Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Eataly & Picnic in the Park, NYC

I didn't know much about Eataly until my twitter blew up a couple months ago with speculation that the Italian market would be opening up in Los Angeles. The sprawling 50,000 sq ft space in the Flatiron District in NYC, brought to you by Mario Batali, business partner Joe Bastianich and beloved TV chef Lidia Bastianich, houses every imaginable gourmet food item. It's kind of a cross between the Ferry Building in SF and a Sur La Table. There's a butcher, cheese shop, fishmonger, fresh pasta stand, home made charcuterie and bakery. Unfortunately their rooftop beer garden wasn't open yet. Apparently it will be open to public in the coming week.

There are many seats available for dining but we decided to pick up some fresh bread and cured meat for a picnic at Madison Square Park, just outside of the market.

We went with the packaged Fino Finocchiona and Prosciutto Di Etaly Friulano.

The rustic fig bread was fresh with a nice sweetness from the huge chunks of figs. The salami with fennel was my favorite. It was sweet with a hit of spice. The charcuterie selections were all fresh and tender.

We also picked up some focaccia from the bakery. The Focaccia Genova was topped with sweet onions. It had a bit of a creamy base but without any cheese. The Tomato, Mozzarella & Parma was identical to a ham pizza. The last selection was a broccoli focaccia.

The prices at Eataly are definitely on the high-end ($3-4 for each focaccia, $6 for a small loaf of bread) but the quality is solid. It's also a fun experience to roam the spacious market, buy a serving of gelato, peruse the pasta stand, and select the freshest ingredients for a homecooked dinner.

200 5th Ave
New York, NY 10010
(212) 229-2560

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wood & Vine: Small plates dining in Hollywood

We decided to grab a bite at Wood and Vine before the Fleet Foxes concert at the Hollywood Palladium. Located in the historic Taft building, the newbie restaurant is housed in a pretty cool space. The restaurant has two levels, soaring ceilings with dark walls and furniture. It's sleek, trendy, bustling yet warm in a very "non-clubby Hollywood" way.

Their dishes, prepared by English chef Gavin Mills, are meant to be shared so we ordered a couple dishes for the two of us.

Their Charcuterie is an absolute must. It's made in-house and is quite affordable at 3 for $8, 5 for $12 or 7 for $16. You can include cheeses to the selection. We went with the chicken liver mousse, pork and cherry pate and Tallegio cheese. The silky liver mousse was my favorite as it was creamy and easy to spread. It had the right amount of sweetness to it. The pate had an intense porkiness with chunks of rich liver. The Tallegio was rich with a strong aroma. I liked the nice setup of the dish with the meats and cheese served alongside the honey, pickled vegetables and mustard. I also appreciated the ample serving of crostini toasted with olive oil.

Their grilled scallop was cooked with such perfection. It had a nice sear outside but was supple inside. The large scallops were paired with creamy truffled grits and artichokes. The grits were really flavorful and decadent.

The braised lamb and ricotta ravioli was perhaps my least favorite of the lot. I thought the lamb had a gamy flavor. The butter did not seem sufficiently browned, hence it lacked that nutty flavor. I did like the citrus of the preserved lemon and the crunchy stalks of broccolini.

Their fried chicken and waffle is a crowd favorite. The white meat was surprisingly juicy and succulent. It had a nice breading and crispy skin. The house made waffle was fluffy and not soggy. I thought it held together quite well. Instead of having syrup drizzled on the waffle, they topped the dish with a sweet maple roasted squash.

In a town that's filled with too many uber-trendy and sceney restaurants, I really enjoyed dinner at this sophisticated yet approachable dining spot. The decor is quite impressive with a lovely outdoor patio area and retro bar area. The food was also good and very satisfying.

Hits: chicken & waffles, charcuterie, scallops
Misses: pasta was ok
Rating: ***

Wood & Vine
6280 Hollywood Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90028
(323) 334-3360

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Steingarten: New Beers & Brats Bar in the Westside

Steingarten is the latest of many beer bars cropping up around town. It's located on the Westside at the old Kay & Dave's location, on Pico Blvd where parking is ample. I love the decor. The dark wooden bar with chalkboard menu feels rustic. The long communal tables gives the place a fun and casual feel. There's a lovely outdoor garden area which is the perfect location on a sunny day. The menu is also quite intriguing. They offer exotic sausages, but also other interesting plates such as deer salami and chicken schnitzel.

Happy hr is from 4-7pm and for $10, you get a choice of 2 beers and any sausage from the entire menu except the game section. The happy hour sausage selection is excellent, however, we only had a choice between the Firestone Velvet Merlin (an oatmeal stout) or the Stone Belgo-barley (a sweet barley wine). I think our waitress was new because she wasn't sure if they had a happy hour special. She also mentioned the choice of two beers, whereas it seems (on Yelp and Steingarten's facebook page) that you can choose from five house taps.

Sausages range from $6.50-$7.50 outside of happy hour. Besides the traditional bratwurst and bockwurst, they also offer exotic sausages such as alligator & pork, bison, and venison & blueberry.

The sweet potato fries was served in a huge cone. I really enjoyed the curry tomato dipping sauce. Unfortunately, I thought the fries were a bit inconsistent - some were cut too thick and felt really dense. We also ordered regular fries, which I preferred over the sweet potato fries. The regular fries were skinny with an adequate sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

Trio of sliders included turkey sliders, smoked BBQ pulled pork and beef sliders. They three sliders were all unique in flavor, texture and toppings. The spicy pulled pork was the most flavorful with a zing. It was topped with pickled carrots and jalapeno. The turkey sliders felt lighter and was served with sweet caramelized onions and roasted garlic. I really appreciated the fresh toasted buns.

For the happy hour combo, I ordered the duck and bacon sausage. The sausage had really rich flavors but I didn't get much taste of the bacon. I was blown away by the caramelized onions which were sweet and cooked down really well. The bread was nicely toasted and fresh. Definitely home made and not from the grocery store. My friend got the Wild Boar & berry which was also a good choice. The sausage was quite lean and flavorful.

Steingarten is a nice addition to the area. I think the sausages are generally about 50 cents more expensive than competitor Wurstkuche, but I prefer Steingarten's wider food offerings. However I do think Wurstkuche has tastier fries and a better selection of dipping sauces. It'd be interesting to see the competition between the two when Wurstkuche opens up shop in the Westside this year.

Hits: sausages, ambiance
Misses: fries, HH beer selection, server not knowledgeable
Rating: ***

10543 W Pico Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 441-0441

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mimosa Brunch at Lokal, Chicago

Weekend all-you-can-drink mimosa brunches have become a norm, even when I'm traveling. On my recent trip to Chicago, I went in search of such. Lokal, a European restaurant in Wicker Park was top on the search results.

The restaurant has a very artsy feel to it from the paintings to the projection of film on the wall. I also like the exposed bricked walls and ducts.

They also have great silverware.

The owners of the restaurant are Polish and so is the cuisine. Some of the Polish items include Polish sausage rye sandwich with pear mustard, and potato pancake with dill creme fraiche. They also offer many regular brunch items.

On weekends, mimosas are all-you-can-drink for $7. I liked that our waitress even filled up the glasses after we had paid the check. If you prefer bloody marys, you can opt for their bottomless bloody's at $9.

Nutella frites was not what I had expected but it was still delicious. This was essentially a nutella and banana stuffed french toast. I really enjoyed the crispy toasted bread which seemed almost as light as brioche. The banana and nutella combination was lovely with the bananas adding a creaminess and the nutella adding chocolate sweetness. The whipped cream was fresh and homemade. You could tell that they utilize really good ingredients.

Duck confit poached eggs were a variation of eggs benedict. The eggs were topped with an apple star anise compote. The eggs were poached really well and the toasted bread was thick enough to soak up the runny egg. The duck confit was ample, however I think it lacked seasoning.

The regular French toast was topped with fresh whipped cream, an orange-maple syrup and fresh fruit.

To supplement my sweet french toast dish, I also ordered some eggs and toast. Unfortunately the only bread they offered was rye, so we asked for the same bread they used in their french toast.

I thought the food was tasty and reasonably priced. It's a pity we didn't order any of the Polish inspired dishes. The ingredients tasted fresh and the dishes didn't feel greasy or unhealthy. But the winner is the $7 all-you-can-drink mimosas.

Hits: $7 bottomless mimosas, nutella frites
Misses: only rye bread option
Rating: ***

1904 W North Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 904-8113

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Alinea, Chicago: Exquisite and Exemplary 22 Course Tasting Menu

As you walked through the red corridor and come to the end of the hall, the automatic door to your right opens, and standing behind it is a welcoming hostess. You glance over to the right and survey the kitchen. The kitchen is spotless and the chefs are quietly and efficiently working.

The hostess takes your coat and escorts you upstairs to the modern yet simplistic dining room.

Utensils set on a white pillow lay in the center of the table.

The 22 course tasting menu is presented. There’s only one menu choice. Wine pairing is offered for an additional charge (between $150-$195). The menu itself is insightful. The bubbles beside each course illustrate the size of the course (larger bubble meaning larger serving) and taste (courses go from savory to sweet when the bubble is position left to right). It's brilliant.

You know you are in for a treat. You’re at Alinea, the three Michelin Star, Best North American restaurant and Top 6 restaurant in the world. Chef owner Grant Achatz is known as one of America's best chefs in modern cuisine and molecular gastronomy. So sit back and enjoy one of the best dining experiences you'll ever have.

1. Steelhead Roe ~ dijon, rutabaga, grapefruit
Cocktail of Pierre Gimonnet Brut with Chrysanthemum liqueur and bitters
When our waiter first brought by the menu, he asked if there was anything we didn’t eat. The first course had mustard which I dislike, so he said the kitchen would substitute. I was surprised when the first course was served promptly and both my friend and my plates looked identical. I was sure they had forgotten to omit the mustard. But the kitchen had replaced the self encapsulated mustard custards with thick banana slices. You could not tell the difference between the two dishes. The rutabaga and ruby red grapefruit sauce was thick and complex, and littered with steelhead roe and licorice (not caviar) spheres. The flavors in this first course really came together and popped. It definitely woke up my palate.

2. Yuba ~ shrimp, miso, togarashi
Fried tofu stick was wrapped with shrimp, and dipped in a miso emulsion. I found the texture of the shrimp to be rather interesting. It wasn't rubbery or overcooked, in fact it was a tad undercooked, but in a good way. The flavors in this course were milder than the previous course, but I did find it fun to be able to use my hands to partake of the finger food.

3. Oyster Leaf ~ mignonette
Very interesting course. There was no oyster on this shell but the leaf surprisingly tasted like oyster. The best way to describe how you're supposed to consume this is to eat it like you would an artichoke leaf.

4. Scallop ~ hitachino weizen, old bay
The scallop was cooked nicely and topped with a Japanese beer foam and balanced with sharp scallions. You eat this dish as you would take a shot.

5. Razorfish ~ carrot, soy, daikon
Emmerich Knoll ‘Kellerberg’, Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria 2004
I like razor clams but don't see them served often. The fresh shellfish was topped with carrot, ginger and tapioca pearls. The sauce had a nice spicy kick. Tilt the clam back to get every last drop of sauce.

6.Urchin ~ green garlic, vanilla, mint
The presentation of this course was so delicate. The uni was encapsulated in a vanilla gelee and propped on top of a bowl of green garlic emulsion. Unfortunately I could barely taste the uni and I thought the flavors were overpowered by the intense cilantro and watercress. The broth however was delicious. It was salty, flavorful with a buttery finish.

7. Halibut ~ black pepper, coffee, lemon
Testamatta ‘Cicala del Giglio’, Toscana 2009
The blandest looking dish, you ask? Don't doubt Achatz. There's genius in everything he does. This dish presented in a monochromatic presentation was brilliant. Every element that you know to be black (coffee, black pepper, black licorice) was in fact served in a white form. The dish was anything but boring. This was an exceptionally cooked piece of fish and was appropriately seasoned. The lemon pearls, coffee, pepper foam and vanilla combinations sound odd together but came together. I also enjoyed the parsnip puree which was rich and creamy.

8. Rabbit ~ parfait, rillette, consommé
Niepoort ‘Redoma Branco’ Douro 2009
This was one of my favorite courses of the night because it was a trio of rabbit. The first course was served on the top section of an egg shaped container. After you are finished, you are instructed to remove the lid to continue on with the second and subsequently, third portions. Apparently Chef Achatz first noticed this bowl and conceptualized this course to utilize it.

Part 1 was rabbit mousse with creme fraiche parfait which was smooth and livery. For a contrast in texture, they served this with fried apple, spaghetti squash tuille, puffed butternut squash seeds and fried sage.

Part 2 was rabbit rillette with butternut squash puree, mushrooms and blood sausage. I really enjoyed this dish. The sweetness of the butternut squash and apple gelee worked well with the intense and salty blood sausage.

Part 3 was rabbit consommé with a cinnamon stick. A hot rock was placed at the bottom of the bowl to keep the broth warm.

9) Wild Mushrooms ~ pine, sumac, ramp
Peay ‘Scallop Shelf’ Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2008
I love mushrooms so this was another favorite. The selection of wild mushrooms was earthly and filling. The mushrooms and white peach rested on a pine cream sumac with crumbled pine nut and pickled ramps. Beautiful dish that looked like it was a snapshot of a garden plot. This dish really illustrates the point that fresh vegetables can create a mouthwatering dish.

10) Hot Potato ~ cold potato, black truffle, butter
This is a famous dish because of its unique presentation and is one of Achatz's mad scientist like creations. A pin is skewered with a hot potato ball topped with black truffle, Parmesan chunk and butter cube. When you pull out the pin, the ingredients are dropped into the chilled potato soup. When you shoot everything back like a shot of oyster, you realize the magic of this dish. The soup is simple yet complex with infused truffle flavor. The black truffle lends an upscale factor to this course, and the Parmesan is the perfect nutty and salty component to the dish.

A couple courses prior, our waiter brought by an odd contraption with two orange flags. We weren't told what it was for and were asked not to touch it. We found out it was edible when my friend sampled a tiny corner of the wrapper. Turns out, they left it on the table to encourage conversation and ignite curiosity. The wrappers were for our next course.

11) Short Rib ~ olive, red wine, blackberry
Quinta de Vicosa, Alentejo, Portugal 2005

We were asked to put together our serving equipment which included a metal stand. Ingredients were brought by and we were asked to assemble our own ravioli. I just love how Alinea is daring enough to ask guests in this fine dining establishment to put together their own dishes.

The ingredients include smoked sea salt, blackberry, charred onion, nicoise olive, tart cherry, tobacco pudding in spoon, salsify, parsley, tomato vinaigrette, fermented garlic, and pickled turnip. The short ribs were beautifully cooked, fork tender and braised in a rich salty sauce. I really enjoyed the DIY method as I was able to omit the items that I do not care for. It was fun to play with the ingredients. Who would have thought that blackberry and fermented garlic would go so well with short ribs? I only wished the tomato pasta could have had a little seasoning.

12) Hamachi ~ west indies spices, banana, ginger
This was a spiced banana fritter that had a light and airy breading and was not greasy. The fried ball was infused with ginger, passionfruit and vanilla bean. Once again, unique combinations. Unfortunately I couldn't taste the hamachi, it seemed that the banana flavor overwhelmed the other components.

13) Agneau ~ sauce choron, pomme de terre noisette
Napanook, Napa Valley 2007
The lamb dish is where Achatz pays homage to French chef August Escoffier. The lamb loin sits on a crouton and is topped with a poached artichoke heart and asparagus stem. The choron is a tomato bernaise sauce. The side of hazelnuts adds a crunch. It's a contemporary take on a very traditional dish.

14) Venison ~ cherry, cocoa nib, eucalyptus
The skewered cube of venison was tender. It was served on a bed of eucalyptus leaves and lightly dressed with sweet cherry compote.

15) Black Truffle ~ explosion, romaine, Parmesan
One of my favorite courses and also their signature dish, this was a soup dumpling served in a spoon. You are advised to eat it with lips sealed tight as the warm truffle infused broth may end up exploding at your dining companions. The rush of flavors from the soup was delightful. It was comforting and soothing. The wrapper wasn't thick or gummy. The dish was delicate and delicious, something that I could easily consume many more of.

16) Yuzu ~ snow
Palate cleanser of yuzu frozen by liquid nitrogen. Tangy and cold to the lips.

17) Sweet Potato ~ cedar, bourbon, pecan
Nittanus ‘Premium’ Beerenauslese, Burgenland, Austria, NV
This dish really played with your sense of smell. The dish was served on a heated cedar plank which infused its scent into the food. Sweet potato mousse was accompanied with bourbon, crumbled pecan, cayenne pepper fairy floss. It's good to be reminded that great desserts do not always have to include chocolate. I also enjoyed the sweet dessert wine pairing.

18) Lemongrass ~ dragonfruit, finger lime, cucumber
The test tube was filled with an interesting mix of fluid and gelatin. It was fun to suck all the ingredients out from one end. I found the shot of dragon fruit and lemongrass to be very refreshing and sweet.

The next three dessert courses were served concurrently.

19) Bacon ~ butterscotch, apple, thyme
20) Nutella ~ bread, banana, chocolate
21) Lychee ~ jasmine tea
AE Dor ‘Pineau Francois’ 1es, Pineau de Chartentes

The swine on a swing is the only item that remains from the original menu. It was basically candied bacon with a nice sweet salty combination. The center dessert was a freeze-dried nutella banana sandwich. I loved how the dry items combined together in your mouth. The last item was a thin sheet of lychee chard dusted with Jasmine tea powder that dissolved on your tongue and left an intense lychee flavor.

Last but not least, the dessert grand finale.

22) Chocolate ~ blueberry, honey, peanut
Toro Albata ‘Don PX’ Gran Reserva, Montill-Moriles, Spain
Ingredients were brought to the table but don't touch them. A rubber mat was placed on the table and the dessert chef came by to assemble this last course.

He expertly creates dollops and smears of chocolate and caramel on the canvas.

He also caramelized the creme brulee with a torch.

The end result is a masterpiece of chocolate shortbread, peanut butter nougat, pickled blueberry puree, milk sweetened with honey, hot chocolate, green and purple basil, honey custard brûlée and milk chocolate mousse that was frozen in liquid nitrogen and cracked table side. I enjoyed them all but my favorite was the mousse which had an intense chocolate flavor.

It's hard to articulate how amazing dinner at Alinea was. Service was impressive. Our waiters were professional but also had a sense of humor. I've had exceptional meals at top restaurant, but this one takes the cake on ingenuity and playfulness. It was by far the most fun dining experience I've had to date. But Achatz didn't just wow us with his presentation tricks. His food is impressive. Everything was spot on and well executed. I loved his insight to pair seemingly odd-matched ingredients together. I love how he lets you play with your food. The portions and pairings were perfectly sized where you didn't leave trashed, hungry or wanting to barf. Everything was well thought out from how the ingredients of each dish enhance each other, to the choice of utensils and design of the menu. It truly is a once in a lifetime experience.

Hits: dishes from conception to execution
Misses: reservations get snapped up quickly
Rating: *****

1723 N Halsted
Chicago IL 60614
(312) 867-0110