Friday, August 29, 2008


A Bay Area landmark, Chez Panisse focuses on showcasing fresh, organic, and locally grown ingredients. Our first (and definitely not last) visit to Chez Panisse was to their upstairs café, a slightly more moderate, lively, and rustic version of the elaborate restaurant downstairs. The wood, brick, and copper interior of this craftsman-style eatery made us feel warm, cozy, and right at home.

with morel mushrooms
Right away we could tell that the quality of the ingredients is what makes Chez Panisse so famous. The succulent morel mushrooms on this pizzetta tasted like they were hand picked from the garden outside. With nothing more than some cheese, a dab of truffle, and a light and airy crust, this pizzetta was so simple yet bursting with flavor.

Alaskan Coho Salmon
with corn, okra, coriander & lime
I have never tasted corn so fresh. The combination of sweet corn, okra, coriander, red pepper and lime was out of this world. I honestly can’t really remember the salmon – but the sweet, buttery, and clean tasting flavors of the corn salad still make me droll as I’m writing this months later. Too bad Chez Panisse changes their menu daily – I may never get to experience this again.

Grilled Laughing Stock Farm Pork Sausages
with sweet peppers and fried shoestring potatoes
These organic sausages were juicy, spicy, and accompanied by sweet, locally grown red peppers and crisp shoestring potatoes. Again, the freshness of the ingredients made this a winner.

Flavor King Pluot Tart
with vanilla ice cream
I happen to have a friend who works at Chez Panisse, and thus our waiter “took care of us” by bringing us this complimentary plout tart. Although we normally go for chocolate, he said that it was one of their best desserts – and he was right. After all, we can have chocolate anytime. But only Chez Panisse would feature plouts that were picked right off the branch and bought at the farmers market that morning.

After eating a meal at Chez Panisse, you really understand how the quality of ingredients really makes a dish shine. We can’t wait to go back and try the restaurant downstairs, and have another glimpse into the amazing culinary masterpiece that is Chez Panisse.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

ALINEA, Chicago, IL

POST #50!!!

It's fitting that on our 50th post of our blog, we remember one of the most spectacular culinary experiences we've ever had. Of all the highly rated restaurants in Chicago, we chose Alinea because we expected a truly unique dining experience. Chef/Owner Grant Achatz, a former sous chef for Thomas Keller at French Laundry, is known for his creative flavor combinations and unique plating techniques. At Alinea, his work has been described as a hypermodern and emotional approach to dining. You'll find words like "study" and "tribute" and "deconstructed" to describe a unique take on some traditional dishes.

However they are described, each of the 15 (yes, FIFTEEN) courses below was itself an event to be remembered. Confident in their extraordinary work, the folks at Alinea left us with the menu you see here (with each course listed with our chosen wine pairings) as a souvenir of our 2.5 hour dinner. The significance of the circles is two-fold: The larger the circle, the larger the portion of that particular course; and circles placed further left indicate a sweeter course, while those leaning right represent savory dishes. Click on the menu for a closer look. Also be sure to read our titles and descriptions of the dishes in detail, as it’s impossible to grasp all of the interesting ingredients just by the photo alone. PS - flash photography wasn’t allowed, so we apologize for the quality of some of these photos.

steelhead roe, smoked salmon gelee, peeled grape,
encapsulated celery juice, lemon foam
This first dish delivered more memorable textures than flavors, which, in retrospect, was likely intended. The chilled, peeled grapes melted in our mouths, the roe literally popped with each bite, and the encapsulated celery juice exploded. The lemon foam and gelee, instead, provided a coating of flavor.

tomato water gelee, frozen mozzarella foam, basil sorbet,
dehydrated tomato, tomato breadcrumbs, olive oil vinaigrette
The classic caprese salad flavors were instantly recognizable, but once again, it was the unique textures (and in this case, temperatures) that made it a stand-out dish. The highlights were the flavorful dehydrated tomato and basil sorbet, which provided a nice contrast to the frozen mozzarella foam.

Red mullet, artichoke cube dusted in dehydrated provincial vegetables,
crispy garlic, bottarga (cured fish roe), arugula puree,
dehydrated olive oil, egg yolk

The creamy, rich artichoke cube was the highlight of this dish, although the delicate red mullet and accompanying Mediterranean flavors also melded together nicely.

Alaskan king crab, popcorn puree, self-encapsulated butter,
baby corn dusted in curry, mango puree, chanterelle,
white cheddar, crispy onion

This course featured three small creations each with two common elements: crab and butter. The close up of our favorite shows the ready-to-burst self-encapsulated butter on the left (a popular technique at Alinea) along with crab, popcorn puree, chanterelle, and corn. What you don't see is the curry flavor which was the real highlight.

Japanese Wagyu ribeye, maitake mushroom, smoked medjool date puree,
Blis Elixir (aged Sherry vinaigrette with Wagyu beef fat)

Early in the meal, the two slices of Wagyu beef above were placed on our table as an “edible centerpiece”. Initially, due to the fact that they were chilled with liquid nitrogen, it was a challenge to figure out what this surprise really was. When the meat finally thawed, each sliver was draped over a delicious maitake mushroom, which was further flavored by the sweet date puree and an amazingly potent Wagyu beef fat vinaigrette. Understandably, this was one of our favorite dishes of the night.

shoestring potato nest, trio of potatoes, sunflower seed puree,
sweet spice gastrique, braised sunflower seeds, petals

Although the lamb was cooked and seasoned perfectly, what really made this dish unique was the use of pureed and braised sunflower seeds. The nuttiness and creaminess of the seeds went very well with the sweet-spiced lamb. The colorful potatoes, petals, and vertical nest added a nice visual element.

cold potato, potato and truffle soup, black truffle, Parmigiano-Reggiano, chive
Our instructions were these: Grasp the pin from beneath the bowl and pull until the potato, truffle and its companions fall into the mini-soup. Then, enjoy the shot of flavor all at once. The truffle easily dominated the collection of flavors, followed by the creaminess provided by the cheese and potatoes.

Black truffle ravioli, white truffle, romaine, parmesan
A simpler mechanism than the previous course, this dish was prepared for consumption on its own spoon, ready to explode in one's mouth. Two explosions of truffle flavors in a row - the sign of a spectacuar restaurant.

foie gras, mole, tortilla foam, raisin custard, salsa verde,
nuts and seeds dusted with powdered foie gras fat

One of the highlights of the night, this dish was an utter explosion of flavors and textures. It is truly impossible to describe – just read the description and try and imagine each component of the dish, all blending together on your to tongue in glorious harmony. An absolute sensory culinary experience.

liquid rhubarb, ginger, basil
Our server thankfully advised us to consume the whole thing in one shot and keep our mouth closed to avoid any excess liquid rhubarb dribbling down our chin as it burst. With the addition of basil and ginger, this was an extremely potent dish.

applewood smoked, butterscotch, apple, thyme
We’re all for interesting plating, but this was a bit extreme. Sure, it was cool to have bacon suspended in the air, but we would rather have 2 pieces of the yummy bacon on a plate rather than 1 on a fancy metal contraption. If it was meant to be artsy or symbolical, it was definitely lost on us.

fresh coriander, lime, tamari, bonito, wasabi

No restaurant is 100% perfect and this was definitely Alinea’s weakest link. Watermelon, cilantro, bonito, and wasabi? It just didn’t work for us. It was also suspended in the air on a metal skewer, which although visually fun, did nothing to make it taste better.

sorrel ice cream, frozen Greek yogurt, creamed whipped honey,
chamomile pudding, fennel shortbread and poppy seed crumbs
This confused us. Even now, months later, we still can’t decide how we feel about the flavors. We’ve never had a dish centered around sorrel before, so we aren’t sure what it’s supposed to taste like. There definitely were some good flavors, such as the creamed whipped honey, fennel shortbread, and chamomile pudding – but if we took a bite without all of the sweeter elements, it was a tad bitter.

toasted wheat soaked in milk, almond ice cream,
apricot and chervil purees, caramel sauce, toasted almonds
Spying the words "whole wheat" associated with a dessert on this menu was certainly discouraging. It implies healthy, bland, dry - everything a dessert should NOT be. Then arrives this creative bowl full of creamy flavor. Two servings each would have been welcomed.

custard, cherry, thyme, wrapped in cashew sugar, Tahitian vanilla fragrance

Apparently Alinea’s version of a petit four was this bite - a fragrant Tahitian vanilla been coated with custard and cherries, all wrapped in a blanket of hardened cashew sugar. It was good, but didn’t come close to the above dessert.

As we were leaving, we were also presented with a goodie bag of lemon Madelines for breakfast the next day, thereby extending our fantastic meal. Alinea certainly was the most creative and interesting meal we have experienced to date (and the most expensive), but totally worth it.

Friday, August 22, 2008


As many of you already know, we spent a few days enjoying the sites and attractions of The Windy City. We visited the Sears Tower and Hancock Building, caught a Cubs game at Wrigley Field and walked along Navy Pier. But, like most of our vacations, the true agenda of our visit to Chicago was FOOD. And while Chicago is known for some extraordinary, fancy cuisine (more on that in the next post), we'll begin by sharing our experiences with some classic (but not necessarily simple) Chicago eats:

Some might say it was blasphemous for us to come to Chicago and have no intention of trying a Chicago-style hot dog. But I (Andrea) don’t like mustard and ordering ketchup on a hot dog in Chicago will undoubtedly result in laughs, glares, and would probably get us kicked out of the joint. Plus, Suni doesn’t want a pickle near anything he intends to eat. So, instead we decided to venture outside the city to partake in another local favorite, which is rapidly becoming a Chicago institution in its own right.

Hot Doug’s, “The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium”, features about 25 different kinds of hot dogs and sausage. Most locals come for the daily specials and “game of the week” sausages, which include venison, duck, even alligator. It has become so popular that there’s always a line, sometimes around the block. The line becomes even longer on Friday and Saturday, when they feature their infamous duck fat fries.

Beginning on the left is the special of the day, Blue Cheese Pork Sausage with Pear Puree and Smoked Almonds. The richness of the sausage was amazing, and the crunch of the almonds made this the clear favorite for Suni. In the middle you'll find the Bacon and Jalapeno Duck Sausage with Blood Orange Mustard and St. Pete's Blue Cheese drizzled with Honey. The duck sausage alone would have made a fantastic choice, but the sweet/savory combination with the cheese and honey added powerful flavor (a little too powerful for Suni). We both agreed that the sausage on the right was incredible. With the Catalonian Pork Sausage with Bacon-Garlic Mayonnaise and 12-month Montelarreina Cheese, the meat itself was more a vessel for overwhelming flavors of the sauce and the rich, nutty, aged cheese. Finally, perched above our trio of sausages is a basket of Hot Doug's Duck Fat Fries, which are every bit as good as it sounds! 

For more on Hot Doug's operation, check out the video below:

The majority of research conducted for our trip centered around where to go for Chicago Pizza. Every local has their own favorite pizzeria, which often results in conflicting opinions - one person’s favorite is another’s least. This is further complicated by the fact that there are 4 styles of Pizza served in Chicago – deep dish, stuffed, pan, and thin. After getting recommendations from multiple sources, we settled on Pizano’s, owned by the son of the original Rudy Malnati who arguably invented Chicago deep dish. But after trying deep dish, we felt that our trip to Chicago would be incomplete without sampling the stuffed pizza, which is just as famous. We managed to squeeze in another meal at Giordano’s, a Chicago classic known for their stuffed pizza. Which did we like better? Keep reading for our expert analysis.

Chicago Deep Dish is characterized by its thick layer of cornmeal dough, which is pulled up the sides of the pan and baked until crunchy. The crust is covered with (in order) cheese, toppings, chunky tomato sauce, and grated cheese. Stuffed Pizza is similar to deep dish, except that there is an extra layer of cornmeal crust between the toppings and the sauce. In the spirit of conducting a controlled study, we ordered a classic Chicago version at both places: sausage, onions, mushrooms, and bell peppers.

Locals judge Chicago pizza on 3 main factors – crunchiness and flavor of the crust, quality of the toppings, and the sauce. Pizano’s crust was crunchier than Giordano’s, although Giordano’s had a nice buttery flavor that makes it famous. The sausage at both places was excellent, as was the flavor of the sauce. In the end, Pizano’s deep dish edged out Giordano’s stuffed due to the crunchier crust, and also because the stuffed pizza was heavier with the extra layer of crust and massive amounts of cheese. It was a close one though.

Although everyone thinks of pizza as the quintessential Chicago food, the Italian beef sandwich became a Chicago favorite even before deep dish pizza was introduced to the city. An Italian beef is seasoned roast beef, dripping with meat juices, on a dense, long Italian-style roll. It comes with either hot giardiniera or sweet green peppers, and you can order it wet/dipped for extra juiciness.

We chose Al's No. 1 Italian Beef, which opened its first stand in 1938. Not being able to decide if we wanted it hot or sweet, the cashier suggested we order it with both. Of course, we asked for an extra cup of juice on the side so we could dip ourselves.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


While our previous entry (Ma'Kai) was the result of a rare UNPLANNED visit to a new restaurant, Local Kitchen & Wine Merchant was in the books in advance. As usual, Andrea is responsible for discovering this Cal-Italian place in  the Rincon Hill neighborhood of SF and adding it to our culinary agenda. While we did take a quick peek at the attached "Wine Merchant" section, our destination was the restaurant to share a quick bite before leaving the city. 

roquefort cheese served with caramelized pear,
hazelnuts, mache and a black pepper gastric
Few combinations of flavors are ever as satisfying a strong cheese paired with sweet fruit. But roquefort paired with pear - caramelized pairs - is a particular treat. The best bites were a hunk of cheese dragged through the sweet sauce, and then skewered along with enough of the caramelized outer layer of the pear to add a candy crunch.

chicken apple sausage with figs, balsamic onions,
goat cheese and arugula
The sweet and savory combination continued with our choice of pizza, chosen from the specials chalkboard adjacent to our seats along the marble bar. The "Local" is known for its wood-fired pizzas, and from our seats at the bar we were able to spot our dinner being plucked from the oven with a JUST crispy crust. Not only did we enjoy the sausage and figs and cheese during dinner, but we managed to save a slice for a later snack at home. 

tossed with shaved parmesan cheese
and white truffle oil
If you're familiar with our blog (or just Andrea), you know that truffle oil and flavors appear often at our dinners. This time, a hint of truffle was added to our fries along with slivers of parmesan which added a nutty saltiness to each bunch.

dark chocolate tart with lemon ricotta chantilly
The great thing about sharing a small meal is that there's generally more room for dessert. This time, however, dessert was really the only disappointment. The above tart wasn't particularly bad, but certainly nothing special. It was too dry to really appreciate the crunch of the nuts with the chocolate, and the ricotta garnish wasn't really sweet enough to compliment the the tart. Also, the dessert menu in general did not seem as inspired as the rest of the selections. Whenever we schedule our next visit, we might allow ourselves individual entrees and an additional appetizer instead of saving room for dessert.