Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I've missed you Alexander's!

If you have read my blog before, you are well aware that Alexander's Steakhouse is my favorite restaurant in San Francisco.  I love it so much that I even devoted a label on this blog to it.  Whenever someone asks me for a restaurant recommendation in San Francisco, I send them to Alexander's.  It is where I bring out of town visitors.  It is my goto for any special occasion.  It is even where I held my last large team dinner, in their private room.  Speaking of the private room, that is where I've attended some incredible special event dinners.  On the other end of the spectrum, it is also my favorite bar area, where I like to swing in to just get some appetizers and desserts,  or, back in the day, to get some foie, or, the absolute BEST burger in the city, or, amusingly, even some sashimi.  They do everything well, and you can read all about my previous adventures in past reviews, so I'll spare you all the details now.  All you need to know is that it is consistently outstanding, and you need to go now.  And tell them Julie sent you :)

Anyway, this time I'm here to tell you about a meal we had in the Board Room.  The Board Room is a semi-private area up on the mezzanine, overlooking the main dining room, a great vantage point.  We were there because Emil had family in town visiting, including his little sisters, and he wanted to give them a fabulous Alexander's experience.  If you think I like Alexander's, then you haven't met Emil.  When he is in town, he is there literally at least once a week.

And a great experience it was.  As I said, I'll spare all of the details this time around and solely review the food we had, but the Board Room was the perfect setting, and I highly recommend it if you have a party of 8 or so, and want a little more exclusivity.  And as always, service was top notch.

Astronaut. $12.
I don't normally get cocktails at Alexander's, since I know there will always be plenty of wine.  And usually, within a few moments of sitting down, we are presented with a complimentary glass of bubbly (which, of course happened tonight, with the girls given sparkling lemonade instead, a very thoughtful touch!)  But everyone else was ordering cocktails, and I really was in the mood for fun.

So I picked the first cocktail that had a slew of delicious sounding ingredients.  I failed to write them down, but I think muddled blueberry was a key component.  It was sweet and absolutely delicious.  I'd get it again in a heartbeat.  In fact, I almost did right then, as I certainly wanted a second one, but I wisely decided to pace myself for the upcoming wine.
Point Reyes Blue Cheese and Walnut Cracker.
Soon after ordering, "the bread guy" made his first appearance.  He'd be showing up several times throughout the meal, each time with a new and interesting bread product.  No standard white rolls here!  Alexander's has changed their bread program several times over the years - they used to offer a standard selection of Acme breads, but I think it is all made in-house now.

The crackers had a strong blue cheese flavor, and were quite nice to nibble on, more satisfying than standard bread.
Amuse Bouche: Sous vide beet, blueberry compote.
Next came an amuse bouche.  The standard amuse for the evening included melon, and since I have a melon allergy, they came up with something different for me.

Mine was a sous vide beet slice, topped with blueberry compote, and some crunchy stuff.  It wasn't a very balanced bite, the compote was far too sweet to pair with the beet, but I appreciated the crunchy bits on top.  Alexander's has made some incredible amuse bouches in the past, so this was a letdown for me, but everyone else enjoyed their offering.  I didn't catch all the details, but it had smoked salmon along with the melon, and I think the same crunchy stuff I had.
Oscetra Caviar Cannolo: crème fraîche soft serve / toasted brioche / red onion / agretti / chive. $22.
I'm not a huge caviar fan, so it is a little funny that I chose to order the caviar for one of my starters, but it just sounded so fascinating that I could not resist.  Crème fraîche soft serve?  Um, yes!  To be clear, it isn't that I dislike caviar, I just don't love it enough to normally think it is worth getting, given other options.

Anyway, the dish was as fascinating as I hoped it would be.  The red onion came in the form of a gel dotted on the plate.  A beautiful, pale purple color, such stunning presentation, and, even more importantly, insanely flavorful.

The green bits were "moss".  They added a spongy texture, but besides that, were not really interesting.

The crème fraîche soft serve I was so intrigued by was found inside a crispy brioche tube that reminded me of a waffle cone in taste and texture.  This actually makes some sense, given that it was filled with something resembling ice cream.  The crème fraîche was frozen with liquid nitrogen, super cold.  It amazingly didn't even really melt while I was eating it.  It was so clearly crème fraîche, the flavor unmistakable.  The cannolo was a little hard to eat, since cutting into it kinda broke up the shell over all the place, but I didn't mind.  The crunchy shell, the cold ice cream, and the flavors, particularly of the crème fraîche and red onion together, were all quite good.  Oh, and the caviar on top was nice too, adding a perfect amount of salt.

I probably would not get this again, but I certainly enjoyed trying it.

I actually think a more successful way to present it would be to have a mini ice cream cone instead of cannolo, fill it with the crème fraîche soft serve, and top it with caviar, like sprinkles on ice cream!  How fun would that be?  But, it would need to be mini, so probably more appropriate for an amuse than a starter.
Sparkling Ceviche: salmon / hamachi / tako / seabeans / yuzu kosho / peaches / pineapple. $19.
The other appetizer I really wanted to try was the "sparkling ceviche".  I've been craving raw seafood lately, and I was very curious what made it "sparkle".

The seafood was a mix of salmon, hamachi, and tako, although hamachi seemed to dominate the mix.  And since I actually don't love raw hamachi, I was a little sad it made up so much of the dish.  The tako was thin sliced, but too chewy for my liking.  I think that is pretty standard for raw octopus though, I'm not sure I've ever liked it in sushi form either (although, I always love it grilled!)  The salmon was nicely sliced and my favorite component, although I wasn't able to taste it very well due to the dressing.

Sigh, the dressing.  There was just too much.  It was overdressed and it was far too sweet.  When I said it was too sweet, one of my fellow diners was shocked, saying, "What?  Did you just say something was too sweet?  Does that ever happen?"  Yes, we all know I love my sweets, but there is a time and place for sweet overload, and on my raw seafood is not it.

So sadly, this dish fell down pretty hard for me.  The seafood was high quality, it was a generous portion, and it was certainly a creative way to serve raw fish, but I was not a fan, and would not order again.
Little Gems and Romaine: parmesan vinaigrette / crispy capers / olive crostini / niboshi/ poached egg. $12.
And a final appetizer.  Yes, it is a salad.  No, did not order it, as I've said many times that I never order a salad at Alexander's given the other choices, by one of my dining companions ordered it, and thus I tried it.

This salad replaced the Caesar salad on the menu.  If you weren't aware, the Caesar salad was an Alexander's classic dish, a signature item, right up there with the hamachi shots.  On one of my early visits to the Cuptertino location, we were celebrating a birthday, and did a special seating inside the kitchen.  As part of that dinner, you were allowed to jump in and help make your courses.  That is the only other time I've had a salad at Alexander's, just because I wanted to get up and make it.

Anyway, this was a really interesting presentation of a salad.  The idea is that you break through the crostini that covers the whole dish, breaking it up into pieces like croutons.  You also break open the sous vide egg, allowing it to mix into the salad as part of a dressing.  The capers were also really interesting, as there were both full caperberries and frozen ground up bits.

I actually really liked this.  The little gems were fresh and crisp, the dressing absolutely delicious.  It was my favorite of the appetizers, which sounds absurd to me even now, as it beat out the caviar and raw seafood.  I still don't think I could bring myself to order a salad at Alexander's, since their other apps are always so good, but I'm glad my friend ordered it and insisted I have some.

The rest of the table also enjoyed a slew of other appetizers, including the scallops (which looked perfect as always) and some oysters.
Edamame: warm truffle butter / hawaiian black sea salt. $9.
After our appetizers, we had a little time to relax.  I was actually already feeling kinda full at this point, but I was hopeful that perhaps something special might arrive before the main course.  And the silverware that was set out didn't seem right for our mains, so I crossed my fingers ...

And then, a bowl of edamame arrived.  Hmm.  It was actually really good edamame, warm, covered in delicious truffle butter and sea salt.  But ... I was secretly hoping for something a bit different.

The waitress later explained that she brought it for the girls, just in case they didn't like what was coming next for the adults ...
White Peach Compote, Maple Bourbon Duck Liver Mousse, Freeze Dried Blueberries.
Yes!  It came!  My real obsession with Alexander's began right before the foie gras ban, when I visited as many times as I could, fitting in as many last tastes of their delicious foie preparations as possible.  They really did foie better than anywhere else.  My little "dining club" attended all the special foie dinners, and stopped in, just to sit at the bar for a quick cocktail and foie, whenever possible.  Alexander's has always done such incredible foie preparations, and in particular, their seared and mousses are always top notch.

This was no exception.  Creamy, delicious mousse, the liver flavor balanced out by a touch of maple and bourbon.  A lovely sweet white peach compote.  And freeze dried blueberries.

Yum.  This was gone far too fast.  I could have easily had seconds.  Or thirds :)
Toasted Brioche, Shitake-Shortrib Ragout, Uni.
And then, another gift!  It just happened to feature my second favorite ingredient: uni!

It was a crispy toasted brioche, topped with truffled shitake-shortrib ragout, and draped with uni.  The ragout was the same as comes on their amazing burger.  I've always absolutely loved that ragout.  It is great on the burger, and I've said it before, but I think it would be amazing on pasta too.  Seriously, if they'd let me just buy a bowl of the ragout, I'd take it home and make pasta the next day ;)  So flavorful, the short rib so perfectly tender, I just love it!  I didn't really think the ragout could get tastier, but it turns out, topping it with uni does the trick.  Super creamy, high quality uni.  Now I'm imagining my shitake-shortrib ragout dream pasta dish, with uni too?  Squid ink pasta perhaps?  I'm totally willing to taste test this if they want to experiment!

Absolutely delicious.  I think I might have even liked this more than the foie.  I was also totally full at this point, and we still hadn't gotten to the mains!
Salt Platter.
Finally, time for the salt platter.

I always enjoy going to Alexander's with people on their first visit, as there are a number of fairly unique parts of the experience, and I love seeing reactions to it.  One such moment is when the salt platters arrive.

When you order any of the wagyu steaks, they do not come with any sauces or sides.  Just a steak. You are meant to enjoy the flavor of such supreme beef, not drown it in sauce.  But of course, a little seasoning is fun.  So, they bring a platter of 12 unique salts!

You may not think there is a lot of variance in salt, after all, it is all just salt right?  Wrong!  Each of these salts has such a distinct flavor.  In the moments between the salt platter arriving and the steaks showing up, I always take a moment to sample all the salts to figure out which ones I want to use.  Some of the prettiest ones don't have the strongest flavor, but they sure look amazing, particularly the ones with huge flake size.  And the intense sulfur flavor in one of them is fascinating, but do you want it on your steak?  So many choices!

Luckily, there is a salt sommelier who will stop by to explain all of the salts.  He knows the history of each of them, explaining their origins, why they are so rare, what good pairings are.

Anyway, I love watching people the first time they see the platter, as their eyes go a bit wide, and they seem in disbelief that someone is describing that many different salts to them.  And then they are hesitant to dig in, not really knowing how ... do you try to use your ... fork?  Your finger?  So fun!
Tajima F1 Filet, 3 oz.  $42.
And ... steak time!  I actually often skip the steak at Alexander's, which I know sounds insane because it is a steakhouse and they have such incredible cuts available, but I just love everything else so much and I'm usually stuffed by the time we finally reach the mains.  And ... I'm always trying to save room for dessert too!

But, one of the other unique aspects of Alexander's steak program is that for the wagyu cuts, you order in 3 ounce increments.  So, while a normal filet is 10oz, or a petit filet is 6oz, you can actually just get 3oz if you upgrade to Wagyu.  Generally, I think people use this to try out several different steaks, comparing the difference between an American Wagyu and a real Japanese Kobe, or a $42 cut vs a $135 cut, but for me, it is a chance to just have a small steak.

But of course I had to pick from the crazy selection.  I knew I wanted a filet, and that night, there were only two filets available, so that made my choice easy.  One was the cheapest of their Wagyus, the Tajima F1, and I forget what the other was, but it was far pricer.  The Tajima was one of the first Wagyus I ever tried, and I have fond memories of it, so it was an easy pick.  It isn't a fullblood Wagyu, but a first generation crossbreed with a Holstein (hence the F1 designation).

I ordered it medium-rare, but it did arrive more on the medium side.  Julie-of-old would have preferred it that way and was always a little scared ordering medium-rare, but now I actually do want it a little bit pinker.  Besides that, it was really nicely cooked, a great crust on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside.  Very good flavor, which was easily enhanced with some of the salts.

It was a good steak, but I don't think I was really in the mood for a steak, or perhaps I was just too full to really appreciate it.  Next time, I might go back to skipping the steak, or just stealing a few bites from someone else :)
Brentwood Corn Gratin: camembert / harissa / corn bread crumble. $9.
Now, I love Alexander's.  You know this.  But one area that they don't always shine in is the side dishes.  The appetizers are always amazing.  The steaks, the seafood, amazing.  But the sides?  I haven't had any that have been all that memorable, except for the asparagus and miso crab gratin once.  At this point, I actually rarely even order sides.  But they had a corn gratin.  I love corn.  I grew up eating corn on the cob several nights a week during corn season in New Hampshire.  I had fantastic corn at lunch earlier that day, which put me strongly in the mindset of wanting more corn.  And cheesy corn?  Even better.  With Camembert, one of my favorite cheeses?  Perfect.  And, topped with corn bread crumble?  I had to try it.

I'm really glad I did.  A few others tried a bite of it, but no one else seemed interested.  Their loss!  It was delicious!  The corn was perfectly cooked, still a tiny bit crisp, not mushy.  The sauce was super creamy and cheesy, but somehow the intense flavor of the Camembert didn't mask the sweetness of the corn.  And the cornbread crumble on top was incredible, as it added not only a crunch, but was really, really delicious on its own.

This was by far the best side I've ever had at Alexander's, and I'd certainly get it again.  Maybe the gratins are the way to go for sides?

The girls also ordered the truffled french fries, served with a sundried tomato - tonkatsu aïoli ($13).  They only had a few, which of course meant I had to try some, even though I've had the fries a zillion times (they come with the burger).  I couldn't let them go untouched!  As always, they were seriously good fries.  I am always stunned by just how crispy they are.  And the truffle flavor?  Swoon.  If you ever want a simple meal, go to the bar and get the burger and fries.  I've said it a million times before, and I'll say it again: best burger in the city.  Hands down.  No contest.

They also ordered the mashed potatoes, topped with chicken cracklings and white gravy ($9).  Most times when I go to Alexander's with non-regulars, they order the mashed potatoes.  I think there is just something about the steak and potatoes pairing that people can't get away from.  So I've also had these a number of times.  They are crazy creamy, smooth potatoes.  Absolutely no lumps or bumps in here.  I'm a little terrified thinking about the ratio of potato to cream and butter that I'm sure achieves the creaminess.  Some things are better left unknown.  These are good mashed potatoes, but honestly, by this point in the meal, I never really want them.
Bacon Brioche Rolls, Marrow Butter.
After our mains were brought out, the bread guy made his third appearance, this time bearing brioche bacon rolls, served with marrow butter, in a marrow bone.  They were quite tasty, and I love the crispy chunks of bacon studding the rolls.  Whenever I order an entree or side with a sauce, I appreciate having rolls to lap up the sauces, since as you know, I'm a serious sauce girl.  This time, I didn't have a sauce, so I wasn't really feeling the need for the rolls, but ... how do you turn down bacon?

The astute reader will realize now that I said the bread guy made his third appearance, but I only told you about the blue cheese walnut crackers so far.  Whoops!  I forgot to snap a photo of the second bread course, Parker House Rolls, served with butter and salt.  They came after our appetizers, before the extra gifts from the kitchen.  Warm, fluffy, but a bit unremarkable.
Pre-dessert: Coconut mousse, pineapple compote, white chocolate.
Now, on to the sweet stuff.  Instead of a dainty little sorbet for a palette cleanser, we got this creation.

I'm still not sure how I felt about it.  I love my sweets, and I did finish the whole thing, in spite of being already full, and having ordered dessert too, but it was a bit off.

The coconut mouse was very thick, and tasted too fatty.  Like, the layer of fat on top of coconut milk, and nothing else.  The mouthfeel was slick, the texture a bit too hard.

But, the pineapple compote was really flavorful, and I loved the slightly candied texture to it.  There was also crunchy, sweet, white chocolate bits.
Decaf Coffee.
By this point, I really wanted a warm drink to relax even further.  I went for a simple decaf coffee.  It was ok, very intense for a decaf, but it still had some of that "decaf funk" that most decaf has.  I can't blame them, I was ordered decaf, and there are very few decafs that are ever actually good!  I'll try to remember this next time though, and skip it.
"Sweet Corn":  sweet corn brulèe / blueberry /  lime buttermilk / purple sweet potato ice cream. $12.
The desserts at Alexander's have always been a bit hit or miss for me.  I obviously love desserts.  And their desserts are just like their other dishes, in that they are incredibly composed, beautiful dishes, made from a slew of ingredients.  Maybe it is because the rest of the meal usually blows my mind, and I'm always beyond full by the time we get to the real desserts, but I don't generally think of Alexander's as having amazing desserts.  They always sound, and look, fascinating, and I'm glad to try them, but I'm rarely wowed.

That said, the dessert menu was all new to me, so I had to try something.  The "Sweet Corn" caught my eye immediately.  As I mentioned earlier with the corn gratin, I absolutely adore corn, althouh not something you normally see in dessert.  That part had me fairly intrigued, and I did love the corn in the gratin.  But the real selling point was a single word: brûlée.  If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know I am obsessed with pudding based desserts, and creme brûlée in general.  I was also very interested to see how an ice cream could possibly fit in with the rest of the dish.  Finally, when I asked the server if he had any favorite desserts, he immediately recommended this one.  It was a no brainer, I had to try it!

The corn brûlée was exactly what I hoped it would be, a creamy corn pudding, with a perfect brûlée layer on top.  Emil, who has dined with me a zillion times when I've ordered creme brûlée, knew exactly how insanely picky I could be, and immediately asked about the "tap test", that is, when you tap on it with the spoon, does the spoon go right through?  If so, the layer is too flimsy and thin.  Or equivalently, is it too hard to get through?  If so, then it is likely burnt tasting.  This was perfect, right in the middle.  A thick enough layer to add flavor and texture when it broke, but not over done.

Speaking of textures, there were a lot of textures to this dish!  On top of the brûlée was crispy freeze dried corn kernels.  They added a fantastic crunch, and even more corn flavor.  There was also a blueberry compote, I think the same one I saw in my amuse bouche.  When I had it with the beet, it was just too sweet, but it worked very well in this dish.  I would have never thought to pair corn and blueberry, but they were fantastic together.  (Actually, now that I think about it, I love corn blueberry muffins, so I guess this pairing is more common than I originally realized).  Anyway, these three elements were all winners.  Creamy pudding, crunchy corn, and sweet compote.  It had flavor, it had sweetness, and it had texture.  The dish could have been complete then.

But there was more.  I'm not sure if you can see it in the photo, but another part of the corn showed up here: the silk.  Now, normally, I'm the person who demands that I husk the corn personally because I can't stand any corn silk left on my ear of corn.  No one else does an adequate job of removing every last strand.  It is nothing I want to eat.  And now, it was showing up, intentionally, on my plate!  And ... it was ... deep fried?  Creative, interesting, but absolutely horrible to me.  It was stringy, like eating hair.  So very off-putting.  I loved absolutely everything else about this dish, but that one element has the potential to ruin it.  Shutter.

And finally, ice cream.  The menu said it was purple sweet potato, but when I received the dish it was described as red bean.  I'm actually not sure which it was, I would believe either one.  It was creamy and good, and actually I did like the flavor pairing with the corn, but as expected, I found it a bit strange to have cold, soft ice cream with a slightly warm, also soft, dessert.  It wasn't bad, but just didn't seem necessary.

Anyway, this was very good, one of my favorite Alexander's desserts.  I absolutely licked my plate clean, and unlike usual, I didn't have Ojan to share with, so it was all me.  I'd get it again even, but just ask for the silk-hair to be left out.
Lime cotton candy, assorted chocolates.
As always, our meal ended with cotton candy.  But, they have changed up the presentation a bit, bringing it in a custom stand, that also contained chocolates!

The cotton candy was impressively large.  Nice lime flavor.  They also nicely packaged one up to go for me, so I could bring it home to Ojan, who loves their cotton candy, and was unable to join us.  Thank you as always for such hospitality Alexander's!

One of the chocolates was a chocolate square with a creamy filling and a full hazelnut on top.  I'm not sure what the ganache inside was, it was mostly just sweet (not chocolate based).  Perhaps it was hazelnut?

The second was a thin, light brown colored bar.  It tasted like butterscotch!  It was really creamy and quite delicious.  It had bits of I think dried cranberries on top, which were tart and added a bit of chew, but didn't quite go with the flavored chocolate.  My favorite of the pair though.
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