Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Uni, foie, scallops @ Alexander's

Ah, Alexander's.  By now, you know that Alexander's is my favorite restaurant in SF.  But I didn't visit for a while.  Not because I stopped liking Alexander's, but because I just haven't been going out to eat in San Francisco.

It was time to change that.

The occasion?  Australian co-workers were in town visiting, and they had never been to the San Francisco Alexander's Steakhouse.  I took them to the Cuptertino location, once for lunch, when we ducked out of a conference down the street, and once for a really epic dinner where I first had Tajima F1 wagyu.  They also rave about the Alexander's Patisserie in Mountain View that they discovered on a previous visit.  How we never brought them to Alexander's San Francisco before now, I don't know, but I needed to correct this situation, stat.  (Side note: if you confused, because you remember me bringing Australian co-workers to Alexander's SF before, like when we discovered how amazing the pork belly, don't worry.  Those were also co-workers visiting from Sydney, but, different individuals.  I host a lot of Australian visitors!)

Anyway, I'll skip the basics about Alexander's, because you can read all about those in my slew of previous reviews, and focus just on this experience.

I'll be honest, the meal didn't start out amazing for me.  The initial dishes weren't ones I loved, due to my own preferences, but, in true Alexander's fashion, it did turn into a great meal.  As always, the highlights for me were the appetizers and the extra gifts from the chef, although dessert was also a strong point, always a plus for me!  There were a few slight service hiccups, like the sommelier visiting our table right when the food was presented, so I wasn't able to catch descriptions of some of the first courses.  The bread server didn't tell us what the different breads were.  But overall, the service was fantastic as always, and the staff friendly as ever.

I don't think I really need to say that I'll obviously return.
Bread #1: Manchego and Onion Gougère.
The first "bread" service to begin the meal used to be a cracker, sometimes interestingly spiced with something like za'atar or furikake, sometimes cheesy like the addicting Point Reyes blue cheese and walnut crackers.  I always liked the crackers, a welcome change from traditional bread and quite nice to nibble and crunch on.  Then again, I'm a sucker for snacky foods.

This time, the first bread service was a gougère (an interesting choice for a Japanese inspired steakhouse), served to us individually on our bread plates from a central basket.  The cheese was manchego, and it was studded it with both green and red onion.

It was delivered quasi-warm, not really with that "fresh from the oven" feel, but also not room temperature.  It was cheesy, herby, salty, and had a lot of flavors going on, but I don't really like manchego, so I didn't care for it.  The others all loved it, and gladly volunteered to take mine off my hands.  Ojan in particular loved this, but it was my least favorite of the bread line-up.
Amuse Bouche: Hamachi Tartar.
Simultaneously with the bread came our amuse bouche.

The amuse bouche is always one of my favorite moments at Alexander's.  They manage to put together some crazy flavorful little bites, like the toasted brioche with eucalyptus truffle cream from years ago, that I still remember to this day.

This meal began with hamachi tartar topped with fennel apple salad.  The hamachi was nicely chopped, the fennel gave a strong flavorful burst, and the apple was light and refreshing.  Very balanced, and a nice opener to a meal.  Of course, I don't really like hamachi, so another dish that I didn't love, just due to my own preferences.  I wish I liked hamachi and manchego!
Snacks:
Uni Toast: braised oxtail / uni / marrow toasted brioche. ($9 each),
Hamachi Shots: avocado / serrano / cilantro / yuzu-soy / garlic / radish ($5 each).
Now, we get to a few items we ordered.

The first section of the Alexander's menu contains "snacks", items either served as individual bites like these, or easy little share plates such as fried shishito peppers or edamame, designed to be quick little snacks to have alongside your cocktail or bubbly as you browse the rest of the menu.  These items always arrive lightening fast, and these were no exception.

We started with two selections: Uni Toasts and Hamachi Shots.

In my past life, I always skipped the snack section of the menu, that is, until I discovered the uni toast.  I obviously love uni, and so I tend to order any uni dish I come across, even though, I'll be honest, the first time I read the description of the uni toasts, I wasn't necessarily sold.  Oxtail?  But on my last visit, it was the dish of the night for me (although I did prefer the shortrib ragout version a few months earlier).

I fondly recalled the warm toasted brioche, the creamy thousand island sauce, the flavorful oxtail, and of course, the uni on top.  It reminded me of a (very fancy) reuben on that first encounter.

This time it was a slight letdown, but only because my expectations were so high.  The brioche base was a bit too rich and oily.  I still enjoyed the creamy thousand island, and thought the oxtail was perfectly braised, incredibly tender, but it was also quite rich.  Of course, I loved the uni on top.  Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for this tonight, or maybe I wasn't quite ready to move into such a heavy bite to start, as I obviously adore rich food.  It somehow was my second to least favorite dish of the night.

Several folks at the table also enjoyed the signature hamachi shots, with avocado, serrano, cilantro, yuzu-soy, garlic, and radish.  Since I don't really like raw hamachi, and I'm allergic to avocado, I skipped this course, but I've reviewed it before (sans avocado, of course).  The hamachi shots are an Alexander's signature dish, and the others all thought they were fine, but weren't wowed.  Best summed up by one diner as "a very approachable dish".  Anyone who eats raw fish would find these very easy to deal with, and be amused by the shot glass serving, but for the more adventurous, there are far more interesting options on the Alexander's menu, which we'll get to soon.
Bread Service #2: Parker House Rolls, Strauss Butter, Fleur de Sel.
The second bread offering remained the same as it has for a while now, although on our last visit, it showed up after our steaks.  This time, the Parker House rolls properly appeared alongside our next set of dishes, the first courses.

They were served warm, and I loved the fleur de sel on top.  Others were very impressed with the perfectly soft butter log on the side.

These were fine, soft little rolls, but I've had "real" Parker House Rolls from the Parker House in Boston, and, even though their catering service is lackluster, the rolls were the highlight of my meal there, and I preferred those.
First Course: Smoked Foie Gras: koshihikari rice / toasted nori / braised seaweed / charred scallion $38.
From the first courses, we had a hard time narrowing down to only a few selections.  The grilled Firefly squid with asparagus really caught my eye, but no one else was interested.  And of course, now that foie gras is legal again in California, I obviously wanted some foie. We had two choices, chilled or smoked.  Since the chilled one contained truffle, which Ojan doesn't love, we went for the smoked.

I've only had smoked foie gras one other time, at the final foie gras dinner hosted at Alexander's before the ban, but that was a totally different preparation (although, totally amazing).  It came served in the same earthen vessel as the uni chawanmushi I had once at Alexander's.

This dish was served warm.  In the bottom of the bowl was koshihikari rice, topped with egg, scallion, and broccoli raab.  It was creamy and rich, total comfort food.  Maybe because it was served in the same bowl that I remembered the chawanmushi from, it somewhat reminded me of chawanmushi, in that comforting way.

On top was the smoked foie, in five distinct chunks.  There were five of us, so this was perfect (did they do that on purpose?)  The foie was mild, it didn't have a really strong liver flavor.  I could have used a little more foie taste, but it was soooo creamy and I loved it just the same.  Topped with toasted nori for bit of crunch.

This was a real crowd pleaser, and we all agreed that it was pretty much perfect comfort food.  Some go for mashed potatoes or mac and cheese, well, we go for smoked foie gras :)  My second favorite dish of the night.

Others also enjoyed the scallops as a first course, which I ordered as my main, so I didn't partake of in this round, and I'll leave the review until later.
Gift from the Chef: Joe Uni.
During the lull between first courses and mains, a magical gift arrived from the kitchen.  I believe they called it "Joe Uni".

Given my love for uni, you can imagine how pleased I was.

I know this doesn't look like much.  And when I describe the components, it won't make sense.  But I assure you, this was phenomenal.

On the bottom, espuma.  On top of that, pie crust crumble.  On top of that, uni and strawberry.  Garnished with arare masago and jalapeño.

Yes, I know this sounds crazy.  And it was.  Crazy delicious, that is!

Let's break it down.  The espuma was creamy and delicious, made from mangalitsa.  Once he finished his plate, Ojan said "would it be inappropriate to pick this up and lick it?", which, of course, he did.  At one point, Ojan also said it tasted like "Big Mac Sauce", which uh, somewhat dumbed down the experience (and, once he said that, I totally tasted it too).

The pie crust I believe they said was "mango dough", perhaps referring to the mangalitsa too?  It was quite rich, and, as a dessert girl, I loved to see pie crust appearing so early in my meal.  It was more like a crumbly, soft biscuit than a pie crust really.

The strawberry was actually pickled, so it was quite tart, while still providing some sweetness.

So at this point, we basically had strawberry shortcake.  Doughy base, strawberries, and creamy component.  And then ... add on some uni.  Oh, did I mention the uni was drizzled with a blue fin tuna sauce?   I know this still doesn't sound delicious?  Who cares, it was.

Hands down, best dish of the night, and one of the best bites I've ever had from Alexander's.  While the earlier gifts didn't match my tastes (manchego, hamachi), this one just nailed it.

Even if you weren't catering to an uni-loving girl who grew up eating tons of strawberry shortcake, I think this was a stunner.  The whole table agreed. Yes, strawberry shortcake with uni and big mac sauce ... a winner.  Full of textures, so many complex flavors, and yet somehow, it all worked.

I want more now!
The Salts!
Since several folks at the table ordered Wagyu steaks, the impressive trays of salts were then brought out, with 12 unique salts.  They brought us two of these, even though one would have sufficed to cover those who actually ordered Wagyu.  They even offered to bring a third if we required it.  The staff wanted everyone to get a chance to taste the salts, even if they didn't select the premium steaks, a really kind touch.

As always, our guests found the salts fascinating, and the salt sommelier talked through many of the selections with our group.  Of course, he left a card behind as a cheat sheet to keep them all straight.

I always love the salts, and this was no exception.  We all occupied ourselves until the next round of food arrived tasting the salts, and picking our favorites.  They even provided little tiny salt spoons this time, which was nice, I always felt a bit silly licking my finger and sticking it in the salts (I mean, I didn't do that ...). 
Side: Grilled Asparagus: dry-aged beef hollandaise / lemon / bonito. $15.
All entrees at Alexander's are served a la carte, so sides are served family style for the table.

Now, I generally find the sides at Alexander's lackluster, at least compared to all the amazing starters.  That said, I've had a few standouts over the years, and one was an asparagus gratin.  So when someone suggested the asparagus this time around, I was up for it.  Also, I had grilled jumbo asparagus a few days prior that I was in love with.  Ah, spring!

The asparagus was thin style, nicely grilled.  The beef hollandaise was creamy and of course I loved it.  I'm such a sucker for anything mayo/aioli/hollandaise-like.  Bring on the eggs and fats.

On top was a ton of bonito.

This dish was fine, but, again, compared to the starters, it just wasn't something I'd go back for.  Least favorite dish of the night.
Side: Shichimi Fries: sundried tomato - tonkatsu aïoli / shichimi. $14.
We also ordered the fries.  Yes, the fries.

I remember the first times I had the shichimi fries, when I was splitting a burger with Ojan, and it came with fries.  We wouldn't have ever ordered them otherwise, who wastes stomach space with fries?  Except, I was stuffed that day, and still got totally addicted to them.  The same thing happened when we visited with Emil's family, and his sisters ordered the fries.  I'm the one who polished them off.  So addicting.

So when our Australian guests suggested the fries, I laughed slightly because they ALWAYS want fries, er, chips, but I didn't say no!

The fries were exactly as I remembered from all my previous visits.  Thin and incredibly crispy, nicely spiced from the shichimi.  Totally addicting.  And being a creamy sauce lover, I couldn't stop dipping them in the creamy tonkatu aïoli.

$14 for a side of fries might be high, and I usually prefer thick wedges over thin fries, but, these somehow always manage to impress me.  If you like thin fries, get these, for sure.
Tajima F1 Aus Filet, 3 oz. $48.
Ojan and one other diner both ordered the Tajima F1 filet, medium-rare.  I was really not in the mood for steak, so I didn't even demand a bite.  Ojan did say it was the least memorable of the fancy steaks he has had at Alexander's though.

Two others went for the regular filet mignon, served with bordelaise.  One added seared foie gras on top (extra $30).  As I've reviewed many times, Alexander's always executes the sear on the foie flawlessly.  I've had a lot of seared foie gras over the past few years, but no where has ever managed to do it as perfectly as Alexander's.  This was no exception.  The sear was perfect, the foie was perfect, and of course I know this, because the diner who ordered it decided to be generous and share with me immediately upon receiving his dish.  Later, as he approached food coma, he ceded the remainder to me as well.  Sadly, I have no photo, but let me assure you, it was foie gras perfection, a very sizable chunk of foie gras perfection at that.
First Course: Seared Scallop: pig tail roulade / chicharron butter / crispy polenta / radish / mustard seed. $27.
And finally, my main attraction.  As I said, I really wasn't in the mood for steak, and I knew we'd be ordering a slew of share dishes so I didn't want the single main dish seafood option on the menu, a whole roasted fish.  It sounded delicious, but I knew that would be way too much food.

So, I ordered the scallops for my main, even though they are technically a first course.

Just like uni and foie, scallops are some of my favorite items.  Yes, this meal was filled with all of my favorites!  Remember the time Chef Zare combined all these for me into seared scallops, with uni sauce, topped with seared foie gras, asparagus, and prosciutto?  OMG.

And, just like seared foie, Alexander's does seared scallops better than anywhere else.  I went to a cooking demo by Executive Chef Mark Zimmerman, and learned the secret: butter.  Oh, so much butter.

But back to this dish.  It came with two of everything: two scallops, two pig tail roulades, two polenta bites, etc.

The scallops were good, tender, mild, slightly sweet, but actually didn't have the a hard sear on them I was expecting.  I easily overlooked this though, as they were totally infused with chicharron butter, and the bits of crispy chicharrons on top added an awesome crunch.

Pork products showed up in the pig tail roulade as well, wrapped in mustard greens.  The crunch also re-appeared in the crispy polenta bites, which resembled tator tots in appearance.  I appreciated the crispy nature of these, but I didn't actually like it, as I generally prefer my polenta creamy.

Mustard seeds, tiny slices of radish, and mustard seed flowers completed the presentation.

Overall, this dish was good, and I really appreciated the salt level to it, presumably from the chicharrons.  The chicharrons were certainly the winning element.  But, compared to the uni and foie dishes, it wasn't as strong as a contender.
Bread #3: Rolls / Wagyu Butter.
And, the final bread service.  It was delivered alongside the mains, and the server didn't tell us what it was.  I think some kind of heartier wheat roll?

We recognized the butter immediately though, wagyu butter, served inside a marrow bone.  I sometimes think Ojan comes to Alexander's only for this butter (I'm only half joking).  He loves it.

Quote of this round again comes from Ojan, as he slathered his role in butter, and observed the more reserved way others were doing it: "If you can see the bread, you are doing it wrong".

Yes, simply use the bread as a way to eat more Wagyu butter.  Seriously tasty stuff.  Ojan may or may not have left with a container full.  Did I mention that Alexander's spoils us?
Decaf Americano.
Now, time to move into my favorite part of most meals: dessert.  Well, normally dessert is my favorite part of the meal, but I'll be honest, at Alexander's, I actually tend to like the savory food more than the dessert.  I know, this is unheard of for me!

Along with dessert, I also ordered coffee.

I asked for an Americano, and specified that I'd like it served alongside the dessert.  I always hate it when I order a coffee intending to pair the bitter goodness with my sweet dessert, and it arrives long before dessert.  I know some people want a coffee to ease them into dessert, but for me, it is all about the pairing.  This means I either sacrifice my pairing or let it get cold.  I've learned to just be clear about what I want, and, Alexander's obliged.  It arrived right as the desserts were placed in front of us.

Served with creamer, two types of sugar cubes, and a little almond biscotti.

It was fine, not notable, and for a decaf, that means it didn't have any strange decaf "funk" to it, so, not bad.
Dessert: “grasshopper” soufflé : mint creme sandwich cookies / mint chocolate chip ice cream. $16.
Alexander's always has a soufflé on the menu.  I never choose to order it, although most of the time I visit with a group, someone always wants the soufflé, like the last time we went with other Australian visitors and had the grand marnier soufflé, which was notable only because of the amazing crème anglaise, which Ojan took to drinking on its own.  If you want awesome soufflé, go to Cafe Jacqueline.

The soufflé arrived untouched, but the server poked a hole in it, and added a generous scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream tableside.  On the side were two mini sandwich cookies filled with mint creme.

Since I try not to have chocolate in the evenings, I didn't have much of this, but I did appreciate the minty chocolately flavors, always a nice combination.  I think people were either stuffed or didn't love it though, as some of this went untouched.
Dessert: Apple: fried apple pie / ricotta / caramel / celery / chicory ice cream. $13.
Next up, the dessert I had my eye on, called "apple".

The primary component was a fried apple pie.  It was warm, crispy, and absolutely covered in cinnamon and sugar.  It was delicious, and I really wished I wasn't sharing this dessert with others!

Alongside the pie was a cannelle of chicory ice cream, that melted perfectly slowly as we ate.

Under both of these was a really fascinating compote with compressed apple bits and caramel, and candied celery, as well as a celery root and white chocolate ganache.  Large shreds of salty ricotta and tiny sprigs of micro celery completed the stunning presentation.

Apple, celery, ricotta, white chocolate, caramel, chicory ... all in one dish, and all in harmony.  Sweet and salty, creamy and crispy, hot and cold ... it worked.  This was one of my favorite desserts at Alexander's.

We also had the cheese platter of three cheeses, including brillat savarin, and some interesting accompaniments.  Pickled sliced green strawberries I could identify, but there was some sort of mustarda that I wasn't ever able to place.  Perhaps it was rhubarb?  The others went for the cheese, and left the apple dessert behind.  I assure you, I took care of that.
Palate Cleanser.
And after our desserts, our palate cleanser showed up.  This was a bit of a timing and service falter, as it clearly should have come before the desserts.  Since it arrived in the midst of the dessert devouring chaos, I didn't quite catch what it was.  I think there was pickled mango involved?

I didn't really like it, but one diner found it quite fascinating, and kept remarking about it the remainder of our time together.
Strawberry Cotton Candy / Candies / Chocolate.
And finally, the signature end to any Alexander's meal: cotton candy, served in a special stand, with candies and chocolates.

The flavor of the night was strawberry, and it was sweet fluffy cotton candy, exactly as we've come to expect.  I really loved the caramel nut squares, perfect alongside my coffee, and the right ending to a delicious meal.
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