Thursday, January 31, 2008
Monday, January 28, 2008
We just returned from dinner at Blanca - long story short, we really liked it. I also wanted to point out this thread on Chowhound where people are weighing in with their experiences - I'll have a more detailed report up soon with more photos, etc., but since time is of the essence, thought you might like a quick update (especially you Maia!) Update - more photos here!
Here's my post:
Just did Blanca for restaurant week - we liked it a lot. We had a party of 4, and ordered everything on the resto week menu, plus a few things off the menu. My husband had the carpaccio with caesar salad and a veal ravioli dish that was out of this world. We also tried the lobster sausage corn dogs - which were fun and tasty - we especially liked the lavender mustard and green tomato ketchup alongside - we just wished we had more corn dogs to dip in it. The hamachi was also good - maybe a little too much sauce on top, it kind of overpowered the delicate fish. They pour a light ponzu soy sauce over it at the table.
I ordered the salad and scallops off the resto week menu - other choices were a cauliflower soup (though the online menu says chestnut) and a short rib main. I tasted the soup and it was phenomenal. The salad was fine - bitter greens, bleu cheese, pears and candied walnuts. The two mains were both were very good, but I was really blown away by that veal dish - and it's only $26.
Desserts were a butterscotch pot de creme that was actually a pudding and a lemon cheesecake. James also ordered the cheeses, which were AMAZING. Four little indiviudal composed plates with accompaniments and what amounted to practically a whole loaf of bread. After dessert they brought little chocolates as a mignardise.
We really liked the vibe of the room and the service was excellent. Better than Market on Saturday night, though Market's food is probably just as good, technically speaking.
I also had the impression that Blanca's regular menu was more expensive overall with entrees in the 30s - 40s, but I saw many in the 20s. I would definitely go back.
As you might notice, the best things we ordered actually weren't on the resto week menu, so I couldn't say there's any urgent need to hightail it over there just for that. Overall though I think I enjoyed it more than our meal at Market on Saturday. More on that later.
Speaking of Chowhound, I'm joining some of my fellow board-buddies for a good old fashioned "Chowdown" at the Imperial Ave. Farmers' Market this Sat. at 10 AM. I am excited to put faces to names, and of course to sample the great Mexican eats. Should be a good time!
A couple of factors may well have influenced my experience, so I'll lay those out. First off, I took the food home, and steaming in a takeout container for twenty or thirty minutes never did a burger and fries much good. Secondly - they had a huge party that had just come into the restaurant, about twenty people, so they were unbelieveably busy. It was so noisy I had to step outside with the server so she could hear me place my order. It's also a fairly small place, and really more of a bar than restaurant. On the night I visited, it was populated by youngsters - I spotted only three people that could possibly be older than thirty. Otherwise, the interior of the place is very nice, with wood tables, lots of windows and a cool mosaic mural of the San Diego skyline in various shades of black, gray and white. I also like their list of all the beers they carry on the front window.
I ordered two Neighborhood burgers, one with fries (otherwise they come with potato chips) an order of onion rings, and a cobb salad. I really only needed one burger and a salad - but I didn't know that at the time. At first they told me it would be a while - 20-30 minutes, because of the large party - but I asked if they could possibly squeeze my order in ahead of theirs because it was to go. Luckily they agreed and the food came out in about fifteen minutes.
The Neighborhood burger is slightly oblong in shape - served on a telera roll, and includes grilled onions, aged gouda cheese and arugula. The meat is advertised on the menu as "100% midwestern grain fed beef" - not sure why they think the midwestern or grain fed designation are pluses - given that many gourmet burgers in town are made with local Brandt beef or grassfed beef (Urban Solace, the Linkery and Burger Lounge among them) - but that's what the menu says.
While I waited I snapped a couple of photos with the iPhone, since I didn't have my regular camera with me, and enjoyed a Ballast Point Yellowtail Pale Ale. They do serve quite a few local beers (it's beer and wine only) and have a happy hour two for one deal featuring a different local beer each night - Stone, Alesmith, Ballast Point, etc.
Having heard the burgers touted as too good for mere ketchup (they don't offer it - even for fries) I was frankly expecting something pretty special. The food we received just didn't live up to the hype in my mind - and I don't think it would have even without the time in the takeout containers. The onion rings were particularly mediocre - they were huge and thick and appeared to be the crumb crusted previously frozen type. The fries are thin, greasy and garlicky. The burger itself was somewhat sweet with the onion topping. The meat was a little overcooked for medium rare, and the bun was fairly hard - considering it's a soft type of roll. The salad was totally unremarkable. It was made with good ingredients, but tossed with a vinaigrette dressing that I could barely taste.
It's possible this was just a one-off experience, with the takeout service problem and the large party throwing the kitchen into a panic. I do want to go back and try it again, and I would definitely eat in the next time. If you asked me right now though, I'd be hard pressed to recommend Neighborhood when there are so many other places to get good burgers in this town - with all the ketchup for your fries you could possibly want.
777 G Street, on the same block with Zanzibar
According to their posted hours, they are now open for lunch 12-2, then again from 5 on.
Looking for a good burger? For something quick, try Hodad's, Rocky's, In n Out - and Burger Lounge (for the basil turkey burger.) For sit down - Urban Solace, The Linkery, Jayne's Gastropub, Starlite, Kensington Grill and The Lodge at Torrey Pines. The best burger I've had recently though was a perfectly prepared Pug Burger at the Hungry Cat in Santa Barbara.
More Burger Recommendations for San Diego can be found here.
You can read more about Neighborhood on Sign On San Diego or Yelp.
Do you have a favorite burger, or have you had a different experience at Neighborhood? If so, please leave a comment and let us know!
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Like popcorn popping?
It's the sound of new restaurants opening in San Diego lately!
This week I checked out no fewer than three, the new Jade Theater Asian restaurant downtown; the not quite so new bar and burger joint Neighborhood - also downtown, and Lucha Libre, a new taco shop at the foot of Washington, where Valentine's used to be.
Jade Theater was kind enough to invite me to their grand opening party, and it looked like they also invited lots of other people who work in the nearby offices. Merrill Lynch is closeby, and I spotted a lot of professional-types. They were all in suits, and they all seemed to know each other.
The restaurant had a buffet set up upstairs, offering Asian-fusion standards including sesame noodles, edamame, sate skewers, and a crab kimchee dish that was sweet, sour and crunchy. They were passing some little cones of ahi tartare and deep fried veggie stuffed mushrooms filled with ahi and crab. For beverages, they served shots of their "mango sake" - mango juice combined with sake - champagne and cocktails.
What they offered was tasty, but I was really hoping to get a little more in-depth preview of what the menu offers. It might have been nice if they had offered some of their korean beef ribs or lamb chops, or even some sushi. Except that it doesn't appear the restaurant actually has a sushi bar - which seems a little odd to me, since Jade Theater's Chef, James Montejano, used to be Executive Chef at Japengo, and sushi is such a big element of Japengo's success.
I was also little surprised by the decor. Given the name and the theme of their website I expected something more dramatic and traditional - more along the lines of an upscale Red Pearl Kitchen - more Buddha Lounge-ish. Instead, the modern interior is very spare and office-like, with gray carpet, white walls and glass everywhere.
The prices also seem a bit ambitious. While many new restaurants in town are keeping entrees under $20, Jade Theater offers only one entree below $30. - a Pho made with Wagyu beef for $26 - rather impertinently named "What the Pho?" All the rest are in the thirties, topping out with the Black Bean Ribeye at $39. The small plates section of the menu, called "Tease," lists edamame and crudite (which many restaurants offer without charge) for $4.00, and a few other items including a yellowfin sashimi, seared albacore and duck go for $7. - $9. The "Taste," or starter section prices range from $10. for soup to $25. for a "lobster trio." Desserts are $9.
Personally, given the fine dining prices, I think Jade Theater should consider offering diners something a little more original or creative than what's on the current menu. (I'd link to it, but there are no prices listed - it's under "Dine" on the homepage.) Much of it sounds an awful lot like the menus Roppongi and Japengo have been offering for years: Spicy Fried Calamari with Sweet Chili Sauce, Tandoori Lamb Chops, Seared Albacore, Tuna Tartare, Lemongrass Scallops, Char Sui Duck, Curry Chicken, etc. While I like that type of food, and it may very well be good - I don't particularly want to pay thirty dollars plus for a plate of it. I think they might have a tough time rustling up enough people who do to make a go of it - especially given their somewhat out of the way location at 7th and C. I wish them the best of luck though. If you're in the neighborhood, I'd recommend stopping by for a drink and a bite of something to check it out, if not a full meal.
a quick note about transparency - though I was invited to this event and I attended at no charge, I was not treated differently from any of the other attendees or customers. I have not been asked to write anything about the restaurant nor did I agree to - everything I have said is my honest opinion, which is all you'll ever get. That I promise you.
coming up next, Neighborhood...
701 C Street
San Diego, CA 92101
UPDATE - Jade Theater has closed
Have you eaten there, or were you at the party too? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought!
Monday, January 21, 2008
Last October, when I attended the Gourmet Institute in New York City, a Saturday night dinner at one of the city's top restaurants was included as part of the program. We were given a choice of Le Bernardin, Aureole or the Four Seasons, and though I can't say I'd turn down a free meal at any of these places, the choice was easy for me. I've been hearing good things about Le Bernardin for years, and it is the only restaurant in New York City that has earned four stars from the NY Times consistently since it opened in 1986.
The meal was more like a banquet, truly, than a night out at the restaurant - they were closed for our party, and there were large round tables set up to accommodate the group. We received a special set menu - pictured above. At first I was slightly disappointed to see that we would receive only fish - no shellfish, crustaceans or other exotic items, but the disappointment didn't last long. Eric Ripert himself was in the kitchen, and when he came out to describe the meal beforehand with that buttery French accent of his, several of the ladies had to start fanning themselves with the menu. He is quite the handsome devil.
The first course was a yuzu citrus marinated fluke, arranged on the plate like a tiny painting, the thin slices of fish draped next to each other to form a perfect rectangle. The fish itself had a delicate sweet flavor and the crispy rice puffs (the creamy colored fluffy things in the photo) provided textural contrast. The small dark tendrils were a mild, slightly chewy seaweed. We had one person at our table who didn't eat raw seafood, and the servers could not have been nicer in accommodating her. Our service overall was professional but not the slightest bit stiff. It was a special circumstance, this being more of a party than a regular night at the restaurant, but they have a reputation for offering very professional yet friendly service to regular diners as well.
The second course was an olive oil poached escolar, served with sea beans, crisp potato slivers and a delicate red wine bearnaise. I am a bit wary of escolar, having been warned of it's possible adverse health effects. But I trusted Eric not to steer us wrong, and though I doubt poaching the fish in oil reduces it's fat content - neither I nor anyone else I know of suffered any consequences. It could be that the serving was quite small - in any event, it was rich, smooth and delicious, with the slightly sweet crunchy seabeans and crisp potato slices.
The third course was a monkfish filet, with crisp potato crust and potato puree, along with a red wine brandy sauce. The potato puree was more of a creamy sauce than side in this dish - as you can see in the photo above. The monkfish was topped with some sauteed vegetables and served with a pinot noir pairing, and was meaty enough to stand up to all of these accompaniments just fine. It was about this time that I realized we had been served three fish courses without repetition or boredom.
Dessert was a sweet potato tart with tiny balls of crisp meringue and dollops of maple whipped cream, served with some ground pistachios and a red wine caramel sauce. I am not normally a big fan of pumpkin pie or other fall desserts, but this was exquisite.
Dessert was followed by a plate of jewel-like mignardise and the coffee service. After all the wine pairings I chose a double espresso to go along with the mignardise, which were - from left to right - a pistachio/cherry financier, a raspberry fruit pate, a tiny butter cookie with a dot of chocolate, a chocolate truffle, and a passionfruit macaron. Everybody had a plate, and we had fun trading and passing these around the table.
The Gourmet magazine people also dined at the restaurant that night, but in a private room upstairs. I had kind of hoped people from the magazine would be seated at the tables so we could talk with them during the meal - but we had fun chatting at our table. We had an all female group except for one gentleman who was there with his daughter - and one of the ladies was celebrating her birthday. I'm not sure, but I think it might have been my fault that the entire room wound up singing her happy birthday just before dessert. She didn't seem to mind too much, though she did hide the fact that it was her birthday until about 3/4 of the way through the meal.
Though it wasn't a typical dining experience at the restaurant, I felt like we got a comprehensive sampling of the restaurant's fabled French techniques married with top quality ingredients and relatively simple preparations. Though the atmosphere is a tad sterile in the lobby of a mid-town office building, the food and service at Le Bernardin are impeccable. Eric Ripert is one of the few top chefs in NYC who is still in the kitchen regularly - which can't help but have a positive effect on the food.
He also likes good tequila, in case you ever have a chance to buy him a drink!
155 W 51st St
New York, NY 10019
Sunday, January 20, 2008
When we stopped by Starlite this past week on the Bistro Tour, it was actually the only place on the tours that I had not yet visited. I had planned to eat there in December when a friend of mine was visiting, but we never made it out of the house. Too much yikkity yak I guess - we hadn't seen each other in almost two years.
When we did the visit, I immediately knew this was the kind of place James would dig - casual but good food, hip but not too cool for us thirty-somethings. So on Saturday, I took him out on a married-people date. You really wouldn't think a date night would be that big a deal for us since we don't have kids, but working full time kind of takes it out of you so we rarely get out during the week. Most weekend nights we have "plans," so we hardly ever go out just the two of us. It was kind of nice.
The first thing I noticed about Starlite's menu is that it's short, and the first thing I noticed about the restaurant is that it's smaller than I thought. Both of those things work for me though. The atmosphere is lively without being oppressive or overly noisy, and the horseshoe bar/counter provides a lot of seating for drinkers. The outdoor back patio - a down to earth, hipster version of those fancy rooftop places downtown - takes care of the overflow.
If you read Chowhound, you've seen me grumbling lately that I'd like to see more casual restaurants that are nonetheless serious about food, a la Portland. Starlite fits that bill nicely, at a very reasonable price point - between $5.00 and $20.00. I had sampled a few of their cocktails and some appetizers at the tasting, so we ordered a few new things. The mixed fry is very good, I can vouch from the tasting, but this time I wanted to try their frites. They are served with a to-die-for aioli (I don't even like mayonnaise, but I could eat this stuff with a spoon.) The fries are delicious - and I can say from experience that it's a dangerous thing to have a large bowl of them set down in front of you while you're hungry. At $5.00 they were a bargain to boot.
We also did the housemade sausage board ($12.00) (the chef who makes the charcuterie learned at Region) and some cocktails - I had the Hemingway Cachaca - like a Caipirinha with Cachaca and lime, ($8.00) and James had a vodka rocks. They also do a nut and olive tray that sounded good for $5.00, and a few other interesting sounding starters, like grilled bread with greens and anchovies. The other entree choices included a jidori chicken served with greens and squash, a "Market Fish" - grouper last night, served with olive tapenade and fennel, and a burger - which I've heard good things about. The menu changes with the seasons and relies on local ingredients, so it will be different by the spring and summer.
For my main course I chose the mussels ($10.00) - actually one of the starters - and James had the Brandt flatiron steak with red flannel hash and blue cheese ($20.00). This seemed to be a popular dish - several people were ordering it. It was an interesting change from the steak frites you see everywhere - the steak sat on a hash of beets, potatoes, onions greens and some sort of root veg - possibly turnips or parsnips. The Brandt meat was delicious and it was perfectly cooked medium rare.
The mussels were excellent - small but plump and served in a chive, white wine and cream broth that was so good soaked up with the bread. The bowl of frites and aioli with a bowl of mussels would be a stellar meal indeed for $15.00 - especially with a glass of white wine.
The wine list was short and sweet, with several offerings unfamiliar to me - we ordered a couple of glasses and liked what we had - James had the cabernet offered by the glass at $10. and I had the pinot grigio. They also serve Zardetto Prosecco, which is a nice moderately priced sparkler.
For dessert they offer a signature ice cream sandwich and a special dessert of the day. The ice cream sandwich features toffee chip cookies and organic vanilla ice cream, rolled in chopped pistachios. The special dessert yesterday was a pannacotta with a kumquat compote, which came in a little glass and looked a bit like pudding. I loved the presentation on the ice cream sandwich - they cut it in quarters (it's huge) and pile them in a bowl. The flavor I wasn't as thrilled with - something about a frozen cookie just doesn't charge my batteries. The coffee I ordered to go with it was some of the best I've ever had in a restaurant though, and hot to boot. I drained my cup, and that's saying something.
3175 India Street
Sunday, January 13, 2008
If you're visiting because of the tour - welcome! I really hope you enjoyed it and I am so sorry I wasn't able to do more talking. I had the good timing to get a terrible cold this week, and lost my voice completely the day before the tour. It was back, somewhat - but I wasn't my normal chipper self.
Still, it seemed like most of the guests really enjoyed it, and the participants really did me proud. Jay served up goat sopes and some Brandt Farms Bresaeola, and Barry and Leslie at La Milpa did pizzas for everyone - as well as salad, chocolate cake and delicious mint tea. Stone stepped up and donated three cases of beer, which were a big hit with the guests - most of whom were from out of the area and hadn't tried it before.
From La Milpa, we went back down south to the beautiful Torrey Pines Lodge and were greeted by the staff of A.R. Valentien and ushered out to the patio for a talk by Chef Jeff Jackson and a buffet of prosciutto, cheese, dates, salumi and levain bread.
We left there and headed a short distance up to Waters, where we enjoyed a phenomenal panna cotta dessert - it was sitting on a toffee disk, topped by microgreens - along with some local persimmon, cubes of date cake and a vanilla bean sauce that I believe had some squash in it. It was inventive and delicious. I will email everyone to get the exact information so I can share it with you here. Mary Kay Waters then allowed everyone on the tour to basically loot the store, taking the packaged food, cookies, snacks and desserts! I filled up a bag for the bus driver, who was absolutely great. We'll have him again today.
We were still about ten minutes late getting back, but I think it was worth it not to rush everyone. My biggest problem was my voice. What timing eh? It made it difficult for me to do a lot of "guiding" or commentary, which I felt bad about. I brought Candice Woo of Citybeat and Donna McLaughlin - local Slow Food board member and membership chair with me, and they helped me with rounding people up and hosting duties.
The full photo album can be viewed here.
I've got to run - I have another tour to do today! Tune in later for more about the tours, the show itself, and the tasting event tonight.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Tuesday, January 01, 2008
When I started thinking about this past year, my first thought was that it wasn't quite as momentous as 2006. It's true that I started this blog in '06, which changed my life far more than I expected (for the better.) I also changed jobs, which was something of a watershed moment. New friendships bloomed and my foodie life blossomed - thanks to the blog, culinary classes and lots of "gastro-travel" to the Bay Area and Santa Fe.
While 2007 didn't have any watershed moments per se (unless you count having your picture taken flanked by Tony Bourdain and Eric Ripert) it was still full of surprises and delights. On the personal front, new friendships have developed and old ones have held steady, my loving husband is as delightful as ever, my parents are well, my grandmother is hanging in there at 91. We did some traveling again - eating our way up and down the Southern half of the California coast on a trip to Big Sur and back, and I managed to wedge in three trips to San Francisco. I also met some fabulous chefs at the Gourmet Institute in NYC, ate some amazing food and took fascinating classes from the magazine's staff.
It was a very good year for food in San Diego as well. Several new and quite notable restaurants opened this year, including Anthology, Bite, Urban Solace, Avenue 5, Currant, Starlite, The Guild - and Jayne's Gastropub really hit it's stride. In the casual arena, the Neighborhood, Burger Lounge, Enoteca Style and the Kebab Shop stepped up. A new Hard Rock hotel opened with a Nobu, and a couple of other newbies have opened that I haven't tried yet, including the Better Half in Hillcrest, Cafe Lavande in La Jolla, and the Pearl Lounge in Point Loma.
Sadly, we lost some restaurants too - including Bud's Louisiana Kitchen Downtown and Asia Vous in Escondido - and some prominent chefs, including Jason Schaeffer and Gavin Kaysen. It does look like the trend is up instead of down though, and I have high hopes for the scene to continue to grow and improve through 2008, even out here in the East County. We just earned a new Rancho San Diego branch of the Hillcrest Italian restaurant Arrivederci (our first takeout meal from there was excellent and it appears to be doing well) and Sammy's Woodfired Pizza has announced they will open a new branch in Grossmont/La Mesa in 2008. The new Fresh 'n Easy Market is also slated to open soon in Casa de Oro. I'm also looking forward to joining friends Dominic and Donna in further developing the San Diego Slow Food network. The Fancy Food Show is also coming to town this month, bringing lots of exposure to San Diego's food scene.
Last year, I did a list of the best and worst of the year, and a rather embarrassing list of new year's resolutions. Just for fun, I'll do some of the best and worst again, but I'm going to go a little easier on myself with the "resolutions." (Maybe that tells you how well last years' stuck!)
Most Memorable Meal (anywhere): Dinner at Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn, as much for the setting as the food, but both were very good.
Best Meal at a Local Fine Dining Restaurant: 1500 Ocean (during restaurant week, no less.)
Best Meal at a Local Neighborhood Restaurant: Tie between Bite and Urban Solace.
Most Promising Newcomer: Currant
Best Dining Experiences Outside of San Diego: Lucques (LA), Delfina (SF), The Hungry Cat (SB), and the Tasting Room (NYC). I also had a stellar breakfast at Norma's at the Parker Palm Springs (those last two are still in the queue.)
Best Surprises of 2007: The excellent food at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. How awesome the Gourmet Institute in NYC turned out to be.
Best Dessert: Warm Chocolate Chipotle Cake with Banana and Caramel Gelato at 1500 Ocean
Best Cocktail : The "Proper Greyhound" at the Hungry Cat in Santa Barbara, and of course, my kick-ass margaritas.
Best New Discoveries: K Sandwiches, Croissants from Opera Patisserie, Guanni Chocolates, Winchester Aged Gouda, Cherimoyas. Eberle and Robert Hall wines (in Paso Robles), Hacienda de las Rosas wines (from Ramona), the rediscovery of the Farmers Market (especially La Milpa and Sage Mountain Farms), Brandt beef, Ballast Point beers, Rancho Gordo beans.
Most Mediocre Dining Experiences/Biggest Disappointments: the flavorless food at Bleu Boheme in Kensington; Bad service and a ridiculously undercooked veal chop at Trattoria Acqua in La Jolla; Bad service, burnt sauce and overpriced steaks at Jack's Ocean Room in La Jolla.
Interestingly, my two most memorable experiences of 2007 were thrilling in their own way, yet could not be more different. One was visiting Esalen and soaking in the cliffside baths, and the other was the Gourmet Institute - particularly the evening I spent having cocktails in the bar at Per Se.
My "Hopes and Expectations" for 2008 are :
- to branch out a bit with respect to ethnic foods - especially Vietnamese, Indian and Mexican. (My efforts thus far have been mixed, but I plan to soldier on.)
- to cook "lighter" and offer healthier recipes on the blog, including lightened modifications for most recipes.
- to eat at Manresa in Los Gatos
- to continue to eat locally, try the new local restaurants and champion the best of what San Diego has to offer.
Happy New Year!!!