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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!

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Farm Fresh to Tempting Table with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Vegas Uncork’d 2013

A long, lusciously decorated table was set for 120, ready for a four-course meal with wine pairing.  Chef Jean-Georges Vongericht presented Farm Fresh to Tempting Table, a gourmet spread with a focus on seasonal produce.  The concept is old, but seems to have been forgotten in these modern times of processed foods and international imports/exports.  Our bodies are not immune to our environment; since plants grow with different seasons, our diets should follow the lead.  Besides being healthier by consuming super fresh produce, eating what’s locally in season further lessens the impact on nature because costs (in labor, transportation, and environmental damage) are minimized.

 

Hosted at the Bellagio in the Grand Patio, we enjoyed a sumptuous final meal before returning home.  The table and settings were both rustic and elegant.  Before the first course was served, we sipped sweet cocktails named Angel’s Tear, with American Harvest vodka, St Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh white cranberry juice, and a rose petal.

zach saved his wine throughout the meal for a shot of the selection

zach saved his wine throughout the meal for a shot of the selection

Each course was paired with a particular wine, poured just before the plates arrived.  From left to right, and in order with the courses, we sipped Pascal Jolivet Sancerre, Loire Valley 2011; Trimbach Riesling “Cuvee Frederick Emile,” Alsace 2006 (from the Chef’s home town in France); Faust Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2010; and Joseph Phelps “Eisrebe,” Napa Valley 2010.

kale "caesar"

kale “caesar”

This was a caesar salad like no other.  Shredded kale was tossed in a robust and tart dressing of parmesan, lemon, mint, mustard, garlic, and serrano chili.  The parmesan balanced the tartness, the mint helped to tone down the strong raw kale flavor, and the serrano brought about a spicy bite to add extra depth in flavor.  This was a very zesty way to open up our palates to fresh, well prepared fare.

caramelized scallops

caramelized scallops

A dessert before the dessert course, we relished in these large and tender “marshmallows of the sea” with a nice sear, resulting in caramelization.  They rested atop a bed of vegetables.  A light and tart new onion vinaigrette sat at the bottom, to be dipped into with snap peas, morel mushrooms, artichoke hearts, asparagus, acorn squash, and spring fronds.  Some of the vegetables had light flavors, but the vinaigrette enhanced their natural taste.  The selection of vegetables provided contrasting textures and different kinds of green flavors, some sweet and some earthy.  A “moss” was created with five dehydrated and powdered herbs, spooned over the top and garnished with chive blossoms.  This dish was a very rich homage to the bounty of the land.

grilled beef tenderloin

grilled beef tenderloin

The prime regular tenderloin cut was buttery and lean, from the top 1% of Nebraska beef.  Normally August gets ribeye when offered a choice of steak, but this filet mignon was so good in texture and taste, she might be a convert.  This cut was an excellent representation of the meat used at Prime Steakhouse, so we will definitely make plans to visit the next time we’re in town.  Its hat was a spinach and gruyère crêpe, which was delicate and cheesy, but in texture more than flavor; it did not overwhelm the beef.  The cut’s pedestal was sauteed spinach, in an intense beef broth made with short ribs, red chili, and Japanese seaweed.  It had a mildly spicy kick with a deep beef flavor that melded well with the sauteed spinach.  The broth and spinach, Zach says, could easily have been a soup on its own.

rhubarb & lychee trifle

rhubarb & lychee trifle

To round out the meal, this layered trifle was divine.  A crisp, airy meringue disc sprinkled with dried, flaked rose petals melted when bit into.  It adorned a scoop of tangy rhubarb sorbet, which was surrounded by five fluffy marshmallows.  These were supported by thick whipped cream over bright raspberry preserves, on top of a moist and light genoise sponge cake and a smooth base of tropical lychee puree set with gelatin.  August was worried at first that this dish wouldn’t satisfy her because she is a devout chocolate lover and typically avoids fruit desserts, but she proclaimed, “I don’t need chocolate after this!”

Chef Vongericht informed, inspired, and indulged our taste buds.  It’s amazing what delights can be concocted when using a finite set of ingredients that are local and in season.

Shan Dong Mandarin Restaurant, Oakland CA

Our first venture for dinner in Oakland’s Chinatown was above expectations.  After looping around the one way streets to find parking even when most other businesses were closed, we went inside Shan Dong Mandarin Restaurant and realized that here was where the parking spots’ occupants were eating.  To try the well-known dumplings and handmade noodles, we brought Will, Zach’s brother, so three people didn’t necessitate a Lazy Susan table.  However, with ordering six dishes so as to sample the broad variety, the staff was very accommodating in helping us shuffle the plates around the table and load up the leftovers for Will.

special shan dong dumplings

special shan dong dumplings

Pork and vegetable dumplings were served with their own special sauce.  The veggies in the filling “reminded (August) of spring somehow” with the light and fresh combination.

lake tung ting prawns

lake tung ting prawns

The shrimp were super garlicky, the vegetables very crunchy, and it was all doused with a lightly flavored sauce.  Broccoli, carrot, artichoke, and green bell pepper were abundant and on par with perfect cook time.

saday beef chow mein

saday beef chow mein

“Saday” might be a typo on the menu for “satay,” or “saday” is Shan Dong’s very special specialty.  We may never know, but there is no doubt of the goodness of this dish.  The handmade noodles were hearty and gummy in a totally enjoyable way.  Tender beef was a hair spicy, but the spices themselves were brand new for Will to taste, and he liked them.  The fresh snow peas added a great crispiness to break up the texture of the dish.

black bean sauce beef & asparagus

black bean sauce beef & asparagus

From the black beans, there was a nice earthiness to this sauce.  It was like an oyster sauce but with a rich fermented black bean flavor.  Despite its depth, the sauce didn’t overpower the other flavors, like the fresh and in season asparagus.  A lot of places tend to overcook asparagus and it turns mushy and stringy – not here!  The  beef was exceptionally tender and not overdone.

fresh black mushroom with scallops & prawns

fresh black mushroom with scallops & prawns

This was a Beninana moment, when the waitress set the ingredients to sizzle in an iron platter.  The smell was so rich, but the steam nearly burnt Will when he leaned in to check it out!  The scallops, August’s favorite seafood, were plentiful and made succulent by the sauce, and you can’t go wrong with perfectly good shrimp.  Maybe it was the variety of veggies melding together, but the sauce seemed sweet and almost nutty with a mild onion flavor.

shan dong chicken

shan dong chicken

Another Shan Dong specialy is the chicken with a tiny red pepper next to its name on the menu.  It starts off sweet and very, very slowly warms up to spicy, so you can appreciate the range of flavors before the heat.  It’s not extremely spicy, but the bite is there.  The sauce was thick and coated the chicken very well, but it didn’t make the pieces mushy and they still maintained their crispiness.  This was one of the top favorites for all three of us, and Will might even be addicted now because he made sure to get the sauce boxed up in its own leftover container!

If you’re in the area and can find parking, make your way here for some unforgettable Chinese food.  Be prepared, though, the place is popular so you might want to get it to go.