Restaurant Roundup, 2007

So I’ve been eating pretty well lately–probably spending way too much money on food actually, but hey, you only live once right? Here’s a brief rundown of the culinary establishments I tackled in the last quarter of 2007. It was a yummy time. (Prices for two people, after tip, usually with about three or four glasses of wine)
SAN FRANCISCO AREA

Plumpjack Cafe, San Francisco, $150

We were lucky enough to have some connections at this lovely restaurant on San Fransico’s west side, and were treated like kings for an entire evening of wonderful cuisine and wine. The restaurant, as you might have guessed, is affiliated with Plumpjack winery, and as a result offers Plumpjack wines at retail cost on the menu. If that wasn’t enough to get me to give it a try, I don’t know what else would have been. The dining room is small and quaint but very upbeat, with only about fifteen tables in a dining room that can get enjoyably noisy at peak hours while still maintaining its elegance. Wine is showcased throughout the dining room, which reminded me once again why I was really here, although I had heard great things about the food as well. Former sous chef Tyson Greenwood has just taken control of the reigns, and demonstrates his passion for food through carefully designed California cuisine.

Upon my immediate inspection of the wine list, I noticed an interesting choice: The Plumpjack Syrah Napa Valley 2005 for a mind-boggelingly reasonable cost of $45. Given my recent fascination with Napa Valley’s ability to produce great Syrah, especially at higher echelon wineries, I had to give it a try. My first whiff and subsuquent quaffs were immediately pleasing; this was a big, leathery Syrah with dark black fruits, licorice and peppery spice, incredibly powerful for such a youngster but still maintaining its elegance and crying for gamey meat to accompany. As it turned out, our wonderful wait staff had already arranged a complimentary wine pairing with our courses, so we probably didn’t even need a whole bottle, but we tried our best to get through it, at it was too delicious to leave behind! After a glass of champagne along with an amuse bouche of fois gras, my appetizer of yellowfin tuna sashimi arrived with a glass of sake. The immacualte preperation and tender, flavorful high grade tuna grabbed my attention, and the sake pairing was beyond brilliant, perfectly complementing the subtle flavors. I ordered the lamb chops medium rare for my main course and opted to stick with my Syrah. They weren’t disappointing either, loaded with flavor and generously portioned, although I suppose I’ve had more tender lamb before. As expected, the Syrah was a star next to the lamb chops. I was actually stuffed before dessert arrived, although I did partake in the port that was given to us with our dessert. This is a great place to try in San Francisco; they’re serious about their food here at Plumpjack Cafe and maybe even more serious about their wine.

Gary Danko, San Francisco, $300

Perhaps the greatest travesty of the year 2007 was Gary Danko’s demotion from a five star to a four star restaurant in the usually dependable Mobil Travel Guide. After yet another amazing meal here, I had no choice but to bring up this absurd development to our waiter as we toured the impossibly tiny kitchen. I could hear rumblings after I voiced my inquiry; it was immediately obvious that this wasn’t the first time the staff had heard this question, nor was it something that they had been able to push aside, accept or forget about. The answer, as it turns out, lies within both the design of the restaurant (the upbeat, modern atmosphere boasts a great cocktail bar in the main dining room, which apparently is a big no-no now for Mobil) and the leniency of the menu (Danko offers a three-course, four-course and five course prix fixe but allows diners to mix and match their courses. That is, if you want five meat courses and no appetizers, fish courses or dessert, your wish is their command, although be warned–the portions here are huge, which is apparently another big negative for the powers that be). Ironically, these purported negatives happen to be two of the biggest factors that continue to make Gary Danko my favorite all-around dining experience in the United States.

As I admitted to our waiter after asking my somewhat taboo question, this was easily the best meal we’d ever had at Gary Danko, and we didn’t think that was possible after our first two visits. Mobil be damned, I was actually shocked by how well this place is consistently able to hold itself on such a higher level from purely a cuisine aspect than virtually every dining establishment in the county besides maybe French Laundry and Charlie Trotter’s. I began as I always do with the lobster and stone crab risotto, a rich, flavorful dish that is always hard to top, and this time was no exception. The al dente rice preperation and a nice dash of saltiness gives the risotto here such an authentic consistency and freshness (after all, you’re in San Francisco, so the ocean isn’t far). Yellowtail tuna provided a nice subtle intermission before moving on for more lobster, a generous portion of the immaculate steamed seafood dish that approached sheer perection. No meal at Danko is complete without game of some sort, so I ordered the lamb loin and the Morrocan-spiced squab. My delicious Schild Barossa Valley Shiraz came to life with the impressively prepared lamb, which benefited from a red wine reduction sauce and mint. The star of the whole meal, however, was the squab, a portion so large that it may very well have been the entire bird. It was butterflied, sliced and stuffed with couscous, all under an intensely flavorful Morrocan spice that was also complimented nicely by my Shiraz. I was completely blown away by this dish, and again, by this amazing restaurant that deserves even more credit than it already gets.

Redd, Yountville, $150

Chef Richard Reddington brought his expertise to an area of Napa Valley that is already well-established on the culinary map thanks to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. For those that want a serious meal on the same street without a $200 per person prix fixe menu or a two-month advance reservation, Redd is an excellent choice. The modern, almost trendy decor is vastly different than the aforementioned French Laundry, and the cuisine leans more toward Californian than French. We ate here after a long day of tasting thanks to the folks at Darioush who were able to get us a reservation at the last minute despite our having lost hope of eating here. In any event, pardon me if my memory is a bit blurry as a result.

Our waiter was clearly very professional and experienced, although he made a crucial error right off the bat. We had ordered a risotto for the table to split as a first course and then all ordered second and third courses, and were surprised to receive our second courses immediately without any mention of the risotto. I didn’t have the heart to bring it up some reason until later into the delicious meal, and when I did our waiter was clearly horrified. He brought out a complimentary risotto quickly, although by that point I had moved on to my other courses for the most part. I ordered the tuna tartare for my second course, and I have to say that I was shocked by the dense flavors in the dish. The tuna was tender, fresh and served at a perfect temperature in somewhat of a salad format, with lime juice providing great balance and chunks of pear adding a pleasant crunchiness to the superb dish. For my entree, I decided to order the New York Steak with shortribs, which is something I don’t order very often but always enjoy. The entire dish essentially melted in my mouth, as the New York Steak was cooked to medium rare perfection as it sat in a flavorful red wine sauce, and the shortribs didn’t even require a knife and were quite filling. The meal was topped off by a tour of the kitchen and some pleasant cuisine-related commentary from our waiter, who had recovered from his previous blunder. I have to say that I was surprised by the food here overall and quite enjoyed my dining experience at Redd.

CHICAGO

Alinea, $450

You’ll be hard-pressed to ever find a restaurant on planet Earth that puts more care, attention and precision into the sheer presentation and aromatic elements of its food. Young chef Grant Achatz is at the forefront of the culinary movement dubbed “molecular gastronomy” by in-the-know foodies, and despite his current and tragic struggle with tongue cancer, he has created a restaurant that is not only highly original and innovative, but one that has also received critical acclaim with unprecedented quickness (the restaurant was given the Mobil Five Star rating in only its first year, and was meanwhile rated the #1 restaurant in the United States by Gourmet Magazine). My wife and I decided that we had to check it out, and that our anniversary was the perfect occasion. I should preface by saying that this place does not mess around at all. When you call for a reservation, they ask you what you would like to eat. What they mean by that is to ask whether you would like a 12-course or 24-course tasting menu. Since we weren’t able to get a reservation before 9:30 on a Friday night, we opted for the 12-course.

Alinea is certainly the epidomy of five star service from the instant the hidden doors open into the reception area, which sits in front of the exposed, grossly oversized and almost showy kitchen space that couldn’t look any more immaculate. We originally had wanted to sit upstairs in the busier dining area, but opted instead for a large table in the more private dining room to the left of the hostess stand. The food is so carefully prepared here that it almost seems a shame to eat it; this restaurant views its cuisine as so much more than simply food, but rather as a work of art. The courses are tiny from the perspective of being filling, but when you’re planning to eat twelve of them you aren’t exactly looking for plates full of food. Our first course was a small piece of duck atop butternut squash, banana and thai flavors that melted in our mouths with a burst of flavor. We ordered the house champagne cocktail which went marvelously with our next course, slices of brook trout above juicy watermelon and coriander. Fish and watermelon, who’d have imagined how good that would taste? And that was only the beginning.

One of the most surprisingly flavorful dishes was an complex puree of navy beans with twelve garnishes served on a pillow (yes, a pillow) that exhumed aromas of nutmeg onto the dish. This was my wife’s favorite course and probably about the point that we realized that we’d never seen anything this creative before. My favorite course followed, as we were served a giant sea scallop above parsnip, oranges and hyacinth flavors that were also steaming their vapors into the dish, which was simply beyond words. A seemingly simple sip of apple cider came out after that, combining notes of walnut milk, cinnamon and vegetables into the stunning concoction. Tender sweetbreads arrived shortly after, followed by a single piece of kuroge wahyu beef buried under piles of cedar braches that spewed their glorious aromas above the flavorful piece of beef. Achatz is surely a chef that understands the simplest principle of taste, which is that our senses taste what they smell. If you don’t believe that, try plugging your nose and telling the difference between chocolate and strawberry ice cream.

The famous hot potato course followed, which involves a contraption that suspends a potato over a dish of butter and black truffle cream. Pull the contraption, and the potato falls into the garnishes- -such fun! The proverbial lamb course was anything but, cooked to perfection and far from ordinary. This was also one of the largest courses. Four light dessert courses closed the meal, including a transparency of raspberry in rose petals and yogurt, a guava dish, a chocolate passion fruit course with elements of lemongrass and soy. The final dessert course was a pumpkin fried ice cream baked in brown sugar and served above burning autumn leaves, which was a fitting end to a meal that consistently aims (and succeeds) to shock and amaze. For some, the presentations are a bit over the top, but one certainly doesn’t feel too badly about dropping a half a grand on dinner when such great care is put into the quality, orginality and presentation of the food as well as the exceptional service. It’s probably not a dinner you want to make a habit out of, but it can’t be beat for a special occasion meal that delves deep into the art of cuisine– an art that is rarely demonstrated with such zest anywhere in the world.

Crofton on Wells, $200

I’ve been wanting to try this small, cozy restaurant for a long time, and decided to give it a try for my birthday dinner. Chef Suzy Crofton has been here for ten years now on nearly a daily basis, and has earned the Mobil Four Star rating for half of that time period. The dining room is inviting and unpretentious as four-star dining rooms go, composed of small tables covered in white tablecloth and dark greenery serving as the main decor. The menu is also generously priced for a restaurant of such high quality, featuring diverse a la carte selections broken into three separate course divisions. The service is friendly, down-to-earth and honest. When struggling with course decisions in fine dining establishments, I almost always turn to my server, and she did not hesitate to make difficult decisions for me with conviction. We ordered the Chappellet Mountain Cuvee Napa Valley 2004, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which went well with most of our courses.

I started with the ravioli stuffed with confit of gunthrop farm rabbit and rutabaga cheese sitting above watermelon radish in a guinness reduction. The dish was simply packed with well-concentrated flavor within the soft, melt-in-your mouth ravioli pasta. The sauces complemented the flavors well, and I enjoyed the extra rabbit meat that sat beneath the ravioli. This was quite a way to start the meal. For my second course, I ordered the lobster risotto, which came out in small dish in a thick mass about the size of a large ice cream scoop. This was plenty large for a single serving, as the risotto was incredibly rich and lemony with large chunks of tender lobster meat spread generously throughout. The dish was delicious, although I tried to avoid drinking very much of the wine with this particular course as the acidic lemon flavors didn’t make for a very good match with the deep, dusty black fruit and chocolate flavors of the Mountain Cuvee. I instead saved more of the wine to match with my main course, which was a shockingly large pile of rare to medium rare venison meat. This amazing dish was served above arrugula with a delicious blueberry jam which added unexpected compliments to the smoky, gamey venison. The meat was perfectly cooked, tender and flavorful without seeming blood-rare, and retaining a memorable smoky characteristic that finished with a strong peppery element.

As delicious as the venison was, I am still in disbelief as to how large the portion size was for the cost. Aside from putting together an amazingly diverse menu in an adorable little dining room well off the beaten path in Chicago’s western side of River North, Suzy Crofton gets major points for not taking it too hard on diner’s wallets, while at the same time not sacrificing any effort or imagination in her cuisine preparations. This is the type of four-star establishment that serves well for special occasions, but doesn’t have to be designated strictly to that criteria. I hope to return soon, although it’ll take a pretty convincing argument to talk me out of ordering the exact same three courses again.

LAS VEGAS

Bradley Ogden, $225

Las Vegas is shockingly making a push to stake its claim as the top dining city in America. With two five-star restaurants and five four-star restaurants in the 2007 edition of the Mobil Travel Guide, only New York, Chicago and San Francisco (in that order) appear stronger by that measure, and Vegas is adding new fine dining establishments more rapidly than any of those cities are. One of those establishments is Bradley Ogden, the first restaurant by the experienced chef of the same name from outside his home state of California. The food is carefully prepared, farm-raised American and the setting is a lively, modern dining room located inside of the casino at Caesar’s Palace. This might be a turn-off to some, but the restaurant really has a happening feel to it, and the tables looking out into the casino add to the excitement. I was lucky enough to get one of these, which I found quite enjoyable. Besides, I remember the first five-star dinner of my life at Renoir (now closed, sadly) in the Mirage, which was also located in the casino, and that certainly didn’t subtract any elegance from that glorious place.

I had read reviews of this restaurant that complained about the portion size being too small. This is of course a common complaint by novice diners who aren’t accustomed to fine dining restaurants, but I ran across the complaint enough as I was researching the restaurant that I had to take it under advisement. My wife and I had initially decided to simply order two courses each since we were heading to a show shortly after dinner and really just wanted to get a feel for the place, and began filling up on the wonderful bread offered here in hopes to avoid leaving hungry. As we explored the menu, we decided on the same two courses (this never happens to us). I told our waiter that we hated to order the same thing but were both adamant at trying the blue cheese souffle dish and pork tenderloin. He accommodated us marvelously by suggesting that we simply pick two more dishes, and that he would happily split the four choices evenly between us so that we could taste more variety of the cuisine, essentially creating for us our own four-course tasting menu for half the cost. My wife and I agreed that this was a brilliant suggestion, and were surprised we’d never encountered this option at any of our many previous fine dining experiences.

As for the food, it was wonderful, and the portions weren’t small at all even though they were presumably split down the middle so that we could share them. We started with the ahi tuna, which set a nice tone for the meal with its melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. Then came the blue cheese souffle, which was unlike anything that either of us had ever tasted. The small but rich souffle of blue cheese sat in a salad of walnuts and blue cheese crumbles. The fluffy souffle itself was amazing in its consistency of both texture and flavor, and got major style points in the originality department from both of us (apparently Ogden is famous for his blue cheese concoctions, and I’m glad I’d read that before I dined here because I can’t imagine ordering something like this otherwise!) We selected the black cod for our fish course, and it really hit the spot as well, sitting atop oyster mushrooms, tortellini and an apple foam. The mushroom flavors perfectly complemented the lightly crispy cod, which was perfectly moist and impressively flavorful for what could have been an ordinary fish dish. At this point we were surprised by how full we were, but braced ourselves for the pork tenderloin. Again, the concentration of different flavor elements was impressive. The pork itself was tender and lightly grilled on the outside skin which provided a pleasant crunch, while the gnocchi and pork belly accompaniments added a lot of character to this classic American dish. Besides being amazed by the overall quality of the place and surprised at being absolutely stuffed, we were impressed by the impeccable service and perfect timing of the course delivery.

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