Saturday, May 31, 2008

Boston restaurant/bar- Matt Murphy's Pub

Every element of this Irish pub was saturated in authenticity from setting to staff. We drew back a curtain that blocked Boston’s chill and entered Matt Murphy’s (14 Harvard St) as if wandering off the moors into a warm sanctuary. Lighting glowed from some old-time source like kerosene and threw dim shadows on worn, wooden tables, whose crude construction could have been the handy work of a past uncle.

The gregarious group at the bar played their jukebox of banter, guffawing and their first hit single- light hearts amongst heavy beers. The crispy fish and chips were not the usual version of England’s national, thick, fried treat. This Irish design wore a light enough coat that the fish could actually be seen and pulled apart in tender clumps- I could have eaten three orders of this.

The pulled barbecue pork sandwich was my second favorite, matching pungent, Irish cheese with sweet sauce for a symbiotic combo that made me wonder if Ireland’s disputes couldn't be resolved with a lesson from the sandwich- melding opposites into one superior reality. The Jewel offered a vegetarian option that layered goat cheese and veggies for another oddly, light option to surface at an Irish Pub.

The staff’s bona fide brogue and familial manner (i.e. passage through kitchen to use the restroom, waitresses leaning across you to serve) were the final triumphs to make me want to “go green” daily.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Palm Springs- Wagon's Ho

Thousand Palms Oasis
She told me the only way to get to the oasis was a two hour, covered wagon ride. “Come on, we’ll be like the pioneers.”

My mom was always doing this- forcing insurmountable feats of sightseeing, commonly off the beaten path and ending amongst a menagerie of forgotten rest stops. I had to remind her of the OK Corral incident of 94’ where she insisted that, “Since we’re right here,” we could watch the “performance” of “actors”. Let’s just say all the saloon girls were probably from original saloons- nothing like a ninety year old hooker to give you a hankering for history.

I winced each time she questioned a clerk or picked up a pamphlet in search of her wagon train. The fact that no one knew about it was another great sign. We finally got our hands on a sun bleached flyer depicting sweaty tourists wedged on two hard planks beneath a dirtied canvas. Woefully she studied it, “Oh, I thought it would be just us, listening to the driver’s stories.”

But that wouldn’t make sense for an attraction of this magnitude, now would it?

So on our last day in Palm Springs, my mom “discovered” that we could get there ourselves. Sprung from arid dust and heat, palm trees became evident about 20 minutes out- a preview of sorts. Moments later, we trampled a trail reminiscent of King Kong's native island with enough prehistoric-sized vegetation to make me wary of pterodactyls swooping down to grab me. Only a short walk (15 minutes) to the oasis, I would have surely bludgeoned myself in a wagon that took two hours for this portion of the trip-why?!

The slight of hand that had placed this lush sanctuary here amongst nothingness was like nature’s Las Vegas. It was a thing of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves or a Bugs Bunny cartoon (“Open sez-me”) - a real oasis, and though it was only a pool of water, its position deigned it surreal and precious- worth the walk (yes Mom, worth it OK- but not as in OK Corral OK.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

San Diego restaurant- South Beach

This is the last stop before you hit sand. South Beach's(5059 Newport Ave) weather-beaten bar only accepts cash and IDs patrons at the door (even during lunchtime), but continues to lure me with my favorite fish fantasy - the mahi taco.

It's not all mahi tacos I crave, only South Beach's concoction of shredded cabbage, melted cheddar and the thin white sauce (still mysterious in origin) atop this piece of fish, geometrically fitted to the tortilla's specifications. Every time I try to order something else (Rockefeller would surely grumble to know the oysters here shared his name and the lobster tacos aren't even a close second), I realize that they are the sole reason for my return.

It's not for their dysfunctional policy where food and drinks are ordered separately, forcing patrons to navigate the crowded bar whenever thirsty. Or for the criminal acts of line-cutting that ensue from their free-for-all philosophy about seating. Or for one of the grosser bathrooms in San Diego (mix sand with drunks and see what comes up).

It's for the personification of summer on a plate. Give me two mahi tacos with a pint of Hefeweizen and its all gravy baby.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Vegas Wedding- Wynn Casino

A Wynn - win situation

We arrived 40 minutes early because the groom insisted in his finest Jersey manner, “No one better be late.” So with some time to kill, we decided to kill some brain cells- off to the bar.

We ended up at the Parasol Up lounge on the Wynn casino floor that looked like the inside of Jeannie’s bottle, forcing me to wonder why she was always trying to escape- these were nice digs. Plush pillows and sofas were spread out in deep ambers and mahogany that reminded me of Arabian Nights, if they had hired an impeccable decorator.

I was still a little queasy from the night before and couldn’t decide on what to drink until I saw the bartender’s handheld juicer for squeezing citrus. I knew my answer- Grey Goose, club and fresh lime juice. Wow! Way different than just adding a slice of lime, this citrus worked as the main component in this refreshingly, light libation that would ease me into another night of countless toasts.

The wedding: The Lilac salon softened its five rows with hazy, pink light as if looking through rose colored glasses, which I guess is the best way to start a marriage. Its intimacy made me feel as if we had won front row seats to my favorite concert (and were the groupies picked to party with the band later.)

The reception: My favorite part of the evening was the food (besides all that jazz about lifelong commitment and happiness). There was no sit down dinner, no seating chart- this was Vegas baby and heavy appetizers circulated for the entirety of this reception. Like lions smelling flesh, we had unknowingly positioned ourselves next to the point where all appetizers entered. We caught every server by the arm and brusquely asked, through mouthfuls of prior offerings, what was on his tray.

Short ribs over mashed potatoes gave my belly the necessary comfort after days of poolside drinks. The parmesan risotto also stuck to my ribs and coddled me with its buttery cream. The lamb chops couldn't have made me happier than if I were Sheri Lewis and the mini cheeseburgers were like shrink-rayed versions of any succulent burger add advertising “all the fixings.” It kept coming- crab cakes, chicken with peanut sauce...and then there was dessert.

An entire station was dedicated to this “after-dine delight” (similar to feelings from “afternoon delight”) like a fantastical tea party for adults. Miniature cheesecakes were donned with bells of blueberries and crème brulee sat primly in miso soup spoons (me-so loved it!) Digesting all that this day held, the cappuccino and espresso machine whirred in the background while I resigned myself to indulged contentment and reveled in one of Vegas’s rare Wynn-win situations.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Boston shop- Johnny Cupcakes

Eye Candy
Now, I could have my cake and wear it too. Johnny Cupcakes (279 Newbury St.)faked the appearance of a bakery, but upon closer inspection through their glass, pastry cases, I realized clothes were the sweet treat here. The ultimate emblem of cupcake and crossbones graced T-shirts asking “Have you had your cupcake today?” or “Make cupcakes. Not war.”

Keeping these cool threads in refrigeration cases or displayed on baking sheets, the novelty came at a price (about $35 a T-shirt) with pierced and tatted scat-cats running the joint, as if waiting for their older, non-existent boss to return.

“It reminds me of the Emperor’s New Clothes,” said my boyfriend’s stepfather. It was true- the stark store worked its magic with bare bones and a fanciful idea that whipped success out of nothing...kind of like cupcakes- convincing the masses one tray at a time.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

San Diego restaurant- Baby Back Jack's

I want my money back, money back, money back …ribs

Baby Back Jack’s (1290 E. University Ave) puts the meaty in mediocre with a plate that looks enjoyable with well endowed rib meat, but disappoints with weak flavor and soggy texture. It seems reasonable at $7.95 for ribs, fries and a side, but that’s no deal when everything is sub par. Although edible, it was unmemorable and the coleslaw (with pineapple), pasta and potato salad were worthless, bland additions to this “hrmph” meal.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

San Diego bar- Kensington Club

You know you've arrived at Kensington Club (4079 Adams Ave) by its super strain of hipster, cool cats crowding the bar. This joint might look like the place where fans of The Stray Cats would come to die, but its rocking jukebox (that never plays your own requests) pumps out enough favorites to have you soulfully reciting lyrics into your beer. Amongst slicked hair and dark lighting, long pool games in the back are played on its only table, keeping competitors and drinks going down easy. A large slab of concrete creates a crude dance-floor, evoking eons of teen basement bashes and hole-in-the-wall hi-jinx to be revisited.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

San Diego restaurant- Donovan's Steak and Chop House

Disney’s Haunted Mansion in its heyday, before the ghosts arrived and when high society graced its doors, was the feel upon entering Donovan’s. We squinted to adjust to dark wood and non-existent lighting, antique chandeliers eking out the dimmest of watts, but enough to glimpse the well stocked bar with a lazy-Susan of fruity condiments shining like precious gems. We were welcomed enthusiastically by the entire staff and our waiter, Lucky, who was as valuable as his name implied.

We started out with a cocktail and when my scotch-loving sweetie ordered Macallan 12 year with two ice cubes, Lucky suggested, “Would you prefer our gigantic ice cube specifically for single malts?” This perfectly square glacier fit like a puzzle piece into the glass for a novel, classy touch. Lucky was also an expert with the wine list and helped us choose the light bodied Chianti (Isole e Olena, 2005) that is now my reigning favorite.

The service and décor was top notch, but unfortunately the food fell a little short. Fried calamari was tender, but not memorable and the fact that it was served with tartar sauce furthered our disappointment. Crab cakes were engorged with lump meat, but their addition of raw, red pepper overwhelmed the dish. Lump crabmeat can (and should) stand on its own without any extra filler (also served with tartar sauce- can we get a little diversity in the condiments people?)

I got the 14 oz center cut veal chop as my entrée and about 6 oz of that was fat. What? Fatty veal, I’ve never heard of such a thing! I still regret not saying anything to Lucky, who would have promptly solved the problem in some way I’m sure. My eating accomplice ordered the lamb, which was superb and perfectly cooked, so I forced him to share. The skillet potatoes with peppercorn gravy (upon Lucky’s recommendation, of course) were one of my favorite attractions here with thin, round slices covered like a mud-wrestler in peppercorn gravy and sautéed onions.

Donovan’s old money vibe could be felt from the starched attendants to the high prices and reminded me of a night at the theater where I needed to use my “inside voice”. The atmosphere dripped sophistication from its dark booths (already reserved by bejeweled, older couples that had been coming here for years) and secured its hushed etiquette like a stylish neckerchief. The time transcending appeal of this “functioning Haunted Mansion” and Lucky were probably the best part of the meal, which didn’t say much about the food. It also wasn’t enough to blind me to Donovan’s obvious shortcomings- summed up: pricey and dicey.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Vegas restaurant- Rosemary's

Rosemary’s and Time- This sage sanctuary has Vegas stepping off the Strip

The taxi ride was longer than I remembered, but that was probably because any recollection I had of Rosemary’s (8125 W Sahara Ave)was about the food. Twenty minutes off the Strip, Rosemary’s graces its own strip (mall), where Chefs Michael and Wendy Jordan continue to rival any contortionist Cirque show for creativity and execution.

A flash of Mary Poppins extracting a coat rack from her carpetbag flooded my mind as I stepped from molten asphalt into a bath of beige and black. Somehow this desert mirage remained immune to the venom Vegas spit on the Strip. There was a whiff of reality here (along with deep breaths of garlic) and our initial steps inward lowered our temperature 10 degrees.

They had expanded the space since my last visit in 2003 and it suited them well. An outstretched bar beckoned us with an array of elixirs and Venetian tendencies (as in Venice, Italy, not the Venetian, Vegas), basing neutral hues behind vibrant artwork. This “breath of fresh air entrance” flowed into the warm yellows and soft sconces of the dining room.

Our twenty something waitress was enthusiastic, but much too comfortable with her use of the word “sucked,” which hacked through the fine décor like a pick axe. Her dialectic destruction was buffed out by the open arms of an amuse bouche and I accepted the crispy wanton topped with salmon mousse and citrus aioli as a refreshing, bite-sized “welcome”. Choices of bread like pecan wheat or macadamia white chocolate also opened with gregarious “how-do-you- dos.”

Besides “gutter mouth gal”, service was a highlight here and a main reason for my return. Collaboration of courses played out in a choreographed routine, where waiters lifted silver covers and distributed plates in unison. Jazz hands- appetizers had arrived. Smitten as kittens we mewed with delight at the saucers placed before us, but upon tasting the first option, hissing (and spitting) became more our demeanor.

Hugo’s Texas BBQ shrimp with Maytag blue cheese slaw was a Hugo disappointment. Smokey was the bandit, unmentioned and unwelcome, in the barbeque sauce with its distinct embers lingering on my palate like match-heads. I was more disappointed by an insufficient menu description than the actual dish (some people like smokey) and this formidable food decision weighed on my mind as heavily as the soggy, blue cheese slaw accompanying it.

The grass wasn’t much greener on the salad side. I thought I was down at the boon docks with the smell that emanated from my Caesar and though anchovies are a necessary component for this classic, they in no way should be the prominent flavor (or smell).

I hesitated to think that maybe my idea of the food was remembered too grandly from either multiple bottles of wine or a love for this opulent oasis, but then it appeared as a bird? A plane? No…Fabulous Fig! Donning a proscuitto cape and accompanied by his goat cheese sidekick (stuffed, snuggly inside), this salty, sweet superhero saved the day (a triumphant cheer went out over the crowd) and just like that, the cogs of this well (olive) oiled machine slid back into place.

Possibly to make up for my prior disappointments, culinary karma delivered one of the most prolific entrées ever to grace my lips. I believe that day my journal entry read, “Today I became a woman.” Their veal filet had me throwing my head back and grunting involuntarily, similar to the overplayed scene from “When Harry met Sally…” Green lentils exploded like salty sparklers and bacon confetti rained on the sherry mustard butter sauce like it was a holiday- it sure felt like one. This could possibly be the best piece of meat I’ve ever had (#1 meat entree nationwide).

The rack of lamb also managed magnificent feats of flavor, seeping natural juices into Kalamata olive mashed potatoes and blending with the rosemary bordelaise (a reduction of red wine, shallots and demi-glace) to form a potent jus.

We didn’t have room for dessert, but that didn’t matter- they brought it anyway. Peanut butter truffles, dark chocolate truffles and lemon squares were presented as their “after dinner amuse bouche” and was a tasty metaphor that symbolized what Rosemary’s brought to the table- tangible appreciation.

Playing to each olfactory sense, Rosemary’s fine tuned performance gave an experience, rather than just a meal. Even our two unfavorable selections were forgiven like a teenager’s bad attitude, squashed by the overall success of the show. Coined as a rarity here, Rosemary’s elcits one of Vegas's most jaw dropping (and closing) illusions, where humble elegance outshines the neon bulbs.

Wed - (Ladies night) fifty percent off for women
Sun – fifty percent off wine bottles
*discount gift certificates can also be purchased at some Costco stores

Sunday, May 11, 2008

San Diego restaurant- Antique Row Cafe

Antique Stale

Too bad the quality of food at Antique Row Café (3002 Adams)isn’t as high as the staff’s enthusiasm because their customer service makes you want to go back for more. But, the crowded walls with Marilyn and Elvis memorabilia don’t have the same effect as the Hard Rock Café’s precious cargo and instead appears as if a garage sale threw up in the dining room. Mounds of musty clutter looms upon dank paneling and sags over the faded roadmap upholstery. Hopefully their unexpected (and unexplained), eternal weekend wait will veer you away from brown, egg flaps (omelets) and sandwiches featuring stale bread with thick, generic lunch meat.

Friday, May 9, 2008

San Diego- "I Like Ike" (Turner?)

After my stolen car was recovered, I started working more hours as a massage therapist for an upscale, personal training center (see West Coast follies). Their client base dealt with several athletes from the Chargers and Padres, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary when they called with a client that insisted I speak through his agent. Upon hearing the name I thought, “Why would anyone use that as an alias?”

The only other possibility- he was who he said he was.
I stumbled over the words, “THE Ike Turner?!”
My 20-something, “squeaky clean” manager (later referred to as Squeaks) sat on the phone a minute before asking, “Who’s that?”

Who’s that?! Had he not ever heard of Tina Turner’s abusive husband? Ike was more notorious for wife beats than song beats and I told Squeaks to go rent, “What’s love got to do with it.”

I left a message on the agent’s phone, “Um, if this is THE Ike Turner, I’m not interested.” By the time I got called back a couple hours later, I decided that I wasn’t comfortable doing the massage either way since no one knew the client. His agent apologized for the delay and assured me that yes, it was the famous Ike Turner and no, he wasn’t so bad, but had just gotten some negative press over the years.

“I won’t be able to help you,” I repeated, but the agent insisted and then went on to name all the positive aspects, like Ike’s girlfriend would be there (yeah, big help) and reminded me that he was an old man at this point.

Did that really matter? I could care less how old he was. I wouldn’t want to massage an old Nazi either. Just because he was defenseless now, didn’t mean he wasn’t responsible for past behavior. No one could tell me what, Ike “deep-rooted issues with women” Turner, was thinking while I massaged him (“That’s right- you BETTER rub Ike’s leg!”) Take your back pain Ike (like Tina took all those punches) and roll on down the river.

A couple weeks later I was playing Trivial Pursuit with some friends and the orange question (general knowledge) read, “Who admitted to punching and kicking Tina, but not beating her?” Of course I had to bring it into work and show Squeaks that this man’s wife beating was so well documented that it had been incorporated into a pop culture board-game.

If that hadn’t shown him, I guess the NY Post headline the day after Ike died would- “Ike Turner beats Tina to death.”

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

San Diego restaurant- Commonwealth Cafe

I prefer walking to this diorama-sized diner that sits aside Bluefoot bar to ease some of my guilt about gorging bacon cheeseburgers. Beneath Hulk neon (in strength and color) drunken faces seem just a bit greener.

The size of a Manhattan apartment, Commonwealth’s prim rows of neatly organized ladles and grandmother-esque pedestals, offering homemade carrot cake, are as much of a draw as their menu. The best part is sharing the Wealth by grabbing a beer at Bluefoot while waiting for food (you can even eat it there too.)

Juicy burgers soften the varnished sheen of its sturdy bun (noticeably delicious), but sliders can sometimes sneak by with a downgrade in flavor as well as size. Although, they do make for a cheap companion ($3.25 for 2) when fries feature as entrée.

Curly or straight? Fry-dom for the people- it’s your choice. Blue cheese fries (curly) are almost like a bowl of noodles (utensils mandatory), but my favorite pick flames the sweet perfume of chili cheese (straight fry) - if only I could bottle the scent. Wings were a little big for my liking (aka “radioactive wings”), but my boyfriend, Bubba (a valid moniker since he grew up south of the Mason-Dixon Line), was thoroughly delighted with the abundance of meat and vinegar tartness mixed with the heat.

Amusing additions like the Texas football (Fritos, chili and cheese) and cinnamon toast sound even more appealing after a night of drinks at Bluefoot.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Las Vegas restaurant- Prime Steakhouse

A game of high steaks at the Bellagio

The drone of hopeful millionaires waned as the six of us dipped into the paneled honeycomb of Bellagio’s steakhouse, Prime. We had drifted away from the hoots and hollers of night owls and seemingly onto the set of a high budget film that hadn’t decided whether its focus was Old Hollywood, Gone with the Wind or French Victorian. Blue, velvet drapes careened from ceiling to floor, busting from a girdle of gold chords that could easily fashion Scarlett’s next dress. Fountains flitted outside the window like children intent on a game of tag and added just enough Disneyland amusement to complete this abstract portrait.

Despite swiveled heads and rubber necks we arrived at our table unscathed and dwarfed by an immense painting resembling Venus’s sister (staring wide-eyed at our plates to ensure we ate all our vegetables). An ocean of carpet, thick enough to swallow any signs of dropped silverware, necessitated “Alice in Wonderland-like” gold knockers on the back of each chair for easy towing.

Auditioning for the stereotypical role of “Jeeves”, our waiter ascended with a raised nostril of disgust (Scene 1: sniffing dirty sweat sock) and upon ordering drinks (Scene 2: serving a stiff cocktail of contention), one of my culinary colleagues murmured, “I feel like the waiter thinks he’s better than me.”

We laughed, but the apparent exasperation wasn’t funny. Jeeves’s superiority was stifling from the first wrinkle of his nose to his wafting stench of arrogance, and not only did it lessen our experience, but lowered the overall standard of the restaurant. A true upscale establishment ensures the customer’s comfort at all costs and Jeeves couldn’t even spare a dime.

Our annoyance was overridden by a dining cart bearing silver orbs of secrecy, each cover lifted and replaced in the edible version of “find the queen”. My fork first tore at symbiotic landmarks of top grade tuna and avocado wading in ginger/ soy with its light, rejuvenating effects similar to a Fountain of Youth (for the palate). The salad set posed an ordinary looking Caesar like a diminutive wallflower, but beneath his classic cover laid a defined body and final punch of citrus that lifted his status to “crowd pleaser Caesar”.

Unfortunately, the crispy goat cheese fondue did not rival Caesar for top billing and was a disappointment in concept and taste. This tomb of fondue bandaged goat cheese (head to toe) in a fried, phyllo sarcophagus that trapped the necessary tart-n-creamy catalyst. “The curse of teeth rotting sweetness” attacked an unassuming frisee salad with grapes and pear vinaigrette (its pungent antidote only inches away).

The “meat and greet” came next with the promise of the protein packed main course that had led us here. My lamb chops, encrusted with chili crumbs, were ordered at medium rare, but arrived closer to rare. Still delectable, I ravaged them, dipping sporadically in the bevy of sauces accompanying the meal (béarnaise, spicy pepper, etc.) The steak au poivre was paved with a thick asphalt of peppercorns (not a pothole of naked meat to be seen) with a potency that could remove tar. The tearing and coughing induced by this dish might be used as protection in a dark alley- the original pepper spray.

Two of our other carnivorous constituents ordered the porterhouse- one requesting medium rare and the other medium. A couple bites into the meal, the medium rare “requestee” found himself in the middle of medium man’s steak. Medium man had already manhandled the “mis-steak” placed before him (cooked almost exactly like the other) and munched happily on what he thought to be his order. This was inexcusable- not only did these prices demand perfection (around $50 a steak), but the moniker of “steakhouse" insists on the chefs’ aptitude for mastering meat temperatures. This was a blunder that couldn’t be overlooked as easily as Jeeves’s snippy quips and would be the resounding memory of the meal (though thoughts of their lumpy, heavily salted mashed potatoes would be reminisced of fondly).

I could now empathize with Dr. Malfi’s attraction to Tony Soprano. I was immediately enamored with this piece of work’s over-the-top and muddled alter egos, but inconsistency and a mafia sized payoff eventually marred my fond feelings. As Prime puckered for its “kiss of death” in my final farewell, I still admired its larger than life character, but couldn’t trust Prime’s rep enough to invest that type of dough.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

NJ restaurant- Captain Jack's

Captain Jack's will get you hooked tonight (CLOSED)

Sowing an orchard of tightly knit, gingerbread cottages amongst perennial “moop” (mom and pop) shops, Ocean Grove caters to the ebb and flow of Jersey Shore tourism while tending to locals year round. Captain Jack’s (68 Main Ave) earns its prestigious moniker with a menu focused on the deep, not only through fish-laden fare, but in depth of flavors, presentation and plotting a course that’s nothing short of smooth sailing.

Attentive and gracious, our waiter recited the evening’s specials while opening our wine (BYOB) and advised us on our first order (of business). Do not pass go, do not collect $200, go straight to…the homemade potato chips. These starchy slices took the chip off any shoulder by dousing it in a cheesy concoction that could only conjure up fond feelings. The true hero of this dynamic duo was the warm, weighted comforter of slightly browned cheeses, wrapping arteries in its gluttonous folds of indulgence. No Velveeta in this mix of Gouda, white cheddar and provolone that necessitated sharing with friends before overdosing on five pounds of melted cheese alone.

Fried calamari paid out in light, tender tokens using minimal breading, quality freshness and a mouth puckering, tempura sauce (ginger/soy essence) to elevate this app to ‘lord of the rings’. Mixed greens with blue cheese and candied pecans complimented each other in a steadfast pairing as the adult ‘sweet-tart’.

Entrees opened with the macadamia encrusted snapper, tasting as “caloric-ally” engorged as the nut encasing it –opulence at its finest. Swimming amongst shrimp buerre blanc and docking on a mashed potato reef, this snapper navigated its way to top of my poll. Fresh, high grade tuna surfaced with a trio of complimentary chums who brought out the best in their fishy friend- seaweed salad cooled, pickled shitake mushrooms puckered and wasabi cream cleansed.

We sidetracked from scales and weighed the options between two plucky preparations of duck. The half duck with blackberry/soy lost out to an orange/ginger glazed breast and a quarter of dark meat. Encircled by meticulously sliced medallions, cranberry relish glowed beneath a teepee of crisp skin and succulent thigh meat (shredding with the smallest provocation). The contrast of duck on this dish gave a variety of focal points while remaining cohesive-job well done.

From fish to fowl, we couldn’t have been more pleased. In an area where the seafood and tourist trades are highly competitive markets, Captain Jack’s thrives as an affordable, weekly go-to by delivering a quality product with every meal. Though there are many fish in the sea, few are prepared as tastily as those that leave Captain Jack’s galley.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

NJ restaurant- Brandl's in Belmar

Brandl’s gives fresh thought to upscale American fare(photos courtesy of Brandl.)

Posing 9th Ave courtyard reflections in their expansive, display windows (engaging in the summer, but drafty in the winter), Brandl’s converted storefront has earned its place as a staple on every one of my NJ visits. Surviving almost a decade in Belmar’s seasonal, shore community, Chris Brandl’s clairvoyant ability to dictate food trends has earned him a little Manhattan in downtown Belmar. The only catch – this posh cuisine includes a pompous attitude at a big price. Is it worth patronizing a place that patronizes you, solely for the food? For me, this one is.

The intimate layout was drunk in with a quick gulp (deep scarlet walls spattered with artwork and thick, upholstered drapes.) Our welcome by the wooden maitre d’, who’s icy greeting extended from host to server in slow winter months, proved colder than any window draft.

The Iceman cometh to pop our cork (BYOB, now also offer wine) and curtly recite dinner specials, as warm bread wafted like silent apologies from the busboy’s basket. Further reparations were made with the deconstructed Caesar salad, where whole Romaine leaves were grilled and rather than wilting, bloomed in rich, smoky contrast to oven-roasted tomatoes lining the plate. Garlic soaked dressing and large shards of parmesan interpreted this translation of a classic into my tongue’s fluent favorite (#1 Caesar pick nationwide).

A structurally sound tower of tuna tartar and avocado brought the house down with wasabi crème fraiche and citrus soy additions power-washing the palate.
My crab-cakes runneth over with lump crabmeat and the mango chutney with cilantro oil (caramelized shallots with whole grain honey mustard in winter) gave complexity to these miniature morsels without masking the star (side photo).

Threads of the familiar wove through upscale entrees beginning with the Lazy Lobster, aptly named for incapacitating its victim by arriving de-shelled and ready for feasting. Succulent jewels of claw and tail meat plumped beneath a velvet carpet of asparagus risotto finished with cream and vanilla- so rich, it left me feeling like royalty (It’s good to be the king.) A few succulent bites were all that could be scavenged from two teeny lamb chops, but size didn’t matter when it came to this positive portrayal that extracted all of the lamb’s essence without leaving an overpowering tang. Their petite nature was further forgiven with the billowy, tartness of a goat cheese/caramelized onion cake that rounded out the dish.

For a walk on the “wild side” (literally) we ventured for wild boar chops (top photo), whose distict pungency was softened by wild mushrooms, crispy gnocchi and a touch of truffle honey. I could get used to this game. Kona crusted buffalo tenderloin reflected adventurous ambition, but the coffee coating surrounding the tender meat wasn’t my cup of Joe.

Dessert time chimed with tiramisu and its delicate layers of cream followed by the subtle punch of espresso, soaked cake- a pleasure to the eye and palate. The dark chocolate soufflé (ordered 45 min in advance for 2) arrived looking impressive, accompanied by a small pitcher of melted chocolate, but even after being poured, the cake was extremely dry - not worth the money or the wait. The gelato, or should I say overpriced ice cream was disappointing for the obvious difference in taste. If you’re advertising gelato, it needs to be gelato (especially at $4 a scoop)! It’s best to stick with appetizers and entrees- the portions are small, but scrumptious.

Winter offers a $30 three course prix-fixe menu
BYOB optional