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The Grand Tavern, Oakland CA

Monday night can be the most challenging to find a good restaurant for dinner.  If you’re looking for a restaurant that’s better than good, you’ll be even more hard pressed.  Luckily there is The Grand Tavern, a gastropub with New American cuisine and a cozy venue that’s bustling with the sounds of happy patrons every Monday.

el colibrí

el colibrí

Almost wagging their fingers at restaurants closed on Mondays, The Grand Tavern offers Happy Hour all day long for just about everything from the bar.  With that incentive, we tried a cocktail named for a hummingbird in Spanish, el colibrí.  Delicately tart and mildly effervescent with pisco, lemon juice, hibiscus liqueur, peach bitters, and sparkling torrontés, the light taste belied the strength!  It was very tasty, but should be sipped gingerly.

duck pate

duck pate

Californians can’t get foie gras so easily anymore, but at least there’s still pâté.  This duck liver with bourbon was layered with house-made blackberry jam and served with Acme garlic toasts.  The bread was toasted just enough to provide something substantial to bite through, as opposed to shattering when bitten (as crostini sometimes does).  Enough about the bread, the contents of the Mason jar were the star.  The mild mineral flavor of the pâté was enhanced by a medium herb background and faint bourbon essence.  Pâté and good bread is already a nice starter, but the blackberry jam set it far above average with a dark sweetness to balance the liver.

mushroom chips

mushroom chips

King oyster mushroom in paprika tempura were a delightful vegetarian nibble after the intense pâté.  The crispy breading coated thick mushroom slices with excellent texture that was nowhere near mushy.  The bites were salty and lightly spiced, not spicy, but all three of the sauces had their own kick.  Salsa verde had mild flavors with a medium burn, while jalapeño chutney was more tangy and salty with a strong jalapeño flavor rising above the heat.  The spiciest was the creamy habanero aioli; August, who avoids spiciness when possible, thought the aioli was “super tasty, but what a burn!”  She really wanted a second mushroom with aioli because the flavor was that good, but the heat kept her back.

golden beet salad

golden beet salad

The beets in this salad really helped cool down our mouths after the mushrooms’ sauces.  It’s important to get more vegetables than just tempura’d ones, anyway.  The braised golden beet salad on arugula had called out to us from the sumptuous selection, and ended up coursed perfectly to relieve the heat.  Toasted pumpkin seeds, fennel frond, fat blueberries, and faintly tangy citrus dressing complemented the sweet, earthy beets and the zippy arugula.

lamb rigatoni

lamb rigatoni

Where there is lamb, August tries it.  In this dish the shoulder was tender, savory, and not gamey, mixed in with al dente rigatoni noodles.  Meaty mushroom slices joined the fun, and the sunny-side up egg provided a soft tender element.  Tomato, yellow onion, and chili flakes made up the chunky sauce, but it was garlic, one of the most important ingredients in the world (tied with chocolate), that brought everything together.

harissa chicken

harissa chicken

Zach’s chicken was “very, very juicy” with subtle harissa flavors.  The tender chicken rested across corn and mashed potatoes, but not just any corn and mashed potatoes.  The corn was sautéed with cherry tomato halves and wild arugula, resulting in a sweet, crisp, and exceptionally fresh side.  The mashed potatoes were rich with butter flavor and an intriguing horseradish aftertaste.  Jalapeño chutney made an encore appearance here, showing its range in pairing with other ingredients.

Because the restaurant tries its best to work with the seasons, the menu changes somewhat often.  Frequent diners will never tire, and first-time guests will have different stories to share about their wonderful meals and beverages.  And, of course, one thing we can always rely on is that it’s open on Mondays.

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Pub 1842, Las Vegas NV

The MGM Grand Hotel & Casino is way bigger than we thought.  Once inside, it’s labyrinthine.  Don’t be afraid to ask your way around, though, because Pub 1842 is worth the maze.  Chef Michael Mina’s gastropub has a completely different vibe than the nearly solemn San Franciscan Bourbon Steak, but his signature style and demand for quality are on par.  More finger foods and casual yet inventive takes on classics cry out to the younger Vegas partying crowd, especially if paired with one or many of the alcoholic libations available; the place is named for the year pilsner beer was invented, after all, so beer plays a big role here.

Try a sampling of the more than fifty beers on hand with a beer wheel.  “Wild World” crosses the globe with eight ales, stouts, and lagers, which our server and beer enthusiast Will described as being a more malty selection.  Because August likes hoppy brews, we went with “Born in the USA.”  PBR Lager, Anchor Steam CA Common, Batch 19 Vienna, Blue Moon Witbier, Deschutes Pale Ale, Ommengang Abbey Ale, Dogfish Head Double IPA, and Speakeasy Porter represented a broad range of brewing styles and tastes, and coincidentally when tasted in order alongside our food, there were some serendipitous pairings that surprised our palates.

crab louie deviled eggs

crab louie deviled eggs

Zach had been studying the menu since Pub 1842 opened not even two weeks ago, and knew immediately that he wanted to try the deviled eggs.  The tender egg whites were not overcooked, perfect vessel for the super creamy yolks.  Thankfully the tangy and somewhat sweet filling wasn’t overly spiced, or else we might not have been able to appreciate the crab.  Each egg had a large lump of Maryland blue crap with a sprig of dill and a sprinkling of paprika.

duck spring rolls

duck spring rolls

The spring rolls, extra light and crispy, were made with wonton wrappers rather than phyllo dough or egg roll wrappers.  Zach almost thought they were wrapped with what they weren’t, since the wonton wrappers were deceptively thin.  Tender, well seasoned duck was rolled with cabbage, mushrooms, and cilantro.  An orange sauce was more tangy than sweet with a touch of mild warmth from chili pepper (we won’t call it spiciness), and the cilantro made the sauce more earthy to balance the tangy.  At this time August was sipping the Batch 19 Vienna, and she found it to accentuate the duck very well, and vice versa.

avocado kale caesar

avocado kale caesar

This might be one of our most enjoyable Caesar salads ever.  Avocado makes nearly any dish better in August’s book, so we liked the fresh, ripe slices for garnish here.  Instead of croutons, artichoke chips served as a playful interpretation.  They were lightly crunchy and helped to round out the mix of flavors.  A garlic streusel with sugar made the salad sweet, but the bitter kale mellowed that.  Freshly shaved Parmesan added that cheesy, salty bite necessary for Caesar salads, so in that regard tradition was honored.  Otherwise, this was a modern and almost scientific experiment kind of way to present a Caesar.

the "2 pound" lobster roll

the “2 pound” lobster roll

Tender, hand picked lobster was buttery and sweet, nestled in a crisp buttery roll.  It was accented by jalapeño, tarragon, green onions, creamed corn, and popcorn.  The jalapeño provided flavor with no heat, acting as a seasoning like the tarragon and green onions.  Popcorn is not usually our thing, but here we had a decreased likelihood of getting it stuck in our teeth because there was so much more involved with each bite.  Zach particularly liked the roll; as a pastry chef, he felt that it complemented the filling quite well, and whoever grilled it did an impeccable job.  The fries, prepared from a frozen state but handled well, were herbed with variety but sage was the most predominant flavor.

peanut butter crunch burger

peanut butter crunch burger

Wagyu beef, creamy peanut butter, ruffled potato chips, bacon jam, and pimento cheese combined for what our server Will described as most patrons’ “amazing burger” or “best burger ever.”  We have to agree, never would we have considered peanut butter with beef but it was in fact amazing.  With creamy, salty Jif instead of sweet, the savory quality worked well with the juicy Snake River Farms patty.  Zach doesn’t typically go for potato chips, but here they provided an essential crunchiness.  The bacon jam was smoky, tangy, and very slightly sweet, while the pimento cheese gave a little kick and gooeyness to the burger.  It came on a potato bun baked with cracked pepper, adding flavor as well as an interesting visual appeal.  We liked that the fries here were distinct from the lobster roll’s; like the others these were previously frozen but well handled, but with a different cut and different seasoning.

big chocolate layer cake and chocolate malted

big chocolate layer cake and chocolate malted

Peanut butter was the star a second time in our final course of a tasty dessert and milkshake pairing.  Will told us that some customers are dumbstruck after already having such rich flavors in the appetizers and entrees, so he simplifies it for them, asking if they like chocolate, lemon, peach, or coconut desserts.  That’s a tough choice, but the chocolate one’s description with “peanut butter, pretzel, delicious” lured us.  Moist chocolate cake with a medium chocolate flavor was layered with smooth, creamy, chocolate butter cream.  Dollops of delectably smooth peanut butter ganache dotted the cake, while salty, crunchy, chocolate-dipped pretzels offered a contrasting texture, as did a kind of candied nut.  A simple yet delightfully malted shake was not overly malted but just right, for another kind of chocolate to pair and share.

Foodies, families, and fraternities alike can all find something here.  With modernized variations on classical themes, Chef Mina is a master at taking something known and making it new and vibrant.  It would seem that Pub 1842 has had an excellent opening, and we hope they continue to tantalize the palates of many Vegas diners.

Border Grill, Las Vegas NV

It’s hot in Las Vegas this weekend!  We are here for a short jaunt, and as we find restaurants in which to dine and beat the heat, we’ll share with you, as always, the spectacular food.  The last time we were here was for Vegas Uncork’d, and among the many chefs we met during those few days, Chef Mike Minor made a warm impression on us.  We saw him again, as well as Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, at Cooking For Solutions in Monterey, so we figured after running into them enough, it’s about time that we try the restaurant that belongs to all three: Border Grill.  Chef Mike is the executive chef, and chefs Mary Sue and Susan are the founders and creative heads.  It helps that we personally know one other member of the crew – Zach’s cousin Alex is a server’s assistant here but it was his night off, so the three of us went out to eat.

border classics

border classics

We couldn’t decide on a single appetizer, so Alex suggested that we try Border Classics, with three popular items on one plate.  Apparently some people who come here don’t know how to eat the tamales because they’ve never seen them before; being native Californians, we grew up with a distinct awareness of Mexican food so we take these kinds of things for granted.  Alex laughed about people not knowing to unwrap the tamales, freeing the naturally sweet filling from the corn husk.  The three of us really liked the tender and creamy masa, and while it was creamy, it was not blended.  There was still some corn texture in the mix.  The tacos arrived with huge dollops of creamy guacamole with the slightest bit of acidity.  The chicken in the tacos, made panucho style, was juicy and delightfully charred.  It was layered inside the slightly crispy fried tortillas with flavorful black beans.  The empanadas to the right contained plantains and black beans, with cotija cheese and a bit of chipotle salsa on top.  They were an excellent blend of sweet and savory, with a sharp bite from the cheese and still-crisp edges keeping the ingredients folded together.

watercress, jicama, and orange salad

watercress, jicama, and orange salad

Part of the philosophy at Border Grill is “good for the planet, good for you.”  Organic ingredients, hormone and antibiotic-free meats, and sustainable seafood are key elements of the menu.  Some items are made with at least 80% plant-based ingredients, like this salad.  The green mix of watercress, julienned jicama, avocado chunks, and green apple cubes was accented by toasted pine nuts and orange supremes with a toasted coriander vinaigrette.  The stars of the show, though, were the bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed with chorizo and blue cheese.  The sweet creamy center was balanced by the bite from the blue cheese, and the crisp, smoky, perfectly rendered bacon rounded it out.  Overall, the best word to describe this salad is “sharp.”

chicken poblano enchiladas

chicken poblano enchiladas

A creamy but not heavy green sauce had a mild roasted chile flavor with a very slightly spicy bite, just enough to let you know it was there.  The sauce covered and formed a pool for three enchiladas with an abundance of smoked chicken, grilled corn, wild mushrooms, and charred poblano chiles.  Like everything here, the corn tortillas are scratch-made, further attesting to the glory of real, hand-made food.  The corn brought an extra sweetness to the dish, working well together with the slight bite of the poblano chile sauce.

tecate carnitas

tecate carnitas

August got her own hand-made tortilla with her entree, perfect for wiping up the dregs.  Black beans surrounded a heap of cheesy grits, piled with pork carnitas and bits of jalapeño bacon.  The pork was moist and tender (no knife needed), and while it was tasty on its own, it was best in a mouthful with the grits, which were creamy and definitely cheesy.  Mexican food is stereotypically thought of as spicy, but this plate was far from spicy.  In fact, the perceived heat came from the thinly sliced red onion, which really added more of a zing than anything.  This is a great choice for someone who doesn’t want Mexican spicy, but appreciates all the rich flavor.  Alex made a burrito once with the dish’s three main parts, and he said it was one of the best burritos “evar.”

4 halves

4 halves

Akin to the appetizers, we couldn’t make up our minds between the three of us when it came to dessert.  We were lucky, then, that we had the option to get two or even four half-sizes (and of course we went for four, the more the merrier).

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August had never before tried a flan which didn’t have that weird rubbery skin as a result of caramelization.  She was so surprised, then, when this flan was super creamy in texture throughout.  The rich vanilla custard was made more awesome by the deep caramel.  For a tres leches cake that wasn’t made by an abuelita in her own cocina, this was very, very close to authenticity.  Moist, spongy, and creamy, it was a light cake with sweet milk and the ideal amount of whipped cream.  The Mexican chocolate cream pie was basically a semisweet chocolate mousse made with Ibarra.  Ibarra is not meant to be eaten like a chocolate bar, although it can be and August did so very often growing up (and admittedly even through college).  You can imagine her delight in devouring this particular cream pie, then, with semisweet chocolate and cinnamon.  For chocolate as we’re more familiar with it, we chose the flourless cake.  It was like a slab of rich ganache on a drizzle of tart prickly pear lychee sauce, so in a word, “delicious.”

Para un sabor bastante leal a lo auténtico, no hay otro restaurante ubicado en The Strip que sirva.  You would be hard pressed to find another Mexican restaurant on The Strip that offers food that tastes so close to authenticity.