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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.

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!

The Grand Tasting of Vegas Uncork’d 2013

vegas uncork'd grand tasting 008

Vegas Uncork’d is a celebration of food, wine, and spirits, now in its seventh year.  Caesar’s Palace hosted the Grand Tasting last night, where roughly one hundred restaurants, wineries, breweries, and distilleries came to share their finest around the pools.  We had a wonderful time sampling as much food as we could – with only two and a half hours and over 2,000 guests, it’s mathematically impossible for any one person to sample from every stand.  In fact, we didn’t go to any of the alcohol stands, only food, and we barely got to try everything in time.  We did learn a very important lesson, though, and that is to always bring a spare camera battery, even on a short assignment.  Foolishly we left our spare in the hotel room and the one with us died, so we got pictures of about 3/4 of the food.  Despite being a few shots short of representing the entire evening, we still feel that we can give you a well-rounded and accurate glimpse.  Please click on the pictures to see fuller details.

Chef Mike Minor greeted us at Border Grill, the first stand we saw, and he personally prepared two items.  We really enjoyed tasting the steak salad with roasted vegetables and grits with shrimp and a spicy sauce.  An added bonus is that we got to meet Chef Mike, and we’ll see him again next weekend at the Cooking For Solutions convention; that will be a much smaller affair, so hopefully we’ll get to spend more time talking with the chefs.

So the sign that Red Square and Citizens used was a little tricky because it didn’t name either of the two collaborating restaurants.  However, it was still mildly appropriate to draw attention to the tacos with delicious lamb.

Aureole brought a large selection, mostly sweets.  There were wine-infused sorbets and hand-rolled truffles with varying ingredients and spices like horchata and salted licorice.  The one savory item, house-made spicy Italian sausage crostini, was divine.  It was the miniature fondu that was the most whimsical and thoughtfully presented.

We have eaten at Chef Michael Mina’s STRIPSTEAK, so we knew automatically that the smoked foie gras stuffed cherry atop an almond gazpacho, and a beef tongue “shepherd’s pie” with garlic potato puree, would be good. Each guest had to be given explicit instructions on how to eat the cherry and gazpacho, but it was fun – and obviously tasty!

We have covered the Burger Bar of San Francisco, and tonight we got to meet the mastermind Chef Hubert Keller, representing Burger Bar and Fleur.  The ceviche was artful, and the beer float was dainty and distinct.

Raku had the longest line, but it moved quickly enough.  That was because the grill was being utilized to make small batches of skewered meat, ensuring quality for each guest.  Back at the NorCal Cherry Blossom Festival we tried octopus meat balls but they weren’t even worth talking about; these here were amazing in comparison!

SHe by Morton’s is a brand new steak house, opened this year in February.  It is billed as “the sexiest steak house on the Strip,” and the bites sampled reflected that zestiness.  Zach loved the jalapeño bite placed on a spoon, and we both appreciated the sheer tenderness of the braised beef on a potato puree with a sweet potato puree piped on top.

Chef Stephen Hopcraft of STK was having a great time dancing behind the counter while preparing his samples.  We got to chat with him about his stunning raviolis with jalapeño sweet corn and short ribs, essentially combining three of the restaurant’s dishes.  We’re excited to plan our next Las Vegas excursion and dine at STK.

Tetsu, a teppan grill establishment, brought out wonderful skewers of beef and shrimp, grilled and sauced perfectly.

Javier’s presented us another take on ceviche, plus two kinds of gourmet, Mexican-inspired soups.

Chickpea flat bread supported dressed greens and pomegranate seeds, a refreshing and delightful sample from Vintner Grill.

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The Linq DJ spun throughout the night, mixing an excellent mashup of some of the day’s hottest hits plus classics of the not-so-distant pop and hip hop past.  Speakers were placed well all over the pool grounds, so we were never far from the beat nor was it ever too loud.

Flour & Barley, a tenant of Linq, is a brick oven pizzeria.  Tonight they brought out mini calzones in empanada pastry, a fabulous twist on classic flavors.

F.A.M.E. worked tirelessly to pump out “fob” bao sandwiches.  Maybe the name is a little insensitive, but the sandwich was delectable.

Andrea’s little plates of rice, kimchi, and crispy pork belly were tasty.

Greek and Mediterranean-inspired Estiatorio Milos had two meats, both super moist and savory.  The milokopi fish from Cephalonia was baked in salt crust with horta (boiled green vegetables), while the Greek roasted whole lamb was done on a spit.

SUSHISAMBA made yellowtail taquitos with shiso, avocado, roasted corn miso, and spicy aji panca – a flavorful representation of the restaurant’s Japanese, Peruvian, and Brazilian influences.

Jalapeño fried rice with seared scallops was the offering from TAO, served in tiny take-out boxes with chopsticks.

The homemade cavatelli from LAVO stood out.  It was served from a giant cheese wheel, and the pasta itself was deliciously tender with a rich sauce of porcini ragu.

Dos Caminos street foodery of New York now has a Las Vegas location.  They offered margaritas, guacamole, skewers of grilled meat and veggies, plus chips.  We did not get a copy of the cookbook, but you can find it here.

Martorano’s had mini Philly cheesesteaks and meatballs.  Steve Martorano’s food has that homemade Italian feel.

KGB, or Kerry’s Gourmet Burgers, surprised us all and brought nothing that had to do with burgers.  Instead we had artful Japanese rice mango pudding and ahi tuna poke style, both yummy.

From Strip House we had a great roasted bacon and heirloom tomato salad with black radish and smoky Russian dressing.

Carmine’s made gigantic meatballs!  Now that’s how nonna used to do it.

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P.J. Clarke’s oyster bar was a super hit.  No need for a plate when you have a shell.

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The Max Brenner stand had soft chocolate chip and walnut cookies, plus syringes of chocolate sauce.  We all looked funny sucking out of syringes, but hey, solidarity – we all looked funny together.

Sushi Roku made a delicate tuna salad, refreshing and perfect for springtime.

Il Mulino had intensely creamy and cheesy raviolis.

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We spoke with Eric Klein, executive chef of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, who invited us to come back for tastings in his restaurant the next time we’re in town.  After trying the Moroccan-spiced grilled lamb with house-made harissa, couscous, mint, and apricot chutney, we can imagine that anything served in the restaurant will be well above par.

The Palm brought out sliced prime New York steak and lobster bisque.  August loved that the bisque had some chunks of meat, so with more than just lobster flavor, we could tell that really fresh lobster was used.

We had a thrilling time walking, talking, and eating amongst some of the finest chefs in the world.  We eagerly look forward to our next Las Vegas foray, when we will come back specifically for Spago and STK (and of course a few more).  And clearly, we will be back in one year for the eighth annual Vegas Uncork’d!