Saturday, March 17, 2012

Another dinner @ Alexander's

We just can't seem to get enough of Alexander's Steakhouse!  For two of us, it was our second time there this week.  For another, it was his third time this week.  And we can't seem to get enough foie gras!  We had 4 courses of foie gras tonight, even after a 8 course foie gras dinner last night (still need to write up that review, waiting on photos from my fancy photographers who attended the dinner with me).

Since I've written about Alexander's so many times in the past, I'll skip the standard details here (good Acme bread service, nicely balanced cocktails and mocktails, etc) and just focus on what was unique.

Getting to the restaurant was a bit of an epic journey - it was pouring rain and cabs were not available, so we decided to walk.  By only a few minutes into our walk, all of our umbrellas had turned inside out, one person had run into a pole, and we were all soaked.  This meal better be worth braving the conditions!

Since everyone else in the city seemed to be hiding inside, Alexander's was relatively empty, and we were able to get a table for five in the main dining room, at prime dining time, without a reservation!  I do love bar and lounge dining at Alexander's, and prefer it for a casual mid-week meal, but sitting in the main room is a nicer experience, far more comfortable, and much better service (which, was spot on tonight!).

Tonight's dinner re-solidified my key feelings on Alexander's, and what makes me keep returning time and time again.  There are a few things that make up their style, creating what I call "Classic Alexander's" (which are not exactly "classic"):
  • Beautiful plating, from the serving-ware used (slates!), to the way the components are laid out (dots, drizzles, etc), to the garnishes (tiny little flowers!  tuilles!).  (But they also don't take this too far, keeping things still casual and not spending way too much time plating such that foods get cold, a huge pet peeve of mine!)
  • Successful use of innovative cooking techniques/molecular gastronomy: mousses, foams, gelees, carbonation, soils, candying, etc.  (Lots of places try this, but I often find them more gimmicky and for novelty points, but at Alexander's they just work at all levels, adding visual and textural interest AND tasting good).
  • A slew of components in every dish, all of which combine perfectly together, from both flavor and texture perspectives.  (Again, lots of places try to do this, and you are often just left overwhelmed, unsure of how to combine things, and with a bunch of extra things thrown on the plate that aren't necessary, detract from the main flavors, and clutter everything up.  Here, they look intimidating at first glance, but you quickly realize how everything works, and you can have fun creating the most amazing bites of food.)
  • Great texture combinations, bringing together crispy, creamy, firm, soft, small, large, etc, etc.  All in balance, making the food a pleasure to eat for your mouth, as well as your tastebuds. 
  • Fun and whimsy, they aren't taking things too seriously (pop rocks!  cotton candy!)
  • Strong flavors!  If there is truffle in there, you are going to taste it.  And with multiple strong flavors in every dish, it would be easy for these to overshadow each other, or combine in bad ways, but they never do.
  • Unique ingredients. Almost every time I go, I have an ingredient I've ever never had before, or rarely have (wakamomo! chive blossoms!)
  • Friendly, knowledgeable staff.  I really appreciate how the servers explain all of the components on the plate when they bring a dish over to you.  And if you engage them in conversation, they are happy to provide even more information.  (Tonight we went to look at some of the cuts of waygu they offer, a took a peak at what we'll have at the next foie gras dinner: the Sher Full Blood.  That was a seriously marbled piece of meat!)
Basically, the food looks good, it tastes good, and is fun to eat.  This is really what defines Alexander's for me: they really know how to make flavors come together, artfully arranging all of the components on the plate, and allowing you, the diner, to have fun and create the most amazing bites of food, with all of the components bringing the others to new highs.  You can often mix things together in multiple ways with amazing results, making each bite a brand new experience.  Dishes do not bore and they do not get old!

Our meal started with a nice glass of complimentary sparkling wine (or sparkling lemonade for the non-drinkers).  What a nice way to settle in and relax a little after our treacherous journey.  Thank you Alexander's!
Amuse Bouche: Toasted brioche, mushroom filling, eucalyptus truffle cream, chive blossom.
This was awesome.  One of the best little bites of food I've had.  The brioche was nicely toasted and filled with a mushroom spread.  On top was eucalyptus truffle cream, and a tiny little chive blossom.

Everything about this just worked and was in perfect balance.  Particularly noteworthy was the proportions, with enough of each component to really taste the flavors, yet with no component overpowering another.  The combination of textures was totally in balance as well, with the brioche crispy and cream ... creamy.

The mushroom filling was incredibly flavorful, with the earthy tones from the mushrooms coming through.  The cream had a lovely mouthfeel and a strong truffle flavor.  The real surprise was in the chive blossom.  It was tiny.  It looked so pretty.  Clearly it must just be a garnish, right?  No way, this thing was a flavor powerhouse, bringing an incredibly strong chive flavor to the table.

I loved this.
"Liver & Onions".  Seared foie gras, compressed apple, caramelized onions, foie gras powder, crispy onions, onion sprouts, crostini, tamarind sauce.  $24.
I was a little on the fence about getting more foie gras, as we had 8 courses including it last night, and were planning on two other foie dishes in this meal.  But then I saw that they had changed up the seared foie gras preparation to be very similar to the one we had at the last foie gras dinner, which I absolutely loved.  (I was expecting the menu to still have the last preparation of the seared foie gras, which featured mushrooms instead).

So, we had to get it.

Since I loved this at the foie gras dinner two weeks ago, I had high expectations.  It pretty much met them, as it was almost exactly the same.  The sauce was slightly different, this one using tamarind instead of noble no 5, and the complexity level of this dish was taken up a few notches, with more components added (foie gras powder, onion sprouts, crispy onions, crostini), but essentially, it was the same dish, just scaled up in grandeur of "classic Alexander's" style.

The main component was a generous chunk of well seared, creamy foie gras on top of a bed of incredibly flavorful caramelized onions.  This chunk of foie gras was slightly less creamy than the one I had last time and had a stronger liver flavor to it.  I initially did not like the flavor as much, but when combined with the sweet flavorful onions, it really worked, with the stronger flavor and the sweetness complimenting each other.  As expected, I loved the caramelized onions, the crispy onions, and the surprisingly flavorful onion sprouts.  And there was something very fun about dipping straight foie gras into foie gras powder ... even more foie flavor!  The crostini added a crunchy component, and fun chance to play with the food - I may or may not have created my perfect little bit atop a piece of it, put down my knife and fork, and made this into finger food.  No one saw that, right?  Like last time, I didn't like the compressed apple.  I know fruit and foie gras combine well together, but somehow this just hasn't really worked for me either time I've tried it.  I'm not sure why.

What I really needed was a nice glass of red wine with this, I think it would have added a lot to the dish.  I'm starting to understand why people do wine pairings!
Foie gras popcorn: sweet kettle corn / foie gras butter. $8. 
We ordered this mostly out of curiosity.  It also sounded like it could be fantastic, as I clearly love foie gras, and I adore kettle corn, eating it several nights a week at home.  And since using foie gras in place of butter seems to make many things better, this had potential!  (And we've had so many preparations of foie gras recently, but hadn't yet crossed popcorn off our list!)

Unfortunately, this falls into the not-very-good-novelty category for me.  The popcorn was sticky and sweet, but missing the salty component that really defines kettle corn for me.  And I didn't really taste foie gras.  It was really just slightly fattier tasting sweet popcorn.  Had it tasted more like foie, or had some big sea salt crystals (or ... caviar!), I could imagine liking it.  Still, creative and fun.
Gift from the kitchen: Foie gras mousse, foie gras powder, candied kumquat, crostini.
Wow!  Everyone at the table loved this.  I think it was the favorite dish of evening for everyone but me (I liked the amuse slightly more, but this was very good).

These were components I'd seen before.  The mousse was very similar to the filling from the yuba crepe dish and the macaroon from the foie gras dinner and the powder and crostini were in the seared preparation (and many dishes at that dinner).  As before, the mousse was creamy, but didn't have a particularly strong foie gras flavor, but the foie gras powder again impressed me with its flavor.  How do they get so much flavor into that powder!!! And seriously, how fun is it to have a spoonful of foie gras mousse that you then roll around in MORE foie gras powder?  It paired amazingly with the candied kumquat.  The candied aspect added a necessary sweetness, but the kumquat also brought in a tartness and bitterness.  The candied piece also added texture to the dish.

An absolutely phenomenal bite could be composed of a piece of crostini, topped with mousse, topped with candied kumquat, rolled in powder.  Soo good.  Actually, bite of the evening for me, hands down.  Thank you chef!

The only reason I don't say this was the dish of the night was that the proportions were off for me.  I wanted more of the kumquat and less of the mousse.  Once I was done making my perfect bites, I had run out of everything but the mousse, which I didn't enjoy much on its own.

Palette cleanser: tangerine and ginger shooter.
This was perhaps the most successful palette cleanser I have ever received.  The ginger flavor was incredibly strong and really, truly, refreshed your palette.  The tangerine was sweet and delicious.  But what was really fun about this was the consistency.  It was carbonated on the bottom and super frothy on top.  Like drinking a sparkling wine topped with latte foam (don't imagine those flavors, just the consistencies!)  Delicious and fun.
Uni risotto: katsuo bushi / negi / mitsuba $11.
This is the dish I came in for.  I've been really craving uni recently, and I've been really into warm, comfort food style dishes featuring uni (like the warm egg custard topped with uni at Commonwealth, the uni crème brûlée at Quince, and the uni flan at The Fifth Floor).  Or, my other experience with uni risotto from Chotto.

This was a very creamy uni flavored risotto, topped with a small chunk of additional uni, crispy fried negi, and mitsuba.  I loved the crispy bits of negi, they added a nice textural crunch to the otherwise creamy dish, and of course, I just love the onion flavor.  The little chunk of uni on top wasn't particularly flavorful nor creamy.  I've been spoiled by high quality fresh uni at sushi restaurants, and this just didn't compare.  The flavor of the uni was pretty strong in the risotto, almost too much, it needed something to balance it out.  That said, I ordered this as just a side of uni risotto, not the dish that was actually on the menu, which includes a full lobster.  As a bunch of the other creamy uni preparations I've had lately have included chunks of crab, I can see how that would go together really well, and probably would have balanced it out better, but I just wasn't really in the mood for lobster.  Or if I had treated this as a side dish and just had a small portion, it also probably would have been more appealing, but I had it as my main, so it was a big portion of the risotto, which just became overkill, monotonous, and too strong once I ran out of crispy negi bits.  That all said, I did enjoy it, and did finish it, and even went back to scoop up the remaining sauce with some of my dining companion's fries ...

Overall, I just did this wrong.  I wouldn't order this as a main dish again, but I would as a shared side, or if I was wanting lobster, I'd try the real version.
Houseground wagyu burger, with shortrib-shiitake mushroom ragoût, lettuce, onion, toma cheese. Served with shichimi-truffled fries, a pickle, and a condiment platter of ketchup, grainy mustard, mayo, dijon mustard.  $18.
I've reviewed this burger before, so I won't go into details again here.  It was yet again a very, very good burger, with incredibly flavorful meat and executed perfectly with a great sear on the patty, medium-rare on the inside, and melty cheese.

There is a bunch of shortrib-shitake mushroom ragout topping this burger.  Last time, I had it on the burger as prepared and loved the flavors it brought to it.  But this time, I had a lot of it on its own, as it fell out of my dining companions burger, and he didn't want it.  This stuff is delicious.  The shortrib is incredibly flaky and tender and the mushrooms really flavorful.  I think it would make an amazing sauce over some thick ridged pasta.  With thick shreds parmesan cheese.  Mmmm ... if Alexander's wasn't a steakhouse, I'd totally suggest this menu item to them!

We had two of these burgers at the table.  One came standard with the shichimi-truffled fries, and the other was ordered "de-truffled", since the person ordering it doesn't like truffles.  Both people had tons of fries left over, and were offering them up to the table.  We all joked that there was no reason to even try the non-truffle version, as the truffle version must be clearly superior.  But ... it turns out, we all actually liked the non-truffle version better!  Both versions were shoestring fries, well fried and crispy.  The truffle ones were salty and had a strong truffle oil flavor, along with the shichimi seasoning.  They were slightly less crispy than the non-truffled ones, probably due to the oil making them a little soggy?  Anyway, the non-truffled ones turned out to be incredibly spicy.  I don't know what spices were on them, but these things had a punch!  It was almost too much if you ate the fries plain, but if you dipped them in the mayo or ketchup, it cooled them off, and was delicious.  Totally addicting.  I was incredibly stuffed, and couldn't stop eating these fries dipped in mayo.

Whenever I want a good burger, this is the burger I'll return to.  I still think it is the best burger I've had in the city.  And, I might even consider ordering the non-truffle fries myself!
Grilled fillet mignon: foie gras bordelaise / chive.  10 oz, $47. Plus pan seared foie gras, $20.
We were at a steakhouse, so someone had to get a steak, right?  Actually, the person who ordered this had been here 3 times this week, so had already had the burger and the seafood.  He also had the seared foie gras on his burger earlier in the week, went to the foie gras dinner last night to have 8 courses of foie, and is the one who insisted that we get the seared foie gras appetizer tonight.  And ... he added another lobe to his steak.  Craziness!

He gave me a generous portion of the steak to try.  Served very simply, grilled, with a little sauce.  Well, and with more seared foie gras.  I wasn't really in the mood for steak, so this didn't appeal to me much this evening, but it was very tender, and like everything else, perfectly seared on the outside.  I did really like it when I made a bite of steak, plus foie gras, plus the mushroom-shortrib ragout from the burger.  The mushrooms combined really well with the foie gras, as I expected from having the last seared foie gras dish on the menu that included mushrooms rather than onions, and they combined really well with the steak, which I expected as they combined well with the ground form.  Good solid steak, just not really what I was wanting this evening.
Brussels sprouts: charcoal-smoked marrow / yamagobo / late harvest viognier-honey vinaigrette. $8.
Nicely seared, but too salty.  These again cemented my opinion that the sides at Alexander's are their weakest dishes.  I wouldn't order these again, as there was nothing special about them at all.  I'm also pretty sick of brussels sprouts, I love them, but have had so many this winter, including some at lunch today.
Cotton candy!
And every meal must end with cotton candy!  Today's was pina colada flavored, more sweet than anything, but it did have detectable coconut and pineapple notes.

We didn't receive any petit fours, perhaps because we only ordered espresso and tea, and not desserts?  We were all stuffed at this point anyway, as we had all had a ton of food just an hour or two earlier at TGIF, and none of us were actually intending to go out to dinner tonight, it just sorta happened ...  That said, if the panna cotta we had two days ago had still been on the menu, I'm pretty sure we would have ordered it.  I'm so sad that dessert is gone!

Overall, another fantastic meal at Alexander's, and my uni and foie gras cravings are successfully satisfied ... for  few days :)

By the way, the entire menu from the last foie gras dinner is still available at the restaurant for anyone to order.  If you didn't pick up on this fact already, I loved that meal and highly recommend it!
Alexander's Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Appetizers & Desserts @ Alexander's Steakhouse Bar

Alexander's Steakhouse is so much more than a steakhouse!

Tonight I wanted a small meal, to complement the snacks I ended up eating all afternoon at work.  And I wanted it to be delicious.  So we headed to Alexander's Steakhouse, to (gasp!) not have steak.  Or burgers.  Or foie gras.  Or, cooked animal protein of any kind.  Yes, we went to a steakhouse to get raw fish (and dessert of course!)

I've wanted to try the raw fish at Alexander's for a long time, since many people I know have gotten it and really enjoyed it, but I've always been too tempted by everything else on the menu, and have always figured that if I wanted raw fish, I should go to a sushi place.  But as I've learned, Alexander's does just about everything really well, from perfectly seared scallops and foie gras, to the obvious steaks, to the best burger in the city, to the desserts ... it stood to reason that they'd do good raw fish as well!  And since I wanted something lighter, and I'm going to a 6 course foie gras dinner tomorrow night at Lafitte, it seemed like it was finally time!

I'm really glad we tried it.  As expected, the fish was high quality, tasty, paired with creative ingredients, and expertly plated.  And we also tried the final two desserts from the dessert menu that I'd never had before, which turns out to be just in time, since they are changing up the menu very soon to remove the winter dessert (which is too bad, because it was a homerun!  See below for more details).

I won't comment much on Alexander's in general, as you can read about that in my past reviews.  In fact, I didn't even take notes tonight, so this will be a less detailed review than normal, just based on my memories.

We walked in around 7pm, and were able to snag the last 3 seats at the bar.  Comfortable bar stools, purse hooks under the counter, attentive but busy bar staff.  The last time we sat in the bar area we were at a table in the lounge section, and service was not as good.  Sitting at the bar itself was definitely a better experience, and I appreciated the friendly staff as well.

We also got a peek at the menu for their next foie gras dinner, March 30.  ZOMG.  The last foie gras dinner they held was probably my top meal so far this year, and the menu for this next one is off the charts insane.  This one is insane in two ways - first, each course is being prepared by a different Michelin starred chef (David Barzigan from Fifth Floor, Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn, Ken Frank of La Toque, Joseph Elenterio of Chez TJ, along with Alexander's Pastry Chef Dan Huynh and Executive Chef Marc Zimmerman), rather than just by the Alexander's staff.  I knew that already.  But ... this time, the steak entree is Sher full blood wagyu.  ZOMG.  This is pretty much the top cut of beef you can get (it is normally $300 at Alexander's in SF, $275 in Cupertino).  And that is just one of six courses.  The first course is one of Dominque Crenn's famous foie gras logs.  I cannot wait!!!!  Please let me know if you want to join us, and I can add you to the reservation.  This promises to be Legen — wait for it ... — dary.
Butternut squash: maple roasted / five spice marshmallow / crumbled pie crust.  $8.
This came off the sides menu.  I've always found the sides to be Alexander's weakest dishes.  I've basically stopped ordering them, as they are just never that good, and there are so many other things they do well.  But one of my dining companions wanted this, and it did certainly sound like it could be fantastic.  I love squash.  I love marshmallow.  And I love pie.  So, I had hope!

This was basically a fancier version of classic sweet potato casserole: cubed butternut squash in a maple glaze, topped with gooey marshmallow and crumbled pie crust.  The squash was inconsistently cooked, with some pieces much firmer than others.  Overall, it wasn't cooked as much as I like, I prefer softer squash.  There was a plentiful amount of the maple glaze, with the bottom of the bowl basically full of syrup.  Pieces at the bottom were thus much sweeter.  The maple glaze, as expected, went well with the butternut squash.  There wasn't much marshmallow visible to the eye, but it is hard to know how much was there originally, since it melted into the squash and was lost.  I'm not sure how they could achieve this exactly, but I would have liked it to be more solid so I could really enjoy it, as it was, it just was adding more sweetness.  The pie crust added a fun texture, and bites including both the squash and the crust reminded me of classic pumpkin pie.

So this was very creative, reminding me of two of my favorite Thanksgiving dishes rolled into one, but I didn't actually enjoy it much.  Softer, consistently cooked squash and more discernable marshmallow may have turned it into a winner however ...
Kindai Sashimi: bluefin tuna / sudachi / crispy wakame / trout roe / lucky sorrel. $28.
Clearly high quality bluefin.  A few fun textures on the plate from the roe, crispy wakame, and whatever the white balls were.  The tuna was fresh and delicious, and nicely cut.  However, it was sliced so thin it was hard to really get a full mouth full of flavor.  I enjoyed this, but would prefer my bluefin as a thicker slice of nigiri or standard sushi bar sashimi.  I would probably only order this again if I was really craving raw fish at the time, otherwise, I'll get my bluefin at a sushi bar.
Raw trio: hamachi tartare / tako tiradito / tuna tataki  $21.
(I pulled this description from the online menu, but I'm pretty sure we didn't have tako.  I think we had steelhead instead, making them, from top left: Kindai, Hamachi, Steelhead. I also don't have the details of what was mixed in with each of them, since I wasn't taking notes).

Each preparation was entirely different flavor-wise, although each included similar garnishes: radish, fried lotus chips, and some form of roe.  All of the fish was again clearly high quality, fresh, and expertly chopped.

The hamachi tartare was my favorite, by far.  I wish I knew what else was in here.  It was absolutely delicious, creamy even.  It also had some green roe on top that mostly just made it look pretty, they didn't have much flavor.

My second favorite was the one I think was the steelhead, with some big orange roe.  Again, really fresh and delicious.

My least favorite was the tuna, paired with some paddlefish roe.  It wasn't bad, but the sashimi preparation was much more flavorful.

Winter Wonderland: citrus honey panna cotta / pecan /pink lady apple / sudachi /cranberry elixir.  $12.
AMAZING.  Not only was this an absolute beauty, it tasted fantastic.  Unfortunately, since "winter" is over, they told us that this was leaving the menu very soon.  Run, don't walk, there now to get it before it is gone!

I'm not normally a huge panna cotta fan, but this was pretty incredible.  Panna cotta seems like a fairly boring dessert, but this was so much more than just a pudding!  It was more of a panna cotta, mixed with a apple crisp, mixed with an ice cream sundae :)  I'm glad my dining companion wanted this, as it isn't one I'd normally order, given all the other options on the menu.

In the bottom of the glass is the panna cotta.   It was topped with some pecan streusel, whipped cream, rolled up pink lady apple slices, and a white chocolate.  Then, on top of the glass, was a large white chocolate, topped with more whipped cream, some little dots of something, and a tube of "cranberry elixir".  It was a little overwhelming to know where to start.  We removed the white chocolate topper, and had a few bites of the panna cotta mixed with the nuts.  And then squirted on our elixir.  And then moved on to making all sorts of combinations of bites with panna cotta, nuts, whipped cream, white chocolate ... mmm!!!

The panna cotta had a lovely citrus honey flavor and was the absolute perfect consistency.  The pecans complimented it really well, adding a crunch, and more flavor.  Why doesn't all panna cotta come with nuts?  The whipped cream went well with the nuts, but didn't really seem necessary, and was a rather strange texture pairing with the panna cotta, with two soft sweet things together.  The apples also seemed unnecessary, again, pairing well with the whipped cream and nuts, but not really needed with the panna cotta.  They were raw and thus crunchy, which didn't really work either.  I would have preferred them to be cooked, so they would be softer, and have had a slightly different flavor profile (red wine poached would have been really great).  The white chocolate was not too sweet and didn't have that awful fake "white chocolate" flavor to it.  I was pleasantly surprised by it, and actually enjoyed scooping up some panna cotta with it.  The cranberry elixir added a subtle tartness, but there wasn't much of it, so it was lost after the first bite or so with it.

This was really, really good, probably my second favorite dessert of the year so far, second to the amazing peanut butter and chocolate dessert at Commonwealth.  I was pretty much literally licking every last drop of this up.  I could also imagine all sorts of variations on this, with different fruits or nuts.  I want more, now.
White out: steamed meringue / yogurt sphere /marscapone / yuzu curd / coconut.  $12.
This dessert was not as successful.  I ordered it of course for the meringue, as I've been on a serious meringue kick.  I had no idea what to expect from a "steamed meringue".

Like most Alexander's dishes, there were about a zillion components on this plate.  One thing I'm usually very impressed with at Alexander's is that the slew of components tend to come together in amazing ways, with each one heightening the flavor and texture of the others.  And although they use a fair number of mousses/foams/gelees/dusts/etc, they don't feel forced.  That didn't really happen here.  This was really just a bunch of sweet, white, stuff.

On the plate was a few chunks of a pretty flavorless cake.  It wasn't particularly moist nor dry.  It was just there, not adding anything to the dish.  Then there was a sphere of yogurt, which had a really strange consistency, it was really hard to cut into, more gelatinous than it looked.  It also wasn't very flavorful.  The marscapone quenelle was very tasty, but I didn't really know what to eat it with, it didn't really go with anything else.  There was some powder as well, I have no idea what it was.  And a lot of shredded coconut.  A bite of cake, with marscapone and coconut was nice enough, but not very interesting.

The steamed meringue was the large block you see in the photo.  It was light as air, mostly just a foam.  It was so light, you didn't really taste or enjoy it much.  It certainly didn't satisfy my desire for a more traditional meringue, but hey, it was interesting to try yet another form of meringue.  At this point, I've had so many variations on meringue it amuses me to have them all called the same thing, as they are radically, radically different.  Inside of it was the yuzu curd.  The yuzu curd was tart and flavorful, definitely the most interesting thing on the plate.

I really couldn't figure out how to combine all of these pieces in any way that made sense, texture wise or taste wise.
Pina colada cotton candy.
What trip to Alexander's is complete without cotton candy?  I didn't really taste pina colada flavor at all, but it was sweet, airy, and ... cotton candy!
Petit fours: macaron, pâtes de fruit, cookie.
And, because we hadn't had enough dessert ... petit fours!  Yes, we clearly had far more dessert than real food tonight.  Whoops.

The macaron was ok, the cookie not particularly standout, a little too firm and not airy enough.  We thought it might be raspberry flavored, with a nutella filling.  Or maybe peanut and chocolate?  There was a nuttiness to it for sure, and it looked chocolately.

The pâtes de fruit was very flavorful, also I think raspberry flavored.  Good texture, nice sugar coating, about as good as a pâtes de fruit is going to be.

The cookie was coconut and not very good.  Hard, and slightly overcooked.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lunch @ Galette 88

Today we again ventured away from work for lunch, because there was a large influx of visitors in the office.  We headed to another place that has been on my list of places that I've wanted to check out, but due to the fact that it is only open Monday - Friday, 11am - 3pm, have never been.

We went to Galette 88, a fairly new cafe, serving crêpes and only crêpes.  Located near Union Square, but down at the end of an alley, there is no way you'd randomly just stumble into this place.

The savory crêpes are "galettes" (hence the name of the place), served open-faced with a little salad.  The batter is buckwheat based, and contains only buckwheat flour, water, sea salt.  The menu is drool-worthy and has tons of options, with most of the crêpes containing at least one of cheese, flavored cream fraiche, or caramelized onions.  YUM!  There are also some lighter options, including a few vegan ones, using cashew cream and a slew of fresh veggies, or a Mediterranean one with a tomato base.  Or a really interesting sounding one with blue cheese, honey, roasted apples, and toasted almonds, which sounds like it bridges the divide between the savory and sweet offerings.

The sweet crêpes use a batter of eggs, milk, wheat, and sugar and come with all of the standard options: chocolate, banana & nutella, etc and a delicious sounding salted caramel.  We didn't get any sweet crêpes today as we had cupcakes and cookies waiting for us back in the office, but I'd definitely love to try them out next time.

They serve up a variety of beverages to pair along with your crêpe, from ice tea to aqua fresca to wine and champagne to Four Barrel coffee.

The format is completely casual: order at a counter, take your number back to your table, get your own silverware/napkins/mason jar full of water/etc, and your crêpe will be brought to you shortly.  We arrived around 1pm and there was no wait to order, plenty of space to sit, and our crêpes arrived within just a few minutes.

These were my first crêpes (other than ones some friends made) since Ti Couz closed last year!  I used to absolutely love the mushroom, caramelized onion, and cheese crêpe at Ti Couz though ... mmmm.  That mushroom sauce was addicting.

Anyway, the crêpes were good, but not particularly memorable.  I wasn't too big of a fan of the format of the crêpes - the outer edges didn't really have much/any filling and were basically just a double layer of crêpe batter.  Had they actually been filled it would have been fine, but I'd have preferred them not to be open faced at all for better crêpe to filling distribution.

I'd still go back and try a few more combinations, or try the sweet ones, particularly if they were open for brunch on weekends, but I certainly wouldn't go out of my way to go.  I know there are lots of other places in the city serving crêpes that I could check out if I was craving crêpes ... any recommendations?

The Other Mushroom: sautéed mushrooms, parmesan cheese, parmesan crème fraiche, caramelized onions, truffle oil.  $9.50 [add grilled chicken: $2]
This was the one I was most excited about, hoping it would be like my old favorite from Ti Couz.  And to be honest, it sounded even better, including parmesan crème fraiche and truffle oil!  It was my second favorite of the four I tried today.

It was loaded up with assorted mushrooms, that had a nice woodsy flavor to them.  The caramelized onions were delicious and combined perfectly with the mushrooms, but there weren't nearly enough of them. The crème fraiche added a good creamyness.  But the cheese was really lacking, I guess because there was just some parmesan, not a base of swiss style cheese. I really didn't like the grilled chicken, it didn't have a very good flavor on its own and it really overpowered the mushrooms.  And of course, this didn't have the amazing mushroom sauce from Ti Couz, which was what I really loved about their mushroom, onion, and cheese crepe.  Oh well, still on the lookout for a new version of that!

I'd perhaps get this again, but definitely not get the chicken, and explicitly ask for more of the onions.  Although, more likely, I'd get the "La Basique", the simple basic version of emmentaler cheese and caramelized onions ($7) and add in the sautéed mushrooms for an additional $1.
The Lumberjack: taleggio cheese, caramelized onions, potatoes, crème fraîche, ham.  $10.
My third favorite.  This one had some fun flavors and textures going on.  The ham was in small chunks and had a nice smokeyness to it, and also added a good salt level.  The potatoes were lightly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.  A lot of brunches include some form of potato on the side, and these totally reminded me of that, just all built into the main dish.  They were pretty tasty, although not something I'd think of having in a crepe.  The caramelized onions were again delicious, and went really well with the potatoes.  And some crème fraîche too?  Sure!
Bruce’s choice : smoked salmon, caramelized onions, avocado, capers, lemon-chive crème fraiche.  $9.50.
Bruce's choice?  Also known as Julie's choice!  This was the winner of the day for me.

This was very simple and by far the lightest of the four I tried, as it had no cheese.  The smoked salmon had a great smokey flavor and seemed to be pretty high quality.  It combined beautifully with the capers and lemon-chive crème fraiche.  As much as I love caramelized onions, they didn't really seem to go with this very well.  The avocado was a little disappointing, just a few little slices on top.  Like I said, simple, and exactly what you'd expect, but good.
The Complete: emmentaler cheese, ham, soft-cooked egg.  $8
After having the Lumberjack, this one just seemed boring.  They did use different cheese, and this one had bigger slices of ham, but the potatoes and onions and crème fraîche were just so much more interesting than an egg.  I know this is a classic, but it was boring!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dinner @ Crustacean

One of my dining companions has been wanting to go to Crustacean to get "An's Famous Garlic Noodles" for year.  Since I started the dining club, I think he has suggested it at least once a week.  After last night's dinner at The House, we were left still craving garlic noodles, as their version wasn't that great.  Crustacean is also known for their roast crab, and I'm always craving crab.  And to complete the picture, their third most popular dish is their Baked Alaska.  Which, if you read my posts regularly, you know how I feel about meringue.  It was time to finally go to Crustacean!

Crustacean has been open since 1991, and is the sister restaurant to Thanh Long, which has been open since 1971.  This is ages in restaurant years, so they must be doing something right! As mentioned, their noodles are famous, as are their roasted crabs.  They are apparently prepared in a separate secret kitchen that only family members are allowed in, with a recipe stored in a vault.  Or something like that.  Hype?  Yes!

The restaurant is fairly fancy, with cloth tablecloths and napkins and nice place settings.  More formal and stuffy feeling than I was expecting.  It was a somewhat strange contrast to the outside location, located within a mall, in an ugly concrete building.  It is an even stranger contrast when they bring you plastic bibs and paper napkins to handle the mess you'll soon be making.  I'm glad that they acknowledged the reality of eating crabs :)

We had done our research prior to arrival, so we knew that even though the menu was extensive, there were only a few things we should order.  Pretty much every single review I read said that the appetizers, while they all sounded awesome, were totally forgettable.  As was every other main dish, besides the noodles and crabs.  And all desserts besides the baked alaska.  Thus, that was our order (with a few more things thrown in, see below).

The food was all good, but obviously, very, very heavy.  All butter.  So much butter.  You certainly need to be in the mood for this type of food in order to enjoy it.  See photos below for detailed reviews of the dishes.

The astute reader may be thinking, "But Julie, you went to get seafood on a Monday night?  What were you thinking?  Of course it won't be great!"  Back when crab season started, I called around to all of the places that featured crab to find out if they were serving local Dungeness.  I found out that Crustacean never serves fresh local Dungeness, they always use frozen crab (and frozen shrimp), so the fact that it was Monday didn't really matter at all.  Keep this in mind if you want seafood on a Monday sometime!

The service was ok.  Food came ridiculously fast ... less than 10 minutes after ordering.  As every single table in the place was ordering these dishes, they clearly just prepare tons of them and are ready to pump them out rapid fire.  An unfortunate consequence of this is that the food came before our champagne, which our dining club drink expert had picked out to go with our shellfish.  While I appreciate the food coming quickly in some ways, it would have been nice to have had some time to settle in, have a few sips of champagne, etc before digging into the crab.  Because once the crab arrived, time was ticking!  It takes time and effort to extract the crab meat, but it most delicious when hot, so it is a fight against the clock to get the meat out before it cools down.  No time for relaxing or conversing!  Another service weakness was that our bottle of champagne apparently ran out, and the waitress didn't mention this to us, nor ask if we wanted more.  I noticed my dining companions had empty glasses and inquired, and then she told us it was gone.  Otherwise, service was fine, with bowls for shells being replaced as they got filled up, extra paper napkins brought out when needed, etc.

As much work as it is, I really do enjoy the experience of cracking a crab and extracting the meat.  There is something really fun about having to work for your food, and really getting down and dirty (and dirty I got ... my part of the table was totally covered in sauce by the time I was done, as were my hands, arms, etc.  Luckily, they brought us wet towels at the end of the meal to clean up!)  Even if I wasn't in love with the food, the whole experience was quite enjoyable!

This isn't a cuisine that I'm crazy about, so it isn't high on my return list, but I'd go back if in the mood for this sort of food.  I'd also like to check out their sister restaurant to compare as well, and go back to PPQ Dungeness Island, which I went to several years ago for crab and garlic noodles.  Mostly though, this just left me wishing it was January again, so I could go get the roasted crab at Camino.  Now THAT is some good roast crab!

My dining buddies, showing off their bibs.
I had to appreciate the bibs.  They come around and offer not only to give you bibs, but to tie them on for you.  Service!
The Roast Crab: butter, garlic, and spices.  AQ - $39.50.
The famous roasted crab.  As you can tell, there was a lot of butter here!  If you just wanted buttery crab, there was no reason to add more sauce, as it was completely infused with butter already.  I'm not really sure how they managed to get so much butter inside!  Unfortunately, I didn't get much garlic flavor when I just ate the crab this way and the crab itself wasn't that flavorful, (or perhaps the flavor was just masked by the butter), so I didn't find this all that enjoyable.  However, there was a ton of the sauce on the plate, and it had a nice strong garlic flavor, so dipping the crab as you extracted it into the sauce was the way to go.  Of course, that just made it buttery-er.  The sauce was pretty delicious, and I can imagine dipping bread in it would have been fantastic.

Overall this was good, but just not really my thing.  Too much butter for my taste and you really didn't get to taste the crab much at all.

At some level, I was comparing this to the roast crab I had at Camino in January.  Camino roasts the crab over an open fire, seasons it with some herbs, and it is absolutely fantastic.  They only serve it during local crab season, so the crab is fresh and absolutely delicious, and the more simple preparation really allows you to taste the sweet crab meat.  The open fire also imparts a fantastic roast smokiness to the crab, which this one was lacking.  It could easily have been steamed.
Royal Tiger Prawns: butterflied and charbroiled, served with An's Garlic noodles.
You can order just a side of the famous garlic noodles, or you can get them topped with some grilled prawns.  From my extensive research, I saw that while most people just ordered the noodles, repeat customers recommended getting the ones with the prawns to enjoy the grilled prawns as well.

The noodles were well cooked and loaded up with the garlic butter sauce.  It seemed like it was probably the same sauce, or at least very similar to, the sauce from the roast crab.  Buttery, oily, and garlicky.  This was good enough, but I think just not really my thing.  I'm not that big into noodles, and this just felt heavy and greasy.

I'm glad we added on the prawns.  While they weren't anything amazing, they did have a really nice grilled, smokey flavor, that I found lacking from the crab.  They were pretty butter covered as well though, which I could have done without, particularly as everything else was so heavy.
Tamarind Crab: Whole roasted crab in a sweet and sour sauce of tomatoes, fresh dill, Vietnamese chili, tamarind, fresh herbs, and cognac.   $39.50.
This was the dish of the evening for me.  Even though the garlic and butter roast crab is what they are known for, I'd dug pretty deeply into reviews, and found that people who were really into crab recommended the tamarind version as well.  I'm very glad I had read that, as I would have never ordered this otherwise.  And I'm glad my dining companions let me just order this, even though it wasn't the signature item.

This version felt much lighter.  The sauce was a tomato based sweet and sour sauce.  If you just ate a piece of the crab without adding extra sauce, it was particularly light and just had a lovely tomato and herb flavor.  While you still couldn't taste the crab itself much at all, I really liked these flavors, so didn't mind.  If you loaded it up with extra sauce, you really lost the crab in it, but it was amazingly sweet and delicious.  I loved this sauce, and either dipped every piece of crab meat I extracted into it, or even extracted a bunch and then spooned tons of extra sauce on top of it.  It made me wish I had some rice or something else to soak up more sauce with.  That said, it was pretty sweet and thick, sort of like a glaze, and so if you don't like sweet sauces, this certainly wouldn't be for you.
Baked alaska: Chocolate cake, caramel ice cream, chocolate mousse, meringue, with bananas foster.  $9.50.
I knew what I was getting into from reading reviews, but this description is just all lies!  Baked alaska with bananas foster?  Um no.

The "baked alaska" was a chocolate cake layer, with a thick caramel ice cream layer, with a thin chocolate mousse layer, and some toasted meringue on top.  As the meringue was just a topping, and wasn't warm at all, it was pretty clear that this was never baked.  That said, it was the soft form of meringue that I love, so I'm glad it was done this way.

This dish combined was better than the individual components on their own.  I'm pretty sure this whole thing just came out of the freezer.  The chocolate cake was really dry and flavorless.  Not very good at all.  The caramel ice cream had strange icy chunks throughout, wasn't creamy, and didn't have much caramel flavor.  Also, not very good.  The mousse wasn't light and fluffy, just a layer of chocolate pudding, and was too thin to really taste.  The meringue was soft and fluffy, but way too sweet, much more like a marshmallow.  That all said, if you got a bite with all of the components together, it was fairly satisfying and certainly sweet.

The "bananas foster" was just some sliced banana with caramel sauce.  The bananas were not cooked, were not caramelized, not flambéed.  There was no rum.  Meh to plain sliced bananas.  I liked the caramel sauce.

Overall, nothing really noteworthy here, but the dessert lover in me was somewhat satisfied, and I do love my meringue :)
Fried banana a la mode.  $8.50.
My dining companions wanted another dessert.  This was the only other one that people had really recommended.  I thought it was pretty bad.

There was way, way too much batter on the banana.  You couldn't really taste the banana at all, just lots of fried batter.  The shell wasn't very crispy and because the batter layer was so thick, it was really soggy.  And it tasted just like old oil.

The ice cream was just vanilla ice cream, not creamy, not very vanilla flavored, just plain ice cream.  About as generic as you can get.

The only thing I enjoyed about this was the fact that it was warm, and I love desserts that have a warm component contrasting with cold ice cream (a warm fruit crisp/crumble/cobler/pie with ice cream ... sooo good!)

Sadness, as this could have been really good, had the ice cream been better, the batter been better, and perhaps with some chocolate sauce and whipped cream too ...

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dinner @ The House

Tonight I wanted something different ... not foie gras, not fine dining, something just casual and tasty.  So, we went to The House, an asian fusion restaurant in North Beach that has been on my list of places to check out for ages.  They have over 2,000 Yelp reviews, with a 4.5 star average.  That is kinda insane.  As much as I don't necessarily trust the Yelpers, with that many reviews and that high of an average, it seemed like there was no way it wouldn't be good.

I went with high expectations, and as always, a plan on what we'd order based on the reviews.  I was very excited, particularly for their signature crème brûlée, as you may recall I've been on a quest for good crème brûlée for a while now.  We ordered all of the dishes the Yelpers rave about, plus all of the ones that appealed to me that also had good reviews.

Presentation was fairly elaborate for a casual place and this price point, with layered components and things sticking out.  Portions were generous for all courses, not skimpy individual sized appetizers or desserts, clearly designed for sharing.

They are known for their sauces, and as expected, they were the main focus of the dishes, with most dishes either coming with a dipping sauce or containing several different sauces on the plate.  Almost every dish had some sort of roe included as well.

The food and service matched the price and casual nature of the place.  Everything was fine, but nothing was all that memorable.  Everything was cooked well enough, no major execution issues, but we all agreed that we get food just as good daily at work.  Service was fine, we waited maybe 15 minutes to be seated even though we had a reservation, water glasses were refilled, share plates brought, dishes cleared quickly, etc.  Food came quickly once we ordered, this was not a meal for lingering around, as they had a constant line of people at the door.

I wouldn't be opposed to going back if someone really wanted to, but I have no real reason to return.  I certainly would not rate it 4.5 stars.  And it was really heavy - the appetizers very deep fried, the mains very oily, and the desserts creamy.  Ooph.

Pickled squash with sesame seeds.
Complimentary little starter brought to us right after we ordered.  This portion was for 4 people to share, which was tiny and a little strange, given that there were just 7 pieces.  It didn't really matter, as no one really wanted it.  Very, very tangy and not particularly interesting.
Ahi tuna tartare with roasted nori chips.
It is hard to see in this photo, but this was a three layer tower of the chips with tuna on the center ends.  Nice plating.  Underneath the tower was a little cucumber and carrot slaw, and on top was a radish and some roe.  The sauces on the plate were very pretty, but not very flavorful, I couldn't really identify what was in them.  The tuna was decent quality and had a better flavor to it than a lot of the tuna I've had at mediocre sushi places lately.  It was coated with a wasabi sauce that gave it a little kick and added some good flavor.  The chips were crisp on the exposed layers, but soggy where the tuna was.  Given how quickly this dish arrived, I almost wondered if they had some of these pre-assembled already.  It seems surprising that the chip would get that soggy that fast, and it was hard to eat the soggy chip.

Overall fine, but it just made me want the ahi tuna appetizer from Boulevard again.
Deep-fried salmon roll with chinese hot mustard.
This is their signature appetizer and the one that the Yelpers all go crazy about.  Four pieces (2 small, 2 large) of the roll, cut on the bias, leaning up against each other.  Served on top of a slaw, with dipping sauce on the side.

The spring roll had a nice crispy fried exterior, and as you can see, the salmon was cooked on the outside layer but still fairly raw on the inside.  I liked the contrast of the crunch of the fried shell and the softer fish inside, and the contrast of the two doneness levels of the fish.  There was a generous amount of fish in this dish.  The slaw was fresh and crunchy, and had a bit of a kick to it and included some roe which added a nice crunch.  The sauce that everyone just absolutely raves about was a thin mustard sauce, made hot from wasabi.  It was definitely flavorful, but I can't say I understand the hype, nor did I think it went particularly well with the salmon.  Still, a creative dish and again nicely plated.
Maine crab cake with pickled ginger remoulade.
Uh.  Crab ... cake?  More like crab volcano.  Also on the plate was more of the flavorless pretty green and yellow sauce we saw with the tuna tartar, the remoulade, some sauteed scallions, some more roe (because as we realized at this point, every dish needs roe!), and a fried thing sticking out on top.  Cute plating ...

I love crab, I love mayo based sauces, and I love crab cakes.  So we ordered this one mostly because I really wanted crab cakes, and because it did get good reviews.  This form factor didn't work very well, as it turns out, crab cakes are normally cakes for a reason - the surface area to filling ratio is important.  While the outside of this was nice and crispy, the inside was just super mushy.  The crab meat inside was all shredded and mixed with filler, no lump meat.  It wasn't particularly well spiced and you couldn't taste the crab really, even when eating a bite of just inside without fried exterior to mask the flavor.  The ramoulade helped, but it too was really lacking any real flavors.  For a place known for its sauces and flavors, I was pretty surprised by how bland this was, particularly given how it looked like it should have more intense flavors.  The roe and fried thing were mostly just decoration and didn't add anything to the dish.
Miso black cod
Yes, the cod was topped with a california roll.  And more of the fried things.  Interesting.  Also on the plate, under the fish, was some sauteed gai lan.  This wasn't on the main menu and was a special, but it sounds like it is pretty much always available.

This was my favorite dish of the evening.  The fish was nicely cooked, with a very crisp exterior, yet very moist and flaky inside.  The sauce was awesome and totally made the dish.  This is much more of what I was expecting from the place!  I really wished I'd had some bread or something to lap up more of this sauce.  I used the fried things, but they didn't work all that well.

The california roll was such a strange thing to have included on this plate.  Cold sushi on top of hot fish?  Heat was transfered into the roll, making the rice strangely warm and the nori soggy.  I can't say I understand why on earth they put these things together.  While this wasn't a particularly good california roll at all, crab mixed with mayo?  I'm all in.

The gai lan went well with the fish and I was glad to have a veggie side, although this was so covered in sauce and sauteed it didn't exactly lighten the dish up any.
Grilled sea bass with garlic ginger soy, sauteed snap peas, garlic noodles.
And the signature, much raved about, main dish.  I didn't like this much at all.

The snap peas were just oily, although well cooked.  I guess I'm biased because I had some really great simply steamed snap peas last week, ones that really allowed the flavor of the fresh peas to shine, and I was saddened by all the flavor of the vegetable getting lost in the greasiness here.

The noodles were also well cooked, al dente, but again, just oily and greasy.  They didn't have much flavor at all.

The fish didn't have much flavor on its own and was a rather strange texture, very soft.  The much raved about sauce was necessary to make anything of this, but I found it just rather salty and not that great.  I didn't detect much garlic or ginger.

I wish I'd skipped this dish.
Seared scallops.
This dish was also a special, and technically an appetizer, but we had it as a main.  Also on the plate was more of our favorite flavorless pretty sauce, a radish with some more roe, and microgreens.  What, no fried things sticking out?

The scallops were decently cooked.  I prefer a better seared crust and a more rare interior, but I didn't expect that caliber of execution here.  For the price, these were definitely well cooked and had a decent sweet flavor.  The sauce and microgreens didn't really add anything to the dish.

This dish normally comes with 3 scallops, but since there were 4 of us, the waitress asked if we wanted 4 of them.  I was already planning on asking for that, but I was glad she noticed and offered!
Mango tapioca pudding.
Ok Yelpers, you lose.  So many people described this as the best tapioca pudding they'd ever had.  People talk about just ordering it to go whenever they want awesome dessert and don't want to eat out.  We all know that I love desserts, and pudding is no exception.  Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for this, as I've had a lot of pudding in the last few days, but I really didn't think it was good.

Given the name, I was expecting a mango flavored pudding.  Instead, this was a plain pudding, with medium size tapioca balls, topped with a creamy sauce and a mango sauce.  It was pretty!  But ... the tapioca was all sorta gloopy and clumped together, and not distributed throughout the pudding.   The pudding itself was flavorless.  There was TONS of the overly sweet creamy sauce (evaporated milk perhaps?).  The mango sauce was actually really good, but there was very little of it.  Very disappointing.

No one else at the table liked this at all, and they weren't even really willing to give it a chance, so I ended up eating pretty much the entire thing myself.  I kept hoping and wanting it to be something better.  And when I got a bite with the mango sauce, it was *almost* good, so I kept having more.  I was totally stuffed at this point, and really reget finishing this.  I'm grumpy at this pudding!
Coconut crème brûlée.
And ... the moment we've all been waiting for.  The crème brûlée!  As previously mentioned, I've been on a crème brûlée quest lately.  And this gets pretty great reviews.  After a fairly lackluster meal however, I had re-set my expectations.

I was nervous and slightly anxious to take the first bite.  From a glance, it looked like it had a very thick, very caramelized sugar topping, exactly how I like it.  I took my spoon, and tapped on it.  It didn't break through.  Yes!  It was indeed a thick layer.  Several taps later and I had my first spoonful ready.  The custard immediately under the shell was warm!  The shell had a delicious, slightly bitter, burnt caramel flavor!  Score!  This part was better executed than all other crème brûlées I have had in recent memory.

The custard itself wasn't particularly noteworthy.  It claimed to be "coconut crème brûlée", but I didn't taste any coconut whatsoever.  It was just kinda standard plain custard, slightly thicker than a pudding, but not quite as thick as I'd like.  But without the coconut or more common vanilla flavoring, it was a little boring. I didn't mind that much however, as the caramelized sugar chunks added plenty of flavor.

The crème brûlée is also normally topped with a passionfruit puree, but we had one diner who does not like passionfruit, so we got that on the side.  It was really quite good.  Had this actually been coconut flavored, I could see the passionfruit and the coconut going together really well.  As it was, I enjoyed it with bites of the custard that didn't have any sugar shell, but didn't think that it combined with the burnt caramel flavor very well.

I wish they made a vanilla bean version of this.  I'd go back, even if I didn't order anything else!
The House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Dinner @ Fifth Floor

Late on Friday afternoon, one of my co-workers mentioned that we had some visitors from Tokyo in town, and suggested that we do a team dinner.  Of course, my help was enlisted to pick a suitable place and book it.  This was quite the task, as there would be ~14 people, and Tokyo is known for its fine cuisine.  And after a quick poll, we determined that Tuesday was the only night everyone could attend.  Where would I possibly find a good place on such short notice?

Luckily, I have a master list of places that might be good for groups or private dining, and on Monday afternoon, I spent a few minutes calling around.  Many places were not open on Mondays and thus were immediately ruled out as I couldn't get in touch with anyone.  Most others only had availability at 5pm or 10pm.  But, somehow, the Fifth Floor had their private room available, which could seat 14 people, and because it was for a slow Tuesday, they'd let us order a la carte.  And their online menu sounded fantastic, and I've been wanting to go for quite a while, as their new-ish executive chef has been getting good reviews, and their pastry chef has won a bunch of awards recently (and I got to see him do a cooking demo and sample his food at a cooking demo a few weeks ago, where he made the best beignets I'd ever had!)

Unfortunately, the meal didn't live up to my expectations.  Some of the dishes I was most excited about from the online menu were not actually available (which I totally understand, boring winter vegetables had been switched out for asparagus and more seasonal items).  But overall, while the food was all fine, it just wasn't anything special, and certainly not justified for the price point.

The private room was the perfect fit for us, sectioned off from the main dining room, and providing us the ability to do our own thing (read: be dressed like software engineers and not like the rest of the clientele!). Service was ok, with bread and water readily replenished, and plates all brought out at once for the table.

There were a bunch of little missing things that did surprise me however, given the price point and reputation of the restaurant - no palette cleanser before desserts, no napkin refolding when I left for the bathroom, no share plates offered when people mentioned splitting dishes, very long waits between courses, crappy bread service, desserts brought before coffee/tea/dessert wines, etc.  No major offenses, but these added up to make the experience not feel nearly as smooth as I'd expect.  Perhaps it was mostly due to being in the private room, but I'm not sure.

Overall, the food was ... fine.  No clear execution issues, but nothing was particularly good, and I certainly feel no need to go back (except that I do want to try their burger sometime, served only in the lounge).  Several dishes had some pretty serious issues with over salting.  The sauces were the highlight of most of the dishes.  The menu was designed as 4 courses (2 appetizer style, 1 entree, 1 dessert), and I arranged to share with a few neighbors, each of us ordering different 4 courses, so I got to try 12 different dishes, plus the amuse and extra desserts.  That is more than 2/3 of the menu, so I'm pretty sure I got a pretty representative sample of the menu!  Also: very full!

Bread and butter.
The bread was sourdough, very sour, with a nice crust and decent chew to it, but pretty mediocre.  Served cold.  Placed on our plates without any word.  Butter was creamy, sweet, and actually quite good, with a little salt on top.  I really didn't care for this bread at all.  For a restaurant of this caliber, I expected choices and/or warm bread ... something.

Amuse bouche: Carrot foam and blood orange granita.
This was a really strange choice for an amuse.  The foam didn't really taste like carrot and I would have never identified it as such if they hadn't told us it was.  The granita did have a citrus flavor to it.  The contrast of the cold granules of granita and the soft foam was interesting, but this lacked any real interesting flavors and seemed really out of place.  It would be more appropriate as a palette cleanser before dessert, or perhaps between courses.

We waited a very long time before our first course, with it arriving well over an hour after we sat down.  Granted, we took a while to order, but this felt pretty extreme, particularly the time between the amuse and the first course.

Kanpachi Taradito: jalapeno, rhubarb, cilantro, puffed rice.  $17.
The fish was decent quality, firm, not fishy, but the sushi restaurants I go to tend to have much higher quality raw fish.  The fish didn't have much flavor itself, and I didn't really pick up on any of the accents on the plate, no jalapeno or rhubarb really showing through.  This was also way too salty.

Island Creek Oysters Five Ways: béarnaise & caviar, fried with rouille, cucumber, chowder, mignonette.  $20.
There was a classic oyster with mignonette, a warm baked oyster with béarnaise sauce, a fried oyster with rouille sauce, a chowder shooter, and a raw oyster with cucumber granita.  A bunch of people at the table ordered this, and all were fairly unsatisfied, agreeing that the best one was the classic preparation.  I had only the baked oyster.  It was lukewarm and had way too much béarnaise that completely masked the oyster.  It was basically just a bunch of not very flavorful béarnaise and was overly salty.

Mariscos a la Vasca: heart of palm, leek, caviar, salsa verde.  $17.
This dish was an assortment of cooked seafood, including calamari, crab, baby squid, mussels.  It was served warm and the seafood was all cooked nicely, nothing rubbery or tough.  The heart of palm was the most interesting, stuffed with something.  The salsa verde didn't have much flavor.  No flavors really stood out here, and although I can't complain about how anything was cooked, there was really just nothing interesting going on here.

And that concluded course one.  I found the format of this meal to be a little strange, the waiter telling us that we should all get four courses, and that the first set was mostly salad style, then more standard appetizers, then mains, then desserts, but I think this was way too much food and we really could have combined the first two courses.

Hot and Cold Foie Gras: kiwi, hazelnut, vin jaune, vadouvan, broiche.  $22.
My favorite dish of the evening.  And no, I'm not sick of foie gras yet!  There was a seared chunk of foie gras, two slices of a house made terrine, kiwi three ways: a slice of kiwi and two different kiwi sauces, toasted hazelnuts, and some small slices of toasted brioche.  I really liked the thicker kiwi sauce and thought it complimented the foie gras beautifully, both in terms of the texture and flavor, with its sweetness balancing out the richness of the foie.  The seared piece was pretty standard, creamy, but not very flavorful or warm (perhaps this is just a negative side effect of group dining).  The weakest seared foie gras I've had anywhere recently.  The terrine was creamy and flavorful, fairly mild, perhaps my favorite terrine that I have had.  The hazelnuts didn't really add anything.  A piece of brioche, spread with some of the terrine, a tiny slice of fresh kiwi, and dunked in kiwi sauce was was pretty fantastic.  I really, really liked that kiwi sauce, and found myself eating up a bunch of the extra bread that I didn't care for, just to dunk it in the sauce once my other components ran out and sauce remained on the plate.

Mendocino Uni Flan: dungeness crab, saffron, sichuan pepper, kaffir lime.  $15.
This was the dish I was most excited about heading into the meal.  I've been on a serious uni kick lately, craving it nonstop, even though I've had it in a slew of preparations, such as standard nigiri at a bunch of sushi restaurants (Kiss Seafood, Ryoko's), as a side with kampachi at Michael Mina, in risotto at Chotto, and even served with quail egg in a "Spoonful of Happiness" at Koo or with oysters, roe, and gold leaf at Kabuto.  In particular, I've been really into different uni custard dishes lately, like the warm egg custard topped with uni at Commonwealth and the uni crème brûlée at Quince.

This dish was a creamy uni pudding, with little bits of rutabega, topped with more uni, a few small chunks of crab, and a foam.  The pudding had a fairly strong uni flavor and was a nice consistency, but I preferred both the flavor and consistency of the uni crème brûlée at Quince.  The crunchy bits of rutabega were unexpected and I enjoyed them for the textural contrast.  The extra uni and crab chunks were welcome additions, both things I always enjoy, although not particularly noteworthy (the uni wasn't that creamy or flavorful, the crab wasn't that sweet).  I am not really sure what the foam was.  Overall, an interesting dish for sure, and I enjoyed it.

Not pictured was the final dish I tried in round 3: Brillat-Savarin Ravioli, with hedgehogs, sage, brown butter, pistou, hazelnuts, sylvetta.  $14.  This was a dish that the Yelpers all rave about, and sounded amazing ... ravioli stuffed with a triple cream?  ZOMG!  The pasta was well cooked and the cheese creamy as expected.  I love wild mushrooms, so I liked those as well.  I only got a bite of this however, not enough to base a full review on.  I'd love to try it again to get a better sense.

Butter Poached Maine Lobster: riesling, brassicas, cara cara, nigella seeds, fines herbs. $42
This looked awesome.  I loved how they reassembled the lobster meat.  So cute.  Unfortunately, it looked better than it tasted, particularly the lobster (I tend to feel this way about lobster ... I think perhaps I just don't like lobster that much since I've been spoiled by really good local Dungeness crab, which is just so much more flavorful).  The lobster meat was on the rubbery side and lacked any real flavor (besides the butter from being poached in it).  Also on the plate was an assortment of winter vegetable slices, some of which were pickled and really vinegary (which was a strange pairing with the warm lobster) and some of which were just sauteed in more butter and sauce.  These veggies were really well cooked and I gobbled them up, particularly the little cabbages.  There was also a creamy sauce on the plate that was quite delicious, that I soaked up with my leftover bread.

Leftover lobster meat - > lobster slider!
Protip: I ended up bringing some of this home as I was getting completely stuffed at this point and wasn't loving this dish, and really wanted to save room for dessert.  I re-purposed it the next day as a lobster roll and it was amazing.  I simply chopped up the cold lobster meat, which was already covered in butter and delicious sauce, added some mayo, chopped celery, onion, and cucumber and threw it on a toasted and buttered a brioche bun.  It was really delicious and a thousand times better than how it was served at the restaurant.  Which ... perhaps makes sense given all the butter and mayo.

Roasted Venison Loin: pain d' epices, celery root, pear, foi gras, chestnut, venison jus.  $35.
Wow, a lot going on on this plate.  Two types of powders, a foam, a sauce.  The venison was really tender and flavorful and not at all gamey.  The chestnut and the celery root were both very crunchy and I didn't really like them.  I guess the flavors paired ok with the venison, but they were hard to cut and just not that interesting.  The crostini was delicious, with a rich molasses flavor that complimented the foie gras in one of the powders and in the foam.  While the venison was good, my favorite part was certainly just topping the crostini with the assorted sauces/foams/powders.  And once I ran out of crostini, using my leftover bread to lap up the sauce.  Are we noticing a theme here?  They have a good saucier!

Roasted Black Bass: sunchoke, baby fennel, black olive, satsuma, cabernet-honey vinaigrette.  $31.
This was a very nicely cooked piece of fish.  Tender, flaky, and with an amazingly crispy skin.  Seriously, the skin was delicious.  I also enjoyed the cooked baby fennel.  I was drawn to this dish as opposed to the other seafood dishes on the menu because I like olive tapanade and those sorts of mediterranean flavors with seafood, and this had those components, although not quite as strongly as I would have liked.  There was something way too salty in one of the sauces, but like the other main dishes, it did have one delicious, flavorful sauce with it, which I again soaked up with my bread.  My notes from the evening list this delicious sauce several times :)

Protip: I also ended up taking a little of this home with me, and I was surprised by how well it reheated, just in the toaster oven at 400 degrees for a few minutes.  I was seriously skeptical that it would be worth even trying to reheat, but it stayed moist and tender and even more amazingly, the skin stayed crispy.

And that concluded our entrees.  Next up: desserts!  I was so, ridiculously full at this point (and a little annoyed at the waiter for stressing that everyone should order four courses as they were sized designed in that way.  This was a ton of food, and I didn't think ANY of the portions were really downsized to tasting menu style.  Which is what I had read on Yelp beforehand, but both the waiter and other staff I talked to said to order this much ...).  But, I love dessert and I'd heard so many great things about the pastry chef, there was no way I was skipping this course!

Service flopped here a little.  The desserts arrived before the after dinner drinks.  I like to have my bitter coffee WITH my dessert to balance out the sweetness.  The decaf coffee was actually really good, served in an individual french press.  I sorta didn't believe it was decaf!

Turon of Banana: black sesame, cherimoya sorbet, calamansi curd, banana pudding.  $12.
I didn't entirely know what I was ordering ... what is a turon?  (Answer: a Philippine snack of fried banana filled spring rolls!)  What is calamansi? (Answer: a citrus fruit).  I enjoyed the little spring roll chunks, filled with warm, sugary, caramelized banana.  The calamansi curd was just meh and the cherimoya sorbet was mostly just sweet and didn't compliment the other flavors on the dish.  I didn't taste any black sesame, but I think it was in the artful drizzle on the plate.  I'm not sure what the crisp was, but it was basically a little cookie that I used to scoop up the drops of banana pudding, which was pretty tasty.  In fact, I probably would have preferred a bowl of that on its own.  While I liked the little drops of pudding and the spring rolls, they weren't that special, and I wouldn't get this again.

Roasted Apple Cake: Calvados mousseline, hibiscus sorbet, pine nut nougatine, buddha’s hand confit. $12.
The star of this dish was the hibiscus sorbet.  It was sweet but had a really nice flavor.  The apple cake was really, really forgettable.  Just some slices of kinda mushy apple, with a little flavorless cream, and some pine nuts.  Also on the plate was some fairly tasty budha's hand confit and some fried strands of something.

Milk Chocolate Mousse Bombe: passion fruit curd, green tea génoise, chestnut ice cream, chestnut purée, passion fruit glass.  $12.
I only had a bite (ok, two bites) of this, since it belonged to my neighbor who made it very clear that he didn't want to share.  I tried to bargin with my apple cake or banana dessert, but wasn't very successful. This was a chocolately mousse, covered in a thick chocolate layer.  The mousse was creamy and delicious.  The green tea genoise was also awesome, with a fantastic green tea flavor.  If I could handle caffeine in the evenings, or if my neighbor had been willing to give me more, I'd gladly have consumed much more of this!  Far and away the best dessert.

This was a little awkward.  They brought 3 of these stands of assorted little bites for the table.  Each stand had 6 items on it.  There were 13 of us, with some people being fairly close friends and others co-workers who we had just met.  There was cultural politeness going on.  And everyone was stuffed.  So no one was really touching them.  It was killing me, even though I was stuffed and had just consumed all the other desserts, I could resist these.  So, I got to have them all.  You snooze, you loose folks!

There were two chocolate truffles, one rolled in nuts and the other in cocoa powder.  They were both creamy and flavorful and really quite good.  I've had a ton of chocolates lately (particularly in the past few days since going to the SF Chocolate Salon) and these were better than most of the fresh truffles I've had.

Then there was a gelee of some sort and a mexican wedding cookie/russion tea cake/buttery nutty shortbread rolled in powdered sugar.  The gelee was just sweet and I couldn't identify what flavor it was.  Meh.  The cookie was quite delicious, with tons of butteryness and nuttyness, and of course incredibly sweet from the powdered sugar.  It went very well with my coffee.

Finally, there was a lemon bar and a pecan bar.  The lemon layer was sweet and had a strong tart lemon flavor, served on top of a shortbread.  It was decent, but not really my sort of thing.  The pecan bar was awesome, like a little tiny pecan pie.

These were a great ending to the meal!