Can We Please Get A Clear Definition For Mediterranean Cuisine? Because I Just Can't Take It Anymore!!!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A new place opened up in town (Aliso Viejo) recently and of course, I jumped at the chance to try it out. It's called Panini Cafe and it boasts Mediterranean fare and...well...paninis! I'm not really sure why they boast them as they kind of screw up both.

Allow me to tell you how...

Panini, in theory, is a beautiful thing. It's an improvement on the already close-to-perfect-comfort-food called grilled cheese. It's two pieces of beautiful artisanal bread (usually in the form of chiabatta), some sort of imported cheese (provolone, goat, buffalo mozzarella) and various fillings including but not limited to some sort of protein (chicken, turkey, fish) and some sort of veggie (artichokes, roasted red peppers, arugula). And most of the time you'll even get a nice sauce like pesto on there, or a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil. Then it's grilled in the ingenious panini press which both melts the cheese while pressing the otherwise stuffed sandwich down into a manageable bite. Brilliant.

Any idiot could manage a panini. You don't even need a fancy press to do it! I've done panini with a George Forman grill (loooooong story on how that purchase came to pass), two heavy skillet pans and even foil-covered bricks. Simple and fresh ingredients stuffed in between two slices of forgiving chiabatta...really, it's quite hard to screw this up. But somehow, Panini Cafe manages to do so.

Rule #1 for Panini: Do NOT overstuff your panini!!!
I ordered their "highly recommended" chicken panini with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, fontina cheese and pesto on foccacia. It sounds spectacular and full proof. Nope! Ruined in one felled swoop with a gigantic and clumsy piece of chicken. I mean, this sucker must have been on steroids because the breast was probably 2 inches thick. Now, at first thought one is tempted to think "Ooooo! Getting bang for buck!" but not with the panini. The obscenely obese piece of chicken was distractingly large and completely made the panini fall apart once you took a bite. That's the whole point of the panini! - to have a nice, packed but condensed sandwich that's easy to eat. What I had was not a panini - it was a chicken sandwich on foccacia with the yada yada.

Then I tried their "highly recommended" Salmon Panini. This was a mistake. An enormously thick piece of salmon (think an entire fillet) between two thin and frightened pieces of foccacia, a thin sliver of red onion and slather of generic dill tartar sauce. This was basically salmon with two pieces of soggy crackers. Had the salmon been thinner, the bread a different, more appropriate choice, and the sauce held back on, it could have been ok. But it wasn't. It was a mess - literally and figuratively. And what the hell is so Mediterranean about it?

If panini isn't your thing, don't despair - they have an extensive selection of Comes Close Enough Mediterranean Food. By that I mean their "Feta Cheese and Olives" is a handful of crumbled Athenos you can buy from your local Ralph's or Vons and Kalamatas from their olive bar. Had they actually paid attention to Mediterranean food, they would know and would serve you imported feta cheese cut in blocks, maybe even with a very economical drizzle of vinegar, and imported olives that really taste like olives. And yes, you can taste the difference with imported.

How about some Middle Eastern delights? Hummus, Babaganooj, Dolmadas anyone?? Sign me up!!! No, on second thought, get me out of this line! The hummus tasted like the butt cream I put on my babies' behinds when they get a rash. The babaganooj like the slightly more formaly dressed cousin of our esteemed rash cream hummus. And the dolmadas were a disaster. I'm sorry, but domadas do not have raisins in them. And if they do, they don't have that much. I was confused if I was having an appetizer or dessert! The appetizer platter (featuring the above failures) was abysmal.

Soup? Ok, the lentil soup was actually edible because it borderlined on legit. It had mint in it which I gave points for authenticity. The lentils I found to be slightly on the al dente side - wish they could have cooked them just a bit more. But overall the soup was decent enough and I'd have again. My favorite lentil soup? Not by a longshot. But I'd get it again.

Perhaps getting a salad would be better...

Ya, not really. Although the portions are insanely large and two people could easily split any entree, salad or panini respectively, the salads I found to be tired, old and at times downright odd. Their caesar is ok, but it's nothing extraordinary. Their Mediterranean same thing - just add olives and feta and apparently voila! you have a Mediterranean salad. Where's the tabouleh?? Where's the simple tomato-cucumber-onion salad with basil, parsley and mint in light lemon vinaigrette, sprinkled with salty feta? I didn't bother to have the caprese because I wasn't optimistic they'd have ripe tomatoes in January, and that's kind of the whole point of a caprese salad!

And since when did spring blend qualify as Mediterranean greens???? Sorry - I must have missed the barge on this one. Where's the seafood salad? Where's the grilled lemon and oregano marinated octopus? Where's the citrus marinated shrimp? Last time I check Greece was (a) part of the Mediterranean; (b) a collection of islands which naturally would induce the steadily consumption of seafood in their diet; and (c) has a long history of excellent, fresh and simple food that us stupid Americans really need not "improve" upon. When did AVOCADO become a Mediterranean ingredient???!!!

How about another more "exotic" salad: Date Salad. Well, that should be your first clue. At least it's aptly named. Yet another bed of spring greens this time with strawberries, blackberries, dried cranberries, dates (by the way, my salad the cooks never bothered to cut up any of these so I had wholestrawberries, blackberries and dates going on), gorgonzola cheese, walnuts (untoasted), and a protein of choice (shrimp, chicken or fish) with a pomegranate dressing. I made the mistake of ordering it with the generic Inexplicably Orange Tinted Chicken which they use in every single dish they offer that advertises chicken. The portion was HUGE. But it was clumsy - everything was so big and not cut bite-sized it just made me uncomfortable to eat. It didn't taste horrible, but it wasn't well balanced either.

Kabobs. I'm reluctant to try kabobs in restaurants now. And here's why: up by my parents' house in La Crescenta they have a fabulous local deli that marinates fresh chicken, pork and beef in an authentic spice marinade for very cheap prices. For $10 I can get 3 poundes of this stuff, a slew of local grown organic vegetables and make my own damn kabob bbq at home for a fraction of the cost. Add some house-made fresh hummus and imported olives and fresh pita and I have an instant party. Given that, I refuse (repeat: refuse) to pay $20 for one stick of beef and one stick of veggies improperly spiced and roasted. Therefore, I have not and will not try their totally overpriced kabobs. And with a scoop of basmati rice and side salad I'd no sooner just run out and get a ribeye and grill it myself.

What I won't make on my own, however, is falafal. I've not even dared to make this delectable street food because I know half the taste is getting it off the street. The Middle Eastern "hot dog," it's crispy on the outside, soft in the middle, deep fried and vegetarian and just plain good grub. Living in New Haven there was a Middle Eastern joint we'd frequent called (what else?!) Mediterranea. But here's the deal - the place was AUTHENTIC. The owner/chef was half Syrian half Italian and made a hell of a pizza and a beautiful falafal. And the hummus/babaganooj/other traditional fare? Amazing. Not a day goes by that I don't crave and long for Omar's beautiful food.

Panini Cafe's falafal are the antithesis of falafal - they're not so much crispy balls of chickpea goodness as much as lifeless disks of soggy disaster. It's not often I get truly disgusted by something I eat, but these I actually spit out. They were horrendous. They should be called falafal cakes, or falafal gnocchi or something other than falafal to qualify its inferiority and just give the consumer a heads up. When I have falafal I expect a crisp ball, well seasoned, hot, chickpea with warm spices inside treat o' goodness. Panini offered me a soggy patty that literally made my pallete and brain go "huh??" But I got yet another hefty serving of "Mediterranean Salad" along with it, so I suppose I should be happy about how much I spent on it.

Apparently they serve breakfast as well, and considering I could be a glutton for punishment I hope to try it soon. Their lunch/dinner menu is not authentic, clumsy, and you can tell that the staff (1) doesn't give a shit about what they're preparing; (b) the owner doesn't give a shit if you think it's authentic or even tastes good because (a) you should be happy you have someplace to eat in Aliso Viejo that isn't Opah or a fast food chain and (b) they have one of these joints in Beverly Hills and Newport Coast - so it must be good if rich people pay for it.

Ya, I get it. And frankly, part of me has to agree with it. On a night where you don't want to venture out to Laguna or...anywhere to just get something to eat I know I can always stop by and pick up something from Panini Cafe. Will I be happy with it? No. But at least I have the comfort of knowing I got a lot of mediocre food for the reasonable prices. Will I go back? Probably, because they're right - I'm not a huge fan of fast food and I never liked Opah.

Now, for some facts:

Price Range: cheaper to medium - paninis and salads on average $10; entrees $12 and up
Dine In/Take Out: yes to both; no delivery; no curbside
Bar: full bar with wine and cocktails if dining in
Good for Kids: yes during off hours - lighting is extremely dim inside so if you have kids then go earlier so they can actually see what they're doing; also patio seating outside
Service: decent, depending on who you have

Overall Rating: 6 bananas out of 10

Finally!!! A Place To Call "Our" Irish Pub

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Andrew and I honeymooned in Ireland back in 2004. To say we well in love with the country is one of the biggest understatements, and another blog entirely. Just one of the many aspects we enjoyed with the pub was the atmosphere: a warm, inviting haven against the rain and cold outside where you can sit by the fire with a pint of Guinness and enjoy a beautiful lamb stew. It's heaven. And the definition of comfort food.

Back east had its pick of authentic Irish pubs. New Haven in Connecticut alone had about five to choose from. Boston, New York - I don't have to say they were totally legit. But since moving back to California we've missed the pub experience greatly, and can't seem to find a place to call our own.

Until last weekend...

I'm constantly searching for new places to explore. The pub of choice in the area is always Muldoon's in Newport Beach. Muldoon's is not a pub; it's a restaurant bar. And let me tell you why:

A real pub has authentic irish and british ales on tap - Muldoon's only has a small selection.
A real pub has a dark and dingy atmosphere - Muldoon's is too bright and the outside courtyard, although pleasant in spring and summer, is just not "pub."
By definition a pub must have (a) darts; (b) old wooden tables and booths hidden in the forgotten corners; and (c) friendly staff. Muldoon's has darts and patio seating.
And probably the biggest knock on the non-pubness of Muldoon's? - the fact it's not open on Mondays (Monday Night Football people!) and doesn't offer Premiership games on early Sunday mornings for those of us who are children of parents who would die for the sport of "real football."

We did find a great pub though that has come pretty damn close: Durty Nelly's in Costa Mesa.

They have Irish bands that play:

And check out that dark wood and stained glass interior! Although I admit the shamrocks are a bit over the top, it's still better than patio seating.

And they have ale:

And an ok Shepherd's Pie:

And Fish & Chips made with cod:

Ok, the food is actually rather terrible. The cod was frozen, the "chips" aren't thicker chip cut that's traditional in the UK - it's your standard American fry and the cole slaw tasted like it came from Costco. Andrew's Shepherd's Pie didn't fare that much better, but I give them points for using ground lamb and not beef, and using the mashed potatoes only as a topper - not like most places that have the mashed completely overtake the stewy goodness underneath.
But the atmosphere was right. Dark, dingy and extremely friendly service. Decent selection of Celtic libations and they have live music and even karaoke on saturday nights. Actually, it's quite the destination for karaoke apparently. And it was packed with locals. Not the usual OC crowd of La Diva clad ladies with bejeweled tops adorning their fake boobs and men with $500 jeans and cheap cologne. No, this was a local's locale - jeans, sweater, and a big wooden table to rest your pint on.
And I miss that. I'm glad I found it.

Foodnetwork - Where Have You Gone Too?!

Aron McCargo Jr. Adam Gertler. Ted Allen??! Isn't that the Queer Eye guy?? Indeed.
A bountiful resource for culinary knowledge and expertise, Foodnetwork has now grown into the antithesis of Who's Who on the food scene. And it's irritating the hell out of me.
Foodnetwork used to have chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay. Flay's still there, but only with his Boy Meets Grill reruns that must be five years old now. Currently he has two pointless shows - Throwdown (where he perpetually has a They Don't Pay Me Enough For This Shit look on his face while "challenging" various experts of particular foods) and Grill It - officially the dumbest show on Foodnetwork now. Here he invites some viewer to come to his quite awesome outdoor kitchen on some rooftop in New York and they grill together. Here's the problem: when one of the first episodes is him cooking with his lovely-in-a-dumb-blond-sort-of-way wife Stephanie, and the main ingredient is flank steak which produces a gem like her Flank Steak Tacos with Guacamole, I as a viewer am turned off!

I expect more of Bobby Flay. I ate at Mesa when I lived back east and it was beautiful southwestern-made-chic food. I had a new respect and excited attitude toward the chile pepper. It was there I made friends with the poblano pepper, and we've been good friends ever since. I don't want to see Bobby Flay challenge some random guy from Buffalo to make wings. I could care less if he can make a donut, or which random football fan comes to NY to grill a slice of pineapple next to Flay. I want to see Bobby Flay do what he does best - awesome, flavorful, colorful food vis-a-vis a grill that gets me so excited I run out to my nearest BBQ store and buy a bag of cherry wood and a thick ribeye and make some funky Argentinian sauce that goes on top. I'm sorry - I won't settle for steak tacos with guacamole!!!

Emeril Lagasse. Ok, so never really the best to watch to learn anything. He's a tragic figure in a way - extraordinarily talented, blessed with the ability to do any cuisine, yet gets exploited for one ridiculous catch phrase. Granted, he managed to make an empire off of that one word, but still. I think Foodnetwork both made him and ruined him at the same time. Anthony Bourdain is right - his true talent is totally obscured by the absurdity of B-A-M. I've eaten at his restaurant Delmonico in Las Vegas. It was one of the most enjoyable and memorable meals of my life. But when I think of Emeril I think (1) new orleans and (2) goofy bam guy. And that's sad, because the son of a bitch can really cook.

Mario Batali. This is probably the saddest casualty of the Foodnetwork Factory. By far, in my humble opinion, the most intellectual and educated of all the chefs ever featured on the cable channel. I don't think as a culture we've grasped just how important Batali is to the culinary world. And sadly, we won't know until he's gone (and judging by that gut, that time might unfortunately come sooner than later). His book Molto Italiano is an encyclopedia of Italian cooking. A history book, an art book, a very important piece to any true student of food's kitchen arsenal. I used to watch his show Molto Mario every day at 10 am and marveled at how before my eyes he made fresh pasta. He almost made it seem possible. And then a wave of his magic trunk-like arms and a lamb ragu appears. And then something with artichokes - always fresh, never jarred - would mystically appear out of a cloud of steam from a pot like Avalon. He saved Italian cuisine in a way, by showing non-Guidos like myself that there was more (way more) to Italian food than a messy red sauce and big clumsy meatballs. I never had a meatball. I always had cannon ammunition until I went to his restaurant Babo. There, I was reborn and in my new life I was Italian.

I've said many times before I don't consider myself a "foodie." Although I have referred to myself as such in the past, I hate that word now. I am a student of food. I am not worthy to wear a chef's coat (save my Iron Chef apron and matching hat because it makes for a hell of a picture). I don't pretend to even come close to what a classically trained chef knows. I secretly hope to one day, but as of this day, I'm a huge admirer of food and I've been shot by Bacchus' arrow. I took to the original Foodnetwork shows very seriously. That was my second real education to food (my first being of course, home cooking and my Grandma). It was by watching all the chefs I learned to chop an onion quickly, smash the whole garlic, skin and all, and then chop for a more efficient mince, how to break down a chicken, how to make a roux, what mignonette meant, and why it's important to never overwork a dough. And what do I have now?
I can learn how to make a "table-scape" from that semi-talented Sandra Lee. She's 20% talent, 80% boobs and blond hair. I can learn to say "guacamole" with a cute accent from Ingrid Hoffman. I can't knock her too much though, considering she's Colombian and hell - at least they finally put a latino of some type on the damn channel. I can watch some talented-in-a-weird-way pastry chef blow up a six foot dinosaur made entirely of cake. Rachel Ray (AAAAARG!!!!) every three hours, some new asshole who won The Next Foodnetwork Star who (surprise!) makes shitty food and teaches me goes on and on. At least they still have Ina. And Giada. And even though their shows are mostly reruns, I still find comfort in seeing their faces and watching them cook. And Ted Allen??? The Queer Eye dude? Seriously, what the hell is he doing on foodnetwork??! Some idiotic show about testing culinary old wives tales or something to that effect. I guess they felt the need to legitimize him considering he's a recurring moron on Iron Chef. Seriously - if I have to hear him blubber his way through a critique on a Batali dish one more time, with that look on his face like not even he buys what bullshit's coming out of his mouth...

All the new stuff isn't all bad. I really like The Neelys - they're cute, make great food and I'm learning a lot about good old home cookin'. They're what Paula Deen used to be. Now she's just a puffy marshmallow with the apparent sex drive of a rabbit who's paid to flirt with her guest-du-jour on her Paula's Party show. She used to be like my Grandma - learn to make simple food that tastes amazing, and you'd come away from that half hour feeling happier about life and good about yourself, like you just had a good pep talk that ended with a cookie. Now she just makes me uncomfortable.

Why did they have to ruin a good thing? Why did they have to sell out and make it about superficial stupid stuff? Why did they have to dumb it down for us idiot Americans? Why couldn't they give us the benefit of the doubt and actually be the network they could be? Because apparently that doesn't make money.

Philly's Best and One of My Favorites

Monday, January 12, 2009

I'm a huge fan of food. I love any good, honest food. It can be the fanciest meal of my life or a simple sandwich - as long as I can taste the honesty, the heart and soul in that food, I love it and it will become a favorite forever.

One such food and top 10 all-time favorites for me is the Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich. It's perfect: good fresh bread, steak, cheese. Period. Because it's so simple, it's easy to screw up and I've had the displeasure of having many an inferior cheesesteak. However, in a surprising turn for the typical mundane culinary lifestyle that is OC, there is a gem in Aliso Viejo:

Philly's Best Cheeseseak and Hoagie Shop is in one word: authentic. The owners pride themselves on flying in daily almost all ingredients, including the hoagie, steak, chips and even drinks straight from Philly itself. I can appreciate that kind of dedication to perfection. Bottom line, no matter how you want to slice it (pun intended), you gotta have honest and authentic ingredients to produce an honest and authentic product. And I would gladly pay twice the amount they ask for a cheesesteak because it's that good.

Here's their steak and whiz:

Thinly sliced steak with creamy and mild hot cheez-whiz sauce on warm, fresh hoagie is all you need. There's a debate in Philly on what's the better sandwich: steak and whiz or steak and peppers (steak with sauteed bell peppers and provolone cheese sauce). Some, like me, enjoy onions with the peppers too. Whatever you do, make sure you use appropriate cheesesteak etiquette:
Cheesesteak with Cheese Whiz: "Get me a steak-and-whiz!"
Cheesesteak with Peppers and Provolone Cheese: "I'll have a steak-and-peppers!"
Above with Onions: "I'll take a steak-and-peppers-add-onions."
You will be respected, as I was, if the place is legit. And that look of "hmmm...she knows her steak" will feel very gratifying.
Appropriate condiments to the cheesesteak include pickles and hot peppers. Please don't destroy it with ketchup or mustard - that's like putting ketchup on fois gras. It's criminal and should be punishable by death. Beer or soda go great as libation. This is no time to have a glass of bordeaux.
And if you haven't had one, please go try one. I guarantee it will become on of your top ten favorite foods too.

New Year's Eve and A Top Chef Challenge

Saturday, January 10, 2009

For New Year's Eve we stayed in this year and I made dinner. As mentioned in my other blog, I made up a dish with grouper on the fly. I found it to be hugely successful, very easy to prepare and can be done so with pretty much any white fish. I thought I'd share my recipe for:

White Fish with Putanesca Sauce
1 cleaned fillet of white fish (grouper, halibut, sea bass)
olive oil
half one onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
3 roma tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp capers
small handful of pitted kalamata olives, roughly chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
6-8 whole clams, scrubbed clean
1 tbsp fresh basil, finely chopped
1 tspn fresh parsley, finely chopped
freshly ground black pepper

In a large pan (with lid), heat olive oil. Season fish with salt and pepper and on high flame, sear both sides of fish, about 3 minutes each side or until achieving a golden crust on both sides and fish is just shy of completely cooked (it will finish cooking when it's placed back in the sauce later). Remove fish. In same pan, add onions and cook on medium heat about 5 minutes, until onions are soft but not caramelized. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, capers and olives. Add white wine and cook until liquid is reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper as needed. Create a hole in the sauce and add fish back, then spoon some of the mixture on top of the fish. Place clams around the fish on the periphery of the pan and cover tightly with lid. Cook until clams have opened and fish is fully cooked, about 4 minutes. Disgard any unopened clams.

Add parsely and basil and serve hot with crostini or good crusty Italian bread and the rest of the dry white wine used for cooking!

The Studio and The Tasting

This past January 3rd Andrew surprised me for our five year wedding anniversary and took me for an upscale meal at The Studio, located within The Montage Resort in Laguna Beach. Chef James Boyce prides himself on using seasonal, local ingredients for his "elegantly casual approach to the dining experience."

Studio is located right on the cliffs with panoramic views of the ocean. Almost tent-like from the outside, once you enter the large glass doors you are greeted by cascading waterfalls of white orchids and an enthusiastic staff clearly proud to be working there. The decor inside is minimal - simple white linen clad tables with a modern arrangement of 4 roses and sea urchin candle holder - a canvass on which the chef will soon display his culinary works of art. Most of the walls are open glass, offering what probably is a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately at night, it just gives way to utter and total darkness, and makes for a rather depressing ambiance. Lighting is very dim...almost too dim. The chef goes through all the trouble to present beautiful food but one can barely see it with the below-candle light lighting throughout the restaurant. I could also barely see Andrew!

In addition to his seasonal menu (which seems to always include John Dory), Boyce also offers his tasting menu. Andrew and I excitedly agreed to try it with the appropriate wine pairings for a mere $75 extra. The wine list is extensive, and with a sommelier on staff you would be best served taking advantage of it! With the menu, we were presented with the Encyclopedia of Wine List - a rather extensive collection of various libations perfectly designed to highlight the rich and robust menu soon to be enjoyed. The staff is rather enthusiastic, as they excitedly kept asking us what we wanted to start off with and we had difficulty quickly going through this book o' wine in the dark!

After ordering a half bottle of champagne, we very much were looking forward to our tasting menu:

Soup of Main Lobster
with brandied truffle cream
Ca' del Bosco Brut, Franciacorta, Lombardy, Italy NV
Butter Poached Nantucket Bay Scallops
royal russian osetra caviar and wilted greens
Weingut Kurt darting Riesling Kabinett, Trocken, Durkheimer Fronhof, Pfalz, Germany 2006
Grilled Atlantic Swordfish Medallion
main lobster and alba white truffle broth
Louis Carillon et Fils Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France 2004
Terrine of Housemade Canadian Foie Gras
quice shortbread, 100 year-old balsamic
Royal Tokaji Wine Co., 5 Puttonyos, Tokaji, Hungary 2003
Tenderloin of Broken Arrow ranch Elk
puree potatoes, turnips, sauce perigueux
Meerlust, Rubicon Bordeaux Blend, Stellen Bosch, South Africa 2001
Semolina Savarin
confit kumquats, medjool dates, cinnamon creme fraiche
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris, Clos Jebsal, Alsace, France 2002
In all honesty, given it was our anniversary and our two cocktails a piece prior to the tasting menu (and that would not be including the half bottle of champagne before dinner also), we couldn't enjoy the meal as much as we should have. I came down with the worst case of heartburn right after the soup and that pretty much marred the rest of my experience. To read more about it, check out my other blog here.
Despite my alcohol and acid-fueled haze, I did manage to be impressed by some of the dishes and was left desiring more by others.
The Lobster Soup we began with was amazing. The sweet "lobsterness" came through immediately, making this what every lobster "bisque" should be. The truffle cream accompanied it, never overpowering it, creating this warm, sensual, lobster heaven that after having will be difficult for me to now have any old lobster bisque ever again. It was incredibly rich, so the high acid brut cut through very nicely and was welcomed by my palate.
The next course, the scallops was life changing for Andrew. After swearing off scallops for the rest of his life, he was actually rather tentative about trying these. I personally am not a huge fan of them either. Simply put - we've had too many bad scallops so now we're ruined for life. Until we had these scallops. Small but packed with sweetness, by poaching them in butter Boyce made them fluffy and light as a cloud. They floated in a beautiful light cream broth, and were served with wilted greens and osetra caviar. This was a perfectly balanced meal: creamy broth, sweet scallop, bitter green, salty caviar. Every culinary sense was touched on so delicately. It was like sweet foreplay before the "main event."
The third course, the swordfish, was by far my favorite of the evening. Medallion of swordfish perfectly seared on both sides in a white truffle broth with braised leeks, lies solidly on top of pieces of main lobster and garnished with freshly shaved black truffle. This Was AMAZING. While the previous dish hit every point flavor-wise, this one hit it with texture: crispy swordfish, creamy broth, delicate truffle shavings. I really enjoyed how predominant the leeks were as well. I think leeks are the most underutilized ingredients of cooking, both in every day and fine dining. such a delicate but present "onion" flavor that whether sauteed, grilled, blanched or braised, they always serve nobly in whatever capacity they are used in a dish. Whether they are the base of a soup or sauce or a bolder side accompaniment, the leek is a beautiful thing. And it was nice to see it more predominately placed within a dish. I have been literally dreaming of this dish since I had it. For days after the flavors still lingered in my mouth, and I was tortured to enjoy it once more. I'm trying to convince Andrew to go back so I can have this and only this, just one more time. The accompanying wine, the Montrachet, was fabulous as well.
If the scallops were foreplay and the swordfish was rounding first base, then the fourth course, the fois gras, was certainly second base. Who doesn't love fois gras?! This was cut into a round and served with an equally cut quince shortbread which was quite surprising and delightful. Topped with a confit of apple and I believe a very small touch of frisee, the partner to the fois was really the 100 year-old balsamic vinegar. Personally I wasn't a fan of the presentation: the balsamic was a smear (think paintbrush) which personally I find "done before." I also felt by distributing the balsamic so thinly, Boyce destroyed its potency. I would have preferred a more concentrated presentation, perhaps in the form of a drizzle or underneath the fois so I didn't have to drag the delicate fois all over the plate to get the balsamic on it. The Tokaji was excellent. I'm used to the traditional muscat going with fois, and although a branch of the same tree, the Tokaji was a nice updated change. Ironic given the wine's rich history.
The main event of the tasting menu was dubbed to be the elk. It did not disappoint. Small piece of perfectly cooked elk with beautiful perigueux sauce and roasted root vegetables was Superb. This course was rich, bold, warm, and satisfying. It confidently charged my palate as the elk himself. And every bite left me content while wanting more. This was the climax and it didn't disappoint.
Unfortunately, the only thing this evening food wise to disappoint was the dessert. The semolina cake was far too sweet - totally saturated with a sweet syrup that completely destroyed the semolina flavor. The confit of kumquats tasted like orange marmalade, the dates seemed redundant at this point given the overall sweetness, and the cinnamon cream seemed out of place. The dish was presented with your standard berries trio - strawberry, raspberry and blackberry - which I found cheapened the overall attempted sophistication of the dish. Had the berries been removed or reduced into a sauce and the overall sweetness more clearly directed, I think he would have had a very successful dish. Frankly the sweetness made it almost inedible, and believe me, I can eat sweet!
Overall, I highly recommend The Studio. Be ware, however, that prices are very high - appetizers are on average $25, mains are $50 and up and desserts are all $15. Wine is incredible but you are paying for the best. I would also recommend going early enough in the day to actually be able to enjoy the spectacular view. And if you're up for it financially, try the tasting menu - it's always lovely to let a professional do what he thinks best. The sommelier is a woman, which is rather rare in the field, and extremely lovely and patient and nice. She's willing to talk for hours about wine and no question is too stupid. A word of caution about the staff - they are rather enthusiastic and perhaps a little too helpful. I found that they came to clear plates too soon and brought the next course far too quickly. Make sure you let them know you want to take your time in between courses so as to actually enjoy the food and wine.
And now, if only I can convince Andrew to go back...