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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.

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Restaurant Peony, Oakland CA

Restaurant Peony has been the recipient of numerous local awards, including the Best of Oakland 2013 Best Dim Sum.  This was what got our attention for dinner tonight, because Zach had never tried dim sum before.  Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that dim sum is only available for lunch.  All the same, since we were already here, we didn’t want to waste an opportunity – if they’ve won Best Dim Sum, other items on the menu must be just as good.

So we have to be honest, we got a little lost looking for Restaurant Peony.  Thankfully, a helpful Chinatown resident directed us to the second floor of the Pacific Renaissance Plaza.  Since it was somewhat difficult for us to find our destination, we though that if you, reader, were to venture out to try this place, you might appreciate some landmark shots to help guide the way inside the plaza.

the first four pages

the first four pages

The menu is a little daunting if you don’t read Chinese, but towards the back is the bilingual dinner menu with some items more familiar to us as well as the more traditional, which is what we came here to try.

jelly fish

jelly fish

Jellyfish was new for Zach, and August coaxed him into it by describing it as a type of salad.  She had had it before, the very first time she tried dim sum for a lunch stop on a high school field trip to San Francisco that included the Legion of Honor, the SFMOMA, and an exploration of Chinatown.  August also tried chicken claws that time, and didn’t like them.  Zach really wanted to give chicken claws a try tonight at Restaurant Peony, but our server told us he didn’t even like them.  Thus we chose the jellyfish.  It is, in taste, like a seaweed salad with a sesame dressing; the flavor was very mild, somewhat mineral, and more brackish than briny, so the sesame flavor was actually stronger than the jellyfish.  The texture is best compared to thick seaweed or weak cartilage.  There was a lot of crunch, but it was easy to masticate.  If you were to try this without knowing what it was, you would probably enjoy it more than if you were thinking, “Oh boy, this is jellyfish!”

Already on our radar and then recommended by our server was the “Chef’s Recommendation” with duck done two ways for two distinct courses.  It started with the crispy duckling being skinned at our table, which was a show of skill that ignited anticipation for the succulent bits of skin.

nanjing crispy duckling skin

nanjing crispy duckling skin

The super crispy skin was juicy and rich.  Perfectly rendered, it was carved with just the tiniest bits of meat left underneath, and the meat was tender and light.  Fluffy clam-shaped buns opened to be stuffed with slivers of fresh green onion, a sweet and piquant plum sauce, and skin, making tiny bao sandwiches.  The first sandwiches we built without green onion, but when we tried with the onion, there was a huge difference.  With all four elements combined, the spicy bite from the green onion brought a balance to the sweet sauce and the savory roasted duck skin that was just delightful.

clam in black bean sauce

clam in black bean sauce

A few dozen fresh and meaty clams came with sauteed peppers and onions, all tossed in a sumptuous black bean sauce with the texture of a rich gravy.  It was close to the black bean sauce we’re familiar with, with onion and garlic notes, but this one was special because of the freshly chopped ginger.  Ginger is hardly one of August’s favorite flavors, so she surprised herself at liking the surprise ingredient in the sauce.  A plus for both of us was that the green peppers were not overly stewed in the black bean sauce, but rather they must have been added towards the end; we avoided the chunks of green pepper because we don’t like it, but the flavor itself did not permeate the dish.

The second course of the Nanjing crispy duckling was the meat of our skinned bird, diced and sauteed with an assortment of vegetables and spices, to be wrapped in lettuce leafs and smeared with the same plum sauce as before.  The lettuce wraps from FP Cheng’s trail in quality compared to this, in the freshness of ingredients and, clearly, duck instead of chicken.  We were excited that so much meat came from our little duckling, because this was a big pile!  And, not even the whole bird was diced, since a few wing ends, leg bits, and the head were left for us to nibble on.

Service seemed a little stretched thin and we were surprised with an automatic 12% service charge, so be aware when calculating your tip because most of it is already accounted for.  Now that we know where this restaurant is, and we found a couple of nearby and easily accessible parking garages, we’re definitely coming back for lunch to get the dim sum we sought.  Trying dinner here was like the dry run of a stage production, gearing up for opening night.  Bravo to the cast crew, as we are very much looking forward to the dishes of main spectacle.

César, Berkeley CA

Spanish dining is typically slow and relaxed.  Your server will bring your order very, very quickly, but there is no rush to finish the dish and clear the check so that the next party can take your table.  César is just like any restaurant in Spain in this regard: the tapas come out almost faster than you can blink, but after that the pace is set by the diner.  Keep the daily menu at the table and order the tapas one at a time, so that you can savor and appreciate each individually.

complimentary marinated olives

complimentary marinated olives

We started our dinner as soon as we sat down, nibbling on this sampling of marinated olives.  Zach had never seen such tiny olives amidst the regular sized ones he was used to seeing!  All were quite tasty, as each type of olive had its own unique brine or cure.

grilled asparagus with olive relish & egg

grilled asparagus with olive relish & egg

The chilled, grilled asparagus was a refreshing salad like none other.  Well, a form of a salad; it was our roughage of the night.  Salads don’t have much variety in Spain anyway.  The only salad August ever found while living there was iceberg with onion, tomato, tuna, egg, white asparagus, olive oil, vinegar, and salt, and sometimes not even all those ingredients.  But whole vegetables are popular, raw or boiled or roasted or grilled.  With the bright and salty olive tapenade, the crisp asparagus was hard to share.

patatas bravas

patatas bravas

Fried potato wedges with spicy brava sauce & alioli piled for a not-so-small plate, with multiple layers of flavor.  Spanish food is spiced, but it is not spicy hot.  The potatoes were seasoned with just the right mix of peppers to bring a tiny hint of heat to awaken the taste buds.  The brava sauce was sweet and smoky, almost like an American barbecue flavor but with a richer tomato base.  Spain is the birthplace of mayonnaise, but alioli is essentially a fancier version.  After noting the creaminess that it added to this plate, Zach said he will make some alioli/aioli soon.

montaditos with smoked duck breast and orange alioli

montaditos of smoked duck breast with orange alioli

Duck was a surprise to see on the menu, so of course we got it.  It was lightly smoked to allow the true duck flavor to shine, while the texture was supremely tender.  The bright, creamy, and refreshing orange alioli was naturally sweet and well paired for the meat.  The slices of bread were firm but not hard or tough.  It’s the bread slices that make these feel like “typical” tapas such as those found in the Basque region of Spain (in particular the city of San Sebastián aka Donostia, the tapa capital of the world and August’s favorite city in the world, as well).

ibérico presa a la plancha with mashed potatoes & spanish wine reduction

ibérico presa a la plancha with mashed potatoes & spanish wine reduction

Pata negra, the nickname for the meat of Iberian black pigs who feed on mostly acorns, has a mildly nutty and pleasantly earthy flavor.  For this final savory tapa we got a 5 oz. shoulder cut of pata negra that was extremely tender and sliced perfectly for sharing.  It was drizzled with a savory and delicious wine reduction, which went well equally with the meat and the potatoes.  Mashed potatoes with some firmness and height were unexpected here even though the menu said “mashed potatoes,” because from August’s experience in Spain, mashed potatoes didn’t exist there.  The closest she could find was puré de patata, or potato puree, that was closer to soup than mashed potatoes.

coffee flan

coffee flan

Just about everyone knows what flan is; since it’s popular not only in Spain but nearly all of Central and South America, it is almost invariably part of the gastronomic scene wherever there is a population of Spanish speakers, local or migrant.  Flan is so universal, spellcheck doesn’t red-squiggly underline it.  This flan, though, might start catching on.  Yes, the texture is smooth, velvety, and magnificent, which is something to be proud of, but the bigger deal is that it is made with coffee!  The coffee flavor provided a very distinct and robust richness, like that of a high quality bittersweet chocolate.

churros with chocolate sauce from spain

churros with chocolate sauce from spain

Speaking of chocolate, this sauce was apparently brought in from Spain.  It made such a big journey, and here we are dipping with it.  One of August’s common breakfasts while living in Alcalá de Henares was a big churro from the bar up the street plus a tall, wide mug of thick hot chocolate.  This comes very close to her memories, flavor-wise.  The churros tasted sweet and of cinnamon, with an added bonus of lemon zest.  The lemon zest was new and different from the standard churro, but totally right.  August and Zach have discussed before if chocolate and lemon could work together, and here we got the answer.

bread pudding with orange-caramel sauce

bread pudding with orange-caramel sauce

Whipped cream and caramel sauce acted as moats around the mini loaf of tender and light bread pudding.  The whipped cream was made by hand, and the caramel sauce was mildly flavored with orange so there was a citruc-y aftertaste to it.  The bread pudding itself, though, was very decadent.  This is something you have to share, maybe even with three or four others.

This was Zach’s first time at César, but August had been here once before around ten years ago with her mom.  Today was also somewhat of a significant anniversary of one of August’s goals from her past, so our dinner here was a rekindling of memories as well as a delicious celebratory meal.  It’s a great restaurant to bring a date, your friends, and your family, but reservations are not accepted so be prepared for waiting if it’s a busy night.  But don’t worry, the restaurant closes at midnight so everyone who wants to, will get to eat.