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Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, Berkeley CA

Spenger’s is a landmark of Berkeley with a history spanning over a century, famous the world over for its seafood.  Zach ate here often growing up, and not much has changed in nearly thirty years of his experiences.  Some restaurants simply know how to please their customers and keep them coming back for generations with tried and true practices.  In terms of service and attention, this restaurant shines like the Sather Tower campanile at night.

One of the favorite starters here is the spinach, crab, and Parmesan dip.  It was extremely rich, creamy, and thick with a cheesy top that was nicely browned.  There was an abundance of spinach and artichoke heart morsels to balance the shredded crab meat.  The bread wedges were like a buttery flat bread, with a crispy exterior and fluffy center.  It looked like a lot of bread at first for the amount of dip, but to savor the starter, just a little on each wedge went a long way.

salmon and mushroom sauté

salmon and mushroom sauté

August found it very challenging to make up her mind among three different entrees, their descriptions all sounded so good.  She went with the salmon and mushroom sauté and was very happy with her selection.  The shallot sherry cream was delicate and worked well to marry the salmon, mushrooms, and asparagus.  Hunks of moist salmon were plentiful and substantial, not to be broken by the tender asparagus spear bits.  The mushrooms brought an autumnal earthiness, and the rice helped to add another texture and sop up all the juicy remains.

captain's platter

captain’s platter

Zach’s entree, the Captain’s Platter, had a selection of Spenger’s best seafood, fried.  Oysters, fish filets, and “shrimp scatter” (a handful of bay shrimp) were turned into crisp, succulent morsels and nibbles.  The shrimp were mildly sweet, and the crunchy panko breading did wonders for the oysters to offset their soft creamy insides.  The flaky fish was perfect for dipping into sauces, including ketchup, tartar, and cocktail.  Sweet, tangy, and creamy cole slaw with fresh vegetables provided a refreshing break between bites of fried goodness.

chocolate bag

chocolate bag

Chef Dan came out to meet us and present this masterful creation.  Decadently rich dark chocolate was melted, painted, and cooled to make a “bag” into which sweet cream chantilly was loaded.  On top of the chantilly and garnished all over were bright strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries, some of them resting in stripes and swirls of chocolate sauce and strawberry syrup.  Two waffle cone “chips” perched in the “bag,” but this was as far from snack food as we could get!  To satisfy the post-dinner sweet tooth with something not too heavy, this refreshing dish does the trick.

Our server Emily was patient and professional with our every request.  We hope that patrons sitting in other sections received service as good as ours.  In reality, we’re fairly certain they did – what else could bring people back for 123 years?  Food can be replicated, but experience never.

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Chez Maman West, San Francisco CA

Happy Bastille Day!  July 14 is French National Day, or La Fête Nationale, commemorating the beginnings of modern day France.  To honor the country, we are going all-out French today.  It required a drive to San Francisco, but traffic wasn’t bad and the weather was beautiful.  Our two destinations of a restaurant and a bakery were across the street from each other, so we enjoyed a leisurely brunch/lunch without the pressure of driving across the city.  Chez Maman West of Hayes Valley, the youngest member of the Chez Maman family including Chez Papa and Papito, has a broad menu almost entirely French-inspired, save a section of fresh Mexican dishes.  The basics of French cuisine are, well, to follow the basics; simple ingredients, cooked with exemplary technique by a knowledgeable chef.  Today we were enamored by the food from Chef Russell Cab’s kitchen.

baked camembert with roasted garlic and toast points

baked camembert with roasted garlic and toast points

We split an appetizer of baked Camembert as evenly as we could, but it was difficult because we both liked it a lot.  The extremely creamy and gooey cheese was baked with some of the rind, so there was an earthiness and musk to the flavor.  It was balanced by the subtle sweetness of the buttery roasted garlic and mixed greens with a light vinaigrette.  The toast points for scooping up the cheese were crispy but not rock-hard, thankfully, or else the effort of eating would have overcome the balance of textures.

salmon and goat cheese cocotte

salmon and goat cheese cocotte

Oeuf cocotte, or “egg in a pot,” is a poached egg dish with cream, and August wanted to try Chez Maman’s version with meaty smoked salmon and goat cheese.  Neither salmon nor goat cheese are pleasing to Zach, but he had to admit that the smokiness here drew him in.  That which helped his palate further was the mildness of the goat cheese; more pungent, and it would have overtaken the plate.  The rich yolk melded with the cream to enhance the smooth, creamy flavor of the tender egg, which was complemented so well by the salmon and goat cheese.  Balance is a prominent theme in French cooking – some ingredients work together only when combined in the right amounts. 

chez maman "mac & cheese"

chez maman “mac & cheese”

If you are a truffle fan, you cannot pass up the mac and cheese.  Likewise, if you’re a mac and cheese fan looking for something different, this will hit the spot  For the price, you’ll be amazed at the quantity of truffle oil and thick truffle shavings mixed with al dente noodles and Gruyere cheese.  Gooey, creamy, savory, and earthy, it was not a pretty looking plate but it was “pretty for your mouth,” as per Zach.  The truffle flavor was strong, but the dash of nutmeg did not go unnoticed as it balanced the intense truffle.

crepe savoyarde

crepe savoyarde

The savoyarde crepe had Swiss and Raclette cheese, fingerling potatoes, prosciutto, and cornichons; a sharp salad with tomato tapenade offered contrasting green flavor.  Zach enjoyed the mildly tangy cheeses, particularly the Raclette which to him was like an extremely mild blue cheese.  The term Raclette originates in the French racler, “to scrape”; this cheese is used for melting, and traditionally one would scrape the melted cheese off of a wedge after it had been heated by an open fire.  The potatoes were slightly sweet and tender in this crepe, while the thick prosciutto provided texture, something to chew, and a salty element to work with the potatoes and cheese.  Made with a buckwheat crepe, this plate is both gluten-free and delicious.

cinnamon pain perdu; crème brûlée

cinnamon pain perdu; crème brûlée

We didn’t think we were going to get two desserts when we first came into the restaurant, but hey, it’s Bastille Day!  The cinnamon pain perdu, a favorite here, was served with marinated raspberries and strawberries, apple syrup, and chantilly.  The base of the dessert was essentially French toast, with a thin crispy crust that resulted from grilling the bread.  The apple syrup gave a teensy bit of tart, while the mild sweetness of the chantilly smoothed out the bright fruits.  The crème brûlée had a rich, velvety texture and vanilla flavor with visible vanilla bean scrapings under the candy crunch top.  It was not overly sweet, and August thought it tasted close to homemade vanilla marshmallows.

What makes certain dining experiences more memorable are the chance encounters with charismatic others, be they restaurant staff or fellow patrons, and today we had the pleasure of meeting two of each.  Manager David was conversational and generous in his kindness.  Server Sophia is young but waits like a seasoned professional, so to find out that it was only her second day on the floor was surprising!  At the table next to us were Roger and Jordan, who told us about Check, Please! Bay Area.  Coincidentally, we got home just in time to catch an episode of it on PBS!  So we owe a big merci to all who had a part in memorializing our meal, not just for the food but for the connections made as well.

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!