Friday, December 6, 2013

Amaya at the Grand Del Mar - San Diego, Ca

The Grand Del Mar was saved for grand occasions and my birthday seemed like a good enough reason to indulge at Amaya. We’d already eaten at Addison’s, the second restaurant on the property, and it remained one of my most cherished dining memories to date, which meant Amaya had some impressing to do.

Jalapeno margarita: Jalapeno infused vodka with a few slices of the actual pepper sassed up this classic, as the spice naturally fell in step with the soft burn of tequila and rocky rim of salt.

Margarita with grapefruit juice and elderflower syrup: This played a little softer than the jalapeno version, but still had its own kick. Grapefruit juice grabbed at the throat as elderflower soothed the sour with its delicate, floral syrup.

Shrimp with chili and lime broth: I couldn’t fathom how the chef had cooked these shrimp so perfectly - down to the second. Shrimp’s short window of turning pink, but retaining its succulent, springiness was as elusive as glimpsing the green flash at sunset* – almost impossible. The chili/lime sauce was thick with butter and the squeeze of citrus turned up the chili’s heat, while keeping it tamed enough to spotlight every individual ingredient. Toasted baguette slices were there to sop up any remaining sauce and I assume to keep patrons from licking the bowl.

*Not sure if I only know about the green flash since living in San Diego, but it’s the rarely seen, green flash of light that lasts only a millisecond as the sun hits the horizon during sunset.

Duck proscuitto flatbread with arugula and Manchego cheese
Crispy dough, flat as a quarter, was the platform for paper thin slices of the deep maroon, duck proscuitto, whose salty, earthiness was mirrored like a twin in the Manchego's creamy tang, with arugula playing their peppery sister.

Duo of lamb: Little Bo Peep should have checked here when she went looking for her herd because this was where they were all hiding. Rib-eye of lamb fanned itself out in slices like a demur Southern Belle flaunting its rosy, (true) medium rare center, circled with a cracked crust of sea salt and ground pepper. Lamb chops crisscrossed themselves above with delicate Frenched bones grounded to the plate by their swollen lollipop heads, thick with meat.

Both the chops and rib-eye were seasoned better than most lamb I’ve eaten in my life and there was absolutely no negative critique I could give to this dish…other than I needed more lamb pancetta in the white beans and greens concoction beneath the meat. Yes, you heard me correctly: LAMB PANCETTA!! That’s when this duo turned into my type of threesome. What can I say? I’m a glutton for mutton.

Frozen lemon meringue pie with raspberry coulis: This pie was served with a lemon twist = lemon curd ice cream. If you haven’t been lucky enough to try lemon curd, then hustle down to Trader Joe’s and grab a jar. It’s meant for muffins and breakfast toasts, but not only was it fitting as a filling, but was easily one of the best ideas since someone realized that chocolate could rival jelly when it came to peanut butter. The topping wasn’t a true meringue because instead of whipped egg whites and sugar, the lightly bruleed top was thicker and had a texture like marshmallow (maybe to withstand the freezer?). But surprisingly I loved it, which impressed me all the more since I usually hate marshmallow. Bottom line: Curd is the word.

Pecan pie tart with buttermilk ice cream: Their buttermilk ice cream tasted pretty vanilla and the pecan tart seemed like it could have been bought anywhere. My guess? Dudsville, USA. Not bad, but nothing special.

A to A comparisons: Amaya’s food was perfectly seasoned, executed and presented. But Amaya cost around the same as Addison’s and the two weren’t even in the same ball park when it came to service or experience.

1. We were greeted by name
2. Hostesses and waiters performed a seemingly choreographed production of service while welcoming us
3. Giant tweezers were used to lay our napkins on our laps
4. Individually wrapped pieces of house-made shortbread and a printed version of the tasting and wine choices from our evening’s four-course menu were received as a parting gift.

1. Our waiter went missing for a bit, maybe since there was an event going on outside, but we were left unattended for a good while and were left waiting to order.
2. The sommelier was very attentive, genuine, funny, and seemed to be more present as a server than our actual waiter, but service was still spotty.

Conclusion: Amaya fan? Yes. But for the money, I’m all about Addison's.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Hinoki and the Bird – Los Angeles, Ca

Bird is the word
This is what I imagined the upper echelon of garden sheds to look like – four-star all the way. We were led to an outside booth padded with dark denim cushions, and the rusty, metal frames surrounding the windows were faded with an antiqued grace instead of looking like ravaged corrosion. Multiple varieties of greenery and vegetation sprouted from behind a row of bench-seating, boxing out the back wall and gaining plenty of natural light from an open air roof, which began closing in multiple, corrugated sections at varying degrees throughout the meal.

When we’d passed through Hinoki and the Bird's interior, a dining room dressed head to toe in wood (appropriate since hinoki was a type of Japanese tree known for its valuable timber), I was once again reminded of the simple things in life elevated to first class – this was high society’s rumpus room. But there was no need for a TV or a game of Twister since guests could swivel their necks and get a Bird’s eye view from the almost wall-sized, rectangular cut-out that looked directly into the kitchen.

Top Chefs
And the Bird’s chefs were used to the attention. Executive Chef David Myers had opened several restaurants, including Michelin-starred Sona and his LA eatery, Comme Ca, which boasted a second location in Vegas’ Cosmopolitan Hotel. Chef Kuniko Yagi, who had competed as a contestant on Top Chef (Seattle), was also present in the kitchen…and at the table directly behind us. Both she and Chef Myers made an appearance just a few feet away, where they spoke at length to a brunette woman with her back to Bubba. *cue Madonna music* “Who’s that girl?” I'd have to find out, but first, a cocktail.


Seasonal Fix - gin, rum, vodka or tequila, served with fresh lemon over muddled seasonal fruit: This was like a choose-your-own-adventure drink. Pick your liquor. Pick your fruit. Options were: raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and/or grapes - pick one or all to be muddled in the mix. Our choice: vodka, blackberries and strawberries. An avalanche of crushed ice filled the glass, while the vodka and mashed berries swirled into every available crevice and created the ultimate alcohol snow cone = best brain freeze ever.

Tommy’s #2 - tequila or mezcal, lime, orange and agave: This was served in an Old Hollywood style champagne glass with a wide rim to fit all of its citrusy, sunny, brightness (see picture below with lobster roll).

Drinking To-do: Their list of clever cocktails would undeniably lure me back with concoctions like the Griffith Park Swizzle (bourbon, mint, lime, bitters & absinthe) and the Gordon’s Cup (gin, muddled lime, cucumber, Szechuan pepper, salt). Next time.

Eats sharing plates and tasting multiple courses is encouraged

Half dozen oysters with pear mignonette: We had to try the Forbidden Oysters, since they sounded so off-limits, but they were pretty tame in their briny, squishy presence and the pear didn’t offer much flavor to the run-of-the-mill mignonette.

Lobster roll, green curry, Thai basil: I had specifically picked the Bird because it sounded more my speed than some of the trendier spots with menus that flew right over my head - sorry, Michael Voltaggio, but to me, your “charcoal waffle” just sounded burnt. Though here I was, enjoying what looked like a croissant that had been left in the oven and charred to a crisp…but that was all part of the edible illusion.

This black bread had abracadabra-ed itself into a buttery, moist compliment to the simplicity of the Maine lobster – like sporting a Mohawk with a Channel suit - classic charm while working a fresh angle = black bread is the new black. Green curry was the-barely-there binding agent instead of mayo, but present enough to enhance the lobster’s sweet nature, along with Thai basil and strong blasts of heat from Thai chili and sour hits of lemony citrus. I’d come back for a few of these and some cocktails alone – let the good times (lobster) roll!

Chili crab toast, spicy cucumber, coriander: I pictured this more like shrimp toast - a greasy, deep-fried triangle with shredded crab stuffed into its interior, but instead we were brought slices of toasted baguette topped with shredded crab and chili paste, resembling the color and texture of pulled, barbeque pork. The cucumber beneath the crab ran the length of the bread, but lost some of its crunch under the hot mixture. Overall, it was a bit bland and nothing special.

Drunken duck breast: This was from the ‘simply grilled’ section of the menu and served with sliced pears. I was instructed by our waiter to cut my duck lengthwise, which proved a bit of a task since my two pieces were short and stubby, so it was hard to get a good hold on it while seated. I would have preferred that they’d sliced it in the kitchen, but I felt like a baby asking for someone to cut my meat, so I sawed away, stabbed a pear and was finally rewarded with a fowl and fruit combo that played off each other’s sweet and earthy notes in varying degrees – a perfect “pearing”.*

Sonoma rack of lamb, patty pan squash, arugula, cumin yogurt: These were some big chops - the kind that should be waved above your head at a feast, but they were a touch underdone and the sauce was scarce. The precious drops I did taste were ideal, blending the spicy, loamy taste of cumin with yogurt's tart cream and the mild game of lamb.*

*I’ve had better duck and lamb dishes before, but I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed my surroundings as much while having those better duck and lamb dishes.

Dining To-do: Next time I’d try the hinoki scented black cod with sweet potato and pistachio (served with a still-smoking piece of wood) and the caramel braised kurobuta pork belly with radish and mustard greens.

Side show(stoppers)
Sweet potato with lardons, crème fraiche and piquillo peppers: This wasn’t what I’d expected at all. I was picturing a mashed concoction, heavy with cream and bacon. Instead it arrived in the simple disguise of an ordinary, out of the oven, cut in half, still in its skin, sweet potato topped with a smattering of crisp lardons (fat, little fingers of bacon), a scoop of crème fraiche and thinly sliced piquillo peppers. But this unassuming spud held secrets within its straight-laced skin that made me question what happened next.

This sweet potato = the singing frog from the old Looney Tunes' episode. You know the one I’m talking about. Whenever the frog was alone with his owner, he’d belt out, “Hello, my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal!” But if the owner tried to show-off his singing pet to others, the frog would only answer with, “Ribbit.” Well, on the plate, this looked like a “Ribbit”, but when I placed that fork in my mouth, the music started and a well choreographed number came to life on my tongue. I couldn’t believe that just a few well-placed components on this “frog” could transform it into such a prince.

Braised shiitake mushroom, yuzu kosho: The mushrooms arrived in a flimsy, silver plastic disc that looked like a coaster for beneath a flower pot, which was appropriate since its contents seemed to have been plucked directly from the earth and placed on the plate. Braised mushroom heads puffed up next to a brownish-green clump of something growing in the corner and that something = the best condiment ever: yuzu kosho (a paste made from chili peppers, yuzu peel and salt, then allowed to ferment). This salt-cured condiment worked as a truth serum on the shiitakes and drew out their raw essence in a salty, spicy, funky, fabulous way.

Vietnamese coffee “snow cone”, nata de cocoa, condensed milk: As if my alcohol snow cone wasn’t enough, dessert gave me another opportunity to fill the void left by my Snoopy Snow Cone Machine decades ago. Shards of toasted coconut built a roof atop the pungent coffee, hitting me just as I was blindsided by a blanket of condensed milk that put me to out like a handkerchief full of ether. Somehow it was strong, crisp, refreshing, toasty and decadent all at once and was simply divine.

Cotton cheesecake, rhubarb, raspberry, strawberry yogurt ice cream: I was about to order the miso doughnut, when I went with the cotton cheesecake instead, a Japanese version that was similar to the porous texture of pound cake. But it didn't move me in any way and I felt like it was something I could get from the grocery time I’d order the doughnut.

Meathead, Marty McFly and the Mystery Woman
I’ve never been someone that’s really into the celebrity scene, though I have to admit that I got a little giddy when I saw Rob Reiner seated on the other side of the dining room. But what made me really lose my shit was when Michael J. Fox sat (diagonally) across from me. I had to keep myself from shouting, “Flux capacitor ready!”, and instead, I just gave him a nod, as if to say, “We’re all just eating dinner here, buddy.” As for the brunette who stole the chefs’ attention at the beginning of the meal and had several visitors at her table throughout the evening, we walked directly in front of her as we left, but I couldn’t place her Barefoot Contessa-esque countenance…I still don’t know who we missed.

Waiting on a Friend
Our waiter Daniel was probably one of the most exquisite courses of the meal. Between his recommendations (“You probably want the lobster before the crab toast since the lobster’s more delicate”) and his genuine warmth (as well as the attentive and friendly, bow-tied maitre d’), we were treated as if we were Michael J. Fox – A-list all the way. The Bird’s special brand of service and laid-back setting made it hard to leave the nest.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Feasting Flashbacks: Memorial Day Weekend – Piccola Italia (Ocean, NJ)

Jersey Shore, Memorial Day weekend = the North Pole at Christmas.

The celebration can’t be stopped. This year, I was lucky enough to get back home for the official opening of summer, and though I usually found myself lulled by the same idealized haunts of my youth (measuring which still fit the puzzle pieces I’d fixed in my nostalgic brain), this trip served up a new way to see the Garden State on a plate, at a little Italian joint tucked in a strip mall.

A four-star restaurant in a strip mall?!
Toto, I think we’re back in Jersey.

Piccola Italia gave me a geography-warp = like a time warp, but rather than time, it was the immediate, overall change of surroundings due to the common practices and elements from that particular region. The heavy, mahogany-like bar was an instant reminder of being back in Jerz like a stoked fire of dark paneling that was rarely lit in the light woods and gauzy fabrics of San Diego. Murals of the Tuscan terrain rose up from the side wall, set off by large squares of white flooring, and gave off the first impression of Old World, old and pop at its best.


Amuse bouche
Fried ricotta with fresh tomato sauce: Propped on a chunky bed of fresh tomato sauce, this circularly-shaped, yet sleeker cousin of the mozzarella stick could barely contain itself. A sheer shell of breading cupped the ricotta like slinky lingerie before bursting forth in one hot dollop of cream. In the amuse(ment) bouche park, this would be the roller coaster – unexpected, high impact and over too quickly.

DLT sandwich – duck confit/ butter lettuce/ grape tomatoes/ caramelized onions
No biggie - just a sandwich stuffed with duck confit and caramelized onions. Its bread: crisped in a pan, where it'd absorbed all the butter from the onions and duck fat from the confit, morphing into a Texas toast/grilled cheese “high-bread” that made me weak in the knees. Dotting their T’s with balsamic reduction, grape tomatoes were halved and scattered on the plate for a refreshing squirt of acid, leaving the velvety, softness of butter lettuce to wipe the palate clean.

Homemade pasta and shiitake mushrooms: I’m not exactly sure how I would categorize this type of pasta – wider than parpadelle, but thinner than a sheet of lasagna. The length of it collapsed upon itself like a freshly, folded piece of laundry with a malleability that spoke of its newly formed nature. Between the plump ribbons of fresh pasta, shiitake mushrooms and micro-greens sprouted from a soft drizzle of parmesan and delicate broth that made me feel like a tree nymph foraging off an enchanted woods’ floor. It was an edible landscape that truly transported me to a magical place.

Blue cheese encrusted filet mignon with mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach and onion rings: I’ve had peppercorn encrusted, pistachio encrusted, but never cheese encrusted. The cocoon of blue cheese ensured every bite had a bit of stank to the rosy center of the perfectly, pink beef and even in the cocoon stage, this dish had clearly blossomed into its full good they had to put a (onion) ring on it.

Potato wrapped tilapia with brown butter and fresh green beans: You say potato, I say "po-nado" = a potato tornado spun its tight funnel of long, hash brown-like strips around the tilapia’s fork tender filet. Pan fried and crisped into one tight package (snug as a fish in a spud), the brown butter still managed to work its way between the small gaps in the potato cage and onto the fish’s flesh, keeping it moist, while keeping it clever in this culinary mash-up of fish n’ chips.

Side bar
Any port in a storm? Nope, just the one in the green bottle:
We ended up moving to the bar for cappuccino and a snifter of Frangelico, when we were offered some port. I automatically cringed when I heard the word and recalled my last run-in with this punk, a Tawny port I’d tried when my friend insisted, “It tastes like Raisinets.”

First of all, I’m not that hot on Raisinets and secondly, it tasted like my mother’s basement. So when it was offered to me at Piccola, I shrank away before my eyes were drawn to a dusty, green bottle that looked like something Alice might find with the words, “Drink me” on it, pulled from beneath the bar. I became more intrigued when this emerald bottle produced a pale, orange liquid that looked like Glenda the Good Witch instead of the damning tar of Tawny. All the ports I’d had before were dark, brooding characters that overstayed their welcome on the palate, but this tasted of apricots and peaches, and everything good in the world. Libation education 101 = white port existed and was delicious.

Scenes from a mall
My first impression was my lasting impression – mom and pop at its best. Piccola's modest location downplayed the intensity of what was happening in Chef (and owner) Brian Gualtieri ’s kitchen - expert technique, homemade pastas, fresh ingredients, enthusiastic staff - there was a real sense of heart felt within these walls and on the plate. Piccola's modern play on Italian classics kept you guessing, while remaining Old World, old school…new favorite.

837 W Park Ave, Ocean Township, NJ 07712
Phone:(732) 493-3090

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Hot down, summer in the kitchen - Chef Sean's summer supper (San Diego)

When Chef Sean traipsed into town on a whim, his first words were, “What are we making for dinner?”

Now let me explain. When I talked about making dinner, it usually referred to a pan of homemade lasagna, but when Chef Sean broached the subject, he was speaking of demi-glaces, buerre blancs and anglaises – oh my!

The Main Ingredient
Quality product was a necessity, so we high-tailed it around town procuring the best of San Diego: 1) Pancho Villa: this Mexican market offered affordable produce, Mexican cheeses, fresh tortillas made on sight, and a meat counter that hit every entrail and flank of the meat rainbow (along with the beef bones we needed). 2) Iowa Meats: they were usually the top pick for specialty proteins, but they only had frozen duck breast, so we ended up finding fresh at Whole Foods. 3) Point Loma Seafood (PLS): we first stopped at Blue Water Market on India St, but their Ahi paled in comparison (literally) to the deep magenta of the PLS tuna and their unmatched display case of still seemingly moving fish.

Chef Sean’s Summer Supper 2013

First course: Shellfish in white wine broth served with fresh herb & goat cheese garlic bread

I felt like King Neptune had just called forth all of the fish in his kingdom and placed them before me. My bowl came piled high with mussels, shrimp and clams in a broth that married wine and sea with sweet traces of tomato beneath the salty bite of bacon. But the standout citizens were the mussels who had been brought up with a gentle, knowing hand and given the proper attention necessary to summon a briny shine and extinguished any back-talking chew.

Shrimp and clams completed the conga line of perfectly cooked shellfish and I couldn’t help but hum, “Under the Sea” in homage to this seafood celebration. As for the garlic bread, the chef's choice of ciabatta stood up to the slathering of goat cheese and herb, compound butter that formed a delicate shell on top, that when dipped in the broth weakened and happily soaked it all in – this sop was tops.

Second course: Soy/ginger cured Ahi tuna taco - tempura fried avocado, queso fresco, spicy aioli

Street tacos instead of salad – sweeettt!! The Ahi was left unadulterated before curing in a concoction of ginger, cilantro and soy sauce. Its almost raw, sensual feel had the softness and color of lips - a pink that seemed more likely to be found on an artist’s canvas than in nature. It lay next to a tempura avocado that posed the same powerful “crunch and cream” dynamic that rivaled the simple brilliance of an ice cream cone. Clumps of queso fresco fell in with swirls of spicy aioli and all were enhanced by the freshly made corn tortilla that fit demurely in my palm.

Third course: Seared duck breast with blackberry demi-glace served with homemade, rosemary gnocchi* in almond browned butter and sautéed spinach

When beef bones were braised for hours to create a true demi-glace, you knew it was something worth waiting for. Deeper than Aristotle; more body than Jessica Rabbit; this blackberry demi-glace motorboated the tastebuds and did a lap (it up) dance atop a sliced, duck breast, whose rosy pink center came rimmed in a G-string of skin. With all that body, the blackberries became the backbone of the sauce with a tart, acidity that climbed its way to the top of each complex layer. My only issue was that Chef Sean had forgotten the halved blackberries he’d prepared as a garnish and because they were missing, when a blackberry seed was found with the teeth, it took the brain a second to process what it was.

*The name game: The chef had labeled these gnocchi, but I preferred to call them potato dumplings because when you heard a certain term, it set you up for expectations. There’s a lot in a name – sorry Shakespeare. A rose by another name might still smell sweet, but if you were expecting lilacs and they smelled like roses, you might be disappointed. Just like when I thought of gnocchi, I imagined light and airy pillows dissolving on the tongue. But Chef Sean’s delightful nuggets of potato pasta were much more like a dumpling - like a baby periogi that hadn’t received its filling yet. After a few minutes in boiling water, they were crisped brown in the pan with a mix of duck and beef fat. Then they were tossed with butter and slivered almonds, browned into a nutty decadence that was rounded out by the subtlety of sautéed spinach. WOW.

Fourth course: Homemade baklava with ginger/honey drizzle and orange/saffron ice cream

Phyllo dough.
Melted butter.
Chopped walnuts and honey.

Baklava was dense and sticky, making me heavy with thoughts of grandmothers in babushkas baking in Old World kitchens. One bite overtook the mouth and held it captive, thick with honey holding firm the flaky dough that dissolved on the tongue. It slowed the chewing process, which slowed the mind into appreciating just how satisfying one mouthful could be.

We didn’t leave enough time for homemade ice cream, but that didn't mean Chef Sean didn't have a few tricks up his sleeve. One gallon of store bought vanilla + 3 oranges + a few strands of saffron = orange/saffron ice cream. The flavors were so bold it tasted homemade - the saffron was present, but not overpowering, while the orange brought an almost floral finish and gave some give to the sticky nuts and honey. The final touch was a drizzle of ginger/honey for spiciness that cleansed the palate and said a final goodnight.

Summer lovin':
Summer lovin' had me a blast
Summer lovin' happened so fast
We went shopping at Pancho Villa's
Got some bones and some tortillas
Shiny shellfish cooked to perfection
Duck breast slices got a berry injection

Baklavaaaaaa (pause)
The last hurrah
But ohhhhh!!
Those saffron noooooo-tes......

Thanks for another great meal Sean!!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Buttered Biscuit – Bradley Beach, NJ

Believe me - I know which side my bread is buttered on. When I’m back in Jersey, it’s usually the side of a hard roll (similar to a Kaiser roll, but lighter and fluffier; often topped with poppy seeds) since they’re unheard of anywhere besides the Garden State, but on this trip, I had a date with a biscuit.

“Are we dressed up enough? They’ve got linen tablecloths,” my buddy murmured before realizing everyone was in our identical uniform of flip flops and t-shirts. The Buttered Biscuit couldn’t help that it gave off an elegant aura with light beaming from an antique chandelier and high ceilings that brought the strength of the sun inside on this rainy afternoon.

Lace curtains and wooden, dining room chairs married quaint tea cottage with elderly, eclectic aunt - you know, the 80 year old spitfire who still polished her silver whenever she had guests and scrubbed her own floors - where there was a loving wear from the life lived here and a familial scuff to the tidy surroundings that immediately placed you at ease.

Coffee clutching: If you’re out of cocaine, you could always get a quick fix with the coffee here – WHOAH NELLY!! This Jersey joe was the type that could keep you up for a few days and if I ever moved back, I'd probably have an unhealthy relationship with this mug.

Feeling Crummy: I have to admit that this was a trick we used back when I was working at the Sunset Landing in Asbury Park, but it was a trend worth following. They cut a square of crumb cake horizontally and stuck it on the flattop, slick with melted butter, and added a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar. Browned cake and boulders of warmed-through crumbs were even more addictive than the coffee.

Biscuit Goats Gruff: I was considering their omelet with goat cheese, herbs de Province, bacon and tomato. But I had two dilemmas:
1. I wasn’t necessarily a big omelet fan – to me, it was like one giant egg flap.
2. Since I was in Jersey, I had to take advantage of every opportunity to eat pork roll (Taylor ham) while I was here. This salty, spam-like/bologna, breakfast meat hybrid, mostly seen in Jersey (and Philly), was sparse on the west coast, so I needed to order it whenever possible. I was tempted to get the “Jersey Benedict” with pork roll instead of Canadian bacon, but I wanted some goat cheese in the mix.

So I sez to the waitress: Could I do scrambled eggs with goat cheese, a side of pork roll and a biscuit?

And she sez: No prob.

As an admitted egg snob, I have to declare that these were some of the best scrambled eggs that I’ve ever had. I assumed they added some cream because these were decadent, and it wasn’t just the clumps of melted goat cheese. They must have taken the mixture out of the pan just as it was going from liquid to solid because these dissolved on the tongue.

They made up for the biscuit, which was a bit dense, though sides of cinnamon butter and strawberry jam smartened it up a bit. I was so in love with every other aspect that made it easy to focus on the positive – like my perfectly cooked pork roll, seared and crispy, glistening with those coveted, saturated fats and preservatives that made my heart skip a beat (literally) whenever I visited NJ.

BELT sandwich: My buddy cinched things up by ordering the BELT sandwich (BLT + fried egg) served on sourdough toast with aioli, while both of our plates were hit with some home fries that still sported their skins - browned and crackly - protecting tender, ivory insides = homerun home fries.

Other offerings: homemade corned beef hash, bruleed grapefruit, banana bread French toast

Total bill = $24.95
Total sum = Best breakfast I’ve had in a long time – the staff made up of local, beachy youth were attentive and polite, prices were reasonable, product was killer, and the overall sense of being welcomed and well-fed lasted long after the meal. Biscuit is a (bread) winner.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Press Cellars: The Charismatic Cabernet

*A client gifted me this wine after explaining it was Press Cellars' first attempt at a cabernet from their small winery in Angwin, Ca (Elsberg Vineyard) and asked me to tell her what I thought of it. Thanks again, Tracie - this one was worth writing about.*

Uncorking Press Cellars' Howell Mountain 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon was like walking into a well-preserved library and unearthing an unknown tome, which when opened, smelled of the earth as translated by humans. With a nose bigger than Cyrano de Bergerac, this cab knew how to hail some attention, but its overall stature reminded me of another beloved, literary character. This was Falstaff in a glass: jubilant, robust and round, with some heft to its swallow and a playful thickness that rolled around the tongue like a soccer ball during practice drills.

It was happiest when in the company of beef and lamb, where its tannin-y tendencies became all the more brazen. Pockets of dark berries and loam were found tucked in the heavy folds of its scarlet cloak, but once introduced to red meat, its reaction was similar to Bruce Banner transforming into the Hulk – meat make cab strong!! "POW!" - one right to the a long good-bye lasting on the lips. This was the type of wine meant to be raised in a goblet, drank after a hunt with the hounds in front of a crackling fire while stabbing a side of beef and hoisting a lamb shank in the air.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Eclipse Chocolate - South Park, San Diego

Total Eclipse of the Heart

I hadn’t visited Eclipse Chocolate since they moved their shop from North to South Park, and even though I’d become a devout fan of their eclectic, homemade chocolate bars – hazelnut chili, espresso walnut, sweet basil mint, blackberry sage – what really blew me away was their take on brunch.

The idea: Everything had an element of chocolate, vanilla or caramel.
The deal: Three plates for $16 (one entrée and two small plates).
The challenge: Executing a sweet and savory menu chockfull of culinary catch 22s.

Drinking chocolate: This would send Swiss Miss packing back to the Alps…or at least the powdered drink aisle. This mixture of melted chocolate with just enough milk to make it drinkable (our pick: sea salt caramel) could have saved Augustus Gloop from getting sucked up Wonka's extraction chute because this chocolate river was flowing with the strength of Niagara Falls and guzzling its stream was highly encouraged. Steam waved at us from the goldfish bowl-of-a-cup that held two, perfectly square marshmallows, whose handcrafted edges summoned the same pleasure of swallowing a snowflake’s individual design.

Then along came Mary...

I went for the Barley spirit bloody Mary speckled with black pepper and a cache of condiments (pickled cauliflower, red pepper, golden beet), distracting me from my first instinct of ordering a champagne drink, which I longed for after I realized something about Mary – all that flare still didn’t float my boat as much as a bit of bubbly.

Small plates
NOTE: Cocoa glazed bacon is not chocolate dipped bacon, but instead similar to the concept of caramelized or maple bacon. Chocolate’s earthy sweetness was present in a dusting of cocoa, but bacon’s salty smoke was still head hog.

‘Sup with the soup?: I chose the French onion instead of carrot-ginger soup, but when a glass tumbler arrived with none of the browned, cheesy adhesions I’d expected, I was disappointed. Instead, a stiff wafer of cheese fit inside the mouth of the glass like a circular dam and a handful of rough-cut croutons were arranged on the saucer like sugar cubes. But after they were dropped in, it was hard to keep the “dairy disc” sideways while bobbing for croutons.

I longed for the usual stringy octopus of gruyere and mozzarella suctioned to every surface, but I forgave this momentarily as my first spoonful of broth sang with rich notes of caramelized, vegetable sweetness…before being drowned out by the overpowering punch of sugar from the croutons. Someone should've stepped in and given this soup an intervention because it came from good (vegetable) stock, but needed more tweaks than a meth-head.

Citrus and vanilla potatoes: These wedges came coated with tart bursts of orange and scented with a thin veil of vanilla that lightly traced itself into every bite = orange blossom for the palate. These could have blown me away if it weren’t for two things:
1) They needed to be much crispier – sog city.
2) They needed to be much warmer (all of the food was somewhat cold, which was a BIG problem).

Building a better Ben-addict: When I didn’t miss my English muffin, I eyed the buttermilk toast suspiciously before admitting that not only did this toast strum some tang on the tongue, but its foundation was sturdy enough to hold whatever my architectural eye could design:

Build-a-Benedict: Buttermilk toast + soft poached egg + chive + choice of topping + choice of sauce:

*Avocado with vanilla bean sea-salted avocado*
Brown sugar pulled pork
Cocoa glazed bacon

*Chili burnt caramel hollandaise*
Brute cocoa mole
Spicy pork sausage gravy

*My design*: I felt like a naturalist coming upon a rare nest as I prodded the soft poached egg tucked along the uneven seams of mashed avocado. I loved fooling myself into thinking I was eating healthy by ordering a "veggie benedict", but once I started lapping up the puddle of caramel hollandaise, I had to give up the charade. Every element hit its mark with surprising accuracy and I was shocked that I didn’t miss the meat, but then again, my ben-addict brain was already designing my next blueprint: the pulled pork and cocoa mole project.

Blueberry stuffed French toast: Picture an ordinary sandwich. Now, replace the bread with two pieces of buttermilk French toast and stuff the insides with a blend of mascarpone and blueberries. Cinnamon-sugar boulders, akin to crumb cake topping, cascade down the side and you realize: this isn’t your average stuffed French toast. No - this guy was in another genre altogether - under the “PB&J iconic sandwiches” category. Watch your back, Fluffernutter...French-n-berry is coming to get ya.

Total Eclipse: Overall, I was seriously impressed with Eclipse’s control over a potentially disastrous menu that not only worked, but embraced the limitless possibility of their niche business. Most chocolate shops stay just that – chocolate shops - but Eclipse’s expansion outside the dessert world breathed life into their brunch and took it a step further with their ever-changing, monthly dinners that continued to test the boundaries of sweet and savory marriages ($30 for three courses). I guess the song was right after all…the Candy Man can.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Be Our Guest – Magic Kingdom, Disney World (Orlando, FL)

The Beast had made it clear that no one was to enter the West Wing, no matter what. That’s why my mother and I were shocked when the woman, tidily fitted in traditional footman’s garb with black buckle-shoes and knee-socks, said we’d be supping there.

Beauty and Beast was the overwhelming theme in Disney World’s “New Fantasyland”, including a glimpse of Belle’s home in the distance and Gaston’s Pub next door, serving pork shanks and a disgusting sounding concoction of apple juice and marshmallows, but the crown jewel was the sit-down restaurant in the Beast’s castle – Be Our Guest.

(pic from Disney's website)

Ballroom Blitz: Heaviness loomed over the Beast's fortress: rod iron gates creaked open only long enough to let us pass and massive gargoyles guarded the entrance with their stony, animal stare. But one step inside was like landing on the sun. The dark, brooding exterior fell away into the blinding light of the Grand Ballroom, where tidy rows of tables took on the appearance of an orderly vegetable garden sprouting mahogany legs and place settings. Illuminated reflections from overhead chandeliers bounced off marble walls the color of French vanilla, contrasting the outline of royal blue mountains and gentle snow falling outside the enormous, glass panes at the far end of the ballroom.

Gallery Glimpse: To the right, our “foot-woman” presented another dining room, the Rose Gallery - its centerpiece a grandiose music box topped with Belle and the Beast’s dancing figures - but she turned on her heel and informed us that we’d be dining in the most coveted area…the West Wing.

Winging it: Thunder clapped and lighting electrified the room, enough to see that fabrics were slashed and the portrait of a young man above the fireplace was torn to shreds (on certain lighting/thunder claps, the man morphed into the Beast for just a second). The storm visibly raged outside the corner window, where the eye was drawn to the dwindling, digital petals under protected glass…the sacred rose. No time to lose!

(Sorry for dark pic, but the Beast didn't allow much light!)

Beast Feast

Boozey and the Beast: The Magic Kingdom finally got the memo that spending 10 hours a day with your children, while standing on endless lines in the Florida heat requires some alcohol...well, at least some wine and beer. A glass of Beaujolais with the Beast – don’t mind if I do!

Soup’s On: I never expected much when it came to the food at the Magic Kingdom (I was usually sucking on soggy pizza at Pinocchio’s Village Haus by now), but I was pleasantly surprised with the French onion soup: cheesy, salty and the perfect ratio of bread to broth. The potato/leek soup also drew me in with its velvety, liquid blanket of hearty, creamed comfort that I coveted after traveling.

Hen game: I was just lifting my spoon for the first bite of soup when our entrees appeared – two crispy-skinned, Cornish game hens accompanied with veggies and a miniature pitcher of jus. The food runner dropped them at the table and left before we could say anything, so when we saw our waitress a few minutes later, we asked if the hens could be taken away until we were done with our soup. No problem.

She assured us that our entrees wouldn’t arrive until our soup was cleared, so we laughed when seconds later another food runner hastily dropped off another set of hens, and quickly disappeared. Though it seemed like a bad comedy routine, it went along with the general feeling of being rushed. Our soup arrived about five minutes before our wine and it was no secret that Disney World had many mouths to feed…honestly, we were just happy to have a table. Bring on the birds!

Game on: The hens were a little dry (probably from sitting under the heat lamp a couple times) and they definitely could use a little mojo = add mo’ jus! I wish a mini-pitcher of jus accompanied every meal as a “jus-t” in case. It added the moisture and the saltiness I craved, and even brought some extra enticement to the well-seasoned, fingerling potatoes like a dab of cologne behind the ears.

Dessert Cart(ier): I love myself some Disney, but there’s always a money-making angle. “Belle’s favorite cream puff” and a lemon meringue cupcake that, “Lumiere bruleed himself” were among some of the options, but I couldn’t deny that Disney knew how to sell a product. The dessert cart flaunted its visual enticement of pastries under glass, weaving around the room like the Pope mobile, where patrons craned their necks for a glimpse of glucose on wheels. This movable jewelry case of confections displayed its desserts like fine gems, propped upon black velvet, where the colors of rubies and topaz were all edible designs. The passion fruit cream puff was aptly named after Belle as it was truly a thing of beauty with its fuschia insides and powdered puff exterior that had enough sugar to fuel Buzz Lightyear's rocket pack.

The Odd Couple: As we exited the iron gates, I realized that Beauty and the Beast's dynamic was an exact metaphor for how I felt about Disney World as a whole.

There was Beauty: that moment where I felt like a kid that just snorted Pixie Stix (known as Pixie Dust on the Disney streets) as soon as I entered Disney's gates and considered getting some ridiculous hat before running in all directions while pointing to every ride that I needed to visit. That feeling never went away - even at 35, I was still as giddy as a Goofy.

Then there was the Beast: the dark side, the money-making machine that was Disney. They’d throw in any ludacris prop imaginable if they thought it would sell at the gift shop – don’t even get me started about The Carousel of Progress where they stuck a giant foam, red, white and blue top hat on the uncle in the bathtub during the 1920’s sequence – huh? *available for purchase when exiting*

Like Oscar and Felix, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat – opposites attract and this pair made us feel like welcome dinner guests in a land of make believe. Looks like Beauty won out yet again...well played Disney, well played.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sage at the Aria Hotel - Las Vegas (NV)

Sage Advice

Ok, maybe making an 8pm reservation at Sage wasn’t the smartest idea since we’d been drinking margaritas by the pool all day and were feeling a bit woozy, but this was Vegas and we needed to wake up – nothing like a four-course tasting menu to get you perky!!

Fabrics and draperies thicker than the coat on my tongue padded Sage’s salon, running parallel to a backlit bar whose quiet cosmopolitan glow worked its way down to the entrance of a shockingly dark dining room with heavy woods and a bluish-purple light filtering across the floor.

We were led to a carved out niche that gave us total privacy, but my chair was skinnier than Kate Moss and this model didn’t have any arms. An enormous raised base at the bottom of the table forced us to either rest our feet on top or keep one leg to either side of the giant mound, and neither were optimal choices. I hated to make a mountain out of a molehill, but this hump put me in a slump (literally) and made my body feel heavy before any food touched my lips (sometimes little details are big ones).



MARKET OYSTERS: Piquillo Pepper and Tabasco Sorbet, Aged Tequila Mignonette
I got so distracted by the idea of Tabasco sorbet that I ignored the shaved pear and Brussels sprouts salad with bacon-mustard vinaigrette and foie gras brulee – damn! But even though I didn’t order the brulee, I still got burned. The thick, semi-frozen liquid that Sage was calling sorbet created what looked like a bloody crime scene atop the oyster. It was clearly death by suffocation as the delicate oyster was smothered by a thick blanket of red, plasma-like fluid that hadn’t set properly and didn’t resemble the icy palate cleanser in any way.

WAGYU BEEF TARTAR: Crushed Caper Aioli, Slow Poached Egg/Crispy Chocolate
After a few bites of the tartar, Bubba said, “This reminds me of raw hamburger meat.” I really couldn’t disagree. The knife cuts were clunky and chunky, so when the large cubes of beef were mixed with the richness of egg yolk, it became of wet ball of meaty goo that sat like a lead balloon in our stomachs = Wag-goo.


MAINE DAYBOAT SCALLOPS: Braised Oxtail, Wild Mushrooms, Salted Caramel Reduction
Bubba adored his scallops and I wish I could have followed suit because they looked like the best thing to hit the table so far. But to me, scallops were like a hot guy that I just couldn’t stand – I wished I could like them, but there was no chemistry. That didn’t mean I wasn’t coveting their caramelized edges poised atop shredded oxtail and mingling between broccoli’s crunch and an earthy balance of mushrooms. The salted caramel reduction brought out the scallops’ inherent sweetness with a dose of salt that kept it savory.

GRILLED SPANISH OCTOPUS: Smoked Potato Puree, Romesco, Marcona Almond (no pic available)
They’d gotten a hold on the octopus as far as its tender texture, but the overwhelming abundance of smoke from the potato puree blurred the rest of the dish and blinded my taste-buds from identifying any flavor (other than sour grapes) after the first bite. Sour grapes + octopus = sourpuss.


AUSTRALIAN WAGYU SIRLOIN: La Ratte Potato Puree, Red Onion Jam, Confit Baby Radish (SUPPLEMENT $15)
I went with the Wagyu, hoping I’d have better luck with this than with the tartar, and apparently, all that meat needed was a little heat because this raised the steak to a whole new level. Pureed potatoes sat puffed up like starchy whipped cream and completed this picture-perfect “meat and potatoes” portrait, even if it wasn’t that original.

48 HOUR BEEF BELLY: Caraway Spiced Heirloom Squash, Roasted Quince

48 hour beef belly? More like 48 hour fatback. This was layered like lasagna with sheets of glistening fat and cross-stitched with cellulite. There was no specific part to cut off because it was all infected. Talk about a whole different animal (literally) than my precious pork belly…this could take some time to get used to, and 48 hours clearly wasn’t enough.


GIANDUJA PAVE: Olive Oil Ice Cream, Hazelnut Crunch, Basil Jam
This won “Best in Show” for the entire meal and could have been entered into an edible art exhibit. Every accent looked as if it had naturally fallen there like finding a piece of sea glass in the sand or a washed up piece of driftwood while walking along the beach. Instead, it was a walk along a chocolate beam where I collected bites of hazelnut crunchies, scooped up dabs of basil jam and took a dip in olive oil ice cream, all cataloged in my mind's scrapbook as some of Vegas’ most precious, local specimens.

PISTACHIO TART: Sautéed Strawberries, Honeyed Mascarpone, Strawberry-Black Pepper Gelato
This was another inspired idea that fell short when it came to execution. Promises of peppery gelato – poppycock! There was nothing peppery about this ice cream, which made me all the saltier. The heavy discus of pistachio also fell short (and hard) with a dry, dense quality whose taste wasn't worth the weight...or the wait. Check please!

My Sage advice: Well, it looked like the house won again. I'd recommend dropping into Sage for a drink at the bar and possibly dessert, but the only tables worth hitting here, were the betting tables.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Fig Tree Cafe (Hillcrest) - San Diego, Ca

A Tree grows in Hillcrest
I guess MLK really liked his eggs because whenever his designated day rolled around, everyone celebrated by going out to breakfast. Well, that’s how it seemed when Tiff and I spotted a Disneyland-like line outside of Snooze before hearing there was an hour wait. Since we’d just dumped all of our change into the meter, we needed a close by contender to make up for our nickel-less knickers and rounding the corner, there was Fig Tree.

Tree huggers: A metal railing lassoed sidewalk tables, but missed us as we ducked into Fig Tree's narrow corridor comprised of exposed brick on the right, and stocked, wooden wine shelves stretching to the ceiling on the left, leaking enough space between bottles to peek in the dining room. And it was packed. Luckily, we spotted a couple of open seats at the bar that gave us an up-close-and-personal glimpse into the kitchen and an aerial view of the dining room’s marriage of metal and Mother Nature.

There was a raw element to Fig Tree, especially the back wall of brushed concrete showcasing a super-sized, steel square of industrial art, whose hole-punched front displayed a flourishing tree when lit up at night (almost like a new age Light-Brite). Exposed, Edison-style light bulbs and coarse, thick rope wound around overhead lights brought a little tangled chaos to the clean edge. I felt like I was in the nest of a very stylish bird.


Meatloaf Hash: three eggs any style + spinach + diced meatloaf + pesto + house potatoes

We were tempted to try some “man candy” (thick bacon + brown sugar + paprika), but decided to hit a heartier note with the meatloaf hash. I wouldn’t necessarily say the potatoes were crispy, though they were well-seasoned and added some needed texture, but it was the pesto finish that gave this hash a more potent high than THC, keeping the beef incredibly moist, while adding some herbaceous depth. A few loose leaves of spinach let me pretend this was healthy, but all I really had my eye on were the eggs.

I have to admit that I’m a total egg snob and rarely order them out because I’m always disappointed, but these over easy eggs were like angels’ eyeballs…and I couldn’t wait to poke them out. The whites were at that almost never achieved point of completely cooked, but still buttery without brown edges and the yolks could have won a marathon with the way they ran. Loaded on a piece of sourdough, I’m talking serious egg ecstasy (it probably helped that Fig Tree bought their eggs fresh from Ramona).

Flatbread: mozzarella + braised short ribs + rosemary potatoes + horseradish crème fraiche

As hard as I am on eggs, I’m even a worse critic of crust - I’m talking Judge Judy level of scrutiny here. Fig Tree called this flatbread, but to me, it tasted like some serious east coast style, pizza crust*. Its thin profile was barely puffed from the pizza oven, but the heat had formed a simple sturdiness and the rare ability to hold its shape – no front nose-flops here!

Besides holding its shape (and my attention), the crust stayed solid under the bulk of meat and potatoes. The short rib was aptly named because it fell a little short in the flavor department and its thin slices were overshadowed by the sizzling “carb on carb” action taking place between the crust and rosemary potatoes. Though, the horseradish crème fraiche worked its sensory magic of heating the tongue, yet cooling in the same instant and spicing up the somewhat timid short rib.

*They also offer pizza, but the crust looked a bit thicker.

Strange fruit: I was happy with our choices, but for some reason I couldn’t see myself choosing Fig Tree when planning an “eating outing” – can’t really say why. We hit high points and not necessarily any lows, but I was left with the feeling that it was just “ok”. Fig Tree reminded me of a likeable booty call. I’d remember them fondly when they were brought up, even if I had no plans on seeing them again soon. But if I was in the area and feeling a little hungry, I’d definitely hit them up…because I had to admit, they had some tasty junk in the Fig Tree trunk.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Addison's at the Grand Del Mar - San Diego

Addison’s earns its stars

Author’s Note: Apparently Bubba and I have a curse with the disappearance of pictures from important dinners. The day after we were married, we went to Butter in Manhattan for a five course tasting menu – I left my camera in the park. On our third anniversary at Addison’s, we captured every bite with painstaking accuracy – Bubba’s phone crashed and lost the photos a few days later. So, put on your imagination goggles and picture this:

*Gulp* - talk about high society. The Grand Del Mar couldn’t get any higher than if Cheech and Chong were toking a joint on the front lawn. European architecture sprouted from the hills of Del Mar, about 25 minutes outside of central San Diego, in a secret upper crust community masquerading as a hotel, fully equipped with its own golf course, night club, spa, shops and restaurants. Addison’s stood out amongst it all, enough to earn its ranking as the only Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond restaurant in Southern California.

Grand (Del Mar) Entrance
My dusty Toyota pulled up between BMWs and Lexus’ so shiny I could see the pores in my reflection, but the valet acted as if we’d arrived in Cinderella’s carriage as he extended his hand to help me out. By the time Bubba gave him the keys a brunette hostess with slicked back hair and a fitted jacket welcomed us by name and wished us a happy anniversary.

Inside we were greeted by a second similarly-styled, blond hostess that made me question if I was in an elite rendition of a Robert Palmer video. The smell of old money and vintage books flooded my nostrils as we were led past a formal library with a stoked fireplace that was taller than my husband, but dwarfed beneath vaulted ceilings, and out to the veranda overlooking the golf course for complimentary cashews and two Grand Margaritas: fresh kiwi, pineapple and strawberry with Patron Anejo ($22 each x 2 = a left hook to the pocketbook!).

Dinner Theater
A choreographed team of servers worthy of Bob Fosse’s approval appeared within seconds of our seating - working together, yet separately - offering best wishes with complimentary sparkling or still, laying napkins in laps with what appeared to be an oversized pair of tweezers, and finally parting the way for Nicolas, our waiter who reminded me of the critic from Disney’s Ratatouille (serious in demeanor, but warmed through by the thrill of the meal). He extended a silver platter bearing a card from Executive Chef, William Bradley, and the kitchen staff, who again, wished us a happy anniversary.

Musical chairs would have been a challenge here since tables were set for the exact number of diners in each party. The glass-walled, wine vault’s sliding, wooden ladder drew the eye, but I was hypnotized by curtains of wavy air emitted from yet another grand, stone fireplace that reminded me of some secret portal from a C.S. Lewis novel. And this land was as foreign to us as Narnia, but we tried to keep up with the customs as Nicolas began listing the choice of menus:

1) Le Menu Gourmand ($225): 10-course menu
2) Seven-course Carte Blanche menu ($165): blind tasting as chef decides each course
3) Four course tasting (our choice - $98): selection of three savory courses and one sweet from menu*

*We asked if they offered wine pairings with the meal, but never asked the price - it ended up costing as much as the food! But their expert pours were specifically chosen to match our individual selection of each course, so the personalized service justified the high price tag.


Amuse bouche: Grapes three ways in a champagne broth
We giggled as Bubba exclaimed in a falsetto voice, “My palate is dancing,” but we both knew he wasn’t exaggerating. These three varieties of grapes must have been named Pop, Lock and Drop it because my tongue was doing the electric boogaloo.

First Bread Course: Gruyere bread popover with sherry
I was immediately reminded of that gum with a gushing, liquid center because as soon as I bit down on my popover, a burst of sherry squirted from within. Besides the novelty of it all, its flavors mimicked a pocket-sized French onion soup (minus the onion) – genius.

Second Bread Course: Meyer lemon and sea salt twist
This twist’s measurements were similar to a breadstick, but the texture was like a savory funnel cake with its crisp edges and feathery, pillow-like center encased in a thin coating of citrus and dotted with jagged grains of sea salt.

First course:
Kona Kampachi – uni, red radish and cucumber
What the f*** was a soft spoon? The cutlery alone was a learning experience, and a useful one since this pounded out piece of flattened metal made it easy to herd the finely chopped fish around the plate. The precise knife cuts and richness gave the indulgent taste of a tartar, but instead of an egg yolk, a luxurious spoonful of uni was perched like a crown on top.

The kampachi’s buttery nature was cut by radish and cucumber, served in a separate bowl of colored glass that looked like it had been time-warped in from the 50’s, and brought an earthy, cleansing crunch that reset the palate for every bite.

Kawarau Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Central Otago, New Zealand 2010;
Kiralyudvar, Furmint Sec, Tikaji-Hegyalija, Hungary 2009**

** This was the only course where Bubba and I overlapped, but even though we had the same dish, they still paired us with two different wines so we could see the range in flavor – grassy (New Zealand ‘10) vs. floral (Hungary 09’).

Second Course:
Alaskan King Crab – asian pears, melon and avocado ($20 supplement)
I found it intriguing how again this dish was comprised of multiple vessels. Bubba was first presented with a bowl of balls - pears, melon, avocados - rounded into perfect circles of produce, while three naked crab legs were spaced neatly in their own ceramic square like a well-laid garden of gams. And apparently someone had left the hose on all night because the entire dish was flooded with melted butter.

Bodega Bueyes, Torrontes, La Rioja, Argentina 2010

St. Pierre “au beurre sel” – pistou and green garlic a la grecque
Thoughts of the lovable Dory from Finding Nemo swam through my head as I learned that St. Pierre was also known as the John Dory fish. But my mind was put at ease when I found out it was a different breed all together. Though, as I made my way through St. Pierre’s white, flaky flesh, I yearned for a bit of that spirited, over-the-top personality from Ellen Degeneres’ character because even bathed in butter, this guy was a bit dry. But there was a light in the shallow pool of pistou that shone like an herbaceous beacon with grassy green brightness and garlic-y overtones, breathing life back into the sinking St. Pierre.

Franz Hirtzberger, Reisling, “Stienterrassen” Federspipl, Wachau, Austria 2008

Third Course:
Kobe Beef Short rib – potato croustillant and cremini gratin ($25 supplement)
I’d never heard of potato croustillant before, but apparently it translates into quarter-sized dollops of mashed potatoes, each topped with a single, homemade potato chip = one sinful stack of starch. The Kobe beef was heavenly enough that Adam would have demanded this rib back from Eve and the peaty mushroom gratin sowed itself seamlessly into this euphoric garden of eating.

Poderi Aldo Conterno, Barolo, Piemont, Italy 2006

Coffee roasted canard – koshihikari rice and candied peanuts
“Pssst,” the young server laid a plate of roasted duck breast before me along with a separate, small bowl of rice, when out of the side of his mouth he whispered, “I don’t want to say anything…but there’s a chunk of duck confit at the bottom of your rice bowl!” I was still digesting the thrill of this news as he exited, and I smiled at the delivery of his “secret information” like a CIA agent, “The duck flies at midnight. The confit is in the rice.

But there was nothing undercover about the expert placement of this notable nugget, well-hidden, but still a visible stand-out. The balanced, yet sweet peanut sauce on the breast could have been easily been too cloying if it wasn’t served with the subtle, sticky rice and crunchy notes of scallion all dressed in a light coat of duck fat from the shreddable confit that lay like a Cracker Jack prize at the bottom of the bowl. Cherry on top? Never again. Duck on bottom every time!

Chateau del Clotte, Bordeaux Blend, Cotes deCastillon, Bordeaux, France 2006

Artisan Cheese course ($25 supplement):
When they wheeled the cheese cart over, I felt like a proud auntie peering into a stroller and admiring the attributes of each bundle of joy. We had four selections - petite Basque, Humboldt Fog, truffle pecorino and a blue - everyone of these cuddly curds stole my heart.

Ridge Zinfandel, “East Bench” Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma California 2009

Fourth Course:
Brownie a la mode – sour cherry marmalade and pistachio
Dense, sweet, nutty – this had all the components needed for a good brownie, but even the tart, cherry marmalade didn’t add anything that made it more memorable than others (I'd rather have another Gruyere popover).

Peanut butter terrine – cocoa nib tuiles and port wine ice cream
Tasty, but I’d made an amateur mistake by ordering peanut for dessert after a peanut laden entrée - a not so sweet repeat. I got sucked in by the port wine ice cream, which was impeccable.

Since my port was enjoyed in ice cream form, we refused our dessert wine and instead, I sipped a snifter of Frangelico and cappuccino, while Bubba ordered single-malt scotch (paired with a side of chipped ice and a mini-shovel).

Adieu, to you, and you, and you:
As we neared the exit, several of our synchronized servers (including my CIA specialist), the two Robert Palmer hostesses and Nicolas emerged to present one last gift. Along with a piece of individually wrapped shortbread, we were each handed an envelope with our first and last name on it. We opened them to find printed menus listing our personal selections for the evening, including our specific wine pairings with each course. It was the icing on the cake, the cherry on top, the duck on bottom.

Five Star Salute:
I’ve eaten at several upscale restaurants in Manhattan, LA, Paris and Madrid, but nothing has compared to the service we received at Addison’s. It was the like being back in a Jane Eyre novel where there are butlers and ladies-in-waiting and footmen, all who play an intricate role in the evening’s supper running smoothly for the Mr. and Mrs.

Not used to such lavish customs, I felt more like the wayward cousin visiting from the country than the lady of the manor, but the staff’s proficiency and genuine pride in their job not only put us at ease right away, but made me comfortably slide into the idea that everyone deserves a taste of the finer things in life. Like any classy hostess, Addison’s understood the true definition of what it meant to be five-star: Treat everyone like a king, even if they’re a jack-of-all-trades.