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Chefs’ Counter: All-Star Feast at Vegas Uncork’d 2015

And so it is Spring, the time when Las Vegas sees a flood of people emerging from hibernation and eager to revel in whatever Sin City has to offer. It is thus the time for a broad variety of festivals, concerts, and celebrations of all sorts to entertain the tourists – and locals, of course, have the luxury of indulging in it all in their proverbial back yard. We are not locals (even though we’ve spent enough time here to know Vegas well), but we called the city our home for a weekend of relaxation after the best buffet experience we’ve had to date at Vegas Uncork’d 2015, hosted at the breathtakingly decorated ARIA Resort & Casino.

our empty table, pleading to be filled - and it will be

our empty table, pleading to be filled – and it will be

Uncork’d is a four-day culinary weekend of the best food and wine Vegas can provide with multiple events in a variety of settings, from intimate plated courses at family-sized tables to near chaos of thousands of eaters swirling around sampling stations. The Chefs’ Counter: All-Star Feast was a buffet so there were no courses, but neither were there thousands of eaters, just a few hundred. Wristbands printed with “Bon Appetit” granted us entry to The Buffet at ARIA for this special night, and although the crowd as a whole was numerous, each party was given their own private table. Even before we reached the table, though, we were offered our first glass of limitless champagne (though we didn’t exceed one glass each).

ice bar

ice bar

The Moët et Chandon was kept cold in the sculpted ice bar, and despite a bit of dripping, the bar did not melt away before the end of the night. Nearby were two ice bowls containing charming concoctions, the pretty pastel belying their powerful pours.

We tried the Spring Cooler with Belvedere vodka, St. Germain, grapefruit, lime, and Moët Brut Imperial champagne. It was vibrantly tart with natural flavors, but not to the point of causing a puckered face; rather, we sipped it between bites as a palate cleanser, the citrus and elderflower flavors being more satisfying than a raspberry sorbet. The Bourbon Punch with Bulleit bourbon, lemon, ginger, and Eric Bordelet apple cider looked lovely, but the two flutes of champagne and one Spring Cooler between the two of us was our limit on the alcohol. The libations were above par, but what made these three hours of dinner different from any other The Buffet evening were the guests of honor: Claude Escamilla, Jean-Philippe Maury, Shawn McClain, Michael Mina, Julian Serrano, Masa Takayama, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and various ARIA restaurant crews “put their gourmet spin on self-service style dining.”

ACT I: SAVORY DINNER

It’s the Vegas buffet to beat all buffets, but the standard salad and bread options weren’t dismissed. Fresh vegetables and artisan bread were simple but celebrated. Ourselves, we did not get any of this salad or bread, instead saving room for the multitude of tantalizing tastes.

Jean Georges Steakhouse was represented by phenomenal meats and tasty sides. We were most taken by the prawns with chimichurri and the rib roast, although the beef brisket with soy glaze and smoked kurabota pork rack with ancho chili glaze were delectable as well. The sides of lime-chili glazed carrots, spring vegetables in chili butter and mint, asparagus with charred scallion vinaigrette, and potato comte gratin were droolworthy in their decadence. All the non-potato vegetables were treated with care, so while they were not raw, the supremely al dente texture allowed each to retain some of its natural and unique integrity. That is not to say the potatoes were not treated with care; “creamy, cheesy, delightful” were Zach’s first words. A few golden edges of cheese added texture and umami.

Lemongrass is known for fusion as well as traditional Thai food, and tonight they displayed the traditional side. Both of us have had satay before – skewered and grilled meat with a special sauce – but in doing research for this post, we learned that satay originated in Indonesian cuisine and has regional varieties throughout Southeast Asian countries. This was the Thai version with chicken, beef, and sweet prawns all high quality, served with peanut sauce and achat on the side (cucumber relish). From what we recall this is the only type of satay we’ve tried before, so the lightly nippy flavor combination was familiar to us. Unfamiliar was the som tam, a spicy green papaya salad with fish sauce, dried shrimp, and crushed peanuts. There’s nothing like finding a flavor that is new to the palate.

Tapas are almost meant for buffet dining since they’re already pre-portioned for easy serving. There was one night in August’s adolescence that she, her mother, and two traveling companions lasted four hours at a tapa bar in Toledo – it’s just too easy to pick up a pintxo and pop it in, one after another. Julian Serrano has brought Spain to Las Vegas with an assortment of traditional flavors. The tortilla was classic with more potatoes than eggs plus onions that were caramelized before incorporated into this all-day omelet. Instead of being served on a piece of bread, the bread was on the tortilla, and even still to top it off, the bread had a pad of garlic aioli akin to a frosting that was both sweet and spicy only the way garlic can be. Padrón peppers are tricky, because without enough salt in the sauteing process, they have the potential to turn spicy. These, though, were just right, and the orange zest and orange glaze brought a new dimension to what is one of August’s all-time favorite tapas. The “choripan” was the Chef’s take on pigs in a blanket, with Swiss bread wrapped around Spanish chorizo. Unlike Mexican chorizo, the Spanish type is mild, not nearly as fatty, and not at all crumbly, so the teeth had something tender to sink into with these wrapped sausages.

first round for august

first round for august

Already there was so much good stuff, but there was no way we could stop yet!

Masa Takayama’s Tetsu brought the freshness of the ocean hundreds of miles inland, as the quality of his ingredients outweighed the distance they traveled. The Chilean sea bass with sansho pepper was both buttery and flaky. If it weren’t for the posted menu we might have assumed the kale salad was seaweed salad, except that pine nuts aren’t a typical element of seaweed salad. The earthiness of the nuts plus the iron-rich greenness of the kale were brightened by a lime vinaigrette.

barmasa sushi

barmasa sushi

Chef Takayama has another restaurant in the ARIA, barMASA, which he holds to equal standards as Tetsu. We got to sample two rolls (salmon avocado; spicy tuna), two nigiri (akami; hamachi), and two sushi canapé (toro caviar; shrimp & scallop). Having cut fish his whole life beginning early in his parents’ fish shop, the Chef has expectations of freshness that translate to quality and sublime taste. As such, all fish brought to barMASA from Japanese waters are served within 24 hours of being fished.

The Buffet itself saved one section for their signature “Fish Market,” not relinquishing every ounce of counter space to the visiting chefs and crews. The fish n’ chips miniature baskets were as tasty as they were cute. The other shellfish items weren’t so cute, but still flavorful: lemon clams, a variety of steamed crab legs, mussels, and giant prawns, crab cakes, and a strictly seafood paella. Isn’t it interesting how all these dishes from the deep blue turn out in shades of orange and brown?

Indian food, having some of the most complex spice combinations, deserved space at this gastronomic fete. Traditionally prepared curries, sauces, and naan are not common fare on the Strip, so even a few chefs behind neighboring counters were fawning over the selection.

Five50 Pizza Bar is Shawn McClain’s claim, but his fame is for more than pizza. On display were two, the Gotham with pepperoni, salami, and Italian sausage (a gourmet yet basic meat lover’s), and the Forager which we tried, topped with mushrooms, spinach, and whipped ricotta over a white sauce. When made with a nice white sauce, we prefer a vegetarian pizza that lets the fresh veggies sing instead of getting too weighted down with proteins. The arancini is most simply described as a meatless meatball: the size, seasoning, and texture were nearly identical, except this arancini was a risotto ball stuffed with fontina cheese and mushrooms, coated with breadcrumbs, fried, and served on marinara sauce. There was also an antipasto variety of pickled and marinated vegetables and cheeses. From what we can tell, antipastos are not on the regular Five50 menu, so this was a little something extra brought specially for the evening.

Michael Mina’s newest endeavor is Bardot Brasserie, which had its grand opening barely four months prior to this event. It’s French food with a twist, and after trying these bites, we’re vying to return sooner than later for a table at the restaurant. The charcuterie was an assortment of fine meats including housemade pâté, jambon bayonne (French prosciutto), saucisson sec (dry French salami), and pork rillettes (akin to pâté). With eggplant caviar which contains no real caviar, and basil pistou that’s like a pine nut-free pesto, the chickpea fries were anything but standard French fries. And while many people think of escargot when imagining French stereotypes, there was nothing stereotypical about Chef Mina’s. No need for shells, each snail was wrapped in a pastry that, despite being so buttery, maintained a bit of crispiness and flakiness. Accented by chartreuse butter lettuce, hazelnuts, and dill, these were so good we had more than we care to admit. Hey, it was a buffet!

second round for zach

second round for zach

There’s never too much when it’s all this tasty!

Blossom is ARIA’s center of Chinese cuisine, with over 100 dishes on the menu. We were privy to sampling a fraction of them tonight, including spicy water cooked beef with tofu and Santa Barbara live prawns in soya sauce (well, not alive when served).

dim sum by blossom

dim sum by blossom

The variety of dim sum was limited, but then again, each contributor was given only so much counter space. The buns, dumplings, and wraps were all rich, the shrimp-filled one above all else in succulence.

ACT II: DELIGHTFUL DESSERTS

If you are a sweet freak and are viewing this while at work, the pictures may make you drool onto your computer. Claude Escamilla, pastry chef with Jean-Philippe Maury at the Jean Philippe Patisserie, pulled out all the stops for the dessert section of the buffet. Being a dessert fanatic herself, August had as many plates of sweetness as she did of savory!

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Cookies, brownies, a dozen gelato flavors, cheesecake, truffles, vanilla and chocolate cupcakes, Jordan almonds, dipped marshmallows, crème brûlée, French macarons, dipped crispy rice treats, chocolate covered pretzels/peanuts/raisins/espresso beans, saltwater taffy, flan, berry coconut cake pops, fruit tarts, raspberry beignets, opera cakes, élcairs, neapolitans, strawberry framboise, tiramisu, berry pana cottas, vanilla millefeuille, nutella millefeuille… The number of desserts nearly rivaled the savory items!

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first round of desserts

There is only so much that can fit on a plate. By no means was this all we tried!

second round of desserts

second round of desserts

From first champagne sip to last spoon lick, this was truly an unforgettable event. The Chefs’ Counter: All-Star Feast should be on any foodie’s bucket list, because there are few opportunities in the world to sample from the repertoire of so many incredible chefs and restaurants in one sitting. Not to be blasphemous, but do we dare compare it to a pilgrimage? We really do feel this is one of those do-it-at-least-once-or-you’ll-regret-it-on-your-deathbed kind of things. Even picky eaters or those with dietary restrictions can be gluttonous to their hearts’ content because it’s a buffet – find what you like and eat as much as you want of it! For the diehards that want to try every last morsel, keep in mind that it is a three-hour dinner. That’s plenty of time, but with too much Moët et Chandon, a person might lose track of the hours. Months of planning, coordination, collaboration, and preparation paid of for this yearly event that sees every attendee leave with a smile, off to bask in the remainder of a Spring Vegas weekend.

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Fleur de Lys, San Francisco CA

We admire Chef Hubert Keller for his creativity, prowess, and charm, and all three of those attributes shine in his culinary creations.  Fleur de Lys, one of Les Grandes Tables du Monde, is a landmark in San Francisco, known for the highest quality in food and service.  We had a five-course dinner last night at Fleur de Lys, and with multiple elements of each course plus a few bonus dishes courtesy of the staff, it was like a condensed Grand Tasting of Vegas Uncork’d just for us!

surprise first course - spinach cheese gratin with savory madeleine

surprise first course – spinach cheese gratin with savory madeleine

The first plate that came out to us was one we did not order.  No mistakes were made, though, it was complimentary.  A small vessel with spinach cheese gratin was creamy and rich in flavor, yet for how creamy it was, it was surprisingly light.  The texture was more from the spinach than from adding excess cream, as some might do in an attempt to achieve the same amazing mouthfeel.  A mild, pleasant spinach with medium Gruyere cheese were simple flavors, but impressively handled.  To pair with the gratin, a truffled corn madeleine helped mop up the leftovers.  Its texture was in between a typical madeleine and a cornbread muffin with the slightest crunch from the cornmeal.  The balsamic oil swirl with extra virgin olive oil and a pesto oil were bright flavors to enhance the gratin and the madeleine.

first course - "symphony"

first course – “symphony”

We came prepared to order two five-course meals, but realized upon viewing the menu that the fourth course was a plate of cheeses.  Tasty as they may be, we didn’t need two cheese plates to share, so we swapped one fourth-course item to get a third first-course.  This, the first of the three appetizers that we ordered, was not one on which we vacillated.  Described as “toasted duck ham & mozzarella ‘slider,’ French potato salad with white anchovy, ‘faux gras’ mousse, and piquillo gazpacho,” this reminded August of sampling dinner menus for the most luxurious of wedding receptions.  The “faux gras” tasted exactly like froie gras but with an extremely light and airy mousse texture.  It complemented the black olive bread particularly well.  The piquillo gazpacho had a traditional base with an herbed crème fraîche layer on top.  It was very well balanced with tangy refreshing tomatoes and the cucumbers, which can be an offending taste to some, were mild (if even there, it was that mild).  Zach was particularly taken with the duck ham slider and the potato salad.  On a mini bun with smooth cheese, the lean, tender, and smoky duck was bolstered in flavor and texture.  The bun was light in texture but still had some give, and the black sesame seeds added a toasted nuttiness as well as visual appeal.  The herbed smooth potato salad tasted earthy yet tangy with the addition of white anchovy.  Not on the menu’s description but mysteriously appearing on the plate were the tips of a few asparagus spears.  Still crisp but far from raw, they were topped with a zesty, herby, green foam and what we think were toasted mushrooms.  Delicious.

first course - chilled dungeness crab salad

first course – chilled dungeness crab salad

Our second appetizer that we shared was a Dungeness crab salad with a few extras.  The sharp greens were freshly drizzled by our server with a lobster infused vinaigrette, which helped to balance the strong earthiness of the greens.  If we found the same dressing in the store, we’d buy stock.  The mound of salad hid whole, shelled, succulent crab claws, and lots of them.  We could tell they were very fresh, because they still had that nice salty brine.  Artfully placed cubes of sweet beets rested in dollops of pungent goat cheese, perfectly balanced in flavor as well as marking the plate between the salad and the spoon of lobster fondant.  The fondant tasted just like lobster, but with the texture of a light mousse that melts in your mouth like butter.  Add caviar, and it’s a bite of joy.

Baekeoffe refers to a type of meat stew from the Alsace region of France along the German border.  As a part of Alsatian cooking and culture, it is said that the casseroles were made by the women of the households, sealed with pastry around the lid and dropped off to be baked at the village bakery on laundry day, when the women were too busy to cook and wash.  This one consisted of escargot, carrots, mushrooms, and leeks, served with a parsley salad and the cutest, tenderest of snail-shaped rolls.  The pastry around the edge of the casserole was flaky and buttery, but not the star of the show.  A rout of large snails swam in a garlic and basil broth, that did wonders for the pastry.  It was rich and slightly earthy from the abundance of escargot.  As a pastry chef, Zach described the snail roll as an exceptionally flaky and savory version of a danish, not completely soft with just a bit of crunch.  Instead of brown sugar like a cinnamon roll, the spread that held the “snail” together was mushroom-based.

second course - rye crusted scottish salmon

second course – rye crusted scottish salmon

August’s first entree from the seafood selection was the salmon with cabbage three ways, buttered rye toast, radishes, pickled mustard seed, and caraway jus.  She has always liked salmon, but it’s touchy for Zach so he is a better judge of quality.  He tried a bite, and was amazed at the light flavor.  We both loved the buttery thick flakes, moist and ideally cooked with an excellent crust.  The sweet mustard seeds went well with every part of the dish, particularly the rye toast bites.  The three styles of cabbage were Brussels sprout leafs – some raw, some shredded and steamed for a bed under the salmon, one fried to garnish, and all pleasing.

second course - bacon crusted sea scallop

second course – bacon crusted sea scallop

Zach’s first entree of seafood was the scallop with black beluga lentils, pork belly, pickled shallots, and harissa.  Bacon is a very strong flavor, but it did not overpower the sweetness of the large marshmallow-like scallop that was buttery, tender, and perfectly cooked.  It perched on a piece of superbly rendered pork belly.  Salty and lightly smoky, it was placed on a portion of tender lentils that balanced the hearty flavor of the pork belly.  The two balls of mystery, once we worked up to trying them, were shaved Brussels sprouts, intriguing and enjoyable.

third course - trio of lamb

third course – trio of lamb

August couldn’t pass up the lamb for her second entree, the meat course.  Three types of lamb preparation were served together, each with their own accents.  The merguez-style “meatball” was a piquant piece of delicious lamb on its own, but its sweet tomato and mustard seed sauce helped to enhanced the North African-inspired flavor of the meat.  The other two types of lamb were stacked, with loin on top of shank.  The loin was as rare as it could be, just how August prefers it, and she never before thought that hazelnut would pair so beautifully with lamb.  A half of a hazelnut was the simple addition to the loin, while the shank, fork tender and braised just right, nestled in a spoonful of hazelnut puree which was in turn surrounded by a red wine sauce.  This is the kind of recipe she’ll be dropping hints about for her birthday dinner a few months away.

third course - seared filet mignon with a lobster truffled mac & cheese "en brioche"

third course – seared filet mignon with a lobster truffled mac & cheese “en brioche”

Zach’s third course meat choice was the filet mignon.  Like August’s shank, the filet was fork tender and cooked to his desired temperature, resulting in a juicy and succulent example of proper cooking techniques.  Its deep sauce was extremely indulgent with notes of red wine amidst the rich beef flavor.  The bed of mushrooms benefited from the intense sauce, as well, while adding their own delightful texture to the course.  Topped with a whole lobster claw medallion, this was “the best take I’ve had on surf and turf ever,” says Zach.  The lobster truffled mac & cheese would have made all diners’ eyes roll back if it were served at January’s Napa Truffle Festival, with little bits of lobster and a strong truffle flavor throughout.  The brioche was formed like a miniature cauldron, all the way down to tiny feet and a lid, with the creamiest of mac & cheese waiting inside.  No one would judge if you wanted to pick up the cauldron and devour the whole thing.

fourth course - assortment of artisanal cheeses

fourth course – assortment of artisanal cheeses

Our fourth course included a few cheeses that we had never tasted before.  Top right on the tray was petite basque, shaved thinly into a flower and very creamy.  To the left of that was a dry jack, mild in flavor, just like its aged goat cheese neighbor in the top left.  The jar of honeyed raisins, almonds, and pistachios were delicate but did little to help balance the most intensely flavored and textured blue cheese ever, caveman blue cheese (bottom left), nor the egg-tasting cheese of Normandy in the bottom right.  A triple cream cheese from Burgundy got its own little bowl.  It was like brie but salty and peppery, an excellent spread on a slice of apricot almond bread with a bit of apple.

A souffle requires extra preparation time, so it is requested that any be ordered at the beginning of the meal.  Chocolate is divine and typical, but amaretto is something different, so August chose the latter.  Dusted with powdered sugar to form a negative of a fleur de lis, it collapsed in the center when our server added a fine almond-thyme anglaise.  Light, spongy, and creamy, this was one of the best souffles we’ve tried.  With a bar of apricot ice cream true to the natural flavor, August surprised herself at thoroughly enjoying (and demolishing!) a non-chocolate dessert.

fifth course - freshly baked dark chocolate tartlet

fifth course – freshly baked dark chocolate tartlet

Zach typically doesn’t choose chocolate, but this dessert was distinct with marshmallow, coconut, pink grapefruit terrine, and baconed ice cream (yes indeed!).  The crisp and light tart crust held layers of marshmallow and chocolate with pistachios scattered in.  The chocolate was almost fudge-like, dense but soft.  The marshmallow was so creamy, it turned out like mousse.  Coconut, like the cucumber in gazpacho, has the potential to be overpowering, but here it was not; hats off to the pastry chef for achieving such balance.  The ice cream was smooth and creamy with a milk chocolate base and mild bacon essence.  Trust us, the flavor combination works and if you haven’t seen it yet in your area, look out because it’s gaining popularity.

surprise fifth course - petit fours and madeleines

surprise fifth course – petit fours and madeleines

Surprised and delighted we were, of course, with an additional bonus plate.  We tasted fine miniature pastries like raspberry tart and chocolate caramel tart petit fours, and the tiniest of sweet, delicate madeleines with a chocolate dip on the side.  August’s favorite was a ball of ganache rolled in crushed nuts (at some single-digit age, she had declared her favorite food to be ganache).

surprise fifth course - fleurburger with banana-flavored milkshake

surprise fifth course – fleurburger with banana-flavored milkshake

The most popular dessert that we saw being served around the establishment was the “fleurburger,” and one somehow made its way to our table!  If you like miniatures, and if you like food representing other foods, this is one of the most chimerical “burgers” you’ll ever find.  The bun was a donut-like beignet coated in fine sugar, the patty was made from spiced dark chocolate, and strawberry slices replaced the tomato.  The “fries” were actually sticks of fennel ice cream.  Like a classic burger combo, it came with a shake – clearly miniature, but banana flavored to go with all the other fruits used on this plate.

Marcus, the sommelier and manager, was affable, knowledgeable, and so easy to relate to.  An excellent manager knows how to make the guests feel like family.  We and our neighboring table enjoyed small talk with him about this restaurant and others, but it’s hard to compare to what Chef Keller has masterminded here.  We hope to come back again sooner than later – if Zach doesn’t get together the lamb and hazelnut recipe for August by her birthday, you know where we will be then!

La Sen Bistro, Concord CA

Once upon a time there was a Californian-French restaurant on Shattuck in Berkeley called La Rose Bistro.  Then, not too long ago, La Rose was transplanted to Concord, and is now named La Sen Bistro.  Todos Santos Plaza has a decent bevy of varied restaurants already, and La Sen Bistro is a great addition.  Of all the Todos Santos Plaza restaurants, this one likely has the best wine selection, also.

cilantro dipping sauce

cilantro dipping sauce

Instead of butter in an American restaurant or olive oil and vinegar at an Italian restaurant, we were surprised with a cilantro sauce for our bread.  With garlic, olive oil, rice vinegar, and a hint of sugar it was like a mild chimichurri.  The bread was rustic and fresh from Semifreddi’s, and we like businesses that support other local businesses.  Zach was super impressed as he hadn’t tried something like it before, so well balanced with the sweet, the herbs, the rich olive oil, and the tang that complimented the bread.

soupe a l'onion

soupe a l’onion

A traditional soup and one of the most well known dishes from French cuisine, onion soup is a true classic.  What set this one apart was the garlic croutons and broiled Emmentaler cheese (a variant of Swiss cheese).  The beef broth base was a rich backbone for the other ingredients, like the super tender savory and sweet onions (Zach “can’t believe how tender they were!”).  The croutons soaked up the surrounding flavors, including the gooey cheese with a caramelized top.

escargot de bourgogne

escargot de bourgogne

Escargot served in shells can be scary if the dishwasher doesn’t do his job in cleaning out the reusable shells.  Fortunately, we enjoyed our snails tonight without any hindrance.  Served with garlic, butter, and parsley, our six helix snails were very large and tasty.  The menu didn’t call them helix snails per se, but Zach believes they were helixes due to the size and flavor, and August believes they were because of the name – “Bourgogne” is French for Burgundy, and “Burgundy” snail is a nickname for helix snail.

côtelettes de porc à la polenta

côtelettes de porc à la polenta

This was likely the fanciest pork chop August has had.  Garlic confit, a white balsamic reduction, polenta cake, eggplant, carrots, Brussels sprouts, and a caramelized apple joined the moist and tender pork chop.  The polenta cake was deliciously crispy and crunchy on the outside, but delicate and smooth in the middle.  It soaked up the sweet and tangy sauce, but August sopped up any remaining drops with some of the Semifreddi bread.  The vegetables were al dente yet fork-tender.  She could have had a bowl of veggies on the side, they were that good.

confit de canard

confit de canard

Zach’s duck confit came with many of the same vegetables as August’s pork, plus mushrooms, an assortment of roasted potatoes, and ratatouille with red pepper and a trio of squash.  The duck was, in a word, phenomenal.  Beyond fork-tender, there were no grissly or inedible pieces.  Zach ate the whole thing and wishes he could have eaten the bone somehow.  The Madeira sauce was delicious; there are many restaurants that will make it too sweet, but this one at La Sen was balanced correctly and went really well with the ratatouille and potatoes.  The potatoes themselves were roasted beyond perfection, which resulted in flavorful caramelized sides and edges.  For the vegetarians, ratatouille with potatoes is something you could be very happy with here.

This was our first time at this new restaurant, but we both want to go back.  There were two other dishes that August and Zach each wanted to try, and we can imagine that they’ll be amazing just like tonight’s dinner was.  Everything tasted scratch-made, so hopefully next time we’ll have room for a dessert, as well.