Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pai Men Miyake (Portland, ME)

After starting my holiday trip to Portland with a long awaited stop at Duckfat, on the 24th I had lunch at Pai Men Miyake, the casual accompaniment to Masa Miyake's celebrated Miyake restaurant.  Situated at the top of the "Old Port" section of Portland, Pai Men Miyake focuses on ramen (Pai Men meaning "100 Noodles" according to the website) blending traditional Japanese flavors with the use of local, fresh ingredients to create a truly remarkable meal.  Yakitori is available after 5:30pm, but since I was there during lunch and obviously could not have that, I went with the "Tei-Shoku" lunch special, choosing one option each from two of four "groups" of dishes, including dumplings, vegetables, ramen, and sushi; prices depend on what you pick.

I started with the pork gyoza, simple potstickers that did not outwardly look any different from any others, but are made with fresh, local pork and cabbage, with a nice, subtle flavor of each, a perfectly thin wrapper, and served with a light sesame oil and soy dipping sauce.  They were seared in such a way as to have a little bit of browning, and thus the accompanying flavor of a light pan fry, but without being really crispy; this is actually a good thing, as pot sticker type dumplings tend to fall apart if they get too hard a sear.  These were some of the better dumplings I have had, but the second I tried my sister's brussel's sprouts, I regretted my choice; more on that later.

For my primary dish I had the paitan ramen, with the traditional Japanese ramen noodles surrounded by a strong pork and chicken broth, topped with a little pork belly, half a soy marinated soft boiled egg, scallion, and a piece of nori (seaweed typically used to make maki rolls).  This is very, very different from the Korean style ramen of Manna House, but I wouldn't say it's better or worse; simply different.  I had them add the spicy garlic paste, but even with that there wasn't much spice, and the broth was lighter in color, though flavor-wise it was still intense.  The pork belly was good, though there was little of it, and the nori did not really add much, but the egg was remarkable; I'm not a big fan of soft boiled eggs, but this was so perfectly cooked, with such a delicate soy flavor enhancing the natural flavor of a really fresh egg, that I found myself wishing there were several of them. 

My little sister ordered the tokyo abura-soba ramen, which is simply the noodles, chili oil, egg yolk, nori and sambal (a spicy chili paste with a flavor similar to that of sriracha, though it is significantly thicker), without any broth.  Spicy and simple, this was really tasty, and not something I would have really given much thought to ordering, as it has neither broth nor meat, but this was just one of a couple dishes outside my normal realm of interest that surprised me that day.

My older sister started with the brussel's sprouts, as I said, and they god, they were good.  I can't even describe it.  A huge serving of halved sprouts, drenched in tamari (a soy sauce variety) and fish sauce, they are tangy and slightly sweet, roasted just to where the outside leaves are a little crispy, just inside are softer leaves, and then the core is just slightly crunchy, with a great bite to them that I have not been able to achieve when I've made roasted sprouts, and that I haven't really had elsewhere either.  These were by far the best sprouts I have ever had, and I'm really hoping to learn to make them the way that Pai Men does.

Her second dish was a pair of steamed buns, sandwiched around thin pieces of fried tofu.  I normally don't really like steamed buns that much, simply because they're rarely well made, and I almost never like tofu, for textural and flavor reasons.  Both were incredible.  The buns were light, porous, and slightly chewy, and the tofu had a slight crunch to the exterior that kept it from feeling like the spongy mess that I associate with tofu normally.  I have no clue what the tofu was marinated in, and I can't even describe its flavor, but it was really, really delicious, and went perfectly with the aioli-like mayonnaise that was lightly applied to the inside of the bun.  Since I liked it, I suspect anyone else trying it will too, even those who typically object to tofu; it really surprised me, and changed my mind a little bit regarding pressed bean curd.

With the exception of the gyoza, all the portions were pretty good; the brussel's sprouts came piled in a large bowl, and it took all three of us picking at them to finish without having my sister be full prior to the buns' arrival, while the bowls of ramen were plenty of food.  The gyoza had just four dumplings, which were not filling, but after mooching some of the sprouts and eating my ramen, I left quite satisfied.  For drinks, a number of local craft beers were available, both on tap and in bottles, with Smuttynose Brewing Company being the best represented.  I went with their Scotch Ale, a strong, heavy, and well made beer that may have been a little too much for this particular meal, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  My older sister had the same, and my little sister went with the Oxbow Saison Noel, a very dark representation of this traditional farmhouse beer, though it maintained the lightness and flavor of a normal saison.  All in all this is a fantastic restaurant, and I look forward to not only going back but also exploring its sister restaurant.  It's also very vegetarian friendly if that's your thing.

On a side note, both restaurants and the Miyake Catering business are served by Miyake Farm, where they raise fowl, pigs, and produce; this is true farm to table, in the purest sense of the term.  

©Miyake Farm


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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Duckfat (Portland, ME)

First off, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, etc etc etc...regardless, I hope everyone is having a happy holiday season.  As always, I am spending my Christmas in Portland with family, and while here I had the opportunity to finally go to Duckfat, a restaurant that opened a few years ago and is designed around the idea of using duck fat as a cooking medium; hence, the name.  I have heard great things, and it has been featured on the Food Network, among other media; the french fries typically get the majority of the press, and I can certainly see why.

Poutine with duckfat fried french fries, duck gravy, and local cheese curd
Duckfat is a very small place, with room for maybe 30, and at 1:30pm on the Sunday before Christmas it was packed, requiring a wait of about 15 minutes for myself as a solo diner before getting seated, and rather longer for many people who arrived with larger parties before me.  Seated at the bar, I felt a little crowded in, but that's okay; it's got a real pub feel, with a lot of exuberant anticipation among the diners, and I felt completely welcomed by the atmosphere and the staff alike.  I ordered the poutine, that classic French Canadian gravy fries with cheese curd dish that is never bad, but is rarely great; this, however, was great.  With extremely crispy fries, packed with flavor from the duck fat, and a really ridiculously good duck gravy, not to mention legitimate cheese curds, this was exactly what you would imagine when picturing the best of this dish.  I have had a few different iterations, and it's always been very tasty, but my god, was this good.  Even after being soaked in the gravy, the fries were still quite crispy, which is a common failing in this dish.  I can normally find a flaw with what I eat, even if it's nitpicky, but I honestly can't find anything with this; it is, quite simply, perfect.

Salted Duckfat Caramel Milkshake
Along with the poutine, I also had the salted duckfat caramel milkshake, which I had been considering before talking to my sister, but absolutely had to have after she insisted that I would love it.  Salt and caramel combine to make probably the best taste ever, and this did not disappoint in the least.  Sweet, savory, and just all in all delicious, I was completely full by the time I finished it but strongly considered having another despite the promise of impending stomach ache from it.  It was thick, gooey, and really high quality ice cream (they call it gelato in their menu description, though I'm not sure that the texture held up to that), and once again, I can't really find anything to criticize about it.

The menu includes a number of craft beers that appear to rotate regularly, along with the numerous milkshakes and sodas that are always on the menu.  All in all, this is a great place, and I highly recommend it.


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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Der Rӓuber (The Robber)

In a departure from my normal food/drink related posts, I'm going to talk about a movie I watched over the last two nights, a German language film called "Der Rӓuber," or "The Robber."  I don't watch a lot of movies, usually sticking to television, since it's easier to watch a 45 minute or hour long episode, especially late at night, but on occasion Netflix offers something that looks particularly interesting or out of the ordinary, and "Der Rӓuber" is one of those. 

Based on a novel, which was itself based on the exploits of real life bank robber and successful marathoner Johann Kastenberger, "Der Rӓuber" follows Johann Rettenberger, a Viennese convict who begins the movie as a prisoner finishing up his term for an armed robbery.  In a scene that sets up much of what comes later, Rettenberger is talking to the parole officer who will be responsible for him upon his release, and when asked whether he wants help, tells the man "I haven't needed help for six years.  I don't need any now."  Rettenberger is a loner, insular and quiet, who lives, it seems, solely to run.  And, it turns out, to rob.  Even when he makes a huge score, enough money to keep himself afloat for years to come, he can't help himself; he has to keep donning his mask and white gloves.

The timeline is not exact, but within two scenes of his release, Rettenberger is charging into a bank, masked and with a shotgun at the ready.  This is just one of a number of beautifully filmed robbery scenes, as the German director, Benjamin Heisenberg shies away from the Hollywood, or even London, style of heist; Rettenberger is in quickly, shouts a few quick lines, has the teller give him what little money is in the registers, and leaves, running to his most recently stolen car.  There are no big speeches, no in depth conversations, and, most importantly, no gunfire; in other words, it's realistic.  The only gunfire in the entire movie last for less than five seconds, and there is almost no violence.  Rather, the movie follows Rettenberger through his life, running, robbing, and even experiencing something that could be called love, with a social services worker he knew before he went to prison.

The cinematography is gorgeous, subtle but strong, without any apparent need to shove it down your throat what is going on.  Scenes seem organic, and not just the robberies are shot in a realistic manner; the running scenes rang true, even things so simple as the excitement of the crowds at the success of this homegrown man, or the exhaustion on the face of Andreas Lust, who played Rettenberger.  Lust himself gave a powerful performance, playing the quiet, determined, yet deeply flawed and angry Rettenberger, giving him an honesty that is rare in film these days.  Franziska Weisz, the stunningly beautiful Viennese actress who played Erika, Rettenberger's love interest, was perfect in her portrayal of the conflict that must inhabit someone who knows that the person they love is bad, maybe even evil, and must try to reconcile doing what is right with what feels right.  It is not an easy thing to get across, especially when there is a language barrier that requires the viewer to read subtitles.  Body language and expression become extremely important, and she, like Lust, plays her character with an unusual honesty and integrity.

This movie would not have been made in Hollywood, not like this; a compelling story, I'm surprised it has not been told previously, because this is the kind of thing that Hollywood thrives on.  There is a clear anti-hero here, but the movie does not judge Rettenberger; it simply shows him.  The viewer can make a judgment about his deeds, but the movie does not preach, it informs.  While some things are dramatized, the thing I liked best about the movie was its subtetly and simple realism, two things that are distinctly lacking in modern American film.  I would highly recommend it to anyone who can afford to waste a couple hours in front of a television or computer screen, and doesn't mind subtitles.


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Friday, December 14, 2012

MRKT Restaurant (S. Deerfield, MA)

MRKT Restaurant, located at 6 Elm St in South Deerfield, MA, is the new creation of Josean Jimenez, formerly of Del Raye Restaurant in Northampton.  Del Raye, which was the fanciest of the Spoleto Restaurant Group's stable of restaurants until it closed a few years ago, served some pretty fantastic food, but the one time I went there I was struck by the fact that the food seemed to take a back seat to the experience and ambience of the place.  MRKT does not suffer from that issue, and I don't mean that negatively at all; the decor is fantastic, very simple, and the atmosphere is perfect for a date (which is why I was there, and also why there will be no pictures today), a group of friends, or even a business lunch/dinner.  The restaurant is one of a growing number of "farm to table" types, specializing in, according to their Facebook page, "local, organic, ethical and natural ingredients."

Located in the building vacated by Alina's, a reasonably well known local restaurant that moved to Hadley, MRKT looks like a simple storefront that could be easily mistaken for an antique shop.  Once you step inside, you enter a dimly lit (but not dark) dining room, with tables for about 60; the tables are set far enough apart that you wouldn't ever feel crowded even if it were packed, and if they were simply trying to maximize profit I think they could fit another 20 to 30 people.  It's a white tablecloth kind of place (literally and figuratively), but it doesn't feel stuffy at all, and I didn't feel under-dressed in a pair of nice jeans and a half-zip sweater.

The food is even more impressive than the atmosphere, though it's expensive.  Even without drinks (the restaurant is BYOB at the moment, though they are working on getting their liquor license) the bill was just over $100 for two appetizers, two entrees, and two desserts; add in tip and  the $12 bottle of Chimay Blue Cap Grande Reserve I brought (see my review of the same here) and I went over the $140 mark.  Thank heaven for overtime, huh?  I didn't mind the cost though, as the meal was delicious and I had a great time.  It's also to their credit that MRKT does not charge a corkage fee, at least not for a wine bottle sized beer, and they have wine and pint glasses available.

We started with a special appetizer, roasted bone marrow, which was served with a small salad on the side and some toasted bread, and a cheese platter, which consisted of a brie like smooth cow's milk, a chevre, and a bleu.  The cheeses were fine, but at $15 I would have expected more than three small wedges of cheese, a small pile of local honey comb (which was pretty awesome), and a small pile of fruit mostarda.  They were not stingy with the bread, at least, offering to bring more at request without extra charge.  We didn't end up finishing all the cheese, but only because they brought our entrees out before we did; this was one of a series of small issues with service that I will talk about later.  The bone marrow was quite good, worth whatever it cost (I have no clue), and it was my date's first time having it, so that was a win in my book.  Hint to the women out there; not only being willing to try something a little out of the norm like bone marrow, but in fact suggesting it...that kind of adventurousness is really sexy.  At least to me.  And that's what matters, clearly.

The entrees were a huge success, for a couple reasons.  First off, my companion ordered the Casco Bay Cod, served with quinoa, radish, arugula and a red wine butter sauce, which was perfectly cooked, flaky but not falling apart, and not remotely tough.  This was great for both the fact that it tasted good, and because Casco Bay is among my favorite places on this planet, and I have spent a significant portion of my life on Peaks Island, the most populous island in that bay.  My dry aged ribeye was perfectly cooked, a lovely deep purple rare, exceptionally tender and with the strong beef flavor associated with dry aging.  My only complaint was that the fat wasn't well trimmed from the edges, creating some slightly tough cutting and bites when I didn't realize that right away.  Even with that, it was a completely reasonable $29, for a pretty decent sized hunk of meat.  The heirloom potato and rainbow carrots were delicious, and the soubise (repetitively labeled "onion soubise") was nice. 

For dessert I had a panna cotta, which was vastly better than the one I had at d.Vino in Las Vegas.  Richer, with a serious lemony flavor and much denser, this was what I was expecting from a panna cotta after seeing it on tv before.  I was a huge fan, and would highly recommend it.  My date had the chocolate budino, a chocolate shell with caramel, chocolate ganache, sea salt and a drizzling of olive oil.  She really enjoyed it, though it was apparently extremely rich and she wasn't entirely sure that the EVOO was really necessary.  It was so rich that she commented that it was hard to finish, but she wasn't willing to leave any on the plate either, so that's a pretty good endorsement, especially after a rather large meal.

So, on to the service.  This is a brand new restaurant, only a month or two old, and it showed.  The waitress we got was very nice, but clearly had never worked at a nicer restaurant before, as she asked another waiter "can we do rare?" when I ordered my steak.  There was a pretty clear lack of familiarity with the menu on the part of all of the wait staff members, but not so much so that it was an annoyance; simply something I noted.  Bringing out the entrees while the appetizers were still unfinished was a bigger problem, one that demonstrates a lack of communication between the front of the house and the kitchen, or possibly simply a lack of understanding of how to time such things by the wait staff.  It's a pretty simple fix, but one that is important.  That said, I'm a firm believer in tipping well based on the attitude of the wait staff, not their performance, and they were very friendly, not annoyingly attentive (something that bothers me greatly when you're very clearly on a date), but never too distant if needed.  Overall, this is a restaurant that has huge potential, and I'm sure they will only get better.  I highly recommend it, as you will be supporting not just a fine local restaurant, but also numerous farms and other purveyors throughout the region.


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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bobby's Burger Palace (Uncasville, CT/Mohegan Sun)

Exterior view of the menu boards
Bobby's Burger Palace is Bobby Flay's semi-upscale, semi-old school style burger bar, with twelve locations in five states and the District of Columbia, including one at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, CT.  Among the largest casinos in the world, Mohegan Sun has many fine features, but quite simply, food is not their focus, so when I go, I tend to have trouble finding decent food other than an old stand-by, Jasper White's Summer Shack, which closes by 11:00pm Sunday through Thursday.  Since I was there on a Wednesday and hungry around midnight, I figured a burger was my best option.  I had been to BBP once before, and wasn't displeased by the burger I had, though it was unremarkable to the point that I can't remember what I ate the first time; it may have been the Bobby Blue Burger, consisting of a patty with blue cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato.  The pistachio shake I had was by far the best part, but even that wasn't perfect, as it was slightly bitter and a little overpowering.  Thankfully, this was a much better, and more memorable experience. 

Napa Valley Burger (I couldn't resist taking a couple bites) and sweet potato fries
I chose the Napa Valley Burger this time, which is a certified Angus beef patty with fresh goat cheese, watercress, and Meyer lemon honey mustard, along with an order of sweet potato fries, that come with a honey mustard horseradish sauce.  The burger, ordered (and served) rare, was fantastic, almost as good as the burger from Burger Bar in Las Vegas, failing to match up only because the bun was nothing special and the meat was just not quite as high quality as at Hubert Keller's restaurant.  The beef was solid, however, with good flavor, and it held together nicely.  The cheese, strong but not overwhelming, was perfectly creamy and demonstrated exactly why chevre tends to be my cheese of choice, as it really compliments most other ingredients without taking over.  The watercress was a background ingredient, and worked essentially the same as any other green would have, but it's a nice change of pace from iceberg lettuce.  The least successful part was the sauce, not because it didn't taste good (it was pretty awesome, actually), but because it was just too messy.  I think a burger should be messy, but when almost as much sauce ends up on the plate afterwards as stayed on the burger, not to mention carrying off some of the cheese with it, there is a problem.  The sauce wasn't complicated, really just a thinned out honey mustard with a nice citrus bite, but quite tasty; if they had made sure it was a little thicker I think it would have been virtually perfect. 

The sweet potato fries were really good, but not so good that after trying to put the burger down and make a dent in the (rather large) cup they came in, I had two and then finished the burger.  The fries were crispier than I have ever seen with sweet potato fries before, covered in a visible amount of kosher salt, which I was worried would lead to them tasting over-salted, but only a few, which were completely doused in salt, were.  The honey mustard horseradish sauce was good, simple like the sauce on the burger, but instead of a bit of a citrus bite, there was instead the sinus clearing spice of horseradish, which could have been stronger but is likely designed to not offend people who are less accustomed to that particular root.  I also used the chipotle bar-b-que, one of about five sauces that are placed at every table, and this spicy sauce went perfectly with the slightly sweet and salty flavors of the fries.  You get a rather large serving of fries, which I could easily have split with someone else and not been left wanting.

So, overall, I had a really good meal, for a pretty reasonable price ($7.75 for the burger, $3.00 for the fries, and I went with water since I had to drive home), that makes me think either my first trip was an aberration or that I just picked the wrong thing that time.  I will likely return to BBP at some point, and it's worth trying if you're at Mohegan or near one of their other locations.  That said, however, if given other options, I probably would choose something else, partially because the burger is not that much better than most, and also because I find Bobby Flay to be a bit of an asshole.  I watch a lot Food Network, on which he is omnipresent, and I am constantly struck by just how poorly he treats people, both those who work for him and those around him.  He is a showman who puts on a good face most of the time, but he consistently lets his true colors out, and they are not positive at all.  If his food was far and away better than everything else, I'd probably find a way to ignore that completely, but with it being very good, but not great, I always end up just thinking about how little I want to put more money into his pocket; too bad Mohegan doesn't have better options available.


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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Founders Brewing Company Red's Rye PA

Founders Brewing Company is a Michigan based brewery producing high quality craft beers that seem to have attracted a decent following among those who love beer.  I have had the Centennial IPA before, and loved it, but Red's Rye PA is a really fantastic brew, definitely a great option if you're looking to have a couple good drinks, whether with dinner or just hanging out and having a few with friends.
Red Rye PA and Polygamy Porter Glass
Sold in brown 12oz bottles with a light cream colored label with a kind of creepy face framed by red hair and beard with "Red's Rye PA" above and "~Ale~" below in large script, with the Founders logo up top.  Poured into a pint glass (my favorite, from Oscar's Cafe at Zion National Park, a Wasatch Brew Pub and Brewery Polygamy Porter glass, proclaiming "Why Just have One!"), the beer is a deep amber, a really beautiful, unusual color for a beer, but it does lack head, and what there was when poured dissipates quickly into a light froth around the edges.  The beer smells hoppy and citrusy, really bright and fresh smelling despite it being bottled (on 07/10/12 according to the mark on the label) rather than on draft, and the flavor backed that up.  It's not as hoppy as I'd expect from an IPA modeled beer like this, and it doesn't live up to Founders' website's claim that it has "serious hop bitterness," but it's quite pleasant, with tons of flavor, including one that I couldn't identify until I checked the website, which would be a grapefruit like flavor they say comes from the use of Amarillo dry hop.  After you finish, the beer just sort of rests on your palate, with no added bitterness developing; it really just mellows until there is nothing left.  The mouth feel is similar to that of a standard IPA, but a little bit creamier.  At 6.6% ABV, this is not the beer to drink if you have an aversion to higher alcohol beers, but it doesn't really taste like it's more than a standard ABV brew.  I'm a huge fan, and I would highly recommend it.


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Friday, November 30, 2012

Chimay Blue Cap Grande Reserve/David Burke Prime Steakhouse 3

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So apparently a trip David Burke Prime Steakhouse is my new post poker tournament ritual, making getting knocked out by idiots who don't know math or strategy rather more palatable.  I try to pick new things each time I go, having the bartender (I always sit at the bar) make suggestions on the food.  I pick my own booze, but I have gotten a "thumbs up" on the choices I make each time.  I have had the same bartender, "Tim" each time, and he has yet to steer me wrong.

Chimay Blue Grand Reserve, in a wine glass
Having thoroughly enjoyed my first experience with Chimay Brewery beer, I decided to go with it again, trying the Blue Cap Grande Reserve despite its (extremely) hefty price-tag.  At $25 for a 750ml (aka wine) bottle, it is definitely not a beer for the cheap, but it's honestly almost like drinking four beers, at just over 25oz and 9% alcohol, and it really isn't a bad deal if you think about it that way.  A light (in feel, not flavor), slightly sweet, crisp beer, it was a great choice.  My first impression was it just flat out looks good, with a rich caramel color, which is actually borne out in the taste, and a thick, tall head that slowly dissipates into a light lace that covers the entire surface of the remaining beer, rather than simply clinging to the edges.  It smells of fruit and grain (as beer should), and you can taste just a hint of caramel and fruit in the beer.  This ordinarily would not be something I'd be interested in, as I despise most "sweet" beers, but this is no Blueberry Beer or Raspberry Hefeweisen; it is a hefty, strong, beer that is a perfect example of why Trappist monks are so famous for the goods they sell.  Despite its high alcohol content, for someone who is looking to try some higher quality beers this may be a good introduction; it is not the least bit bitter, and the alcohol does not come least until you finish the whole bottle and then wonder why the damn hallway keeps moving!  Really though, this is one of the best beers I have ever had, and highly recommend it.

Double-Cut Maple Pepper Bacon Strips
For dinner I once again went with the prix fixe menu, as it really is a great deal and I figured the beer was expensive enough.  At Tim's suggestion, I tried the Double-Cut Maple Pepper Bacon Strips, three giant strips that are probably five times thicker than standard bacon, served rather cleverly hanging from what looked like a tiny clothesline.  It is a huge portion, and I felt pretty well stuffed after finishing it, but I wouldn't change a thing.  Glazed with maple syrup, it was sweet, fatty, and succulent, leaving me craving more in spite of my stomach's protestations to the contrary.  The pink peppercorns are a bit heavily applied, and I brushed most aside, but they added both a nice snappy bite and a really great peppery flavor, without the overly spicy taste of a full corn of black pepper.  I would like to try making this at some point, because quite honestly I don't think it would be difficult; it seems to just be slow cooked pork belly, but exceptionally well done.  Once I get through all the options on the appetizer menu (I've only got three more to go among the prix fixe choices) I'll definitely be coming back to this.

Braised Short Rib Stroganoff
Since I had yet to try it, Tim suggested the Braised Short Rib Stroganoff, which was offered topped by a truffle sour cream that was to die for.  The short rib itself was slow braised and falling apart, but after the the short rib at Bouchon Bistro, it was hard to appreciate this one.  It was certainly tasty, but it was a little dry, and lacked the absurdly rich flavor of Bouchon's; maybe it's unreasonable to expect anything else to match up to a Thomas Keller creation, but it's very tough not to compare the two.  The rest of the dish was more successful for me, with housemade (I presume) cavatelli, succulent wild mushrooms, and, again, the truffle sour cream.  The cavatelli had just the right amount of tooth, and were perfectly dense, so as not to feel overwhelmed by the creamy, beefy sauce it swam in.  The mushrooms were not remotely overcooked, a problem I think most of us have encountered at restaurants (and our own homes, for that matter), instead maintaining their natural plumpness.  The sour cream was coolly refreshing with a rich creaminess that only added to the sauce.

For dessert I didn't pick something new, since the only option I hadn't had was a chocolate cake thing that quite honestly doesn't interest me in the least, sticking with the last trip's success and the crème brûlée, which was just as good as last time.

There was one negative to this trip, as the couple sitting to my right at the bar were exceptionally loud, profane, verbally abusive towards each other and the staff, and quite simply offensive.  I don't mind profanity (in fact, my friends would inform you that I'm quite a big fan of it at times) but this was not only overboard, it was really uncomfortable, including references to physical violence between them that I'm pretty sure foreshadowed the remainder of their evening together.  I asked Tim's partner, a lovely young woman who along with the remainder of the staff, was forced to put up with their verbal abuses and rudeness, if they were regulars, and she said that not only are they there at least once or twice a week, this behavior was normal, or even good for them.  The manager came around to ask how my meal was, and I asked him about it as well; he said they can't really do much since the two are "high rollers," so be aware this could be an issue for you.  If so...good luck.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Las Vegas Trip 2

I was in Las Vegas, NV for the second time in about a month for my mother's 60th birthday (or as she'd want me to put it, the 32nd time she's celebrated her 29th birthday).  This time I really didn't do much but eat, which is pretty much fine by me; after all, that's what Las Vegas is good for if you don't feel like doing much gambling.  I arrived on Friday evening, and left Monday morning, and in that short four days I ate some very good food.

Friday Night

On Friday night after arriving, I went straight to d.vino,  a moderately fancy Italian restaurant at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino.  This was probably the worst meal I had with the family, though it wasn't bad at all.  We started with the Shrimp and Artichokes appetizer, which had probably the best artichokes I have ever had, with perfectly cooked hearts cooked in a lot of butter, tender but with a little bit of "tooth" to it, and it was clearly very fresh produce.  The shrimp were cooked properly, but lacked flavor despite supposedly being butter braised as well, being overshadowed by the artichokes.  I tried a little salad that my mom ordered, the d.Vino Salad, which was pretty good, but nothing special, certainly nothing compared to the salad I had the next night.  My cousin's Roasted Beet Salad, on the other hand, was fantastic, the beets perfectly roasted and the goat cheese combining nicely. 

Seafood risotto; those little balls are the confit tomatoes
For an entree, I had Seafood Risotto, which was only okay; while it was creamy, it appeared to be more from using heavy cream than the actual cooking process of the rice contributing to the texture.  Essentially, they appeared to add a lot of fat unnecessarily instead of taking the time to do it properly; I could be wrong, but that was my impression of the dish.  The shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari were all really well cooked, which was nice, but they didn't have a huge amount of flavor, nor did the confit tomatoes. 

Panna Cotta
My dessert choice was the Panna Cotta, which tasted a little weak, but having never had it before I don't know if that's normal or not.  It was served with a couple raspberries and a raspberry sauce drizzled on it, though not enough to make any real difference in the taste or overall experience.  I enjoyed it, but probably wouldn't recommend it.

The most disappointing thing was the beer; I was excited when I arrived to find that my brother had ordered a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, among my favorites, but upon ordering it I was informed that the keg was empty.  I instead ended up with a Full Sail Brewing beer, that may have been their IPA, but certainly didn't taste like one.  This was one of the worst craft beers I have ever had, having almost no flavor whatsoever.  This was equivalent to Bud Light, but three times the price.  Avoid at all costs.

After dinner we went to see Blue Man Group, who I also saw several years ago in Boston.  I was completely exhausted, having barely slept in the previous 24 hours, but it was quite fun, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has a chance to see them.


I spent Saturday with my brother, watching football mostly after sleeping for a solid ten hours (don't judge, it was great), and we grabbed lunch at some Chinese/Vietnamese combination restaurant, that also had a couple of Thai dishes.  I went with pho, which was good, though honestly, it's kind of hard to mess up.  He had some approximation of pad thai that he thought was only okay.  Thankfully, this was just the beginning of the day's meals.

My mom's scallop dish; perfectly seared scallops
Saturday night was when we officially celebrated my mother's birthday (which was actually on Wednesday), going to The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino for dinner at Bouchon Bistro, a Thomas Keller creation, one of three of the same name.  My mom and step-dad had eaten at the Yountville, CA restaurant a few years ago and loved it, so she felt this would be the perfect choice.  There were eight of us in all: my mother, step-father, my mom's first cousin, my uncle, aunt and cousin, and of course me and my brother.  The restaurant experience was incredible, from the food to the atmosphere to the decoration to the service, it was impeccable.  The only complaint anyone could make was that the restaurant was a little dark, though this was not a problem for me.  Our waitress, Julie, was wonderful, funny and engaging, and really making the overall experience perfect. 

My step-father and I split the Salade Maraîchère au Chèvre Chaud, with mixed greens, herbes de Provence, and goat cheese with a red wine vinaigrette.  It is pretty simple to make a good salad, but tremendously difficult to make a great one.  This was a great salad, with incredibly fresh greens, bright and vibrant, with a perfect little disc of goat cheese, really high quality product, presented beautifully atop the mixed greens.

Short ribs
There were two specials that night, one with seared scallops that my mother ordered, and was perfectly cooked and delicious, and a slow braised short rib dish that I ordered. Braised for 12-14 hours according to Julie, the short ribs were fork tender, with a deep, rich beef flavor that was only enhanced by the braising liquid on the plate.  Those little white balls are confit chestnuts, which I could not identify while I was eating them, but which were really quite nice, with a woody, earthy quality that is unique to them but quite pleasant.  There were also bits of roasted quince that reminded me of pear, but rather less crunchy; very tasty.  The short ribs were placed upon a nice pile of wilted collard greens that tasted great with the braising liquid.  As good as all this was (and the short ribs were the best I've ever had, by far) the best part was what they labeled a "pain perdu," though this was a bit of a play on the term.  It was really more of a savory bread pudding, only very slightly sweet, with a flavor that almost reminded me of really good pumpkin pie (you know, not the stuff from a can), with some cinnamon flavor really coming through.  I don't think I could even ever hope to replicate it, but I would love to find a recipe.

French fries
We also ordered a side of frites, or french fries.  They don't look like anything particularly impressive, but they were incredible.  Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, with just the right amount of salt.  I'm not sure what they were fried in, but it was a stronger flavor than normal fries, and there was no greasiness.

Crème Caramel
For dessert I ordered the Crème Caramel, a classic caramel custard that was, to keep up the trend, perfect.  Smooth, gelatinous, and a little creamy, with just a mild caramel flavor, and not too much sweetness.  Among my favorite desserts of all, this was really quite fantastic, and I highly recommend it. 

The beer list wasn't bad at Bouchon, though their focus is clearly on the wine list.  I went with the Chimay Trippel, a fantastic trappist ale that I enjoyed for the first time.  Mild, slightly hoppy, with a nice citrusy flavor, served in a goblet like glass bearing the Chimay name.  This was a great beer to have with this meal, as it complemented the short ribs nicely but was not so strong as to overwhelm even the salad.


Sunday was a fairly lazy day as well, which consisted mostly of my step-dad and I reading by the pool (until it got cold) and wandering around CityCenter and checking out some of the many shops containing clothes we could never afford (including an $8700 leather jacket at Kiton that my step-dad wanted until I told him the price, and a $4400 Ermenegildo Zegna wool jacket that I may have considered selling my car to buy), before grabbing a beer and some food at the Aria Resort and Casino (also home to the previously reviewed Julian Serrano, where my family went on Thursday night...I am still displeased with them for that) where the family was staying.

After wandering around CityCenter, my step-dad and I adjourned to the wine bar at Sirio Ristorante, another moderately fancy Italian restaurant not entirely dissimilar to d.vino.  They have a "happy hour" menu from 5:00pm to 7:00pm, which includes "cheap" (it's a relative word) drinks and small plate options.

For beer I went with a Birra Moretti Lager (picture on right), a beer similar to that old standby Stella Artois, extremely crisp and light, with no hops to speak of.  The head dissipates quickly, like a lot of these super light beers, and there was no aftertaste.  This was nothing to write home about, but if it weren't imported (aka, expensive) it would be a great session beer.

There were five options for food (mozzarella bites, pork cheeks and tomato bruschetta, salted cod croquette, chicken meatballs, and spinach and ricotta ravioli), and we picked three initially.  Once the rest of the group arrived we ended up having all five.

All three of the original "bites" from Sirio's wine bar
The pork cheeks and tomato bruschetta were amazing, with thin, crisp slices of baguette topped with fresh tomato and slices of fried pork cheek that were incredibly salty, fatty, and crisp.  It was a little too fatty for my step-dad, but I loved it; after all, fat is flavor, right?  It was my favorite of the night.

Better view of the ravioli

The ravioli, which came in a sage butter sauce, were unremarkable, less impressive than the similar ravioli my mother occasionally makes from scratch.  They tasted fine, but I really doubt there was anything homemade about them.  There was a nice earthiness that almost tasted of mushroom, but that is really it.

The chicken meatballs in a tomato-Gorgonzola fonduta were more successful, as they were still moist, with a mild chicken flavor that really should have been stronger, but was pleasant nonetheless.  The fonduta was the best part, tasting (and looking) rather more like a roasted red pepper sauce than tomato, but was really fantastic, with just the right amount of salt imparted by the cheese.  These were a great option.

The mozzarella bites were nothing special, with virtually tasteless cheese on skewers with delicious oven roasted tomato and some basil pesto.  The salted cod croquettes were better, crispy and moist, and the puttanesca coulis was nice for dipping.  It did not match up with the pork cheeks, but it was pretty darn good.

We ended up having dinner at Sirio as well, which had a slightly better result than the bar food.  I went with the gnocchi, served in a very heavy green sauce that I can't really describe too well.  The gnocchi were fine, having a good flavor, but they were a bit too light.  I know that lightness is a virtue in gnocchi, but these had almost no substance to them, and a little more density would have been nice.  Dessert was a platter of small Italian doughnuts, dusted with cinnamon and sugar, and served with three dipping sauces.  Happy Birthday was written out in chocolate on the side of the platter.  These were actually pretty awesome, though a little overly sweet with the sauces, which included a caramel sauce and a "tropical" sauce (aka, lemon).  Overall, this was not my favorite meal, but it wasn't the worst either, and I would not object to going back, though there are certainly better options both in the Aria and in the surrounding casinos.


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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Harpoon Winter Warmer

With a deep reddish brown color and a light, creamy head, the Harpoon Bewery Winter Warmer is a beautiful drink when first poured, but the head disappears quickly, leaving only a lacy trace of that foam around the edge of the glass, an early sign of the disappointment that will come from drinking the beer.  The flavor is mild, without anything standing out or coming to the forefront, really just a stronger, deeper version of any basic American ale.  There is almost no bitterness, and no flavor of hops, two things that I look for in a good beer.  It lacks the depth of flavor, or “volume” of a good winter ale, and at microbrewery prices, it is not worth it when there are options like the Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale available.  If there are no other micro-brewed ales available, then it isn’t the worst choice, but like the rest of Harpoon’s offerings, I’m consistently disappointed by what I experience.  I always come away glad I didn’t go for the cheaper, macro-brewed beers, but overall it is lacking.  The high note, sadly, is that it came in a neat custom wine-type glass.  I don’t think I will come back for this one.

As a side note, the only reason I ordered this is because when you're sitting in an airport awaiting a flight you're really not looking forward to (hell, when does any actually look forward to a flight?) virtually any beer will do.  It didn't make the flight any better, but it was worth a shot.


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Saturday, October 27, 2012

David Burke Prime Steakhouse (Mashantucket, CT/Foxwoods Resort Casino) Trip 2

One side of Prime Steakhouse's bar
I apparently lack originality, since I'll be talking about the same restaurant twice in as many posts, but I went back to David Burke Prime Steakhouse on Thursday, again as part of a trip to play poker at Foxwoods.  I again sat at the bar, and had the same bartender, who was as superlative as last time, and the food held up nicely again.

Widmer Brothers Pitch Black IPA
I went with the prix fixe again, but chose entirely different options for everything except my drink option, going with Widmer Brothers Pitch Black IPA.  This was less of a perfect choice this time, as I went with the Lobster Bisque for the appetizer and the "Angry" Filet and Jumbo Shrimp for the entree, and it sort of overwhelmed the filet.

Popover with butter
I forgot to mention last time that the meal comes with a large popover, with a healthy dose of pepper in the batter, which is apparent both visually and flavor-wise, and really separates the popover from most others I've had.  They're all good, but Burke's are pretty damn great.  Served with butter, it is a great start to the meal, a light, crispy, savory pastry that also worked well with the bisque.

Lobster Bisque with "crisp lobster stick"
The Lobster Bisque was pretty damn good, with all the richness and creaminess you would expect from a good bisque, and little chunks of lobster floating in it.  There are few things I enjoy more than a good bisque, and Burke does a really nice job with it.  It's a lovely, deep, rich flavor, and you can clearly taste the lobster in every spoonful, something that is just not true in a lower quality product.  The lobster tasted really fresh, which is exactly what I'd expect from a place that prides itself on high quality products.  The menu states that the soup has a "green apple essence" in it, which you can't really taste, though there is a tartness to it that could be from that.  It also comes with what they call a "crisp lobster stick," which is really a stick of lobster in a tempura batter.  It's a little doughy, but that's actually not a bad thing in this case, as the doughiness allows it soak up the bisque if you dip it, which of course I did.  It was actually a really pleasant surprise, seeing as I hadn't actually read the menu this time and didn't know it was going to be there.  Dipping the popover in the soup was pretty great as well.  Overall, a really nice, albeit heavy, appetizer, which went exceptionally well with the bitterness of the beer.

"Angry" Filet and Jumbo Shrimp, with garlic spinach
The "Angry" Filet and Jumbo Shrimp included a perfect 6oz filet mignon crusted with what can only be described as a mild blackening rub, two legitimately jumbo shrimp, and a little pile of garlic spinach.  The filet was cooked rare, and was exceptionally tender, with a nice beefy flavor accented perfectly by the spice rub, which had a little bit of spice, though a little more would have been welcome.  The shrimp were also mildly spicy, with a glaze that had an east Asian flair to it that the menu labels as "chipotle bbq," but they were just slightly overcooked, becoming a tiny bit tougher than I prefer my shrimp to be.  That said, it was very tasty, again lacking the overall spice that I look for in something like this, but certainly tasty.  The spinach, however, was the highlight, with a light garlic-y flavor, perfectly wilted leaves, and a healthy dose of fat clearly having been used in the cooking; it was delicious, exactly what I look for when I eat a green of any variety.  The flavor of the spinach was still there, something that isn't guaranteed when you cook it to the point that it's extremely soft and almost melts in your mouth, and it balanced nicely with the meatiness of the beef and shrimp.  I do wish I had gone with wine instead of beer, however, as the flavors were a bit milder in this entree than in the prime rib, and the heaviness and strength of the Pitch Black IPA was a bit overpowering.

Crème brûlée
For dessert I went with the crème brûlée, and this was quite well done.  Soft, creamy, a perfect custard underneath a crisp sugar crust, it was light enough at the end of a good meal to not make me feel sick, but with a strong enough flavor to not be lost in the mix.  I love simple classics, and vanilla crème brûlée certainly qualifies.  When prepared properly, it's a wonderful thing, and this was the perfect end to a good meal.

David Burke Prime Steakhouse's bar, from outside


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