complex flavor.  I gladly lapped up all of the broth remaining in my bowl, and would have loved to have some bread to dip in it too!

Recipe: http://www.cuesa.org/recipe/spring-vegetable-gnocchi-artichokes-and-artichoke-broth
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