Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dinner @ Chef's Counter at Boulevard

[ Originally posted February 8, 2012 ]
Tonight's dinner was a low key meal at the bar at Boulevard.

Boulevard, like Prospect, is a restaurant I want to love. It would be sooo nice if I did, as it is only 2 blocks away, and the menu always sounds fantastic. The ingredients are all high quality. Everything is executed well. Yet ... it just doesn't come together for me. Some of it is certainly the price point, as the dishes are all good, but not at the level of the pricing (starters are $18-30, mains $30-45, desserts $11), particularly given portion size. I am not complaining about the portion size, I think they are actually really great sizes, but certainly smaller than most places and there is something crazy about paying $22 for a tiny little pasta appetizer (see photos).

I do absolutely love the ambiance. The formal dining room is gorgeous, but then there are several bar areas that are for walk ins. The standard bar area is just a bar with seating, then there are some small tables in the bar area, and then there is another bar overlooking the open kitchen. Seated there, you can watch all of the action. I'm fascinated by restaurant operations, so I love open kitchens. We were seated right in front of the pastry station, so we got to watch each and every dessert get constructed and sent out. OMG, they have some great looking desserts! And I must say, every single employee in that kitchen was working hard, constantly moving, plating up dishes so ridiculously quickly. It certainly operates like a finely tuned machine.

Overall, it was good and certainly convenient, but not worth the price. I'm sure I'll go back, if only because I want to try more of the amazing desserts I spent the whole night watching! (I also really want to go for lunch sometime, as the lunch menu sounds fantastic!)
Amuse bouche: chia seed cracker, greek yogurt, salmon roe, olive oil, scallions.
I love it when bar/lounge dining includes these extras! This was surprisingly tasting AND fun to eat! I enjoyed dipping the cracker into the yogurt and making a perfect bite with a salmon roe on it as well. The cracker had a nice rich flavor provided by the chia seeds.

Definitely a winner and very flavorful, it certainly woke up my palate!

MONTEREY RED ABALONE, with Pan Seared Local Calamari, White Clamshell Mushrooms, Cavatelli Pasta Al Nero, Winter Tomato Sauce with Lemon & Parsley. 
This was only my second time ever having abalone. The first time was part of an awful dinner, and I've since thought that I probably didn't like abalone, but I wanted to try it out somewhere else to be sure. It turns out, not all abalone is chewy and awful :) It reminds me of how I used to think of calamari as well - if you have it poorly prepared, it is chewy and horrible, but treated well, it can be quite tender!

The cute little white clamshell mushrooms were just that. Cute, but they weren't really flavorful.

The calamari was cooked well, tender, but not all that interesting.

The nero pasta was fresh and perfectly al dente.

The tomato sauce was my favorite part - lovely flavor, enhanced by lemon and olive oil. I soaked up all the remaining sauce at the end with the bread.

Overall, everything in the dish was perfectly executed, made with high quality ingredients, but it didn't really pop for me. I probably wouldn't order again, but I'm really glad to have tried abalone again.

GRILLED CALIFORNIA SWORDFISH, with Toasted Oregon Hazelnut Aillade with Lemon Zest, Sauteed Bloomsdale Spinach Farro Perlato in the Style of Risotto with Roasted Red Beets & Parmesan Toasted Hazelnut Oil
Last time I was at Boulevard, a friend had an amazing swordfish dish. I've been jealous of that dish ever since. I wanted this to be that dish. Unfortunately, it wasn't.

The swordfish itself was pretty flavorless. But it was nicely grilled, had a good firm texture, and wasn't at all fishy.

The farro risotto didn't work for me at all, and I love both farro and beets. Somehow it was kinda just beet flavored mush.

The hazelnut stuff on top of the fish was good.

The spinach, under the fish, was fine, but just spinach.

Would not order again.

This was a main, but the kitchen split it for us, so this is just a half portion pictured.  I really like how they split for you and bring you both beautiful dishes!

AHI TUNA ITO-ZUKURI: "Ribbon-Cut" Ahi Tuna, Pickled Shiitakes, Spicy Aioli with Yuzu Kosho, Grilled Hodo Soy Tofu, Lotus & Nori Chips, with a soy dashi broth.
My favorite dish of the evening, once I figured out how to put the components together.

Not pictured is a little pitcher of soy dashi broth. I liked that they let you control how much of this to pour on, as it was quite salty, and I can imagine people choosing to add very different amounts to taste.

I enjoyed this dish in two ways:

The first was very simple, just some of the raw tuna strips with the soy dashi broth. The broth was very flavorful and accented the tuna perfectly. This was a light and delicious way to eat it.

But even better, was taking a lotus or nori chip, loading it up with a few tuna strips, and topping it with the spicy aioli. It was basically the flavor profile of a spicy tuna roll, but without the flavors getting muddled by rice, and with far more tuna. The tuna and spicy aioli were just so great together! (Yes, I love, love, love aioli). The nori chips and lotus chips were also delicious, very flavorful.

The other components: mushroom, radish, tofu didn't really need to be on the plate.

I'd order this again.

MERINGUE TRIO: Vanilla Pavlova, Blackberry Ice Cream, Passion Fruit Mango & Raspberry "Meringue Pie" Pop Soft Meringue, Lemon Verbena Anglaise, Coconut Sorbet
This was a lot of meringue.

We were warned. We asked the pastry chef about this, and she pretty much told us that it would just be a lot of meringue. She excitedly told us about the other desserts. We asked our waiter about it. He said basically the same thing. But ... I was stuffed and wanted something light, and I do love meringue.

It turns out there is a reason why you normally have meringue as a topping on something, and not as its own dish.

The first one was the pavlova. It had a crisp exterior, which when you broke it open gave way to a sorta gooey center. Well executed, but just a hard style meringue. The blackberry sorbet on top wasn't particularly interesting.

The second one was the best. It had mango and raspberry sorbet inside, coated with very soft marshmallow-like meringue that was torched to order, sitting on a bed of diced mango. I really liked this sorbet, tart and sweet and flavorful all at once. And the meringue part of this one was a lot like a marshmallow you roasted on a campfire. Kinda fun!

The last one was soft meringue, on a lemon verbana anglais, with coconut sorbet. It didn't really work for me. The coconut sorbet and meringue didn't really complement each other flavor or texture wise. The anglais was pretty flavorless.

Definitely an interesting dessert, but this was just too much meringue and sweetness. I cannot imagine having all of this myself, and we struggled to finish it with two of us sharing (and I have a serious sweet tooth!) I could imagine it going well with a cup of mint tea, where I'd take bites of the dessert in between sips of tea. I would go for the banana cream pie next time!

Cooking Demo: Radius

Today's demo was by Chef Peter Cham of Radius.  I haven't been to Radius yet, but it is a local restaurant that focuses on ... you guessed it, fresh seasonal Californian cuisine, with as much as posisble sourced within a radius of 100 miles.  The menu changes every week or so based on what is in season.  The chef was friendly and personable, and gave a good demo, full of useful tips.
English pea and green garlic panna cotta, crème fraîche, crispy pancetta, spring peas.
This was a perfect springtime dish! The panna cotta was creamy and flavorful, and set nicely, with a good jiggle to it.  The fresh peas on top were crunchy and absolutely delicious, the perfect little bites of spring.  The crème fraîche added even more creaminess, and mmm, you can't go wrong with crispy pancetta to compliment the whole thing and add a salt component.

Such great flavor and texture combos!


See more of my Ferry Building Cooking Demos Reviews!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sushi @ Kiji Sushi

It has been a while since I've had sushi, and I was really craving something on the lighter side tonight, after so much foie gras and red meat last week.  After failing to get reservations at a few other places I've been wanting to try, we were finally able to get a reservation at Kiji Sushi in the Mission.  It comes in at a lower price point than I usually frequent for sushi, but was a recommendation from a friend, so its been sitting on my list for places to try for a while.

Unfortunately, as somewhat expected, there was a reason we were able to get a reservation - it was pretty mediocre.  For two nights in a row I've tried to do more casual, cheaper dining, but it turns out, there is a reason I don't usually pick places like this!  Do you have any recommendations for tasty, cheaper eats?  I don't actually want to be eating at fancy restaurants all of the time.  It is nice to have a more casual relaxed meal.  It is nice to not spend as much.  It is nice to have a meal be quick.  But, I still want it to be good!  On the way to Kiji, we did walk by Papalote and Big Mouth, both of which I used to frequent, and really need to remember to go back to sometime.  I'm never just in the Mission these days, and it feels silly to go out of my way for a simple burrito or burger (Roam in the Marina is another one I'd definitely be at more if it were local).  I wish my neighborhood had some (any?) casual options other than The Melt (which I've been very unimpressed by).  We have a lot of middle to mid-high end, and not much else.

Anyway, back to Kiji.  It was large for a sushi restaurant, with a sushi counter and a bunch of tables in several rooms.  Decor was pretty standard, wooden tables and chairs, nondescript place settings, fairly harsh lighting.  We were able to easily get a reservation on opentable 30 minutes before we wanted to dine.  The menu was extensive, spanning hot appetizers, cold appetizers, rolls, nigiri, carpaccios, and lots of specials.  It reminded me a lot of Koo and Kabuto. We ordered some of it all, to really get a good overview of the place.

Once food started arriving, it came at a pretty frantic pace.  It was clear that different parts of the kitchen were preparing different dishes, and they all just made them whenever, so our table got loaded up with dishes really quickly.  There were a few points where we had trouble fitting everything on the table.  Waitstaff weren't the best about clearing finished dishes away, which exacerbated the problem.  I did appreciate a few things about out waiter though - for one dish, we asked how big it was since we all wanted to share it, and when he brought it he let us know that he selected one of the biggest ones for us so we'd all get some.  And one other dish was supposed to be a single seared scallop that two of us were going to split, and he instead was able to bring us two smaller scallops instead.  I appreciated his looking out for us!
Ahi Carpaccio: thinly sliced red tuna with wasabi pesto, chopped wasabi and sea salt. $15.
From the "House Specialties" section.  The wasabi pesto and chopped wasabi had a decent spice to them and were better than typical wasabi paste.  The sea salt was very flavorful and a good accent to the dish.  Fish was nicely cut, very thin, but tasted a little fishy, not very fresh, and wasn't particularly flavorful.  (I was also surprised to realize that for the same price I can get a much better ahi tartar at Prospect or Boulevard, for a slightly smaller portion, but ridiculously higher quality).  Meh.
Live Scallop, part 1.  Sashimi.  $18.
From the "Daily Specials" section. This was actually really, really good, better than the live scallop dish we had at Kabuto (although that was a highlight there was well, served as nigiri).  The scallop was ridiculously tender.  Sweet.  Perfect texture.  Sashimi preparation was the perfect way to highlight the freshness, certainly no rice was needed here. The light sauce to dip it in added even more flavor.  I would order again in a heartbeat.
Live Scallop, part 2. Tendon cooked in sake.
This was the other part of our live scallop, chopped up pieces of the tendon, cooked in a sake broth.  It was not good.  The tendon was very, very chewy.  I actually gave up on chewing through it and just ate a chunk whole.  The sake broth had a decent flavor, but the tendon was just too chewy and gross.

Hard to say if this was better or worse than the part 2 from Kabuto, where the tendon was cooked and served in a chowder, as we didn't like that either.
Stuffed Jalapenos : jalapeno halves stuffed with spicy tuna and grilled. $6.50.
From the "Hot Dishes" section. I order this everywhere I see it, because I always want it to be Sushi Zone's stuffed jalapeno with albacore.  I LOVE this dish at Sushi Zone.  This wasn't nearly as good as Sushi Zone's, but it was better than the similar dish we had at Koo.

The jalapeno itself wasn't very spicy.  It was cooked ok, still keeping a crunch to it, which I appreciated.  The tuna filling inside was really bland and flavorless, even though it was mixed up with some spicy sauce.  The mayo based sauce on top likewise didn't really have any flavor.  Meh.
Seared Scallop with bacon bits, truffle oil, wasabi.   $8.  
From the "Daily Specials" section.  This sounded too interesting to pass up.  I love a good seared scallop.  And bacon makes everything better (particularly scallops!).  And truffle oil?  I was intrigued. I also should have realized I was at a sushi restaurant, not exactly the sort of place specializing in truffles, bacon, and seared scallops (and, I'd tried the whole seared scallop thing at Kabuto too).

The most prominent thing about this dish was the wasabi.  It had a serious kick, completely dominating the other flavors.  The result was that the bacon was totally lost, I barely tasted it at all.  The truffle oil added a nice subtle truffle flavor, that would have been very enjoyable, had the wasabi been more in check.  I think with less wasabi, these flavors really could have worked well together.

The scallop itself was pretty mediocre.  It was seared on the outside, but cooked all the way through, far more than I like.  For $4 a scallop though, not too bad.
Kiji Ceviche: various fish marinated in yuzu ponzu and spices with onions, olives and tomatoes.  Served with fried lotus chips.  $11.
Another "House Specialty".  This was a generous serving of assorted seafood, chopped up pretty small.  There was salmon, octopus, crab, and at least one white fish, that I think was halibut.  Everyone else commented on the octopus being really chewy and not good, so I didn't try it, but the other fish was all mediocre.  None of it was particularly flavorful, but it was somewhere quality wise in between sushi grade and what you normally find in ceviche.  The others at my table really didn't like this, but I didn't think it was that bad.  The top layers were very forgettable, without much flavor at all, but pieces I ate later on that had been marinating longer were much better and did have a nice flavor to them from the yuzu, ponzu, and lime.  I think that was the biggest issue with the dish, it didn't seem like it was really marinated in advance at all, so the flavor wasn't there, and the fish wasn't really "cooked".  The jalapeno and onion added a nice freshness as well, but the tomato was unripe and really not good.  The lotus chips were fine, but there weren't really enough of them to do much with.
Kiji Shooter: fresh oyster, uni, quail egg, spicy sauce, scallions, tobiko and ponzu.  $5.
And another "House Specialty", which was of course the dish that Yelpers all rave about.  One person at our table didn't order one of these, perhaps on principle since the Yelpers are so often leading us astray!  We have tried a lot of similar dishes to this lately.

The oyster was chewy and not very fresh tasting at all.  There was barely any uni, I didn't taste it at all.  The quail egg was rich.  The ponzu based broth was enjoyable for the first second, but quickly became unbearable.  Incredibly salty and totally blew out my palette.  It was all I could taste for the rest of the night, even after cleansing with a lot of ginger!  I wish I hadn't taken this as a shot, as I would have certainly not finished all that sauce.  Way, way too overpowering.

This was very similar concept wise to the "Spoonful of Happiness" from Koo (theirs was quail egg, uni, tobiko, ponzu served in a little spoon), but Koo's was much, much better, as the components were in better blaance.  At Koo, the portion of uni was much larger and it was the star of the show, with the quail egg adding a nice richness and the sauces adding some flavor, but not overpowering.

It was even more similar to the "1849 Oyster" from Kabuto (theirs was oyster, uni, quail egg, 3 types of roe, gold leaf).  It suffered in several of the same ways too, with the poor quality oyster and the too small proportion of uni.

Miso Black Cod: black cod marinated in miso and sake and grilled with asparagus.  $9.
I didn't actually have this, but the person who did said that it was too salty, didn't have enough miso flavor, and that the fish wasn't flaky enough.  He said we get this dish better at work.
Aji, Toro sashimi.
From the "Daily Specials".

The aji was served skin on, was nice and firm, but too fishy for me.  I don't actually think this was a bad piece of fish, I usually feel that way about aji.

I didn't have the toro, but everyone else said that it was ok, but not nearly as good as toro should be.
Kiji Roll:  snow crab and asparagus roll topped with tuna, spicy sauce and tobiko. $14.
Black Spider Roll: deep-fried soft shell crab, unagi, pine nuts and black tobiko. $9.50.
The Kiji Roll was a "House Specialty" (like everything else we ordered named Kiji).  It was entirely flavorless.  The crab could easily have been crab stick, although it said it was snow crab.  The tuna on top had absolutely no flavor, and was a thin pathetic cut.  Even the spicy sauce had no flavor.  The asparagus did add a nice crunch.

I didn't have the Black Spider Roll, but the people who did said it was better than the Kiji Roll.
Nigiri: Maine Uni ($8), ??, Wild Salmon ($6), Hamachi ($5)
These were off the "Daily Specials" menu as well.  I only had the uni, which wasn't particularly good.  It did have a strong flavor, but wasn't creamy.
Tamago nigiri.  $2.
If you've read my other sushi posts, you know I always finish with tamago as my "dessert".  (Hey, what is a dessert loving girl supposed to do when places don't have dessert!!!)

This was not good.  Very eggy, just a basic egg omelet, completely lacking in the sweetness that makes tamago tasty (and dessert-worthy).  The texture was also off and it tasted kinda old.

Any recommendations on where to get good tamago?  I've been so disappointed with it everywhere!
Kiji Japanese Restaurant & Sushi on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Desserts @ Bluestem Brasserie

I've been reading about the epic desserts at Bluestem Brasserie for a while now.  They've been getting great reviews.  I'm a dessert lover.  So it was only a matter of time before I headed that way!  I've heard lackluster things about the main restaurant, so decided to just check out the desserts in the lounge area.

I wound up there twice in the past two days.  Sunday afternoon I went just to get dessert with a friend, and Monday night we went to try to get some good dessert to make up for our horrible pizza at Cupola.

Bluestem is a beautiful, open, airy, swanky place.  Very SOMA.  The bar area has really fascinating little lights cut out in it.  The lounge doesn't seem busy, as I was able to walk in both times easily, and has comfortable seating in cute little booths.

Service is ... ok.  Sunday afternoon it was not busy at all, but I had to constantly keep going out of my way to flag down the waiter to get things like water and coffee refills.  It also took an amazingly long time to receive our dessert.  They were also very strange about share plates - on Monday night we ordered a charcuterie platter and a dessert for 3 of us, and they brought out just one share plate, a little puzzling.

Anyway.  The desserts did not live up to the hype and were way too sweet, particularly the caramelized butterscotch tapioca pudding.  My fellow dining companion, who knows how much I love desserts, commented on how he never thought he'd hear me say such a thing, but really, these were just sweet overload and totally, completely blew out my palette.

Charcuterie: Rustic country pate with pistachios, lamb ham, caper berries, stone ground mustard, pickles, apple chutney, pickled red onion.  $11.25.
This was served with some little crostini.  The assorted pickled stuff was all fairly tasty, but not particularly noteworthy.  The apple chutney didn't really go well with anything.  The country pate wasn't particularly flavorful and was a rather odd texture.  Meh.
Caramelized butterscotch tapioca pudding, bacon butter brickle cookies.  $9.
This is why we were here.  I'd read about this and couldn't wait to try it.  I really like tapioca pudding.  And butterscotch pudding (or, even more, butterscotch pie!!!).  And creme brûlée.  This sounded potentially perfect, combining 3 desserts I love into one!

Unfortunately, it went the way of the last few desserts I've tried in this category: the butterscotch banana cream pie at Mission Beach Cafe (another case where I was so excited, butterscotch pie + banana cream pie + chocolate shell?  Sounded awesome!) and the mango tapioca pudding at The House (again, mango pudding + tapioca pudding?  Awesome!).  Both of those desserts not only failed to live up to my excitement, but were really not good at all (and it wasn't just me having too high of expectations, no one else would finish those desserts either).

This was served with two bacon butter brickle cookies.  They were rather adorable, shaped like pigs, although sorta just haphazardly thrown onto the plate.  If you were in the mood for a savory bacon cookie, I could imagine liking these.  They were crispy and had a very intense bacon flavor.  They reminded me a little of a ham and cheese croissant.  I wasn't in the mood for them, and don't really understand why they were paired with this dessert in the first place, as they were savory and this dessert was so ridiculously sweet, it didn't really make sense to eat together, as they didn't compliment each other and the savory didn't help cut the sweetness, it just felt like eating a bite of dinner in between bites of dessert.

Speaking of sweet.  The pudding was pretty horrible, just a sweet overload.  Butterscotch is obviously always a sweet flavor, but this lacked any complexity at all to balance it out or add depth to the sweetness.  The pudding was very thin, not watery exactly, but certainly not a custard and not really creamy either.  Had it just been a pudding (aka, no tapioca and no brûlée) it would have been far too runny.

The tapioca was actually really well cooked, small tapioca balls that didn't clump together at all, and were a perfect consistent firmness, not too hard, not too soft, just the right give when you bit into them.  I was fairly impressed with that aspect of the pudding, although there needed to be more tapioca, they were fairly sparsely dispersed in the pudding.

The caramelized top was decently done, not as thick as I'd want on a creme brûlée normally, but given the consistency of the pudding, I think it would have been weird to have a thicker layer.  It didn't seem freshly torched, as it wasn't warm, but again, while I care about that for creme brûlée, that might have been strange here, to have a warm top on this pudding.  It had a fairly decent bitter flavor to it, but it was hard to appreciate, given all the ridiculous sweetness in the pudding.  I don't think even a shot of espresso would have helped here.

Overall, the tapioca + butterscotch pudding concept definitely worked.  I'd gladly eat tapioca butterscotch pudding again.  But this pudding was just really, really too sweet, not developed enough flavor-wise, and too runny.  And the brûlée top didn't really work either, as much as I wanted it to.  Shell on top of custard?  Yes.  But on top of pudding?  Sadly, no.
Honolulu Hangover: Devil's food chocolate rum layer cake, coconut vanilla creme filling, sweetened marshmallow meringue, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, caramelized coconut flakes.  $9.
Um yeah.  This was as decadent as it looks.  This is another one I'd read a ton about.  I don't particularly like chocolate cake (not that I dislike it either), but I sure do love meringue, and given how many mentions I read about this being the most amazing dessert ever, I had to give it a shot.

First, this thing was massive.  I'm all for lots of dessert, but this was just insanity, particularly given how rich every single component to it was.  Even at half this size, it would have been too much for even two people to really enjoy.  And I was eating this by myself.  And I'm incapable of not finishing desserts, even when I really dislike them, or get really sick of them.  So while I did enjoy the first few bites of this, and found some good component combinations, I was kinda hating it by the end.  I guess that is my own fault for feeling compelled to finish it.

Anyway.  This was 3 thick layers of chocolate cake.  The cake was incredibly moist, fairly chocolately, and really quite good.  Like I said, I'm no chocolate cake lover, but this was probably one of the better chocolate cakes I've had.  I didn't detect much, if any, rum flavor to it however.

In between the layers of cake was a coconut vanilla cream filling.  It was very sweet, but went pretty well with the chocolate cake, almost reminding me of a german chocolate cake.

Then, the entire thing was surrounded in a sweet marshmallow meringue.  It was a soft, light, fluffy meringue, my favorite kind.  It was however, too sweetened.  Even without the other sweet components on the plate, a spoonful of this was too sweet.  It also didn't really go with the cake very well.  I guess there is a reason you don't really see meringue on cakes.  I give them credit for being creative, but I think it the cake probably would have been better without it, even though it was my favorite part of the dish.

And then, since cake, icing layers, and sweet meringue aren't enough, the entire thing had even sweeter whipped cream covering the top and flowing down the sides, forming large pools on either side.  The cream was almost more like a pastry cream than a whipped cream, not all that fluffy or light.  It was pretty tasty with the cake, but at this point, the dessert was becoming overloaded with too many sweet layers.

Underneath the pools of cream was a chocolate sauce or pudding.  It was pretty delicious, particularly combined with the cream.

And then on top of everything, was these huge flakes of caramelized coconut.  I actually thought they were pie crust flakes, but I read later that they were caramelized coconut.  Clearly, I just tasted sweet crunchiness, not coconut flavor.  I thought they were delicious however, adding an awesome crunch, and went really, really well with the cream and pudding.

So, this thing was fairly incredible, in a mind blowing absurd sort of way.  Most of the components were actually pretty good, albeit too sweet.  And some of them could be combined into pretty tasty spoonfuls, particularly chocolate pudding + cream + crunchies or cake + frosting. There were however, just too many of them.  A spoonful of cake, plus frosting, plus meringue, plus cream, plus chocolate sauce, plus crunchies was just too much.  It was like someone thought of everything they could imagine going with chocolate cake, and threw them into the same dish.  The layer cake with frosting layers and maybe even the chocolate pudding and crunchies would have been pretty perfect.  Or perhaps the cake, some vanilla ice cream, and the cream and chocolate pudding.

Again, this was a good chocolate cake, but too much sweetness in the other components, and being way too large of a serving kinda ruined it.  I drank an insane amount of black coffee while consuming this, as I desperately needed something to combat the massive sweet attack.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pizza @ Cupola Pizzeria

About once a week, this unfortunate thing happens.  It is called Monday.  Many of my favorite places to eat are not open.  Ones that are tend to not be at the top of their game.  Fish isn't fresh.  And sometimes I get sick of fine dining.  And of foie gras.  And red meat.  Put all these together, and you get ... casual pizza night!

Bauer had recommended Cupola Pizzeria, and Yelpers seemed generally positive, so I put aside my skepticism and we headed there.  It is located inside the Westfield Mall, up on the top floor as part of the restaurants under the dome.  It looks fairly nice, for a mall restaurant.

There were lots of little things that immediately reminded me that I was dining in a more casual place.  My knife was covered in smudges.  The water had a funny taste.  There weren't even shakers of parmesan cheese, chili flakes, oregano, etc available.  But there was an open kitchen in the back, with a giant pizza oven.  It looked possibly promising!  Unfortunately, it wasn't good.
Margherita Extra - buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, pecorino, basil. $14.50.
The standard by which any pizza place should be judged!  Thin crust pizza, topped with tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, basil.  This was the better of our pizzas, but wasn't anything special.

The sauce had a very strange tang to it and was pretty sweet.  San Marzano tomatoes should be better than this!  The cheese didn't have a particularly strong flavor, it definitely didn't steal the show as a good buffalo mozzarella should on a margherita pizza.  And there was something really strange going on with salt on one piece I had.  I'm not sure what it came from, as it didn't seem to be in the sauce or evenly distributed anywhere else in the pizza.  Perhaps it was in the cheese?  Or maybe they salted it?  Whatever the case, I had a few bites that were just ridiculously salty and pretty disgusting.  The crust was thin and decent, but could have been crispier.  The basil was the tastiest thing on this pizza.
Arrabiata – pancetta, chili peppers, San Marzano tomatoes, oregano. $15.50.
This was downright awful.  Same crust, same tomato sauce as the margherita.  Nice kick from the chili.  But the pancetta was horrible, horrible, horrible.  And the pizza was absolutely loaded with it.  It wasn't just a topping, it was the entire thing.  Removing it didn't really improve things, as this didn't have cheese on it, so then you were just left with mediocre crust and some strange sauce.  But back to that pancetta.  It was incredibly fatty, slimy, soggy, just really, really nasty.  It didn't taste good at all.  No one was willing to eat another slice of this pizza, and left the restaurant saying they weren't remotely full but didn't want anymore, even though we'd paid $15.50(!) for this horrible thing.  One person said they'd only touch it again if they were stranded and starving.

Do not recommend.

Another foie gras dinner @ Lafitte

Thursday night, we went to our second multi-course foie gras dinner at Lafitte.  The format was exactly the same as the last one: 2 passed appetizers and a welcome cocktail, 5 main courses, and 1 dessert, all involving foie gras.  $89, plus $45 if you wanted the wine pairing.

Since I've already talked about the restaurant before, I'll focus just on the dishes we had, and comparisons to the last event here and the last Alexander's foie gras dinner.

Overall, I felt that the first Lafitte foie gras dinner was more successful, but this one really raised the ante creativity-wise.  In particular, the first one felt very rustic and comfortable, both in terms of the dishes and the plating, and this one had a more fine dining feel to it.  For example, at this one, the presentation was stepped up a level, more elaborate, more elements on the plate, more refined.  The portions were smaller.  The proteins used were more sophisticated: arctic char, albacore, beef cheeks rather than sweetbreads, hen, duck.  The foie was also more of a star this time.  At the last one I felt that it was being used more as a garnish, in most dishes this time it was front and center.  More foie-forward if you will.  And the treatment of the foie was much more interesting, in addition to the standard seared and torchon, we had it made into mustard, mousse, bruléed, and as ice cream.  Creativity and plating-wise, it fell right in-between the first one and Alexander's.
Protesters ...
Like last time, there were some protesters outside.
Lafitte Quacker: Bloom gin, orchard apricot liquor, meyer lemon,  orange, chamomile liquor, sparkling rose.
The event started with a welcome cocktail and passed appetizers in the covered outside area, before moving to the tables for the formal sit down dinner.  I really liked having this time for everyone to gather, to wind down a little, before moving straight to the table.  The Alexander's dinner started right at the table, and you could order cocktails to start, but it didn't have the same feeling of easing into the evening.

The cocktail was very sweet and had a strong orange flavor.  I didn't love it, but it was somewhat refreshing.
Passed appetizer #1, press interviews.
The first passed appetizer was toasted rye cracker, topped with carrot puree, duck tongue, and shaved foie gras.  I enjoyed the strong rye flavor in the cracker, and I was surprised by how carroty the carrot puree was.  But, I really didn't care for the duck tongue at all, as it was really chewy, a texture I'm not generally a fan of.  I'm glad I have now tried duck tongue I guess, but I didn't like this!

The Canadian broadcast company was on hand interviewing people.  I'm not sure what sorts of questions they asked, as they never approached us.
Passed appetizer #2, menu for what was in store for us!
Like last time, we had a little Strassburg pie.  Toasted brioche, topped with a bacon and onion marmalade, and a tiny chunk of foie.  And like last time, I loved this.  The bacon and onion marmalade was delicious, really strong flavors that were nicely balanced.  Who doesn't love bacon and onions?  It reminded me a little of the duck liver, foie gras, and bacon pate from Prospect's bar.  However, the amount of foie on here was pretty small and the strong flavors of the onion and bacon completely dominated, I didn't really taste the foie gras at all.  I can't say I minded this, as I really loved the flavors, but it was a little unfortunate.  The one we had last time had a less flavorful jam on it, and a bigger chunk of foie, so it was better balanced in that way.
Seated at communal tables.
Seating was interesting.  Once they open the doors from the cocktail reception, everyone basically just rushes in to find a place at one of the several big tables.  We had a group of 5, but were able to secure spots together.  The communal tables, and perhaps the acoustics of the place, made this a really loud meal, and we often had trouble hearing each other.  More casual and rustic than Alexander's, where parties were assigned seating at smaller tables and the atmosphere was much quieter.
Chef CRJ educating us on the new law.
Once we moved inside to be seated, the chef got up and explained some of the ridiculousness of the new law going into effect.  The protesters outside were most riled up at this point, but they put some window coverings up so they wouldn't be too invasive.
Sourdough bread, foie gras butter.
Waiting for us on the tables was some sourdough bread and a foie gras butter spread.  I preferred the bread last time, as it was a light, sweet bread, and I don't really care for sourdough.  That said, the foie gras butter spread was far more interesting than the regular butter and salt served last time.  Foie-forward, already!  It was creamy and very, very rich.  The bread on the table is another example of how this event was more laid back than the Alexander's one, where bread was done as a bread service.
Asparagus & Artichoke Salad, mizuna, porcini cured foie gras torchon, toasted oats.
The first of three small appetizer courses.

This was the perfect seasonal salad and a light start to the meal.  The asparagus was tender, fresh, and delicious.  I'm so glad it is asparagus season!  I don't care for artichoke, so I didn't appreciate that aspect of the dish, but others at the table did.  The mizuna was spicy and fresh.  The foie torchon was smooth and had a really lovely flavor to it from the porcini.  There was a nice portion of it on here.  The toasted oats added a nice playful crunch.  I'm not sure there was any dressing on here, if so, it was simple and light.  This really was a salad where the ingredients were just allowed to do the talking.  Not overly exciting, but refreshing.
Drink pairings, close up of the salad.
Foie Gravlax: arctic char, dill-foie gras mustard, buckwheat crepe chips, cardamom gelee.
One of my dining companions loved, loved this dish, as he loves smoked fish.  This dish also shows the change in the style of the dinner from the last one that I was talking about - small portions, delicate components, more artistic plating, fancier ingredients, more innovative techniques used.

The arctic char was a decent quality smoked fish, but the portion was too tiny to really appreciate.  The crepe chips added a nice crunch.  The cardamom gelee cubes were incredibly flavorful.

The mustard however was downright amazing.  Mustard.  Dill.  Foie gras.  All strong flavors, all combined together fabulously.  I went through a phase a month or so ago where I was eating pretzels, topped with mustard, topped with pickles, topped with cheese, and this mustard sort of reminded me of that with the dill, mustard, and rich fat components.  I loved this stuff and could imagine it being fantastic in a number of other applications.  Including, uh, by the spoonful.  Which I may or may not have tried :)

Overall though, this dish didn't really work for me.  The mustard was amazing, but spreading it on the char totally drowned out the char. And the cardamom flavor didn't really mix with the other flavors on the plate very well.  But the mustard, ZOMG, the mustard.
Foie with Citrus Gelee: grapefruit, blood orange, lemon gelee, bran soil, pistachio praline.
This was sort of a foie gras based palette cleanser, if you can imagine that.  The foie here was a creamy, sweetened mousse.  It was served with several different citrus gelees, that were very flavorful, but certainly on the sweet side.  I was expecting more tartness since these are generally fairly tart citrus fruits, and thought that would pair better with the foie gras flavor, but this was pretty tasty and I enjoyed it once I got over expecting it to be more savory.  The bran and pistachio both gave a needed crunchy texture to the soft mousse and gelees, and somewhat balanced out the sweetness.  Probably my favorite dish of the evening.  Our dining companion who dislikes sweets was very, very unhappy with this dish, took one or two bites, and gave the rest to me.  Score for me, sadness for him.
Close up of the mousse and gelees.
Chefs plating the mousse dish.
Another example of the style change from the last meal to this one.  Small portion, but beautifully plated with little dots of the gelees, the praline and soil, etc.  The focus and intensity of the chefs as they plated this up was impressive!  I loved the open kitchen, it was fun to watch the cooks and see how much work and precision went into the plating of these dishes.
Getting the first hot main dish ready!
Up until this point, all of the dishes had been small and served cold.  It was time to start cooking and move on to the entrees!  This was also a big change from the last event, where all of the dishes besides the passed appetizers were hot and were all about the same size portions (somewhere in between an appetizer and a main).  The cooks at this point really upped the intensity level, scrambling around quite a bit.  Really, really impressive as they were several hours into the event at this point, and working very hard and fast!
Seared Foie Gras & Potato Encrusted Albacore, cardoon puree, potato rosti, & sticky mushroom sauce.
Of course, this is the dish I was most excited about.  If you've been reading my posts, you know how much I love seared foie gras.  And I eat a lot of fish, and what better than potato crusted fish?

The foie gras was not particularly noteworthy, just a decently seared chunk.  It did pair very nicely with the fish, which I was really curious to see how that would work.  I was worried that the foie would totally overpower the fish.  I was also surprised to see it paired with a red wine.  It turns out, the albacore felt fairly meaty for a fish and can stand up to foie gras, but is also light enough to really let you taste the foie gras too. The firmness of the fish and the softness of the foie gras were also nice contrasts.  The fish was fairly cooked, although perhaps a little overdone, and I did like the potato crust.

The cardoon puree and the mushroom sauce didn't do a whole lot for me, I was looking for more flavor in both of those components, but it wasn't there.  Perhaps there just wasn't enough of either of them to really taste.

I didn't like the potato rosti.  It was too greasy and didn't really have any flavor other than the greasiness.  It also didn't seem to go with the rest of the things on the plate very well.  I get the "meat and potatoes" aspect, but it seemed more fitting as a breakfast item.
Other dining companion's dish.
Execution fell down a little here.  As you can see, the two friends I had taking photos received pretty radically different dishes.  One had a much thicker piece of albacore.  One had a much more nicely seared piece of foie gras.  And totally different saucing.

My fish was not very warm.  The foie gras was also barely lukewarm and had lost the fun outside sear and inside creaminess that it has when fresh out of the pan.  And the potato rosti was completely cold.  This was particularly shocking to me because last time I was sooo impressed with how they managed to put out all of these hot dishes and have them be hot at the time they arrived, even though serving the entire restaurant at once.  I'm not sure if this was just due to where we were seated this time, perhaps we were better in the serving order last time.  Or if the dishes just retained their heat better last time due to having more broths and whatnot.  Or if the plating this time was more elaborate and caused things to cool while more time was spent plating.  Or if they just did that better last time.  Regardless of the reason, I didn't enjoy this as much due to the temperature at which it was served.
Beef Cheek Pave, gigante beans, broccoli rabe, foie brulee, juniper & red wine gastrique.
Foie brulée.  Repeat after me, foie brulée!  Does it get any more exciting than that?  The moment I saw that on the menu is the moment I decided I wanted to go to this dinner for sure.

The gigante beans were cooked perfectly, not too mushy, not too firm.  The broccoli rabe added a veggie component that we hadn't seen since the starter salad, but the one small piece wasn't really enough to lighten the dish up.  The beef cheeks were very tender, but the cooking execution was a little off here again.  One chunk on my plate had a very thick seared crust, while the other didn't, and looking around the table, this seemed to vary quite a bit.  Anyway, I don't tend to like cheek (or stew meat, which it reminded me of), so I didn't care for it much.  It was also a HUGE portion.  Everyone at the table was remarking on how much beef was included here, not just in contrast to the smaller starters.  It was just too much.  It really needed a glass of red wine to go with it.

But back to the brulée.  It was amazing.  Sweet, caramelized, delicious.  But way, way too small of a piece, both in proportion to the massive amount of beef, and because it was soo damn good I wanted more anyway.
Foie Gras Pain Perdue, pain de mie, foie gras ice cream, roasted pineapple, candied sage.
The dessert lover in me was of course looking forward to this.  I mistakenly was expecting bread pudding (whoops, gotta brush up on my french!), foie gras ice cream sounded pretty interesting, and roasted pineapple is delicious!  But ... this looked and sounded much better than it tasted.

The pain de mie was fairly sweet and nicely toasted, but it was just a piece of toast.  The ice cream didn't have much foie gras flavor to it and was mostly just a sweet ice cream.  The pineapple was flavorful and had a nice roasted exterior.  The candied sage however was DELICIOUS.  I know it is crazy to rave about the tiny little garnish, but that thing was flavorful and really really good.

Again, our poor friend who doesn't like sweets did not want anything to do with this dish, so passed along his to me.  This was disappointing, as we thought there was a chance that he'd finally find a dessert he liked, but instead he just found another preparation of foie gras he didn't like.  (Although, I am fully planning on dragging him to Txoko, another restaurant serving foie gras ice cream, to try it out).
A different serving of the dessert.
The biggest problem with this dessert was again, how it arrived.  The first photo here was one of my dining companion's plates.  Hers had a nice, fairly solid scoop of ice cream.  The second as you see here was fairly melted with it arrived.  But mine, which isn't pictured, was pretty much completely melted, just a puddle.  The toast was cold.  The pineapple was cold.  This would have been soooo much better with warm toast, hot pineapple, and actual ice cream.  I can only imagine how hard it is to cook, plate, and serve 50 people at once, but I would have preferred to have staggered serving, a less elaborate dessert, or something.