Monday, June 30, 2008

Lucky's Cafe - 06/15/2008

777 Starkweather Ave
Cleveland, OH 44113
(216) 622-7773

Lucky's Cafe is easily one of the best little coffee shop/bistros I have ever been to. Lucky's is right at home in Tremont, easily Cleveland's most cultured neighborhoods with several art galleries/studios, a variety of respectable restaurants including the sister restaurant to Lola, Lolita.

On the weekends the restaurant serves simple yet delicious breakfast/brunch/lunch items. The food tends to be straightforward hearty selections. On both my visits the place had a fair amount of people but we were still able to get a table. Upon entering one usually gets in line to order, and after ordering goes to claim a table. Both indoor and outdoor seating is available with the outdoor seating in the middle of the garden that provides some of the produce used at the restaurant.

I ordered some random coffee drink, but the name now eludes me. I don't claim to be a coffee drinker and I certainly cannot appreciate all the subtle nuances in tasting coffee. All I remember was the coffee didn't simply taste like burning, which is pretty much all I taste on the rare occasions I have a cup of Starbucks coffee.

In the front there is also a wide assortment of pastries to go with the coffee. The pastries all look very good and are made by Chef Heather Haviland who also runs the pastry shop Sweet Mosaic Inc, sadly I am usually bursting full after breakfast and have yet to try any of the sweets.

Biscuits - Sausage Gravy with Cheddar Scallion Biscuit and Soft Scrambled Eggs, Served with Hash Browns and Grapes
Warm, crumbly, buttery biscuits topped with eggs and slathered with fatty gravy. On the sides are fried potatoes although it was listed on the menu as "hash browns."

Baked Mac-N-Cheese - Cheddar, Brie, Parmesan, and Mozzarella Cheeses, Baked with Pasta and Cream Topped with Brioche Bread Crumbs Served with House-made Applesauce
I am not normally a fan of Mac & Cheese but this was very good. The flavor is intensely cheesy and and just over the top rich and heavy especially with the addition of cream. Disturbingly unhealthy but extremely satisfying. The applesauce is thick and sweet and helps make the richness of the Mac-N-Cheese manageable.

Lucky's Cafe serves some very traditional breakfast and lunch foods. What makes the food stand out is the intensity of the flavors, like many of the foods we grew up with only done in the most unhealthy way possible. If I lived in the area I'd probably be here every weekend.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lola - 06/14/2008

2508 E 4th Street
Cleveland OH 44115
(216) 621-5652

Like Flying Fig, Lola is one of those restaurants Clevelanders point to to show they are not a culinary wasteland. And Like Flying Fig, Lola's menu has never sparked any interest on my part. However, since the owner Michael Symon was made an Iron Chef, I figured there might be something to all the buzz around the restaurant.

Apparently the restaurant does have a tasting menu, although the diner must specifically request it. If you are interested in the tasting menu, it is prudent to make the request. The restaurant takes it's tasting menu seriously, with executive chef Derek Clayton making up the courses based on the day's ingredients. For smaller parties, Chef Clayton also does all of the cooking for the tasting menu to keep the pressure off the kitchen staff.

I did have a wine pairing with the meal although there was some miscommunication and the restaurant thought I would not be having wine. They accommodated me, but did not list the wines so sadly they will be missing from the review. Although if you do try the tasting menu at Lola, I recommend the wine pairing which was solid and a bargain at $30.

The restaurant has a bar in the front that leads to a seating area with an open-air kitchen where all the work is done. Near the front there is a flight of stairs that leads to another dining area. I kind of wish we sat downstairs as kitchen adds a lot of noise to the dining room.

Amuse - Halloumi and Watermelon
The amuse for this evening was a combination of cheese and watermelon. The cheese is based on a Greek cheese made from a blend of goat's milk and sheep's milk. The cheese is unique because of its high melting temperature, making it the only cheese that can be fried or grilled to brown without melting. The cheese had a dry rough texture and a very mild flavor. I thought this contrasted well texturally with the juiciness of the watermelon.

A surprisingly lackluster bread presentation, a fairly nondescript white bread with softened butter.

01: Lobster - Prosciutto, Asparagus, Quail Egg
When I looked at the menu initially, I pegged this course as one of my favorites for the night, sadly things didn't work out that way. The lobster was overcooked, with a heavy dull rubbery texture. The Prosciutto was way too strong for the rest of the dish, overpowering the flavor of the lobster and asparagus. The quail egg was beautifully prepared but not enough to save the dish.

02: Arctic Char - Tomato, Cucumber, Ginger
The Arctic char was cooked perfectly with a rare center and had a rich flavor similar to both salmon and trout. The primary flavors of tomato and cucumber were both cool and light and they contrasted well with the heat from the ginger flavor, a very wonderful summer dish.

03: Halibut - Spring Vegetables, Herb Pureé
Another very good fish, the halibut was meaty and moist. Given the naturally light flavor of the fish, the use of vegetables and herbs provided a wide variety of complex flavors that complemented the fish nicely. Unlike the previous dish, it was difficult to identify the individual ingredients in the vegetables or pureé, but instead are presented with an elusive ever-shifting gamut of flavors all which worked well with the fish.

04: Pork Belly and Scallop - Jicama, Papaya, Watercress
I am still a bit confused on the combination of pork belly with scallop. The pork belly was extremely rich and softer than most western preparations, maybe the fat content was higher than at other restaurants. The pork belly was also a touch sweeter with a strong overtone of star anise or licorice. The "salad" of jicama, papaya, and watercress definitely fit well with the Asian theme of the pork belly. The scallop was out of place and didn't really add much to the dish.

I don't exactly recall what was in the cup, but I think it was a Kaffir lime spritzer, sweet and tart with a bit of effervescence. The spritzer was a very welcome break especially after the ultra-rich pork belly.

05: Shrimp - White Beans, Bell Peppers, Pancetta
I was surprised by the quality of the shrimp. At first glance it looked overcooked, but turned out to be quite crisp and sweet. The dish worked pretty well with the white been pureé adding a bit of sweetness and graininess while the pancetta was crisp and flavorful.

06: Lamb - Merguez, Cous Cous, Fava Beans
The lamb itself was quite good, tender with minimal gaminess. The addition of merguez, or spicy lamb sausage went well with the grilled lamb and cous cous in keeping a Mediterranean theme. However, we were already quite full and struggling to finish these large portions.

07: "Meat and Potatoes" - Beef, Fingerling Potatoes, Crispy Marrow
Another overly large course. I admit after the first bite I was way too full to properly appreciate this dish. The meat was a skirt steak, lean and flavorful. I was actually hoping for a bit more richness from the marrow although I suppose I should be thankful it was pretty light given how full I was.

08: Warm "Pointe de Bique" - Stewed Plums, Dijon, Toasted Pistachio
One of the all-around best tasting cheeses I have had in a while. The stewed plums added an earthy sweetness that went very well with the yeasty creamy taste of the cheese and the heat of the dijon. The plums and cheese both had soft textures and seemingly dissolved on the tongue.

09: Kempf Farm Strawberries - Key Lime Sherbet, Chantilly Cream, Strawberry Water
According to our waiter, Kempf Farms is a small Amish Farm, and I have to say they know how to make strawberries. The dish was light and refreshing very much like the intermezzo. The sherbet was cold and tart while the strawberries had an intense flavor and sweetness.

10: "Amedei" Chocolate Créme - Toasted Bread, Greed Olive Oil, Sea Salt
Our waiter made a big deal about this course. Apparently the restaurant only recently received permission to use Amedei chocolate, and we were the first two people to taste it at Lola. The chocolate might actually be the best I ever tasted. The flavors were intensely concentrated with notes of dark red fruit and many other subtle flavors. The texture was incredibly smooth. My only wish is that I had more.

11: Petit Fours
A very nice fruit (Strawberry?) geleé. Simple but at this point more than enough.

I was hoping Chef Symon would be around, but apparently he was traveling, perhaps busy growing his budding empire. At any rate, the executive chef, Derek Clayton came out to speak with us. I was happy to hear he actually did most of the cooking for our tasting menu. It seems the higher a chef gets, the less cooking he does, but Chef Clayton seems to actually enjoy getting his hands dirty, rather than simply creating the menu and leaving the execution to line cooks.

Lola is easily one of the best fine dining experiences to be had in Cleveland. This is the first tasting menu I have had in Cleveland, if it were only indicative of the general quality of food in Cleveland, I'd be a happy man indeed.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Flying Fig - 06/13/2008

2523 Market Ave
Cleveland, OH 44113
(216) 241-4243

My first night in Cleveland I finally made it out to Flying Fig. Widely regarded as one of Cleveland's top restaurants, somehow the menu never appealed to me. Maybe because many of the dishes seemed to focus on shudder... vegetables. Flying Fig prides itself on working with local farms to secure fresh ingredients and it really shows. The vegetables with many of the dishes were just as strong or even better than the main part of the dish.

The restaurant is probably one of the trendiest I have been to in Cleveland. Walking past the bar leads to a dimly lit dining area with the center dominated by a raised dais with 2 tables. We were lucky enough to secure one of these tables. In the back corner is a small window into the kitchen. Just enough to see what is going on but not large enough for the sounds from the kitchen to bleed into the dining room. This is a blessing because the restaurant was loud enough already.

The restaurant does not have a tasting menu listed and I forgot to ask if they offered one. However given the small plates theme, it seems reasonable a party could enjoy quite a few courses even without a tasting menu. We opted for a more traditional meal: appetizers, main course, and desserts.

Goat Cheese Stuffed Mission Figs - Wrapped in Spicy La Quercia Prosciutto, Port Syrup
What else would you get at a restaurant called Flying Figs, but the figs. I was a bit hesitant about this dish but my girlfriend got it so I tried one. The cheese and figs are surprisingly mild with a number of nuances on the basic sweet and tart flavors. The prosciutto and port syrup are far more powerful but still blend very nicely with the fig and cheese.

Braised Pork Belly - Blackberry and Habanero Goat Cheese, Herb Crostini, Sauteed Greens
Pork belly seems to be gaining popularity at restaurants in recent months, this is the third time I had the dish in a month and a half. I love the combination of crispy skin resting atop layers of fat and lean meat. What set this apart from other preparations is the absence of sauce. I actually prefer this preparation, a little bit of anise to give it some sweetness, but most of the focus is on the abundance of flavor and texture found in the pork belly itself. The blackberry and habanero goat cheese was also phenomenal, a well balanced blend of creamy sweetness and fruity tartness with a subtle heat. The sautéed greens were brilliant as well, nicely seasoned with salt, they had a delightful crunch and mild bitterness that went very well with the belly.

Seared Scallops - Spring Vegetable Risotto, La Quercia Prosciutto, Pea Shoot Salad
My girlfriend ordered this specifically for the risotto, which was quite good especially with the pea shoot salad. Reminded me very much of the asparagus risotto at Ramsay in LA, although much less cheesy. The scallops were nicely prepared although a lot of them had sand which I found extremely unpleasant.

Grilled Short Ribs - Horseradish Potato Purée, Haricot Vert, Pilsner Reduction
I was quite impressed with the short ribs. The sauce used was thinner than I would normally expect for a short rib, which I actually prefer since I would rather taste the richness of the beef. The pilsner reduction added a nice hoppy flavor to the dish. Although I am loathe to admit it, for me far and away the haricot vert was the best part of the course. The beans were fresh with a wonderfully refreshing snap. Again lightly flavored, with the seasoning accenting the natural sweetness of the beans.

Fig & Thyme Jam Crisp - Lemon Ice Cream
After much soul searching my girlfriend settled on this dessert. She likened it to a gussied up Fig Newton. I don't remember too much about it but I do recall liking the buttery crisp.

Black Pepper Cornbread - Strawberries, Strawberry Jam, Whipped Cream
My girlfriend was originally going to order this because it was the special so I got it for her to try instead. The black pepper was totally lost in this dish, I couldn't taste nor feel the characteristic tingling I associate with pepper anywhere in here. The strawberries were fresh and the jam intensely flavorful, so much so that it totally overpowered the milder cornbread.

Overall I was extremely impressed with the food at Flying Fig especially the fresh produce. I freely acknowledge a bias for meat, and I was pleasantly surprised at just how enjoyable fresh vegetables could be. I could definitely detect a much wider range of flavor and texture in the fresh vegetables compared to what I normally eat. The food here is not particularly fancy or complex; instead the focus is on taking fresh ingredients and producing simple dishes that are a joy to eat. Without a doubt the best restaurant I have been to in Cleveland.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Steak House - 06/07/2008

2933 Rolling Hills Road
Torrance, CA 90503
(310) 891-2333

Yes this restaurant is really called The Steak House. The restaurant is located in a strip mall complete with "THE STEAK HOUSE" in block lettering. This reminded me greatly of Go's Mart, where the sign simply read "SUSHI". Yet despite the humble exterior that was one of the finest meals of my life. I actually decided to try this place after reading a really strong review. I was hoping to finally find a steak that could rival the Waygu beef I had in Japan.

The interior of the restaurant is a little nicer if a bit simple. The staff was friendly but felt less polished than I am normally used to. They had trouble answering my questions smoothly and every interaction felt unnatural.

Despite all that at the end of the day all that matters is the steak and when it came to questions about the meat the nervousness went away and the waiters were all smiles. When I said I wanted to try the Waygu, but couldn't decide between the New York and the Filet they brought a nice little plate showing off all their steaks. It is clear the New York is far more marbled than anything else on the plate, while this looked appealing then, it would prove to be misleading.

Steak Sushi
After reading a very positive review I was eager to try the steak sushi. Unfortunately it wasn't part of the set dinner anymore so I ordered a supplement. The beef was so tender I had trouble picking it up without breaking it. The balsamic gave a sweet tang, sadly the flavors were marred by a slightly chemically taste that I think was imparted by the butane torch. I tried torching my own meat before and ended up with a similar flavor although orders of magnitude worse. The foul taste scarred what would otherwise have been a very strong dish.

Red Snapper Carpaccio with Wasabi Vinaigrette
This was the surprise of the night. I was thoroughly impressed with the firm texture and light clean flavors of the fish. The vinaigrette and peppercorns added their own distinctive and strong flavors but these were softened by the sweet creamy mayo which kept the flavors appropriate to the fish.

Fresh Scallop with Shrimp and White Cream Sauce
A thorough disappointment after the last dish. The scallop and shrimp were totally overcooked each having a dull rubbery texture and paired with an equally dull watery and bland sauce. I really could have done without this.

French Onion Soup
Another weak course, the soup was a touch salty and the bread and cheese added very little, likewise the heap of onions underneath the soup.

A5 Waygu New York Steak
Seriously there is only one reason you would go to a restaurant named The Steak House and that is for the steak. I could appreciate the quality of the beef, but it was just over the top fatty for me sliding the knife through the meat took almost no effort, and I could feel the fat jiggling with each cut.

When deciding between the New York and the Filet, the waitress even warned me people sometimes found the New York too fat. Personally I don't mind fat but this was way too much. Each time I bit down into the meat it would ooze oil into my mouth. In fact the natural flavor of the beef was minimal, every bite all I could taste was the rich buttery fat. In addition, the New York steak was extremely thin, and on a sizzling hot iron plate, it continued to cook to the point where the steak was overdone, disppointing especially considering I asked for mine medium rare, on the rare side. The steak is served with a sauce made of soy, garlic, and scallions. Normally I think steak, especially good steak should be enjoyed with minimal accompaniments. In this case the sauce actually helped to moderate the fattiness. I still didn't use very much but I can definitely see it has a use.

Dessert was a veritable potpourri of little dishes, grape jello, cheesecake, fresh fruit, and mango sorbet sadly none of them was very good. The whole plate smacked of laziness, quantity over quality. I would have preferred less variety, and more effort paid to a single dessert even a simple one, say mochi ice cream.

Overall I didn't enjoy my experience at The Steak House as much as I expected. The quality of the beef was there, but the rest of the experience wasn't up to par. The snapper was a surprisingly strong appetizer but everything else was forgettable. I'd say if you want to try this place, stick to the steak and go with the Filet. As for me, I'm still looking for that one perfect steak to make me forget about Japan.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Gordon Ramsay at the London - 05/27/2008

1020 N San Vicente Blvd
West Hollywood, CA 90069
(310) 358-7788

This was my first experience with a restaurant opening and it was totally different from what I expected for a restaurant of this caliber. It turned out this was actually a soft opening, no Ramsay, no Hell's Kitchen winner, and almost no diners. I was a bit surprised at this last part as I have never worked so hard to secure a reservation. I called the restaurant at least a dozen times pleading my case before finally getting a reservation for 8:30, this was at 6:30 the same day mind you.

The restaurant is located in the London West Hollywood hotel. The hotel itself is fairly nice, dimly lit, lots of black and white marble. The restaurant is located in an out of the way corner of the hotel. The restaurant is dark and trendy, almost lounge-like with plush sofas and chandeliers. I could definitely see this place as a trendy place to have a drink and hang out.

My friend and I each started the evening with a cocktail. Surprisingly he could not get his signature Mojito since the bar was out of mint, so he settled for a Cuba Libre. I went with a cucumber martini made with Square One Cucumber Vodka (hey maybe this cucumber thing will catch on). The drink had an intense cucumber nose, but on the palate the fresh cucumber ended up being overpowered by the alcoholic burn. We of course did a wine pairing with our tasting menu, and the sommelier was kind enough to add pairings for each of our supplemental courses as well.

The menu is a departure from the food at his other eponymous restaurants. Both of those serve more traditional French fare while the food here is contemporary European with strong Asian/Californian influences. Our server mentioned there is even a sushi menu available at the bar.

The online menu suggests selecting 4-5 courses to share between two people and our waiter suggested 3-4 per person. In the end, my friend and I ate a total of 20 courses, 6 each from the tasting menu and 8 supplemental courses and weren't even completely full. We should have ordered one of everything on the menu given that the tasting menu is derived from courses on the regular menu.

Bread - White Baguette
Perhaps I have been spoiled, but one type of bread seems awfully sparse. We were offered two small baguettes, slightly warm with some rich, heavily salted butter. Both my friend and I felt the bread and butter reminded us of popcorn

01 Pacific yellow fin tuna with pickled daikon, crab beignets, sesame soy dressing
Junmai Ginjo Sake, Yuki No Bosha
A good first course, the fish was fresh with the classic light tuna flavor paired with sides that worked well with the fish. The pickled daikon went very well lending a tart crunch to the fish. The sake was extremely fruity and sweet, far more than any I have had in the past.

Supplement: Apple-cured duck breast and crispy tongue, foie gras with amaranth
Riesling, Hugel et Fils, Alsace, France, 2005
Basically a plate of all things duck. The tongue was fried and reminiscent of fried goose tongues at Chinese restaurant, simple flavor and a nice resistant texture. The foie gras was solid and the grain added a nice texture and flavor. The breast was solid but forgettable. I thought the wine was dry and crisp, though a bit one-dimensional.

Supplement: Wild asparagus risotto with chive flowers
Pinot Gris, Lemelson Tikka's Run, Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2006
An intensely flavorful risotto, with liberal helpings of Mascarpone and Parmasean cheeses. A bit heavier than I like, the dish did work well with the fresh asparagus and chive flowers.

Supplement: Swordfish carpaccio with heart of palm, grapefruit and yuzu vinaigrette
Sauvignon Blanc, Bernardus, Monterey, California, 2006
This was my first experience with raw swordfish and I was looking forward to it. I enjoy grilled swordfish for its distinctive flavor and rich almost veal-like texture. This was a complete disappointment, the flavor of the fish was overpowered byt the citrus and the delicate soft texture lost amid the crunchy heart of palm. The wine had a similar nose, with lots of grapefruit fairly refreshing.

02: Burrata mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes, cape gooseberries, basil pesto
Bourgogne Blanc, Remoissenet Père et Fils, France, 2006
This was the third time I have had Burrata and tomatoes in a month, solid but nothing memorable. The wine was far more approachable than most from the region.

Supplement: Cassoulet of seafood, king prawn tortellini and garbanzo beans
Vouvray, Domaine des Aubuisières, France, 2007
This dish had a mix of seafood, lobster, squid, clam, scallop, and geoduck. All of the seafood was very good, although there was something.

03: Hand-dived sea scallops, cauliflower purée and sherry vinegar reduction
Pinot Noir, Laetitia, Arroyo Grande Valley, California, 2006
The scallops were fresh and meaty, pairing went very well with the creamy light flavor of the cauliflower purée. The use of a red wine was a bit surprising but the scallops had enough flavor that the combination sort of worked.

Supplement: Smoked pork belly with roasted Scottish langoustine, celeriac and apple
Columella, Sadie Family, Swartland, South Africa, 2003
I liked both the pork belly and the langoustine separately. The pork had a soft fatty texture and a sweet richness while the langoustine was crispy with a delicate flavor.

Supplement: Monkfish with crispy chicken skin, lemon thyme consommé
Barbera d'Alba, Giacomo Brezza & Figli, Piedmont, Italy, 2005
The monkfish had a very nice texture, firm and meaty almost like chicken. The fish itself was mild in flavor but the skin had a richness that compensated well. The consommé was a bit more tart than I like contrasting sharply with the flavor of the skin.

04a: Pan-fried Arctic char with orzo, pickled Japanese mushrooms and dashi
Brut, Argyle, Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2002
Probably my favorite of the night. The fish was tender and flavorful and the skin was nicely fried. The mushrooms and dashi added a savory flavor that accented the natural flavors of the fish. I also liked the use of a sparkling wine here, very approachable, with some sweetness and a crisp apple nose.

04b: Beef filet and Kobe short rib, cipollini onion, baby beets
Claret, Newton, Napa Valley, California, 2005
I thought the short rib was the stronger of the two, cooked well but a bit oversauced. The filet was a bit more well done than I like and like the short rib, overpowered by the sauce. The wine was a red blend that ended up being a bit lighter than i expected with bright red fruit.

05: Confit Meyer lemon and basil gelée, sablé Breton and olive oil gelato
Interesting but I could have done with a bit more intensity of the flavors.

Supplement: Cheese plate
The cheeses were Petit Marcel, a blue cheese, and Gruyere. The blue was very mild as far as blue cheeses go, one of my better experiences with the stuff.

06: Pineapple soufflé with Thai curry ice cream, toasted coconut
Sauternes, Château Roûmieu-Lacoste "Cuvée Leon", France, 2003
Sounds pretty Asian to me, curry, coconut, and pineapple. I thought this dessert was pretty good, although not as good as a similar dessert I had at Melissé. The wine had aromas of pineapple and a hint of apricot, like many of the others fairly simple but a decent pairing with the dessert.

Supplement: Crème Fraîche panna cotta with strawberry gelée, acacia honey and thyme crumble
A fairly weak panna cotta, not enough flavor, totally dominated by the geleé.

I think there is a perception that Southern Californians aren't as serious about their food as New Yorkers or Europeans(compare the wine lists if you don't believe me) and Ramsay tried to leverage that in creating his new restaurant, opting for style over substance. Knowing Ramsay's other two flagship restaurants have 5 Michelin stars between them, I was expecting more at the LA outpost. Overall, I thought the food here was good, but certainly not worthy of a Michelin star nor the name Gordon Ramsay.

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