Sunday, February 15, 2015

Lyon Hall (Clarendon, Arlington, VA)

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Apparently reservations at good restaurants are tough to get for Valentine's Day around here, unless you make them a month or two ahead of time.  So, I was lucky to snag one just a couple weeks in advance at Lyon Hall, a self-described brasserie in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington.  This was already one of the dozen or so restaurants whose websites I had bookmarked to remind me I wanted to try them, so with its convenience to my apartment (at least on nights that there are not 40mph sustained winds) and availability of a well timed reservation, it was perfect.  Or, at least until I realized the Duke game was on.  But I digress.

Lyon Hall has two levels, with a long bar (with two TVs tuned to, of course, the Duke game), a couple dozen tables and a few high tops in the entry area on the ground floor, and another dozen or so tables upstairs.  It was nicely lit, not dark but not bright, though shortly after we arrived the manager turned the lights down a little upstairs (where we sat) which made it dark enough that the guy next to us was using his table's candle to read the menu, though I personally had no problem.

We started off with a special appetizer, the Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras, a small piece of foie seared lightly and served atop an apple tart, with apple butter and hazelnuts.  It was very tasty, and my girlfriend had never had foie before, so it was kind of an obvious choice for me, but I wish the dish had focused more on the liver itself.  The tart was a little too sweet (though the piece of apple atop it was actually not, and paired perfectly with the meat), as was the apple butter, so they overwhelmed the foie a bit when I tried to pile everything together into one bite.  Hazelnuts were a perfect choice, however, as they provided a crisp contrast with the buttery mouth-feel of the foie gras, and everything was cooked properly.

We were also provided with a small basket of a few different types of bread and some whipped butter; none of the breads were particularly special, but I really love when restaurants give you whipped butter instead of cubed, because it is just so damned easy to spread.

For our entrees, I went classic with the Grilled Filet Mignon, while Jess had the Pork Schnitzel, plus a side of Pommes Frites to split which was superfluous, as we were both pretty stuffed just from our own meals.  My filet was served medium rare, and was quite good, with a tremendous crust (described in the menu as a Roquefort crust, though I did not get a lot of  that flavor) that added a great textural contrast while also providing that great flavor only gained from a proper Maillard reaction.  The baked pieces of sweet potato were delicious, and the broccolini were perfect, with none of the bitterness that I often object to when they are served.  Everything worked well together, and while it was nothing new or inventive, it was a good piece of meat and well cooked vegetables, and that is something that never gets old.

Jess's schnitzel, also a classic in its native Germany, was perfectly crispy, maybe slightly overdone but not so much as to render it objectionable, and the spaetzle was amazingly good.  Roasted butternut squash spaetzle is definitely not traditional, but damn, it worked, and worked beautifully, especially when eaten with the accompanying pomegranate and the (much more traditional) red cabbage, something I really need to learn to make.

The fries were good, very crispy and also rather traditional, served with a garlic aioli, a bearnaise, and Heinz ketchup.  The first two sauces were...meh.  Heinz ketchup, however "boring" it may be, really is perfect with French fries, and I do count myself among the many people who associate the taste of ketchup with Heinz, and only Heinz, so I always appreciate when a restaurant goes simple like that.

Despite being stuffed (we took home the majority of the enormous pile of fries and a couple small pieces of schnitzel; good lunch for me today), we had the Sherry Posset, a custard-like dish served with a quenelle of lemon sherbet and carrot cake crumbles.  It was creamy, light, delicious and a perfect finish to the meal.

Service all in all was fine, and the guy who led us to our table and served our wine (Mas de la Barben's l'Improviste Blanc, a Roussanne/Vermentino blend, for a reasonable markup of just about 120%, very low compared to the absurdity of many other restaurants) was great, as was one of the other waiters who stopped by to refill our glasses and all of the guys who actually brought our food and bused our dishes.  Our actual waitress, on the other hand, was only okay, pushing the higher priced items a little too hard (seriously, a $43 ribeye is a little insane, even as a Valentine's Day special, on a menu where the highest priced normal item is the $29 filet that I was already asking after) and a little brusque the few times we actually saw her.  She was also not particularly present through much of the meal, and we did not see her for about ten minutes after saying we just needed a minute or two to look over the menu one last time, though in her defense I saw her downstairs as well, so apparently she had tables on both floors.  It was not a deal breaker, and since everyone else was so friendly, I'll chalk it up to a bad day on a busy night.

All in all, a good meal, reasonably priced wine list, good beer list, and $1 oysters all day Mondays makes this a good option in the area that I will definitely be back to.  That said, for the money, I think there are better options in the area, but it was certainly not a flop, and I can see why the restaurant is popular.  As a side note, the restaurant is in the same group as Liberty Tavern, which I have not been to yet, and Northside Social, my favorite wine bar in the area, that also has by far the best coffee and pastries in the area, and the menus at all three are planned by the same executive chef.  I will get around to reviewing Northside Social at some point soon as well.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Galaxy Hut (Clarendon, Arlington, VA)

I love finding a good place to just hang out and have a beer and a snack, and Galaxy Hut, one of the first places I ever went after moving here in August, has been a favorite ever since.  The bar is tiny, just one room that holds less than fifty people for their twice weekly concerts (Sunday and Monday nights), along with a great little outdoor patio that has a few small tables and one larger table in a corrugated tin hut at the back.  Sitting outside is great during the warmer months, but it does get a little loud inside when it's full, though not so loud that you cannot have a conversation. 

The beer list is extensive and impressive, about thirty rotating taps with seasonal, local, and other assorted craft brews, grouped by category.  They have some spectacular options, regularly having some of my favorites, like Bell's or Founders, and always something I have never heard of.  The beers are available in a variety of pour options, and are not super expensive for this area, but would be expensive back in non-Boston Massachusetts.

Food, on the other hand, is both cheap and delicious.  I originally went there (and, quite frankly, returned each time) because they have tater tots, and they are delicious.  It is like being a child again, except better, because there is beer now.  Plus, these tater tots are delicious, served fresh and hot (they probably started life in a factory, but hey, who cares, they are freaking awesome), with a couple of different sauces available, with the best being their honey mustard.  I also tried the eggplant fries a couple weeks ago, and they were really good, but only for about the first ten; after that, I was bored of them, especially because they have no real textural contrast.  I have yet to have anything, because I tend to go there when I just want a snack (aka, tater tots) and a drink, but I intend to have real food there soon, and I have no doubt it will be good. 

The menu is heavily vegetarian or vegan (in fact, a couple years ago they eliminated meat from the menu entirely, only to reverse themselves upon realizing it was cutting into sales.  Everything can be made to suit vegetarians or vegans, and they use different equipment to make the meatless meals.  Gluten intolerant diners need not fear either, as they do appear to offer the ability to make much of the menu gluten free friendly. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Chez Albert (Amherst, MA)

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On my final night back in western Massachusetts prior to returning to Virginia for the new semester, my mother, step-father, and I dined at Chez Albert, Amherst's lone restaurant serving French cuisine.  I had long heard that the food was solid, but that the restaurant was overpriced and served small portions.  This may well have been true in the past, but it was not my experience; now, they serve generous portions for reasonable prices, and the food is both well presented and delicious.

Sunday through Wednesday, the restaurant offers a three course prix fixe menu, priced at $35.00, which includes a choice of three appetizers (Butternut Squash, Simple Salad, or Pate de Foie), three entrees (Chicken Fricassee, Monkfish Cheeks, or Pumpkin Gnocchi), and two desserts (Creme Brulee or Chocolate Mousse).  The servings, as I said, are quite large; I had the Pate de Foie, the Monkfish Cheeks, and the Creme Brulee, and I barely finished my dessert--though, I did have a large chunk of my step-father's pork and a tremendous amount of bread.

We ate on a Tuesday night, and I believe the restaurant had not planned on having a full house; only one bartender and the owner were serving, and I suspect the kitchen was short staffed as well, so everything took a little longer than it should have to come out.  That said, bread was never far from hand, and the wait did not seem overly tedious.  We were initially given a basket of bread (which was a thick, crusty variety, and quite good) along with a white bean spread that was tasty, though we did have difficulty identifying it; honestly, I thought it was something involving butter, or possibly rendered fat of some variety.

When my appetizer finally came, it was a large rectangle of pate, which had a rich, meaty flavor, and a consistency that allowed it to be spread but was not so soft as the foie gras I had in France.  It was served with a very good mustard that reminded me of some of the good stone ground mustards I had in France, as well as a thoroughly delicious dried cherry chutney that was just the right level of sweetness and tartness each.  There were also a couple of cornichon, which is traditional, but in this case added little.  The bread, again, was a good vehicle for the pate and its accompaniment.  This was among the better pates I have had, and the cherry was just absolutely perfect with it.

Following up the foie was my entree of Monkfish Cheeks with Lobster au Jus.  The cheeks, lightly batter and fried, were very good, though one piece was just very slightly undercooked; that was easily overlooked due to the quality of the remaining pieces, which were each substantial.  Cheeks are known to be the most tender part of many fish and animals, and the monkfish is no exception; these particular cheeks were no exception.  Served with very good mashed potatoes, as well as a truly decadent lobster sauce (along with a small piece of lobster itself), this was a fine main dish, and the one minor flaw was easily overlooked.  My step-father's confit pork was also spectacular, moist and succulent, though my mother's gnocchi, which had a texture as if they had been flash fried, were only okay.

The creme brulee for dessert was very good, with a thick, hard crust of nearly burnt sugar topping a light, creamy custard that was as good as any I have had before.  I do truly love creme brulee, it is among my favorite desserts when made properly, especially since it tends not to be overly sweet; kudos to the restaurant for doing this so well.

All in all, a fine restaurant, and a fine meal.  It does appear to be vegetarian friendly (I suppose you would have to be to exist in Amherst), and the prices are distinctly reasonable, especially considering the enormous portions you get.  Both my step-dad and my mom had leftovers.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Piccolo (Portland, ME)

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Happy New Year!  Welcome to 2015!

Sorry it has been such a long while since my last post; it has been a busy season, between research papers, traveling to see family, and the holidays, and sadly, this has been the thing pushed to the back of my to-do-list.

But, I did have a couple of really great meals over the last few days of 2014, and Piccolo, a relatively new Portland restaurant, provided the best of them.  I went with a couple of my step-siblings and their father (not my step) and his wife, who very generously included me.  This was actually option B for us, and I am so glad we ended up there, as this was truly a spectacular experience all around.

Piccolo really lives up to its name, squeezed into a tiny space with only about twenty seats (if even that), but it does not feel cramped as you sit at the table, and the decor is simple but attractive.  The servers are all friendly, and we ended up having one of the owners, who is also the pastry chef, for our waitress, which was really great as she knew the menu so well.

We began with the "salumi" plate, which consisted of a couple of cured or salted meats (bresaola included, which was so rich and delicious I could have eaten it all night), some olives, and a few really fantastic pickled vegetables, my favorite of which were the beets.  Additionally, we ordered the "carotta" appetizer, which consisted of roasted carrots and a couple accompaniments, and which was a very good, albeit unspectacular, starter.

The entrees were where things really began to shine.  The six of us ended up ordering three different entrees, with each having two people picking it:  two "pasta fatta in casa;" two "calamarata," and two "del mar."  Everything was homemade, locally sourced if possible, and made with a care and technique that is rare to find.

The pasta (and the name literally means house-made pasta) was cavatelli, served with a lamb neck ragu, eggplant, orange, and pecorino, and other than my own dish, this was what I ate the most of, as one of the two who ordered it could not finish the rather large portion she was served.  The lamb neck was succulent and rich, the cavatelli themselves perfectly formed and cooked, and on the whole the dish was a delightful melange of flavors.

My dish, the calamarata, consisted of squid ink pasta (referred to as maltagliati on the menu, and seeming to be the ends of strips of papardelle) that was literally the best pasta I have ever had, the best cooked squid I have ever had (are we sensing a pattern?), charred tomato, peppers, and olives.  I'll admit, I missed the olives, but everything else was there in delicious abundance.  The pasta was perfectly al dente, the squid not even the littlest bit chewy (and anyone who has ever cooked that particular cephalopod knows how insanely difficult that is to achieve), and the tomatoes in particular was incredibly flavorful.  Everything just worked, so ridiculously well, that it has launched itself into the pantheon of best dishes I have ever had, a list that includes the short ribs I had at Bouchon Bistro in Las Vegas a couple years ago.  I cannot recommend this particularly dish highly enough, even more so than the restaurant as a whole, which I recommend very, very highly.

The last dish was fish, the particular variety of which I cannot recall other than that it was a locally sourced whitefish (I do not think it was hake, but I may be wrong), which was perfectly cooked.  I only had a single bite, so I cannot speak to it more than to say my sister, who has impeccable taste, loved it.

For dessert, we had a funnel cake-like Italian fried dough that was really tasty, with a crunchy exterior and just a little bit of dough inside the thin strands to provide a little chewiness.  We also had a poached pear with chocolate mousse dish that was fine, but a little too rich for me; it was clearly well done in every way, just not my thing.

The wines we had were great (picked by my sister in the case of the white wine we had), and the owner was good enough to suggest a red wine that was significantly cheaper than what had been the previous choice.  That was just the beginning of the great service, and once again, I really cannot speak highly enough of this entire experience.  If you find yourself in Portland, this is a very reasonably priced, very well executed restaurant with spectacular food; just make a reservation, since there are so few seats.  The owners are both veterans of a Daniel Boulud restaurant in NYC, so they have the pedigree to explain their excellence.

I do not think vegetarians would be successful here, though they may be willing to make something special; if they do, I have no doubt it will be delicious.