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Picán, Oakland CA

Entering an opulent room with high ceilings and live jazz played on a baby grand piano, you hope that the food matches the atmosphere.  When at least two of the senses are intrigued, the others want to play along.  The food on the menu at Picán has flavors that are on par with the visuals and sounds of the restaurant, so tonight our palates were not let down by the soul food with a touch of California heart.

cornbread and honey butter

cornbread and honey butter

Instead of rolls or a sliced loaf of bread, cornbread is offered.  It served well through our meal to sop up the various sauces and dribbles.  With honey butter, it could easily be dessert on its own.

southern mule

southern mule

Picán has a full bar and is known for boasting a broad bevy of bourbon.  Tonight, though, we weren’t inclined to drink alcohol, so our server recommended a non-alcoholic Southern Mule.  Akin to a juice cocktail, this was a mix of ginger beer, lemon juice, and pineapple juice.  It was tangy and only mildly sweet, and the flavor combination of citrus with ginger was very refreshing.

alligator fritto misto

alligator fritto misto

Zach has had alligator only a few times in his life, and this was his favorite version.  August has had her fair share of alligator, and had to agree with him.  Fresh fried alligator bites were served over a smear of caper and fennel tartar sauce.  The alligator was tender with a nice crunchy breading and great seasoning, and the tartar sauce’s particular herb mix was an excellent complement.  On first taste it seemed like a typical tartar sauce, but with the alligator, there was no fooling that there was something special about it.  Laid over the top were fried slices of okra, peppers, lemon, and mint leafs.  The okra, when fried, turned sweet and lost all sliminess, yet that slime was not replaced with grease; this was not an oily dish.  With a medium spicy bite from the peppers, Zach says that “everything was seasoned really well and balanced.”

sea island she-crab soup

sea island she-crab soup

The soup we ordered was unexpectedly split for us, so what you see here is a mini serving.  To be honest, though, the she-crab soup was so rich, that it was the ideal amount to be split like this.  Creamy and flavorful like a bisque with an olive oil floater (not traditional dry sherry), the crab taste was briny and permeated the soup.  The tablespoon-sized amount of crab meat was tender and delicate, while a kick of cayenne made this warm but not too spicy.  Tiny, savory, cornbread madeleines acted as garnish and texture variance, with just a little bit of crunch.

molasses braised pork shank

molasses braised pork shank

August ordered the fork-tender pork shank.  It had a nice crust from searing, with a great caramelized flavor from the Maillard reaction.  The demi-glace was savory and light with rich pork and wine flavors and the faintest hint of rosemary.  Sprinkled over the top was a gremolata of pecans, bringing an earthy nuttiness to this sumptuous plate.

tupelo honey yams with sorghum marshmallow

tupelo honey yams with sorghum marshmallow

The pork shank was served with yams as a side.  These were cooked just right with the slighted bit of give remaining, not cooked to mush like we’re so accustomed to during the winter holidays.  Like the holidays, though, these had a nice array of spices that were reminiscent of the scents of Thanksgiving dinner.  The sorghum marshmallow, while new to us, was nonetheless tasty as a sweet highlight for the yams.

smoked brisket-braised collards

smoked brisket-braised collards

Zach’s entree also came with a preset side, but we needed some roughage for our health’s sake so we ordered these collard greens with bits of smoked brisket.  Like the yams, these were not cooked to oblivion so there was some texture left.  Savory and seasoned with just enough salt, the fact that these weren’t overcooked meant that the vague flavor of raw collards was still there, and was even highlighted by the seasoning.  All too often collard greens come out of a can or are fresh but simply overcooked, so we relished in the freshness here offset by the smoky meat.

southern fried chicken with classic smoked gouda mac 'n cheese

southern fried chicken with classic smoked gouda mac ‘n cheese

Zach’s chicken had a crispy breading that was well seasoned, encasing meat that was super flavorful.  Brining really does make a difference for chicken, not just turkey on Thanksgiving (if you’d like to learn how to brine chicken, follow this recipe).  The drumstick and breast section with rib meat turned out juicy, moist, and not at all greasy.  The mac ‘n cheese was creamy and gooey with loads of smoked Gouda cheese.  The al dente noodles were nearly swimming in the rich sauce.  This is not your typical mac ‘n cheese, but it’s comforting all the same.

Many menu items are identified as vegetarian, vegan, and/or gluten-free, so this is a wonderful place to please any eaters.  Server assistant José did a great job at keeping an eye on all the patrons in his section, and we thank him sincerely for his attentiveness.  All the tables in our area were visibly happy with their service, and clearly their food.

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.

Lark Creek, Walnut Creek CA

We’re already familiar with the Lark Creek Restaurant Group, since we’ve been to Yankee Pier a couple of times.  The group is part of the Seafood Watch Program through the Monterey Bay Aquarium that serves fish that has been “caught or farmed using environmentally friendly practices.”  Lark Creek Walnut Creek has been on August’s radar for years, ever since living and working in downtown Walnut Creek, and finally tonight we went there for dinner.

lark creek 009

Crab month is over (we went to Yankee Pier in February so that’s when we found out the restaurant group does themed months).  That doesn’t mean, though, that crab is entirely stricken from the menu.  We started with a small cup of dungeness crab chowder with dill drop biscuits.

lark creek 005

The wood oven baked dungeness crab dip with olive oil crackers and grilled baguette was creamy and well seasoned.  The olive oil crackers were thin, crispy, and very light in texture, but with enough substance that they didn’t break when scooping the dip.  The baguette slices were like large, crunchy croutons, bursting with herbs.

lark creek 017

From February to March, the group changed from crab to lamb.  This California lamb shank was braised and served with polenta, Swiss chard, and a porcini reduction.  The meat was definitely lamb and not mutton, which August appreciates more than the average person, as her grandfather and great grandfather were sheepherders.  The portion was generous and fork-tender, not requiring too much use of a knife.  The polenta was very creamy with a rich Parmesan taste, and the porcini reduction was a delicate, savory icing on the proverbial cake.

lark creek 019

Every Thursday is Thanksgiving at Lark Creek Walnut Creek!  Nightly classics change throughout the week and are available until they run out; fortunately we arrived before it was too late and Zach got to order the organic roast turkey dinner with sage cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, yams, and cranberry sauce.  The turkey was moist with a selection of both white and dark meat.  The mashed potatoes had a nice roasted garlic flavor, and the gravy was rich and creamy with flavors of sage and thyme.  The yams were tender and only mildly sweet with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg.  They make a fresh cranberry relish for this dish, which was tart like it should be but not overwhelmingly so.

We’d like to come back for lunch when the weather turns and bring Bea the Dog, since this establishment has a pet-friendly patio (so does Jack’s).  Some items can be prepared vegetarian or vegan, and many can be prepared “in gluten sensitive fashion,” so this is a place welcoming to all eaters, including another species.