Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pizzeria Bianco - Phoenix - Great Pizza

Finally made it to Pizzeria Bianco today. I have been reading for years that it is one of the top Pizza's in the USA - but with a 2 hour wait to get in. They are now open for Lunch and while fairly full there was no wait for a table.

The atmosphere and building are really very nice. A good menu of salads, beer, etc. to accompany the Pizza. There are several red sauce and several "white" Pizza's. There are also quite a few add on toppings you can order. We had 2 white Pizza. One was olive oil Mozzarella cheese, Rosemary, red onion, Pistachio nuts. Despite the description it was a very, very lightly topped Pizza which is PERFECT. Really good. We also had a Pizza with some really high quality fresh Ricotta, basil, and we added some primo Prosciutto. Also great. Add a few local ales and you are all set.

Pizzeria Bianco on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cypress - Our Best High End Meal in Charleston

After our disappointment with Husk and our totally awesome meals at Marta Lou's Kitchen and J.B.'s Smokeshack I was prepared to be let down by Cypress. If fact almost cancelled the reservation. However, we were totally impressed from start to finish. The drinks, service, decor, food, and wine were all first class. It was a very Southern high end Hospitality place. If you want to do Charleston's best I recommend Cypress.

Unlike Husk they were not trying to be down home Low Country - they were an uptown, local, seasonal, class act.

Cypress on Urbanspoon

Husk - Bon Appetit (Not) Best New Restaurant 2011 - Charleston

After reading about Husk in Bon Appetit it was the first reservation we made when planning our trip to Charleston. Seemed like the place we had to go to experience the new high end of Low Country Cuisine.

It is a very nice restaurant in a great part of town. The vibe and buzz were fun and the food was just fine. It wasn't, however, even close to the best new restaurant I have been to recently. There are better in any food city in America. I presume someone at Bon Appetit has only been out to eat once this year in a new restaurant!

Part of the problem with Husk is that even a very good high volume restaurant can't really compete with a Martha Lou's Kitchen or a J.B.'s Smokeshack in Low Country Cuisine precisely because of it's size and "niceness". This kind of food is best cooked and passed directly to you by the cook on a paper plate. When you fancy it up you are missing the whole point in my opinion.

This was the 4th best meal we had in Charleston - which isn't bad but it isn't "best" either.

Husk on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 8, 2011

J.B's Smokeshack - Charleston - Yes a Buffet Can be Awesome!

So, we kept driving by J.B.s Smokeshack going to and from Seabrook Island and Charleston. After our awesome Lunch at Martha Lou's Kitchen we decided we should give the Smokeshack a try to see how really low , Low Country Cuisine stacked up to Husk and Cypress.

For an astonishing $11.50 ea for dinner we pigged out on ribs, Chicken, cornbread, Corn pudding, mac and cheese, an array of low country sides, and the best banana pudding with nilla wafers I have ever had. Everything was cooked in small batches, and the attentive crowd was just waiting to descend on each dish as it arrived fresh at the buffet.

I was pretty full and happy after thirds on everything. Don't miss this place if you are within a hundred miles!

J. B.'S Smokeshack on Urbanspoon

Martha Lou's Kitchen - Charleston, Low Country Cousine

Having read about Martha Lou's in Saveur and the NY Times we decided we had to try it out to see what the real low end of Low Country Cuisine as all about. TOTALLY AWESOME - that's what.

Martha Lou, who is about 85, was our hostess, waitress, cook, busser, and cashier. This lady can really cook.

When you order she starts with fresh uncooked chicken and pan fries it individually. When it is done she instantly serves it with really yummy sides. This is the secret to great fried foods - fresh and served within a minute of being done.

As you see from the menu it is pretty simple, $8.50 for a heaping plate of delicious food and an iced tea. Can't be beat.

It is between the airport and downtown Charleston Stop on your way in or out of town.
You will not be disappointed - take your time and enjoy real cooking.

Martha Lou's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Cuoco - Excellent Northern Italian in South Lake Union

Owner Tom Douglas and Chef Stuart Lane have a winner in their South Lake Union eatery CUOCO. Cuoco means "cook" and they do it very well there. I have tried both Lunch and Dinner and I find the atmosphere, food, drink, and total experience to be very satisfying - not inexpensive - but worth the tab.

It is especially nice to have a great high end food place for lunch. Tom Douglas is one of the few Seattle restauranteurs to offer lunch with panache at all his places.

My first visit wasa "play-date" lunch with a friend and a couple 2-3 year old charges. We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in a very grownup atmosphere. Fortunately, the atmosphere is noisy and happy with lots of 6 plus person groups and fairly casual wood table seating. The chef made an off the menu simple bocotini with a butter and light cheese sauce for our young girls and they loved it.

The second visit was a nice diner group of 6 with very good drinks and a nice leisurely dinner.

One of the things they do very well at Cuoco is of the moment, fresh appetisers that are innovate, simple, beautiful, and tasty. Their pastas are world class - better than Spinasse where we have dined many times. Stuart Lane developed the great fresh pasta program at Cafe Juanita when he worked there for Holly Smith, and also briefly cooked at Cuscina Spainasse when we had our 2 best meals there.

The various dishes we tried on our 2 visits are listed below. All were of the best, freshest ingredients, cooked perfectly. If I have any complaint it is that in their quest for simplicity they tend to under season many of their dishes. Unfortunately, you cannot get the really incredible ingredient taste enhancement benefits of salt in a dish by adding it as a diner at the table - it really has to be blended in before and during cooking.

dishes we tried and liked:

La tur cheese, cherries, walnuts, arugula

Burrata cheese, olive oil, macerated figs, olive crostini

24 month Parma prosciutto with arugula, olive oil, and griddled bread

Fava beans, whey poached egg, pecorino stagionato cheese

Roasted cauliflower, chickpea, vin santo grapes

Corn Salad - roasted fresh corn with great cherry tomatos

Bucatini pasta, Marinara, young goat meatballs

Spaghetti, garlic, anchovy, breadcrumbs, chili flakes, parmigiano cheese with grilled prawns

Risotto with Diver scallops, sweet sicily, chives, olio verde

Seven layer lasagna, bolognese, besciamella, parmigiano

Dry aged Washington rib steak, grilled country bread, roasted cherry
peppers, beacon hill arugula, lambrusco spring onions

Apricot Crostada with rosemary ice cream


Espresso over vanilla gelato

This place is a winner - go there - especially great for groups which is hard to do well in other "fine dining" places and formats.

Cuoco on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sustain me, baby!

Restaurant Name: Sustain
Location: Miami, Florida

So, last week I traveled from New York to Miami to visit a dear friend. Her husband is the owner of one of Miami's new, hot restaurants, Sustain. Naturally, we went to eat there.

Here's the skinny:

Living for 3 years in one of the world's premiere food cities has made me pretty hard to please, but Sustain got the job done. As the restaurant is owned by a friend, I was nervous that I might not like it. How awkward would that have been? Very. Fortunately, I loved pretty much everything about the place.

The name of the restaurant is also the restaurant's philosophy - sustainable and local, all the way from the decor (hip, open, and inviting) to the food (un-apologetically rich and sourced almost exclusively from southern Florida). Since I was eating with the owner, I can't really comment fairly on the service, except to say that it was great.

I sampled quite a bit of menu - from a charcuterie platter (amazing house-made pate and duck rillettes, plus pickled mushrooms) to chicharrones (a little chewy, but delightfully bacon-y), to salads, fried chicken, and more.

My favorites were the salad and fried chicken. The salad was a red butter leaf lettuce charmer (lettuce from local Swank Farms) with Benton's smoked bacon lardons, super-flavorful, crunchy croutons, tomatoes, and a plate-lickingly good buttermilk dressing. This was up there with my favorite salads ever.

The fried chicken was everything you want fried chicken to be: crispy, tender, and just the right amount of salty. After tasting it, I was unsurprised to learn that they brined and poached the meat before battering and flash-frying to finish. It was served with honey (a genius, classic combo) and beans flavored with (of course) bacon. The most awesomely awesome part of this dish, though, was the creamed Kale. I will dream of the creamed Kale for years to come; it was that good. Hearty, healthy Kale smothered in the silkiest enriched cream sauce. Oh, a vat of that to go, please!

In fact, I loved the Kale so much that I've attempted to create my own version at home...

Sustain-Inspired Creamed Kale
serves 2-4 (depending on how greedy you get)

1 bunch fresh Kale (I used a lovely purple leaf variety), torn into large pieces
1 tbs butter
2 tbs flour
1 pint whipping cream (do NOT wimp out and use milk), or perhaps a bit more
1/2-1 cup freshly grated aged cheddar cheese
salt & pepper to taste


In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium high heat and add the flour to create a roux. Cook the roux, whisking, until slightly browned and fragrant. Add the cream 1/2 cup at a time, whisking continuously until the mixture is slightly thickened and smooth. Add more cream if necessary to thin the mixture - it should be easily pourable. Whisk in the cheese (starting with just 1/2 cup and increasing from there, if desired), and salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, in a large stock pot, bring salted water to a rolling boil and add the Kale. Blanch the Kale until tender, then drain. Add the Kale to the cream sauce and simmer a few moments to combine well.

Voila...and thank you, Sustain. The highest compliment I can give a restaurant is that it's food inspires me to try and cook it at home.

Sustain Restaurant + Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Babbo Ristorante NYC - Too Successful for your own good

I have been to many transporting Northern Italian "pasta" based restaurants. I have been to most of Mario Batali's restaurants and have found them to be world class. From Del Posto to Casa Mono and The Spotted Pig Mario finds great chefs, has high standards, and does a great job. The problem with Babbo is that is WAY TOO popular for your own good as a diner. The place is so busy and so crowded that, while it is an exciting mob scene experience, they simply cannot provide the world class food and service that the menu, chef, ingredients, staff, and venue is capable of.

I hate to say this as a diner but I know it to be true: Mario needs to literally double the prices here to get "crowd control" and quality control. I know this because I had one of the best meals of my life at the B&B Ristorante in the Venetian in Las Vegas eating the same menu items I had a Babbo. The B&B is a virtual knockoff of Babbo also owned by Mario and Bastianich. The room, menu, and everything is almost identical - but it is not over crowded - and guess what? The prices for each identical dish are almost double what they are at Babbo - which is a general reversal of what I find most NYC celebrity chef restaurant price comparisons with the Las Vegas spinoffs.

I believe Mario and Bastianich are intentionally pricing low and overstuffing the place with diners as a homage to their first really successful restaurant - it is almost a public service to them to allow as many people as possible to enjoy the place. I can easily see why many people think this is an incredible value and unbelievable menu - it is just not what it could and should be.

Babbo on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Canlis - 41st Anniversay Celebration

Cindy and I had a tasting menu dinner at Canlis last night to celebrate our 41st wedding anniversary. It was an amazing window table, service par excellence, interesting people watching, a very adventurous and beautifully presented menu, and a good time on tap for a 3 hours of dishes we would NEVER order individually on a menu.

Canlis was named this week a finalist, AGAIN, for best restaurant service in the United States by the James Beard Foundation. Well deserved based on our experience - a very busy, full, large, restaurant but it seemed there were more helpful, friendly, and always competent staff than there were guests. It was kind of cool.

The restaurant itself seems never changing, in a good way, with architecture, views and decor a classic NW/Asian vibe. After going there for 40 years I can't see anything different about the facility, service, or clientele.

The Clientele of this restaurant has not really changed over the years - we have been going there for 40 years - but that is what is really interesting. Everything else but the clientele in the world has changed dramatically. Today you can go to the fanciest public event or show and the attendees are in sweats and fleece. In this restaurant every guy is wearing a coat or suit, every women a dressy outfit. Really it makes high end New York look casual. There was a pretty good spread of ages, ethnicity's, and table group makeups but they all looked like this meal was, relative to their family wealth, one of the least expensive places in town. Big representation of couples our age hosting , interestingly, mostly adult daughters and their spouses for some celebratory event or another.

The menu at Canlis is extensive, expensive, and a list of classics that are each utterly satisfying in an ala carte format with extensive small plates, hot and cold, and a long list of mains. Over the years we have had most of them and enjoyed them. Last night we were feeling adventurous so we tried the tasting menu which is the polar opposite of their normal offerings. It was beautifully conceived, and presented. It was also quite good. However, I can't say it was really yummy the way most of their dishes are. But that is OK because it is really and adventure outside your comfort range and outside the range of classic dishes.

Tasting menu

Amuse Bouche - White asparagus soup with Olive Oil and grapefruit served with a spoon of Tequilla Sunrise which uses sodium alginate to turn liquids into a big bubble you pop in your mouth and it liquifies - fun and tasty.

Opakapaka - Sashimi with fennel pollen, orange, and a ginger-carrot nage which was surprisingly the tastiest savory course. beautiful and very good.

Scallop Mousse - Michael Richard would have been proud of the faux cannelloni. Alternating stranding of white and black squid ink spaghetti "pasta tube" filled with a scallop cream mousse with a charred (best idea of the evening I will steal for my cooking) cauliflower. It was a little scary tasting until I had the inspiration to put a little fluer de sel on it. The salt allowed the subtle cream and scallop flavors to compete with the squid ink.

Pheasant - An architectural piece of breast wrapped in crunchy cabbage, with a foie gras sauce and hockey puck (the tastiest savory bites of the evening - fried of course) of "dressing". If you have never had it or cooked it Pheasant is the toughest, least friendly game bird you could ever choose to eat - so pretty good is a massive compliment. There is something deep in the American psyche that deems "pheasant under glass" as the most elegant dish possible.

Venison - The second game dish was a dry aged, sous vide loin which was wrapped in a pretty tasty sheet of pine ash (by some magic of molecular gastronomy). In My opinion Venison kind of falls in the four legged camp of Pheasant - Not the meat of choice - but again it was pretty good.

Degistive - Cranberry Fizz - Another molecular gastronomy dish. A really yummy, fizzy, creamy, sweet palate cleanser served as an ice cream soda.

Dessert - Cindy had a chocolate molten cake that was awesome served with a kind of dove bar ice cream on a stick that was caramel covered with chocolate and way too much salt (And I am salt addicted) that somebody screwed up in the mis en place stage. I had the Butternut squash "cheesecake" which is way too complicated a plate to even describe. Beautiful, decent tasting.

Of Course, being Canlis, when we walked out the front door our car was sitting there with the engine running - impressive after all these years.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ingredients are King at Eleven Madson Park

This is not the first time Eleven Madison Park has been reviewed on this blog; we ate there about a year ago and were very favorably impressed. But Eleven Madison Park is, in some ways, almost a completely different restaurant than it was a year ago. They've revamped their menu, not only in terms of the dishes offered, but also in terms of the concept. Now, rather than a list of dishes accompanied by descriptions, EMP's menu consists of a grid. Each space is occupied by a single word, such as "coffee" or "chicken" or "anise." You select either four or six items. The idea here is that the preparations of each dish will change frequently (made malleable by seasonal ingredients and chefly inspiration) or may be tailored to diner preferences. An interesting concept in principle, but it suffered in execution on the day we ate there.

After explaining how the menu "worked," our server did not then follow up with any dish descriptions. Rather, it was on us to ask. There were probably over 25 different dishes on the menu, and it felt awkward to ask about more than 3 or 4. Plus, once a dish was described to you, it felt sort of churlish not to order it (or was hard to process and remember all the details); almost as if you thought it didn't sound good. So, ordering was kind of a gamble. Some of the throws of the dice payed off, others didn't.

We chose the 4 course option, as it was lunch and we didn't want to spend the whole rest of the groaning we'd eaten too much.

As was the case the last time we ate at EMP, we got a lot more than four courses. There were several amuse bouche dishes, as well as palate cleansers between courses - among them were some of the best bites out of the whole meal.

The first amuse was a silky chicken veloute served in a coffee cup and accompanied by brioche toasts drizzled with truffle butter and chives. This dish blew me away because it was simple yet incredibly elevated. Plus, it tasted fabulous - hands down probably the best thing we had.

The second amuse was also quite special, a light lemon and Sturgeon sabayon with chive oil and small bits of sturgeon fish, all served in an egg shell. I'm not into really fishy things, so this dish immediately made me nervous, but I needn't have worried. The seafood flavors were subtle and well balanced by the lemon and chive oil.

For the first course, two of us chose the cold foie gras preparation, a mousse served with pineapple, pickled onions, and brioche toasts. On the side was a foie gras creme brulee (which struck me as quite original). The pineapple was an especially inspired sweet accompaniment.

The other two of us chose the prawns. These were served cold, poached and presented in a briny broth (also cold) alongside a green apple granita. As with other times I've had prawn combined with sweet elements (I'm thinking here of a prawn prepared sous vide with vanilla bean), it just didn't quite work for me. The prawns and broth seemed overly fishy and didn't, in my view, pair well with the cold apple granita. My husband, however, really enjoyed this dish.

For the next course, three of us chose the butter-poached lobster served with roasted chestnuts and a butternut squash puree. The lobster was rich and cooked just right; the pairing with the butternut puree was very wintry and satisfying. I could have done with fewer chestnuts.

My husband's second course was crab. This turned out to be King Crab served over a housemade egg tagliatelle pasta and a lemony butter sauce. It was very, very good and incredibly rich. Other main courses included a beef fillet with bernaise sauce topped with seared foie gras, chives, and sweet caramelized onion. This was (as you might guess) rich and decadent. I had the pork loin, which was served alongside a crispy/fatty pork belly with parsnip puree, horseradish and pear.

The desserts were the weakest link in the meal - poorly described (even by their single descriptor) and the least well-executed. Two of us had the dish described only as "chocolate." Oddly, there was very little chocolate present in the dessert. It might better have been labeled "squash" - there were butternut squash ice creams, caramelized winter squashes, and so on. Very little chocolate was present, and what was there didn't pair well with the squash. I had the "lemon" dessert, which was pretty good. There was a little lemon cake topped with lemon curd, candied lemon, and lemon foam.

All in all, I like the idea/concept EMP is trying with their menu, but found the execution spotty.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Del Posto Decadence

Christmas in New York - and I can think of no better way to celebrate than a sumptuous meal at Del Posto, Mario Batali's classy northern Italian joint in Chelsea.

Recently given a glowing review by the New York Times, Del Posto offers excellent service, a luxurious ambiance (think lots of flickering candlelight and red velvet), and perfectly prepared food (especially pastas and meat).

In fact, the only slightly off note of the entire evening was the amuse bouche. Typically a single perfect bite, the Del Posto amuse was instead a platter of small bites meant to represent the Feast of the Seven Fishes (so, perhaps this was a holiday thing). Some of the bites were quite amazing - a smoked scallop stood out in particular. Otherwise this just didn't seem like the right kind of thing to serve at such a fancy restaurant.

However, some Prosecco helped it all go down.

There are several tasting menu options at Del Posto; we chose the five course meal, in which you select your own starter and main course and then pick two pastas to share for the whole table. Dessert follows. It was more than enough food.

Among the starters chosen were a thinly sliced prosciutto, a salad of roasted autumn vegetables with black truffle dressing, and a spicy, fried calamari with capers and a mustard sauce. The prosciutto was, well, prosciutto. The autumn veggies were hearty (this salad was huge) and definitely elevated by the creamy truffle dressing, but the real standout was the calamari. The batter itself was spicy, while still remaining ethereally light and crispy. Total awesomeness.

The two pastas we chose to share were both completely amazing. We started with the Caramelle di Gorgonzola Dolce with Black Truffle Butter, basically beautiful little bow-tie pastas stuffed with Gorgonzola and drizzled with a rich butter sauce lazed with black truffle. Each person was served perhaps three of these; they were so decadent that three almost seemed like too many.

The second pasta was a homemade green garganelli tubular pasta with a ragu Bolognaise that many Italian grandmothers would probably commit murder for. Ugh. It was fabulous.

For the mains, two of our number decided to share the Grilled Veal Chop. It was served with some yummy sounding sides, but the meat was the thing here. God lord, the chop was HUGE. I got a bite or two (had to wrestle them away, though), and the flesh was cooked to perfection and seasoned all the way through. If you eat here and you like veal, you should definitely order this dish.

I had the duck breast with Apician spices (cooked just so, and with an impressively crispy skin minus all the usual fat), and my mom went for the wood-grilled lobster served in the half-shell with a basil sauce. The basil and lobster was a weird, but wonderful, combination.

Dinner was enjoyed with a Gresy Barberesco, G. Belzano wine.

Dessert at Del Posto was a mixed affair. Everything was good, but really only a few of the desserts were true standouts.

A pineapple crostada with gelato was refreshing, a butterscotch semifredo rich, and a chocolate tasting of 4 solid chocolates was more interesting on the menu than on the plate. But, the Chocolate Tortino was goooood - layers of chocolate sponge cake and ricotta, all coated in a chocolate shell and served with Olive Oil gelato, it was delicious.

The price tag on this meal was high, but overall, I think it's worth the price. We'll try Babbo next, as it's supposed to have equally great food but slightly lower prices.

Bon Appetit!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Restaurant Review: Pamplemousse

400 east Sahara avenue
Las Vegas
Nevada 89104

Old school Vegas charm paired with good food equals a unique dining experience. That's what I learned at Pamplemousse in Las Vegas. A waiter with more personality than you'll find just about anywhere added to the charm of this tiny, not so off the beaten path restaurant. My father who was in Las Vegas with me this week suggested it, as he had been there the year before with some relatives who live in the area. I absolutely love finding these types of places and without him we would have been at just another huge hotel restaurant with a big name and some celebrity chef.

We were seated in a side room that we were told was frequented by the rat pack, replete with striped curtains on the ceiling and outside, a bit of hastily strung-looking lights for ambiance along with what looked like a 3-tiered fountain built in to a wall that had long stopped running. I imagined the rat pack closing the striped curtains and smoking cigars and entertaining in this room many years ago. What an amazing quality of old Vegas this place has!

We were seated and greeted with a tremendous veggie basket and a long list of specials not on the menu, including frog legs, upon which we decided not to indulge. We chose lobster bisque and the special scallops for our appetizers. I’m told the bisque was the best part of the meal and a patron at the next table also agreed. As for my scallops, they were cooked properly but I prefer mine seared pretty well with a nice caramelized color to them. These were just barely seared.

We moved on to our main courses which consisted of lobster ravioli for me and the scallops as a main for my father. His scallops looked identical to my appetizer except just more of them. My ravioli had a very nice lobster cream sauce with it and was good but not life-changing by any means.

We both had also ordered the chocolate lava cakes for dessert which came with a homemade ice-cream on top along with a "dollop" of whipped cream. The dollop however was as big as the scoop of ice-cream and I think we can all agree that's not a bad thing.

Overall Pamplemousse was a terrific dining experience, mostly due to the d├ęcor and service, both incredible. The food was good, but nothing out of this world. I would definitely recommend a visit if you are in town just to experience the quaint charm and ambiance of old Las Vegas along with a good meal.