Friday, December 23, 2011

La Bastide Bistro - Scripps Ranch, CA

Feasting Flashbacks: North County Noshing
Hot down, summer in…North County. Tiff and Matt had moved out of the city a few months before and even though I’d been enjoying their new Playboy-Mansion-sized pool, I was still pouting about how far away they were. And tonight was no different, especially since we were meeting them for dinner at some strip-mall in Scripps Ranch.

North County’s strip-malls were strung like pearls, plentiful and lined in neat rows, but more like gaudy, costume jewelry than precious gems. Though I had to admit, La Bastide Bistro seemed to possess some real value. My ears perked to the rustle of butcher paper, smoothed on tabletops for a crisp, clean canvas as my nostrils filled with food fumes that could rival pheromones aroused by Chanel No.5.

The intoxication didn’t stop there. A sprite-ly Chateau de St. Martin flitted on my tongue with the lithe of a diver's spring on the board before leaping into delicate flight - a refreshing plunge for the palate.

A plateful of nosh-ables arrived and though I found the pâté a bit passé, the rest of the group gobbled it up greedily, along with the cured meats that provided a perfect distraction from my farm fresh salad.

Jersey girls have a thing about their tomatoes and these were juicy, sweet and ripe. A good yellow tomato is like eating the sun – it encompasses all that is summer. Simple greens and a splash of good balsamic was all the dressing up these beauties needed. Clumps of goat cheese + tomato juices = nature’s vinaigrette.

The halibut was a hellava one with tomatoes, artichokes and baby red potatoes in a lemon/white wine broth, but Bubba was lucky we both ordered the same thing because when the two came to the table, mine was visibly larger. True to my wifely duties, I switched with him, but other table members wouldn’t necessarily have parted with the fuller fillet - uniform portions please!

The hanger steak was cooked with finesse and left tender in its red wine/ cherry reduction, but got a bit mired down with ingredients - the spice rub and sauce seemed to compete with each other. And though the meat paired well with a side of brocollini, you could crack a tooth on the rice.

The rice also acted as a weapon in the paella and I didn't even understand why this dish was appearing on a "Country French" menu. Why have a random, Spanish, specialty dish if you can’t execute it well? The rice was undercooked, the shellfish overcooked - it was a failure in every possible way.

Truffle mac-n-cheese was ok, nothing stand-out and in the end, I felt lucky with my selections – the wine, salad and fish were all a hit – but other orders weren’t so lucky. Worth the hike? Probably not, but I’d keep it in mind when I came up for a swim.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Brandl's Revisited - Belmar, NJ

It’s tradition. The last night before I leave Jersey, my mom and I go to Brandl’s.

The two of us have been in a serious relationship, Brandl’s and me, for the last decade or so, with ups and downs like any couple. From countless run-ins with the icy maitre d'* to over-the-top elation at my wedding’s rehearsal dinner, we’ve been through it all. And even though it’s been almost 10 years, Brandl’s makes every meal taste like the first time.

*who's considerably thawed over the years

Maybe it's because I constantly find genius in concepts like their Caesar salad, whose whole leaves of Romaine are grilled for a charred depth that doesn’t leave them wilted, but instead, invigorated. Thick, homemade dressing kung-fu grips the greens, while shards of parmesan rest lightly as brides' veils beneath oven roasted tomatoes. The absence of croutons? Not even given a second thought and for this bread-loving braud, that spoke volumes.

Old McDonald met old money when it came to a deconstructed salad where goat cheese balanced foie gras (literally and figuratively) next to the grassy taste of mache sprouting from the center. But the cherry on top was a grape puree that arrived in a mini-Mason jar, ready to be studied like the precious specimen it was and poured as liberally as one wanted (...shots anyone?).

Eggplant fries just about blew my mind. Peeled like potatoes and deep-fried, these were worth talking about...even if my mouth was full when singing the praises of this veggie gone incognito. Kalamata-olive aioli only brightened this star’s shine and whether ordered as a side item or kicking it with Kobe sliders, this edgy eggplant was the new black.

Even simple pleasures like sautéed shrimp were done with rustic, yet elegant perfection and Brandl's was never selfish with their shellfish, especially when it came to lobster.

So many restaurants have lured me with the promise of lobster-laden dishes, only to find myself served some type of pink paste or fishy broth with no traces of my coveted crustacean. But at Brandl's, I knew this Maine delicacy would always remain the main ingredient and tonight it was featured in the evening’s pasta special. Orecchiette, meaning “little ears", had the curved nooks of its namesake and formed perfect cupholders for the white wine/ butter sauce. As expected, this was chockful of claws and tails with a bit of Jersey corn and tomatoes thrown in to accentuate the lobster's natural sweetness.

They must have taken this duck's temperature because its doneness couldn't have been more spot-on. The juices were flowing, but crisp skin broke off in salty snaps. Add that to the decadence of duck-fat, roasted potatoes cleansed by the refreshing crunch from Napa cabbage = one flawless fowl.

Sure, sometimes Brandl's tossed a “lil’ Manhattan” attitude around, but I think it was their way of coping with the fact they were in Belmar, a blue-collar town that didn’t always appreciate “fancy schmancy” schmorgeous boards. But that never stopped Brandl’s from bringing quality product and creativity to the table. More pricey than most in the area (entrees high $20s - low $30s) and catering to a select palate, I don’t know how Brandl’s survived this long in the game, but I love them, and with all of the history between us, I guess I always will.