Friday, November 7, 2014

Poison and Ivy: Juniper and Ivy Revisited

My first experience at Juniper and Ivy had been a positive one, so when my mom (also a Top Chef fan) came to town, I made sure to book a dinner at Chef Richard Blais’ place. I guess that’s why I was so surprised, when after making reservations two weeks in advance, we were led to a table in the bar instead of the dining room.  

The mismatched height of chair and tabletop immediately contorted me into the Hunchback of Notre Dame, which allowed me to enjoy our view overlooking the servers’ station brimming with crumpled receipts and broken, brown butter cookies (for some reason the cookies didn’t have the same appeal as my last visit, where they were served as a final goodbye…now they only offered a most unappetizing hello). I asked if they had anything in the dining room and there were two open tables that could accommodate us.  So…why weren’t we offered one of those first?

Strike one.

Also, it was so much louder this time (they were pretty much at full capacity), so loud that it was hard to carry on a conversation. The warehouse-style cement floors and high ceilings absorbed no sound. And for this Jersey girl, whose voice was set at volume 10 on the regular, if I wasn’t able to talk above the chatter, then it was pretty fucking loud.

EATS

Weiser Farm Potatoes: La Quercia Proscuitto/ Nitro Hollandaise/ Cured Egg Yolk

I was so excited to show my mom how Blais could bend the ordinary, but these basic fingerling potatoes didn’t turn the tricks that caught my attention last time with a similar dish, and although I liked the idea behind these spuds, they were lacking in most areas.

I apologize for the poor quality of most of the pictures, but it was hard to even shed light on the photos this visit ( also, the shadow on the potatoes give the illusion of more toppings than in reality - don't be fooled!).

Mainly, I would have just have loved a little more of everything - yolk, hollandaise, prosciutto – something besides fistfuls of fingerlings. Unfortunately, this plate of potatoes remained just that.

Corn Fritters: Old Bay Aioli

I fell for these fritters hook, line and sinker…as in dead weight, heavy as lead, cast iron sinkers. They were borderline undercooked, offering up a dense center that wasn't just dough heavy, but so heavy with garlic, it overrode every other flavor, especially the corn whose sweetness was masked completely.


Strike two.

Bacon Wrapped Rabbit: Stuffing/ Cranberry/ Mushroom Jus

This was the first item of the night that truly impressed me. The rabbit was sinfully salty from the crisped bacon wrapped around its sides, and it had the consistency of a succulent, juicy cut of pork. The stuffing was decent and cranberry relish was ok, but the rabbit was the prize.


I also adored the mushroom jus on the plate, but I was fighting a losing battle with the giant rounds of thick, seared sweet potatoes (not seen in the menu description), whose desperately dry centers sucked up all of my precious gravy.

Ahi Tuna: Mushroom Puree/ Huckleberry/ Carrot Top Salsa Verde

Does anyone else see PEPPER CRUSTED mentioned in the tuna’s preparation??!! Me neither and it was kind of a big deal since my mom had always been sensitive to spice. With her entrée course coated in pepper, it kind of put a damper on the main component of her meal. 


Even though it was served with an array of tasty sauces - the barely there huckleberry, the "carrot top salsa verde" (which was pretty much just carrot tops), the decadent, earthy mushroom puree - there was just no escaping the pepper's spray.  

Strike three.

Yodel: Devil’s Cake/ White Chocolate/ Hazelnut Brittle/ Hot Chocolate

We ordered the yodel for dessert, which I had raved about after my first visit, and like the last time, it was a home run. But it was already too late. Blais had lost the game. Sure, he was a real chef and didn’t just play one on TV, but while he was busy filming his new Food Network show, Hungry Games, a new season of Top Chef and running his other restaurants,  it seemed details were being missed in the kitchen.



No bread this time. No post-dinner cookies (and I knew they were around since I saw them while I sat hunched at my bar table). I realized that since Blais wasn’t always present (though he was in-house on my first visit, which was probably why it was so on point), his kitchen didn’t necessarily put out the same quality of food every night. My mom’s final word summed up the meal - “disappointing”.  Unfortunately, it was enough to convince me not venture back a third time because the price wasn’t worth the inconsistency.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Juniper and Ivy - San Diego

Trail Blais-ing in San Diego

Everyone had been jawing about Juniper and Ivy since it opened in March, and they all had something different to say – interesting, over-priced, crowded, inventive - but I really needed to see for myself.  As a Top Chef fan from the start, I’d considered Chef Richard Blais to be one of the most dynamic of all the seasons.


He was the kitchen’s answer to Dr. Frankenstein with a cerebral magnificence that many times left him teetering on the edge of sanity. But right before falling victim to an anxiety-ridden, food-fueled fit, Blais usually rallied as the unlikely hero, who not only recovered, but doubled-down, performing above (and beyond) board.

Style
We were met by a firm handshake of masculine minimalism that mixed modern log cabin with industrial warehouse – was this what "glamping" looked like?  Its unassuming luxury brought a genuine air of comfort and offered polished ruggedness amongst the eye-catching duct work and raised rafters.


The kitchen’s long, low counter brought a full view of its inner workings to the dining room. The accessibility made it seem informal, almost familial (if your OCD uncle ran the kitchen, because boy, was it clean!), and I had to hold myself back from wandering in and grabbing a macaron off the dessert station.  

Food
I went there craving crab fritters and the bone marrow toast I’d heard so much about, but these had already been wiped off the menu and replaced by more recent creations from the never-ending storyboard in Blais’ head. But that was how he worked. He never admired any of his dishes for too long, so it was wise not to get too attached to any favorites here.

Amuse bread: Gruyere puff


Though this "amuse bouche" was really just a bread course, it still made me feel like a lady to have this fluffy, cheese puff formally introduced to me.

SMALL PLATES

Squash Blossom Relleno: White Cheddar/ Poblano/ Tomatillo


Special delivery: one petite, fried parcel! Surrounded in a bow of batter, my fried squash blossom was perched like a demur flower before it took a sharp turn with cheddar, which oozed with biting intensity. But that was quickly evened out with the mildness of tomatillo, tangy crumbles of queso, and dabs of thick, balsamic reduction that brought out a slightly sweet note.

Boniato Potato: Nori Butter/ Pork Belly/ Yuzu Sour Cream
Ok. This dish right here, was the reason I came. Not that I immediately recognized it. In fact, when we ordered this, I agreed it sounded good (yawn), if not somewhat run of the mill. But I was about to get served (literally and figuratively). This was how it went down:


Me: “Yeah, yeah, I get it – like a play on a baked potato with bacon and sour cream. Big deal.”

Potatoes (aka The Po’s) show up. Squat, puffed up, crisp coats.

The Po’s: “Why you being such a tater hater?”

Me: “I’m bored. Show me something I haven’t seen before.”

The Po’s: “Check this out! You ever seen real “belly” dancing?!”

Potatoes fan out and reveal thick slices of caramelized, crispy pork belly. Snags of miniature seaweed bathed in butter sprout from the top, balls of mustard seed start spinning, squirts of citrusy, Yuzu sour cream rain down, and all land on my tongue in one electric boogaloo of a bite.

Me, staring with mouth agape (and full of potato) in awe and amazement.

Alright, I had to admit it - these Po’s were pros - this was by far my favorite.

TOAST

Pear Toast: Walnut Butter/ Fennel/ Pt Reyes Blue


All the ingredients sounded like a flawless marriage, but so many times with “toasts”, there was the structural foundation to consider. How many times had I eaten bruschetta where the toast had broken, became soggy, or all the ingredients had slid off in one bite? Too many to count.

But Blais had picked a sturdy, ciabatta-like bread that was browned, but not "break your teeth" tough, to layer his ingredients. His engineer mind created the perfect equation of toppings - from weight, to height, to depth - everything stayed where it should. Walnut butter acted like nutty mortar to sweet slices of pear laid into the framework, while the Pt Reyes Blue stuck between the crevices in one of the only instances where mold in a structure could be seen as a positive, and passed my inspection with flying colors.

PASTA

Prawn and Pork: Smoked Rigatoni/ Spicy Italian Sausage/ Prawns
When I read this on the menu, my mind immediately whipped up an image of two prawns still in their armor with heads and antennae attached, attacking a sausage link above a battleground of smoky rigatoni. That's not what happened...though it did taste as horrifying as war.


A couple of beheaded, de-shelled, chopped, overcooked shrimp (and yes, by a couple I mean two) could be foraged from the mush of tasteless rigatoni. But even worse, was what Blais deemed as “sausage”. First of all, this "sausage" was square. Not that I'm a shape discriminator, and I'm not a huge fan of casing, but this pre-formed patty looked like it had been hung out to (bone) dry in a mini-meatloaf pan. This looked/tasted like no sausage I'd ever seen or would ever want to encounter again.

Plus, was this teeny, tiny bowl REALLY $24??!! For two shrimp, meatloaf mush and some craptastic rigatoni?! Pfft. When the waitress took our plates and asked how it was, I made a grimace and said, "Definitely not my favorite. It's so different from the other dishes."

She answered, “Yeah, it’s a more rustic dish.”

Is that what they called it? Myself? I had a few other choice words that came to mind.

DESSERT

Yodel: Devil’s Cake/ White Chocolate/ Hazelnut Brittle/ Hot Chocolate
Yodel-ay-hee-hooo...hoooly shit! This was one of the best desserts I’d ever had. Just like my prejudiced perspective on the potatoes, I thought, “Great, another chocolate dessert. Been there, done that.”


And not being much of a sweets person, I wasn’t too enthralled, until they brought an edible construction site of sugar to the table, forcing me to sit up straight in my seat as a miniature pitcher of hot chocolate was poured like a cauldron of melted steel over a dark chocolate cylinder, which partially melted away to reveal an interior filled with some type of chocolate mousse/gnanche-like substance.

Besides the pipeline of chocolate, dessert debris was scattered everywhere – white and milk chocolate pearls, small squishes of fresh strawberry, and the best piece of sugar shrapnel: hazelnut brittle. Even though there seemed to be endless components, they all worked as one. We didn't leave one bite on the plate and I was sad to see this scavenger hunt for the senses end so quickly.

Bittersweet, brown butter goodbyes


The last goodbye from Blais came in two, barely memorable, brown butter cookies, but it was still a nice touch. Overall, I was impressed with Juniper and Ivy - interestingly enough, most of my enthusiasm was for items that seemed tired and played out, but the unexplored interpretation from the mad chef made me shift my perspective and see a fresh side to classic ingredients. The cerebral track was Chef Blais' strong suit and next time I'd stay away from the entree section (which seemed forced - did his investors insist on that?) and stick with the smaller plates.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wine Vault San Diego Restaurant Week 2014

Ah, Restaurant WeekA grand idea birthed with the purpose of drawing out customers to local eateries at a reduced rate, with the hopes that these samplings would bring crowds back at full-price in the future. But it seemed to have become wrought with flaws – from menus that hardly resembled an establishment’s usual fare to over-priced prix-fixes, it didn't always turn out to be such a great deal. Balancing costs and quality product, while remaining true to the tone of the restaurant was a circus act that only a few could pull off.

And that's exactly the reason I'd crowned Wine Vault and Bistro as Restaurant Week's official ringmaster because weekly, affordable tasting menus was their year round specialty: 3-course Fridays ($25/ $15 wine pairing) and 5-course Saturdays ($35/ $25 wine pairing).

Here's a look at their Restaurant Week menu: $25 dinner/ $15 wine pairing (my choices highlighted below). Restaurant Week also meant you received a free glass of bubbly when mentioning their mailing list!

FIRST COURSE (choose one)
Wild King Salmon Tartare | Essence of Chipotle | Red Caviar | Taro Chips
2012 Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc (5 oz. pour)

Roasted Yellow Squash Stuffed With Mediterranean Quinoa | French Feta Cheese | Moroccan Oil-Cured Black Olives | Oven-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette
2012 Matchbook Chardonnay (5 oz. pour)

Peking Duck Breast | Buckwheat Soba Noodles | Shiitake Mushroom Dashi
2012 R2 "Black Pine" Pinot Noir (5 oz. pour)



The first thing that came to mind when thinking of Peking duck was that crispy skin…this didn’t have much of that and my duck could have been cooked a little bit more, but these were some beautiful breasts. The wine pairing was a delicate pinot noir that wrapped my tongue in tannins and folded in nicely with the fowl.

 SECOND COURSE (choose one)
Braised Local Sea Bass | Smoked Tomato + Saffron Broth | Red Pepper Orzo
2012 Stolpman Roussanne (5 oz. pour)

Seared Gnocchi | Heirloom Tomato + Basil Pesto | Sweet Peppers | Swiss Chard
2010 Burgess Merlot (5 oz. pour)

Sous Vide Argentinean Skirt Steak | Patatas Bravas | Whole Roasted Tomato | Chimichurri>
2012 Tres Picos Garnacha (5 oz. pour)


*cue Dire Straits music* They are the sultans of steak! And have sous vide-d meat down to a science. I loved their version of chimichurri and its viscous, garlicy, green consistency, differing from the many times I'd had it in a chunky, raw format of herbs, garlic, and olive oil loosely whisked together. My steak was buttery and seasoned to perfection. And the tomato! Simply cooked with breadcrumbs, it was bright and sweet and added lightness to the heavier “meat and potatoes” components on the plate.

THIRD COURSE (choose one)
Housemade Rum Raisin Ice Cream | "Blondie" Biscotti | P.X. Drizzle
NV Dios Baco 34-Year-Old Pedro Ximenez Sherry (1 oz. pour)

Crema Catalana (Barcelona-Style Crème Brûlée) | Candied Burnet Orange Zest
2013 Margerum "Late Harvest" Viognier (3 oz. pour)


They know how to brûlée some crema, I'll tell ya! Orange zest, candied crust and a light white wine to finish it off  - superb. 


Trio of French Cheeses | Chef's Whim Accompaniments | Maldon Salt Flat Bread
Torres Spanish Orange Brandy (1 oz. pour)




Cheese please! This was a luxurious end to the meal with special accouterments for each bite - a little apple for my gouda, apricot preserves for my blue, and caramelized shallots for my brie. The orange brandy wasn't my favorite, but for a total of $40, I could have cared less - it was a small hiccup in an exquisite three-course adventure, full of surprises and delights. Even the so-so points were chalked up to a learning experience at an affordable price.

$40 deal: It was the best bang for your buck during Restaurant Week, but even if you couldn't make it this week, there was always next week, where the price and the food would be just as impressive.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Manhattan - Summer 2014

Spontaneous and the City

One of the best perks of visiting my family back in Jersey was that there was usually a pretty good chance of taking a quick day trip to Manhattan. My favorite days were the ones where my mom, Eddie, and I rolled out of bed late, hopped on an afternoon train to Penn Station, and arrived with only a loose idea of where we might venture, leaving the rest up to chance.


And that’s when I always saw the City at its best – like a candid photograph that couldn’t be posed or planned – captured at exactly that right moment with an unmatched grit and vulnerable beauty that got me every time.

First stop: Eataly (200 Fifth Ave)
Ok, the name was a little corny and it didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but Mario Batalli figured out a way to plant an enormous, European-style market in the middle of Manhattan (and it was only about a 10 minute walk from Penn Station) - Eataly.

Baskets of fresh produce runneth over...


...and so did the customer service. They'd clean and cut your veggies for you?! Now that's what I call some first-class, grocery shopping.


Glass cases shone with cuts of ruby red proteins...


...and housed carefully wound nests of homemade pasta.


Sleeves of salami hung from the ceiling and beneath, cheeses were piled high like Autumn leaves - silently beckoning me to jump in, toss them in the air, and roll around in my unbridled joy for a while. But there was no time for that since my stomach was demanding to see the sights too, so we checked out the prepared food stalls serving lunch. These stands were offering everything from pizzas and pasta to freshly butchered meats, seafood, vegetarian* - you name it. But for Eddie and I, we had already spotted our prize: the salty meats and cheese booth!!

*I immediately scoffed at the vegetarian stall, being an avid carnivore, but that was before I tasted the sample of grilled corn they laid out.


Coming from Jersey, I’ve had my share of unbeatable, sweet summer corn, but this took the cake, or should I say the cob – either way it made me realize veggies were worthy too.

But with that being said, bring on the MEAT AND CHEESE!


La Piazza was primarily composed of high tables, where patrons could stand and enjoy a quick nosh (much like the San Miguel Market in Madrid), but Eddie and I were ready for a serious sit-down feast, so we squeezed into the only seats offered: an almost-too-close-for-comfort bar that seated about 12 (probably 10 comfortably) within arm's length from shiny, red meat slicers.

We decided within minutes to try the Grande Piatto Misto Di Salumi & Formaggi ($22), their all-encompassing meat and cheese board that had a little bit of everything:



Meats:
All of these salty, porky delights were included on their basic board.










Cheeses:
These were the cheeses included. I highly recommend ordering this. For $22, it was a steal.








Our bounty arrived with brown-paper parcels of crusty, sliced bread and a dish bearing the most lovely accoutrements - figs, apricot preserves, and a river of amaretto honey.



We decided that our Italian feast deserved a bit of bubbly to complete the celebration, so we ordered a beautifully, dry bottle of Flor prosecco ($33) to wash it all down.


And even though we had more than our fair share of cheese, our front row seats wouldn't allow us to turn a blind eye to the fresh balls of mozzarella being sculpted in front of us and the sea-salted, olive oiled, basil leaves which accompanied them - one order please!

Our total with tip: $86. And that is why I Love New York.

Second stop: Union Square (14th-17th Street, Broadway and Park)

Our next stop was Union Square (another 10 minute walk) because even on our spontaneous days, we usually managed to find our way over here, for a couple reasons:

1) Union Square Park– this pretty much guaranteed some type of artistic find - a canvas of swirled oils or meticulous ink sketches (I’d hit the jackpot multiple times). But by far my favorite art form at Union Square was the endless parade of street entertainers that held court there*.

Double Dutch: This time we ran into two guys that were teaching people how to double dutch, and of course, I couldn’t resist but jumping in (literally). By my third try, I finally got my “beat” down and felt my endorphins rise like the tide. After high-fiving my teachers, I stood catching my breath and scanned the surrounding crowd of all ages, either willing to give it a try or just cheering one another on. As I watched the child-like excitement wash over us all, I thought, who knew that the simple answer to happiness lay between two ropes?

And that is why I Love New York.

*Always remember that if you enjoy, participate or stop for a street performer, TIP (generously)!!


video



2) Blue Water Grill – Sometimes the memory could play tricks on you, but there was never a time I visited Blue Water where my most idolized drink, the passion fruit cosmopolitan, didn’t live up to my mind’s infatuation. We’d always sit outside in what looked like an elongated, opera box of sorts, running the length of the restaurant and elevated only a few feet from the street. So close that you felt like you could snatch up the nearest passer-by and invite them for a bite = people watching at its best.  

The great Dane: Dane, our waiter, was beyond friendly, so we saw his mental anguish when (after realizing we were still full from Eataly) Eddie told him that we were only ordering an appetizer. Not realizing that we were approaching dinnertime, we completely understood when Dane apologetically told us that the outside seating was only for full service, but that we could move to the bar and enjoy our arancini (rice balls with corn, cilantro, queso fresco) there...no problem Dane!

As we were about to switch tables, the manager came over, also apologizing profusely, and carried our drinks to the cozy, amber tones of the lounge.

“Are either of you allergic to shellfish?” he asked. I shook my head and asked why.

“We’ll send over some shrimp dumplings since you’ve been so understanding. We can’t thank you enough.”

What?! As a former waitress, I felt it was my faux-pas for not noticing we were taking up a primo table when not ordering a full meal. But these guys were pure class. Plus, Dane remained. He waited on us until the end - repeatedly letting us know how much he appreciated us, and we parted as pals.

And that is why I Love New York.

Third stop: Greeley Street Park (Broadway, Ave of the Americas bet. W 32 St & W 33 St)

*In a New York minute (ewww ewww ewww), everything changes*

By deciding to cut over one block on our walk back to Penn Station, Eddie and I found ourselves at an unexpected crossroads. I finally understood what it must have been like for Hansel and Gretel to find the witch’s candy-laden house in the woods. And even more, I understood why they had attacked the old crone's home like wild animals – because it pricked every pleasure sense in the brain and left self-control two steps behind. I bared my teeth in delight and surveyed what lay before me – Greeley Street Park.


Gumball-sized, light bulbs led the way down a path of endless food stalls in this seasonal, pop-up food fantasy known as Broadway Bites. Here's just a few in the line-up:

Seoul Lee Korean BBQ  - probably the crispiest, most flavorful chicken wings I've every had... and they went great with my frozen white wine sangria from the Nunu's Beers and Scoops!

Palenque Colombian Food - Arepas for everyone!

Red Hook Lobster Pound - East Coast = Maine Lobster!

Mason Jar NYC - portable and delicious!

Jicama California Street Food - pork doughnut slider, anyone?

Breads Bakery - pastries, breads, babkas...and the nicest people in the park!

Apparently the bewitching hour at Greeley Street Park was 9pm since everyone started closing up shop. As we exited the gates, the woman from Breads Bakery began bagging up their unsold leftovers into several small packages and handing them out - I got one! Receiving this butter-stained bag of savory, phyllo treats was more exhilarating that catching a fly ball or a bouquet. I looked around as if I should be congratulated on my luck, but the City whirred around me without noticing my triumph.

But that was ok. It had already given me enough - stories for days, memories for miles and enough injuries to last a lifetime (my knee's still aching from the double dutch lesson, but I wouldn't have it any other way).

And that is why I Love New York...

...they should really put that on a t-shirt or something.




Friday, August 22, 2014

A Tale of Two Taquerias - City Tacos vs. Tacos Perla (North Park)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – mostly because my beloved hood where I’d lived for the last decade had turned into hipsterville overnight, which brought crowds, noise, and zero parking. But on the other hand, North Park’s gentrification meant a fancy new set of libation stations, so I tried to embrace the positive points and support some of the new eateries popping up on the block.

Tacos Perla (3000 Upas St, Suite 105)
It seemed like Tacos Perla was trying to string together a bunch of gimmicks that made them unique. It was the equivalent of a forty year old with a belly button ring – trying just a little too hard. From toppings of crispy crickets and chicharones to their salsa bar featuring seven varieties, the focus didn’t seem to be much on the actual taco itself.

First of all, it took 30mins to get four tacos.

Adobada: slow roasted pork marinated for 24 hours with dried guajillo chili and achiote seed, served with a fresh green salsa (avocado, tomatillo, serrano, cilantro, and garlic) and a slice of pineapple $3.95
I asked for cheese on this (75 cents extra), but it came without and since our order had already taken so long, I didn't feel like waiting to have them fix the mistake. I enjoyed the addition of pineapple running the length of the taco, but the meat was fatty and flavorless, so all I tasted was the sweet fruit - major disappointment*.

Del Mar: sautéed shrimp with a mix of dried chiles, international spices, jack cheese, and avocado $4.95
My shrimp taco wasn’t much better. I looked at the four scrawny, scrimpy shrimpys barely filling the tiny tortilla. I think it would work in Perla's favor if they offered a couple big shrimp instead of trying to save money by substituting multiple, mealy minis because there was no way I'd order this again.

Ocho: grilled octopus marinated in a Mexican pesto (green chiles, garlic, and herbs), jack cheese, and avocado $4.95
This was tender enough, but like the adobada, weirdly flavorless, which was surprising since the strong arm of pesto was involved. The octopus just seemed washed out and muted. That also could have something to do with the unusually thick, homemade, corn tortillas that almost had a stale-tasting quality.

The salsa bar: Sail the seven seas of salsas! They had tomatillo, nut salsa, pineapple, some gingery one, pico de gallo with tomatillo, and a few more I don’t remember. I admit it was fun to try them out, but it was overkill. The nut salsa was way too spicy and burned away any flavor that dared come near it, while the pineapple salsa was thick and overly sweet. There was an overall mediocrity to the collection and just another disappointing distraction from the actual taco.

*Tacos Perla take two: In their defense, I was near there about a week later and felt ravenous, so since there wasn’t a line, I grabbed a quick adobada taco. It came out within minutes and seemed to be a different animal altogether (literally and figuratively). Juicy and well-seasoned, this was totally unlike the last time.

I also mentioned the missing cheese on my last order and they remedied the mistake by not charging me for it this time, which I appreciated. But overall, I didn’t see myself going back often.


City Tacos (3048 University Ave)
City Tacos had a little more grit to its presence than the polished interior of Tacos Perla, but it was simple, straightforward and our order was ready in record time, even though the place was packed. All tacos were $3.50.

(top row: the Borrego; bottom row: the Camaron on either side, Mahi al Adobo in center)

Borrego: Pulled lamb W/ wild mushrooms, cotija cheese, tomato, cilantro and fried leeks in a chipotle cream sauce on a house-made corn tortilla
A lamb taco for $3.50 could go horribly wrong. What cut did they use? Cooking method? Proper fascia and excess fat removal? My worries were laid to rest within moments as my mouth found the texture of shreddable, short-rib-esque lamb. The thin, coarse warmth of a house-made, corn tortilla surrounded the delicate meat and crispy, fried leeks were the final crunch on top (my favorite new taco topping)...my favorite new taco.

Camaron: sautéed shrimp in a serrano chile egg batter topped with grilled calabacitas & corn in a delicate green tomatillo salsa with cilantro and red onions on a house-made flour tortilla
Now this was a shrimp taco - three gorgeous, plump, supple shrimp, lightly battered and still juicy. Plus, who knew I would like hunks of zucchini in my taco? Not me, but I loved it! The calabacitas (aka zucchini) added a mild, veggie crunch, cradled in the softness of a house-made flour tortilla.

Mahi al Adobo: seared Mahi filet in a traditional adobo rub topped with a mango habanero jelly in a smoked chipotle avocado cream sauce on a house-made flour tortilla
City’s tacos were all $3.50 and although the mahi was tasty, it was barely there. I understood because it was a more expensive fish, but I thought that they should either increase the price and give a bigger piece, or find a cheaper fish that was a better fit for the tortilla (by the way, both the corn and flour house-made tortillas were scrumptious discs of delight).

Everything City Tacos did made sense. The entire menu was well thought out, down to the smallest detail, and it was easy to see the tremendous effort taken to perfect each dish. City Tacos had already become my regular Friday night reward – cheap, quick, quality, and the fact I could phone in my order and pick it up, made it that much sweeter.

And in the end:
It was the best of times - City Tacos.
It was the worst of times - Tacos Perla.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Heat brunch - San Diego (Hillcrest)

The Heat Is On
One of the things I miss most about Jersey - the diners. A place to grab a simple plate of bacon and eggs. I’d struggled in San Diego for the last decade to find a regular breakfast haunt, but I finally felt like I was getting warmer when I discovered Heat, where brunch meant bottomless mimosas with a personal bottle of bubbly on the table, and a menu that offered the standard staples like pancakes and eggs, while upping the ante with homemade sauces, gravies, and baked goods.

Setting
They should have named this Air instead of Heat because a natural breezeway formed within the flow of a dining room fitted with wide, open windows and a basic beige background. Fabric umbrellas covered the outside patio and spread their orange wings over table tops tiled with shimmery, mosaic squares.

Bubbly
$10 bottomless mimosa (with an entrée) = the entire bottle* and a mini carafe of OJ


*It’s Wycliff brut champagne (9.5% alcohol content vs 12% in Korbel brut), so it’s a little lower in alcohol content, but still ended up being a good deal.

Eats


Leek and truffle quiche $13
The resounding trumpet of truffles filled my mouth without being overwhelming - simply decadent. The eggs: fluffed and creamy. Leeks: mild and tender. The crust: buttery and flaky. The only change I would have made was to choose the fresh fruit instead of the side salad that featured beets, a cauliflower crown and minimal vinaigrette.




Country sausage gravy with an over easy egg on a jalapeno cheddar biscuit $12
Heat knew how to put the “sausage” in sausage gravy…literally!! There have been so many times I’ve been served white, flour-filled paste with little gray lumps of meat trying to pass itself off as sausage gravy. But at Heat, this came mounded with hunks of sausage in rich, flavorful gravy, whose thickness had no identifiable traces of any floury origins. The biscuit was laid open like an oyster shell, speckled with jalapeno and melted cheddar, and in the center lay a glistening over easy egg shining like a beautiful, yolk-filled pearl.




Country chicken fried steak with sausage gravy, a jalapeno cheddar biscuit and breakfast potatoes $14
This was the next step up when it came to the sausage gravy options. Instead of an egg, this came like an open-faced sandwich with a narrow plank of deep fried, battered meat that had been pounded out thinly and laid like a crisp sheet atop the flaky pillow of a biscuit beneath. To top it off, the home fries had clearly spend a little time in the deep fryer and were crispy on the outside and squishy on the inside.

Heat Repeat
I could get used to this place. They always offered a couple specials, which in the past included options like homemade corned beef hash with béarnaise sauce and pork chilaquiles (chicken chilaquiles is a regular menu item). The waitresses were super friendly in a genuine way that gave Heat a happy air and made me long for Jersey breakfasts a little less.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Booze Battle: Strawberry Margarita Match-up (D Bar vs. Puesto)

Summer weather sets off an internal buzzer in my liver that immediately forces me to set down my usual glass of red wine and pick up some type of fruity, fizzy, iced concoction to whet my whistle. Lately, it’s been in the form of fresh fruit margaritas, and in this week’s “booze battle”, I’ve pitted D Bar vs. Puesto in a strawberry margarita match-up (though, of course I couldn’t help but mention the food too!)

D Bar (3930 5th Ave) - Strawberry Margarita #1
This was like walking into a life-size diorama of Disney’s Tomorrow Land. D Bar laid out a sterile, futuristic setting, where all was white; blank; clean and concise. The reflection of metal reared its head here and there, and the open kitchen breathed a rhythmic flow of precision from chefs, who themselves seemed like well-run machines. The “D” in D Bar stood for Dessert, and in direct contrast to the starkness of this atmosphere came a menu filled with comfort food and homemade sweets meant to warm the cockles.


Strawberry margarita #1 - Fresca picante: strawberry jalapeno infused tequila • agave • lime $10
Ok, so they were calling this fresca picante, but this walked and talked and (sipped) like a strawberry margarita, so that’s where it was filed in my mind’s index. It was also listed under “worthy a second round” and “cocktail hybrids”, since its texture reminded me of a mix between a strawberry daiquiri and the limey flow of a margarita on the rocks. Jalapeno slices worked like spicy lip gloss, rimming my mouth with a pleasant pulse of heat.

Eats


Southern Fried Belgian: butter milk fried chicken • cheesy waffle • honey mustard • sweet potato fries $13
I hadn’t realized this came in sandwich form, but I loved D Bar's compact, portable version of chicken and waffles, where the waffles became the bun and their batter offered a touch of sweetness against a crunchy-coated chicken breast. And naturally, a waffle sandwich came with waffle fries. I think they should strongly consider listing this as, "Stoner's Delight".




Kobe Sliders: house made brioche • drunken onions • aged white cheddar • aioli • garlic parmesan fries $12
Little bites of beefy bliss - I couldn’t have been happier with these mini-burgs and the skinny, salty matchstick fries that accompanied them.


Ch Ch Ch Churros!: cinnamon sugar churros made to order • chocolate dipping sauce • homemade vanilla ice cream $9
I watched the open kitchen from my table as the chef piped short bursts of churro batter into a deep fryer. They arrived hot and fluffed, covered in cinnamon sugar that slightly melted on their heated, brown edges. I'd never seen churro dough so airy and the chocolate dipping sauce on the side only distracted from these heavenly wisps, though it did come in handy to drizzle over my homemade vanilla ice cream with unidentified chocolate crunchies hidden within its creamy tunnels.

*lack of photo = lack of self-control...these were scarfed down before I remembered to click the camera*


Puesto (789 West Harbor Dr) - Strawberry Margarita #2
Both levels of Puesto's interior were packed - patrons sought shelter inside while taking advantage of the open-air, wall-sized windows for a moment of relief on this sweltering Tuesday - so we agreed to sit outside under one of their immense, orange umbrellas and were actually surprised at the refreshing breeze that blew through The Headquarters’ corridor.

Strawberry margarita #2 - Puesto Perfect Margarita: Maestro Dobel Tequila, lime, agave $10 (fresh strawberry or mango +$2)
We arrived parched and even though a beer sounded swell (which my companion ordered), I needed something over ice, so why not a margarita? But when I got my $12 strawberry margarita ($10 for a house margarita + $2 to add fresh strawberry or mango), I was surprised to see such a squatty glass come my way. I think it’d be easier for me to digest if it was $8 + $2 for the fruit, but $12 for that size? No bueno.



Eats
Order as few or as many tacos as you’d like, but Puesto’s menu suggested ordering three for $11, which was a welcome notion since they offered choices spanning from seafood to filet mignon, so it was perfect for sampling. Many had an up-sale price (ie +$1.50 for shrimp, $2 for filet mignon), but I didn’t mind paying a little extra for higher priced ingredients…especially when everything was made in-house, including their corn tortillas.

1) Cochinita Pibil: slow roasted, ancho chile marinated pork, pickled red onions, tomatillo roja (pictured on right)
This was like the Mexican version of pulled pork. A marinade of pungent spices brought some serious complexity, though its brooding depth was lightened up with the sour crunch of pickled onions - by far, my favorite.

2) Grilled Shrimp + $1.50 each: Epazote jasmine rice, tinga (hibiscus, chipotle), avocado, mango habanero (pictured on left)
Another winner – shrimp were plump, flavorful and perfectly cooked with plenty of complimentary accessories.

3)Rajas Veg: crispy melted cheese, rajas mix (chile poblano, sweet corn, oyster mushrooms), avocado, tomatillo verde
My friend ordered this veggie option and even though he was a full-blown carnivore, this was his favorite. Maybe because a babushka of melted cheese encircled sweet corn and earthy mushrooms in a flat sheet of browned creaminess - now, that's how I like my veggies!

4) Baja Fish: crispy wild cod, shredded cabbage, avocado, tomato, chile crema, tomatillo roja (pictured in center)
Not the best fish taco in San Diego, not even close, but they never claimed to be. It was lackluster and dull, but that was the only dud out of the three and on the bright side, that meant I had another opening in my taco line-up.

Puesto’s Pros
Puesto did offer a happy hour Mon and Fri 3-6pm with $6 margaritas, but I wouldn’t go back for that. A few tacos and a beer? Any day…well, except weekends...and when the cruise ships come in - The Headquarters was a tourist haven. But a weekday lunch worked for me.


And with that being said, let's get down to the meat and potatoes of this challenge:


The WINNER of the “Strawberry Margarita Match-up” IS...***D BAR***

Margarita and a Movie
D Bar earned the win and gave me an idea for my next visit. My suggestion: Go catch a movie across the street at Hillcrest Cinema and end up at D Bar afterwards for post-film discussions over drinks, hot churros, and a little "Stoner's Delight".

*Uptown magazine has a coupon for D Bar with buy 1/get 1 dinners and 20 percent off

Monday, April 28, 2014

Salt and Cleaver - San Diego (Hillcrest)

Leave it to Cleaver

You never sausage a place!

Welllllllll, actually the décor wasn’t what drew us in or kept us there. It looked like we walked in the morning after a mini-rave had popped up in a shoebox-sized, open-faced, brick-walled cube and left its sinners in the sunlight, forming a horseshoe of heathens circled around its crude, wooden planked bar acting as the centerpiece, a plasma TV above and a few half-booths squeezed against the walls on either side.


(picture courtesy of Salt and Cleaver)

We decided to take up residence in the tiny corral of outside seating at a distressed metal table and began deciphering their giant chalkboard of microbrews. But I had my sights set on mimosas, ever since the siren song of Sunday brunch had led me here. Salt and Clever (S&C) was all about homemade sausage, and the combinations they were coming up with were enough to make me want to rave too.

Sunday Brunch Menu

Drinks
Damn it! We missed the $12 bottomless mimosas by 30 mins (arrived at 3pm), but they had already run out…maybe it was because you were allowed to order two, five or 10 at a time! Now that’s my kind of bottomless!

S&C mimosa mixes:
blueberry/sage
blood orange
passion fruit


*Note to self – arrive at 11:30am sharp next Sunday*

Favorite Links

Duck.Duck.Pig: housemade duck & bacon sausage, crispy duck confit, baconaze, orange marmalade $11
You down with DDP? Duck.Duck.Pig. lived up to the hype. This was on that same elevated hierarchy of Maine lobster or caviar – luxury was the only word that came to mind. But beyond its decadence, I don’t know if I’d ever tasted a sausage whose advertised flavor actually matched the inside stuffing so spot-on. This sausage really tasted like duck! And like bacon! “The schnozberries taste like schnozberries!!”


And my amazement didn’t end there. I’d come to accept that with sausage came grizzle, fat and weird little hard pieces….but S&C had NONE of that!! It was all meat, all day, front to back, top to bottom. Every bite was delectable (and that was very important when dealing with queasy stomachs on a Sunday morn).

The piece de resistance = pieces of crispy duck confit scattered on top. Orange marmalade’s sour and sweet medley played amongst frisee’s refreshing crunch in a bun that fit like a glove (yet another impressive feat) laced with baconaze = bacon mayo.

Ribeye: housemade ribeye sausage, Brussels sprouts, goat cheese, S&C sauce $11
If I closed my eyes, my brain rode the same memory patterns experienced when eating steak – but it was sausage!! S&C was blowing my mind by truly capturing every flavor advertised in their links. This gave new meaning to the word, “tube steak” and the finely diced, raw, Brussels sprouts acted as a less bitter take on sauerkraut. Goat cheese brought the tang, while three, deep-fried, Brussels sprout leaves were placed atop like crunchy, lucky clovers.


Unfortunately the S&C sauce, described as “fancy ketchup” by our server, didn’t add anything, and I was happy to have the horseradish mustard as one of the several condiments on the table.

Warning: Eat the DDP last or else everything will taste bland after its brightness.


Sides
Cucumbers chips – fresh cut cucumber slices, lime, spices, side of tzatziki sauce $4

These were the ultimate palate cleanser in between mouthfuls of meat.


Seconds at S&C:
I was already planning my next trip back, and my next order, which would include the housemade fried chicken sausage (sweet and spicy bacon, hot sauce, housemade buttermilk waffles $12), the Machaca burrito (pulled pork, caramelized onions, pico de gallo, sweet peppers, scrambled eggs $10), chorizo loaded fries (S&C fries, housemade chorizo, salsa fresca, guacamole, sour cream $7) and fresh green tomatoes (green heirlooms, lemon juice, bacon relish, roasted panko $6).

Plus they had an entire section dedicated to Brussels sprouts on their regular menu (Mon-Sat) and S&C offered a late night menu (10pm-12am), which included the California Sausage (housemade carne asada marinated sausage, fries, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo $10).

They also had craft drinks like the Abe Froman (tequila, Pimm’s, Cynar, lemon, simple syrup, Peychauds Bitters, muddled cucumber, rocks), build-your-own Bloody Marys, loads of microbrews and clearly, S&C were so generous with the champagne that they partied 'til it ran out.

S&C Sausage Factory
And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, their menu’s mascot was a pig with a bowler hat, bowtie and handlebar moustache that exclaimed, “I am a gentleman!” I suggest they start making up T-shirts, pronto. I’ll be there to pick mine up next Sunday when I get there at 11:30am sharp. Feel free to come join me…I’ll be the one with 20 mimosas in front of me.