Thursday, April 28, 2011

Scenes from Chicago

Recently, I made a weekend trip to Chicago for the sole purpose of eating. The trip came about when we made a reservation for Alinea, voted #6 Best Restaurant in the World and Best Restaurant in North America in the S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. There was no sightseeing, no architectural cruise on the river, no scenic view from the John Hancock Observatory or no walk along Navy Pier. Just lots of food.

The river looks green even when its not St. Paddy's Day.

There will be pizza, and meals at Blackbird and Publican.

But most importantly, there will be an epic 22 course meal at Alinea.

Stay tuned..

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Magnum Pop Up: Uni Tasting Menu

Joseph Mahon (recently of Bastide) and David Haskell (collectively known as Magnum Crew)'s latest pop-up gig was held from April 17-19 at Royal/T Cafe in Culver City. I signed up for the last night which was offering a special tasting menu, in addition to the regular menu, in celebration of Haskell's birthday. I was elated when I later discovered that the special offering would be a 7 course uni tasting menu.

The special Uni menu totaled 8 courses (including dessert) and was offered at $130, with wine pairing for an additional $80. Because it was a week night, we decided to do the split which came up to $105 for two of us (or $52.50 each). Not too shabby, considering that the wines would be carefully selected by Haskell, who was owner of Bin 8945 and sommelier at Vertical Wine Bistro.

The cured thai snapper with shrimp chips amuse bouche had nice spicy kick and crunch. However I didn't care for the raw sprouts and I wished the snapper had been served more chilled.

Uni/ oyster/ soy mignonette
I loved the seafood on seafood action here. The oyster actually tasted a bit fishy and similar to the amuse bouche, I thought it wasn't chilled enough. Unfortunately the uni flavor was lost in the fishiness of the oyster.

Uni/Tuna Tartare
I was excited to see three large pieces of uni, which were very fresh. I thought the tartare itself lacked seasoning, but was perfect when mixed with the aioli sauce.

Uni Tartine/ Cucumber/ Brined Halibut
Big fresh pieces of uni was definitely the theme in the dishes. I liked the use of toast which made this into an uni crostini. The cucumber balls were refreshing. However, similar to the previous dish, the fish was rather flavorless. I'm not sure what it added to the dish as I would have enjoyed the uni on its own.

Uni/Cauliflower Royale

Hidden in the cauliflower puree were chunks of uni. The dish comprised of Apple cloud, nori powder, cream, apple chunks and cauliflower. The cauliflower puree was creamy and flavorful. I really enjoyed the flavors of this dish and thought this was probably the most unique dish of the night. I think the dishes got significantly better from this point on.

Uni/ pizza/bone marrow
The uni flatbread was very interesting. I liked the concept behind it and the ample amount of uni. The bone marrow wasn't gelatinous, fatty or gooey like what you would expect. Instead it tastes like plain tofu and looked like panna cotta. I wished that there was a buttery bovine taste. I also thought the microgreens were too raw in flavor.

Uni/Veal/tempura Mushrooms/bordelaise sauce
The uni worked really well in this dish. It blended well with the bordelaise sauce so it allowed the veal to be the center of the dish but contributed its briny flavor to the creamy sauce. The veal was tender and the shiitake tempura was perfectly fried. I only wished there were more pieces of the tempura.

Uni/Venison/shiso pepper sauce
The venison was cooked perfectly to a point that it was soft enough for a butter knife to cut through. It was a beautiful piece of meat and was well seasoned. I didn't care for the raw lettuce, but I did enjoy the creamy and rich uni risotto.

Yuzu Creme Brulee/ Poached Apricots/ Kumquats
The dessert unfortunately didn't include uni but it was a nice end to the meal. The dessert wasn't overly sweet and the kumquats added a tart finish.

I commend Chef Mahon on tackling a sea urchin tasting menu. I was impressed with the portions of uni in this tasting menu, they definitely didn't skimp on the urchin. I'm glad I had the chance to try out the menu- when will you ever get a chance to feast on a 7 course uni tasting menu? However on quite a few dishes, I would have preferred to have eaten the urchin on its own. Personally, I didn't think some of the other components enhanced the uni flavor, such as the fishy oyster (perhaps we got a bad one). In such cases, I would have preferred to savor the uni flavor in its original form. But overall, a unique dining experience and a great way to raise money for the sake charity.

Hits: venison and veal dishes, cauliflower, lots of uni
Misses: fishy oyster, fish dishes lacked seasoning
Rating: ***

Magnum Pop Up
Royal T Cafe
8910 Washington Blvd.,
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 559-6300

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Drago Santa Monica: 6-course Duck Tasting Menu

For a limited time only, Drago in Santa Monica is offering a duck tasting menu.

The tasting menu includes 6 courses for $59 with wine pairing for an additional $29.

Our waiter prompted brought over breadsticks and fresh bread when we were seated.

Amuse bouche of Arancini was served pipping hot and was comprised of mozzarella and tomato sauce. I liked the crispy breading which wasn't greasy.

il fegato ~ foie gras torchon, pickled vegetables, toasted brioche, marsala reduction
valter scarbolo, pinot grigio, friuli, 2009
The torchon sat beautifully on a toasty brioche. The foie gras was really buttery and intense. You could tell that it was good quality foie that just needed a sprinkle of fresh cracked black pepper and sea salt. I usually see foie paired with sweet preserve so it was an interesting combination with the sour pickled vegetables and the tangy marsala sauce.

l’uovo ~ 63 degree duck egg, pomme paille, potato espuma, teeny greens
castello della sala, bramito, chardonnay, umbria 2009

The yolk of the sous vide cooked egg was thick and almost gooey. The potato puree was lightly whipped and well seasoned. This was a rich but comforting dish.

gli agnolotti ~ duck mousse filled agnolotti, crispy duck skin, butter glaze
lasseter family winery, syrah rose, sonoma valley, 2009
I really enjoyed the pasta dish. The agnolotti had a nice al dente texture and was filled with tender duck. The Chicharrón flavored cracklings were delightful and added saltiness and crunch to the subtle butter sauce.

il risotto ~ duck confit risotto, amarone wine reduction
miura, pinot noir, monterey county, 2008
The duck was cooked to order and served hot. I was quite impressed with how well the duck was cooked. The skin was crispy and the fat was properly rendered, while the meat itself was juicy and tender. The duck sat on a bed of creamy al dente risotto which had an interesting marriage of sharp pecorino cheese and sweet wine reduction.

il petto ~ seared duck breast, collard green and farro ragout, pearl onion and blood orange
fuedo maccari, saia, nero d’avola, sicilia, 2007
The duck was beautifully cooked, pinkish in the center. As much as I enjoyed the duck, I also loved the accompaniments. The collard greens and the farro added nice textures and really did a good job of absorbing the flavors of the rich duck sauce. I also liked the cippolini onions which were not mushy or strong flavored.

gli involtini dolci ~ foie gras and olive oil mousse, strawberry, black pepper gelato
maculan, dindarello, moscato, veneto, 2009
I was impressed that Drago had incorporated duck into the dessert course, which can be a very tough feat. The airy and salty foie gras mousse was sandwiched between a crispy wafer and a surprisingly mild olive oil panna cotta-like cream topping. I was pleased to see that a traditional restaurant such as Drago had offered a spicy black pepper gelato which was rather unique and the first that I've ever sampled.

I was extremely impressed with the duck tasting menu. Not only were all the dishes perfectly executed and well seasoned, but the price tag was very reasonable at $88 for 6 courses including wine pairing. The wine pours were generous. Although the wine may not be as good as some of the pairings I've had, it was a steal at $29 and there were some standouts such as the Miura Pinot Noir and the Moscato. The dishes came out rather quickly so I was concerned that the dishes had been pre-made but all the items came out hot and cooked well. It's interesting because based on the decor, clientele and elevator music, Drago seems to cater to a much older crowd (we were at least 20 years younger than anyone else in the room) but yet the tasting courses were updated and inventive. This menu is only available for a limited time but it's not one to be missed.

Hits: good deal, all the dishes were amazing, service
Misses: service a bit rushed
Rating: ****

Drago Santa Monica
2628 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90403
(310) 828-1585

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Son of a Gun: hearty seafood from the Animal guys

When I first heard that Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal Restaurant were opening up a seafood restaurant, I was hesitant. When I think of seafood, I think of healthy, steamed, typically not very filling. When I think of Animal, I think of meat, foie gras, sweetbreads, heavy & rich dishes. It still hasn't disappointed me to this date. And recently, I came to find that neither has Son of a Gun. True, there are more seafood dishes on the menu. But it's just as hearty, flavorful and satisfying as its sibling restaurant.

The walls are adorned with nautical props (life savers, fishing poles) as well as wildlife collections (Marlin and antlers).

The restaurant is tiny, it seats 55 and half the seats are available through reservation while the other half are first come first serve. I was a bit bothered at the beginning of the night as we had reservations and had to wait 20 minutes for our table (on a Monday, no less). But the minute we studied the menu and was served the first course, all annoyed feelings went out the door.

Similar to Animal, the food here is served family style.

Shrimp Toast sandwich, herbs, sriracha mayo
This was one of the must-orders based on the reviews online. The airy bread was buttered and toasted, and was thinly spread with shrimp and spicy mayo. The cilantro and Vietnamese basil was sharp and fragrant. We enjoyed this dish so much that we had to get another order at the end of our meal.

Lobster Roll, celery, lemon aioli
This was another crowd favorite. Many suggested getting one for each person (at $7 each). We shared two between three of us and I thought it was sufficient if you just wanted to get a bite. I appreciated the soft roll and the fresh chunks of lobster which was mildly dressed. The potato chip crumbles were a nice topping which added salt and crunch.

Linguine and clams, uni aglio-olio, chili, breadcrumbs
This is one of the simplest pasta preparation: garlic and oil, which the kitchen added a twist to by incorporating sea urchin. To my disappointment, the uni was very mild and almost non existent. But despite the lack of uni flavor, the sauce was flavorful and creamy. I appreciated that the plump clams were extracted from their shell which made this easier to consume. Unfortunately, as with most of the other plates, the portion here was definitely on the smaller side.

Alligator schnitzel, heart of palm, orange
I was excited to try this dish. I love schnitzel and from what I recall from previous alligator dishes, alligator meat tastes merely like chicken. The alligator was pounded thin and coated with a breading that was well seasoned and not loose. It really did taste like chicken. The heart of palm was mixed with spicy jalapeño and dressed in an orange sauce. I really enjoyed the sweetness of the orange sauce which tasted exactly like a creamsicle. The creamsicle sauce surprisingly paired well with the fried schnitzel.

Mussels, tarragon, pernod, fennel, toast
I didn't think I would be wowed by this dish when I saw it. It looked like clam chowder. But in fact, the sauce was rich and creamy, with a tinge of tang. I only wished they provided more than one toast as the sauce was too good to waste.

Fried chicken sandwich, spicy b&b pickle slaw, rooster aioli
Everyone online raved about this, and compared it to Chik-fil-A. Unfortunately I've only had the fast food chicken once so I can't make a comparison. I was glad to see that the portion was pretty large and could be shared between 2 people. The chicken was tender and nicely seasoned. I liked that the breading was crispy and not oily. The tender soft bun, pickles and spicy jalapeño completed the sandwich.

For dessert, I took a bite of this delicious peanut butter toffee bar that I bought from Magnolia Bakery across the street.

Son of a Gun is a great addition to the city. It good to see that the chefs can put out an exceptional meat-based menu at Animal, but can also cater to those that prefer a less bovine-menu at Son of a Gun. I was delighted that the food was not light or unsubstantial. The dishes all had really good and well developed flavors. For me, the mark of a good restaurant is when I am looking forward to coming back and trying more items on the menu. There were definitely more dishes at Son of a Gun that I'd like to try.

Hits: everything we ordered was delicious
Misses: portions can be small, 20 min wait
Rating: ***1/2

Son of a Gun
8370 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 782-9033

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ray's and Stark at LACMA Museum

I'm not a big museum fan but this week, I ventured into the unknown when I dined at Ray's and Stark, the new restaurant and bar located at LACMA. I'm a big fan of Chef Kris Morningstar after dining at District a couple times, so I was excited to check out his new creations.

The menu at Ray's Restaurant (named after producer Ray Stark) is Mediterranean-focused and created with fresh and local ingredients. As such, the menu changes often, so the beef tongue and veal kidneys listed online were no longer on the menu. Instead, the dishes now seem a bit safer. No offal that night. I later came to realize that Stark Bar has a different menu, something that is more in line with my taste (head cheese fritters, beef tendon). I wish they had offered such dishes in the dining room.

The decor is simple and modern. The tables have little utensil drawers that stored your napkins and cutlery.

The Elizabeth Taylor cocktail (White rum, Orange flower water, lime) was very strong but sweet.

The house made bread smelt great and was soft and warm in the center.

Our waiter presented us with an amuse bouche of cauliflower puree with smoked trout roe. Nice balance of oceanic roe flavor with mild cauliflower.

The casoncelli was stuffed with a puree of sweet green peas. The colors were vibrant and all the ingredients were fresh. The lobster chunks were cooked perfectly and the sauce was light and subtle. This was a nice spring dish.

The Truffled rice agnolotti in porcini sauce was my favorite dish of the night. The pasta was very fresh and the sauce was rich and buttery. The dish was littered with arugula, chopped crunchy hazelnuts and strands of black trumpets. All the flavors worked well together and it was a very complete dish. Similar to the pea pasta dish, we ordered the half portion/appetizer of this pasta, and I thought it was a reasonable size for sharing between two people.

The Hanger steak was sous vide, and quite a substantial portion. It was tender but felt denser and heavier than a regular hangar steak. IMO, I'm not sure if the sous vide preparation improved the steak. I thought the steak was also over salted. My favorite part was the smoked marrow compound which added a strong fatty flavor. The marble potatoes and cippolini onions were nicely cooked through but still held its shape.

The service was attentive and friendly. I appreciated that they comped us an appetizer to compensate us for the long wait for our steak - we didn't even inquire about the steak or complain about the wait time. The pastas were delicious, especially the rich funghi agnolotti. But I thought the steak, although tasty, wasn't anything memorable. Overall, I thought that the food was good, but not unique enough to draw me back. I guess I was expecting dishes such as spam sliders, duck fat Yorkshire pudding and bone marrow pierogies that Morningstar served up at District. The Stark Bar menu in fact, looks much more exciting and appealing to me. That's where I'll head to the next time I'm back.

Hits: pastas, bread
Misses: steak
Rating: **1/2

Ray's and Stark
5905 Wilshire Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 857-6180