Innovative, Pushing the Boundaries – that’s a dining experience @SBRAGA_dining @ksbraga (more fun than the French Laundry?)

You know that you’re in for a fun and innovative dining experience when you start at the bar with a Manhattan-like beverage that has bacon on the rim (and maple in the drink)!

I went to the well reviewed, famous French Laundry just 2 weeks before this dinner at Sbraga and honestly, I left Sbraga feeling more “wowed” than the veritable Thomas Keller institution.  They really do push the limits on every course – some with truly amazing results.  The Foie Gras soup was more inventive and innovative than anything I had at the ‘Laundry’.  While Foie can be overpoweringly rich and decadent, this had a balance of acid, salt, spice/heat, and even a little crunch to round it out; if licking the bowl were appropriate, I would have done just that!

For me, the other notables included the lamb, which had a bit of a shredded/braised texture to it and combined with the corn porridge was just a great change-up on a basic dish.  The dessert labeled as a “peanut butter cup” was super cool as it came out in a hot dish that caused it to really be more of a chocolate peanut bisque, if there is such a thing.  My wife had the birthday cake crumble which included her very own candle: how fun!

It’s odd to imagine that you’d equate this level of fun food with value, but at a prix fixe of $49, it’s really a steal (but Kevin, don’t raise the prices).  An added bonus is a four course beverage pairing (some are beer or mixed drinks, wine, and dessert wine) for $35 which takes it to the next level.  Notably, the tawny port matched with the PB cup was a winner.

I’m looking forward to a prompt return and will definitely do the chef’s counter next time – that menu looks great every time I look.


The French Laundry: Was it the Best Ever?

It’s a hard pedestal to be on: “Best Restaurant in the USA”, “3 Michelin Stars”, “One of the Hardest Reservations in the USA”…and with the veritable Thomas Keller at the helm, the reputation speaks for itself.  Further, when I actually secured this highly sought after reservation, I felt like I entered an exclusive group and my expectations rose even further.  But, was it what I expected…did it live up to my expectations?

Rather than detail the 3+ hour experience which weaved through a variety of fish, meats, vegetables and beautiful, yes absolutely beautiful looking food, I’ll share some highlights…and even some not-so highlights.

My Top 5

  • Amuse Bouche: A mini ice-cream cone delivery of salmon tartare (on top) and crème fraiche (in the cone) – – the single best bite of food the entire night.
  • First Course: The signature Oysters & Pearls which is a rich sabayon that sits below a cannele of caviar and 2 absolutely perfectly poached oysters.  A tough act to follow…which may have been my challenge in that dish seemed so innovative and different to me and others, well, not so much.
  • The chocolates at the end: PB&J and Mint Chocolate truffles were just enough and encapsulated the flavors succinctly.
  • The look of the food – easily the prettiest looking food I’ve ever seen in a single restaurant.  Especially the tomato tartlet my wife ordered.  For some examples, look at the Google Image Search for some serious food artistry.
  • Preparations – Perfect.  Everything was cooked to the exactly right temperature and done-ness with flawless execution.

Not Quite Top (and not 3 Michelin stars either)

  • So, for the cost of this event – and for $250pp before wine, I think it classifies as an event and in this regard, it fell short to me.  I expected the best dining experience of my life and this wasn’t it – in fact it’s not in the top 3.  I witnessed snafus that shouldn’t happen in this type of restaurant: from the table next to us taking their pen from the check and getting called out by the waiter asking for the pen back to the table next to us having water spilled on them – causing a production to move their table.
  • 60% of the food was rather basic.  I’m all for the farm to table, let the ingredients stand on their own philosophy, but I had expected some really cutting edge preparations and received some that were borderline basic and even under seasoned.
  • The Service – I’m not sure if my wife and I were ‘sized up’ when we arrived for our 9:15pm reservation, but the servers all seemed quite relaxed and only helpful when prompted.  I learned more about what I was eating as I listened to the presentations at other tables which were inconsistent with what I was told about something I was eating at the time – – not that I received the wrong description, but it felt like I didn’t get the full story.
  • The Approach – it just wasn’t very cutting edge or innovative.  Maybe it’s not supposed to be, but I’ve had some more traditional French cuisine which I found to be far more interesting.

My verdict – it was an experience to a food destination and that’s something I truly enjoy.  However, I’m not planning a return visit anytime in the foreseeable future.


Rittenhouse Square: Great Place for Lunch With the Puppy! @StarrRestaurant

Macie the Bernedoodle hanging at Parc Restaurant Philadelphia

Yesterday was the day for Macie, our Bernedoodle puppy and me to hang out in center city Philadelphia.  When we lived in Rittenhouse, my wife and I didn’t have the puppy, so I’m trying to still get the experience and it’s been a lot of fun.  Yesterday, we walked around the city and landed at Parc, a French bistro in the heart of Philadelphia.  I’ve been to Parc many times in the past, but this was a different kind of visit.  I was there as a single diner with a dog and was well taken care of.  We sat outside and Macie got a bowl full of water at the same time that I received my water.  Her bowl was maintained with the same swiftness and care as my own.

I could live on the bread a butter at Parc – richly creamery butter with chewy yet crispy bread – – that limited my dessert appetite for sure.  For lunch, I enjoyed the Country Chicken Club which was nicely balanced between the avocado and bacon.  If you’re a french-fry fan, or rather pommes frites, theirs are thin with light salt and crispy.  Really a great experience and I look forward to going back with Macie again soon.

In Riva – What a Great Addition to the Neighborhood! @InRivaEastFalls

I grew up in the Philly burbs, the main line to be specific and there is a well known dearth of good food in the area.  It’s really unfortunate that we usually have to go to Center City for a solid meal.  Manayunk used to be an outlet and there are still some solid spots there, but it’s nice to have something else close by that serves top-notch cuisine (at reasonable prices too).

It’s been a few weeks since our visit to iN RiVA, but I can still picture that amazing, bright green pea soup with the garlic foam.  It had the sweetness of peas just picked from the orchard and the balance of roasted garlic in the foam.  The pea soup I grew up with was a muddy green (no offense Mom) and lacked the brightness and depth this soup harnessed.  It was truly a gem.

The rest of our meal, from the char-oven-roasted octopus to the chewy and yet still crispy pizza were a wonderful blur.  All I can say is go, and go soon, before getting a reservation is just downright challenging.

It’s a Breakfast Counter…that serves a great dinner: Sportello Boston @SportelloBoston @barbaralynchBOS

When I was a little kid, my mom used to take me to a drug store for breakfast.  Now don’t get the wrong idea, I wasn’t perusing the candy isle in search of M&Ms for my calories, rather, this store located in a shopping center on City Ave in Bala Cynwyd, PA had an old-style breakfast counter.  I used to pony up to the counter and order my eggs and buttered toast so I could make a sandwich.  Some days, I’d get to splurge for a grilled sticky bun.  My mom would often read a newspaper and I’d watch the rest of the patrons, often regulars from week to week do their breakfast routine.  The one-man kitchen was open and I could watch everything that went on from eggs to hash browns.  I didn’t realize it then, but that ‘open kitchen’ was the wave of the future.

Fast forward to this past Thursday and I’m making a return visit to Sportello in the Fort Point neighborhood of Boston.  I was in the area for a business trip and Fort Point is just 10 minutes from the airport.  I called when we landed to find that they could accommodate us that evening.  When we walked in, Jack (the manager?) introduced himself to all in our party and led us to a corner space at the counter.  This was a friendly start to the evening which our server continued.  We really felt welcome and part of the neighborhood.

Barbara Lynch’s concept of Sportello is outstanding – it’s comfort based on the space which sets your expectation for the food.  Now, the food.  I started with the porchetta tonnato, which is served a multitude of ways, but in this case, it was 2 bacon shaped pieces of pork belly with chunks of fresh tuna and accompanied by a bruschetta with a pesto gremolata.  The combination of the rich pork belly, tuna, and capers was a nice mix and a different take on the traditional tonnato, but not entirely substantive.  The gremolata was flavorful, if a bit salty, but enjoyable nonetheless.  I really appreciated the flavor combinations of this dish.

For my entree, I devoured the buckwheat pappardelle which included braised lamb, golden raisins, and pine nuts.  The salty-sweet combination with the raisins and the jus of the lamb was heavenly and offset the hearty-ness of the pasta.  I couldn’t help myself with dessert and had their homemade vanilla ice cream which was rich and smooth and definitely proved to be the right decision.  It reminded me of having that sticky bun as a kid – – I didn’t really have room, but loved every last bite.  I’m looking forward to trying some of the other BLG restaurants, but it’s hard to resist another return visit to Sportello.

Oak Ridge Winery Ancient Vines Zinfandel 2008 – – A chill Zin! + Poppi’s Pizza = A Good Dinner

Last night, we ordered delivery from Poppi’s Pizza and opened up this Oak Ridge Zinfandel.  It’s been a crazy couple weeks since we picked up our puppy on 12/31.  We’ve been so busy with her that we haven’t had the chance to enjoy our wine or look for pizza in our new area.  This all changed on Saturday as we really enjoyed the thin crust pizza from Poppi’s and this Zin too. The pizza crust reminds me of Slice which was our favorite spot when we lived in center city.  At Poppi’s the dough isn’t quite as crisp, but the crust is.  Also, on the plain pizza, the sauce to cheese ratio is just right.  Their salads are a cut above the regular pizza place salads too with a spring mix of lettuce and pitted olives.  You’d think everyone would serve their olives in salads pitted, but my molars can tell you differently.

On a side note, if you’d like to see my puppy, I’ve created a blog for her too – her name is Macie and she’s a bernedoodle.

This wine is a chill zin – – I don’t mean that it’s a good wine when you are chilling out, which it is, but that it’s not an in-your-face bold, spicy wine.  Rather, it’s jammy, like mixed berry jelly and just a bit of oak to balance it out.  If you find some zins to be too powerful for you, I think you might like this.  Cheers.

An Ode to Rittenhouse Square…and some great spots @PureFare @rotisseurphilly

I can’t believe it, but I’m now an official suburbanite. As of yesterday, I am no longer a Philadelphia resident, but I feel remiss to leave without writing about 2 of my recent favorites in my old ‘hood.  While I’m sure I’ll find some favorites in my new area, these will be hard to replace.

First, Pure Fare, a great coffee and food spot with great, healthy foods gave me cravings that I didn’t know existed: quinoa skillet bread, sweet potato brownies, and spinach coconut shakes to name a few.  They also serve the amazing blue bottle coffee from San Francisco to boot.  The people are wonderful and I will miss them and their food.  Hopefully, I can talk them into sharing a few recipes…

On to Rotisseur – if you like local, fresh, juicy rotisserie chicken with home-made flavorful side dishes, then get yourself to Rotisseur where they know what they’re doing.  It makes for a very reasonable dinner where 2 can eat a feast for $21.  They make chicken so well that I wonder why I ever tried to make it myself when I lived in town.  Their sides, from mac-and-cheese to olive oil roasted potatoes were perfectly seasoned and prepared.  I tried to talk them into opening up a suburban branch on my most recent visit.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Needless to say, I’m only 15 minutes away and  will most certainly return as I live to eat…and everyone knows that Philly is the place for great eats.

The Farm and Fisherman: Outstanding Local Cuisine @FarmFisherman

My wife and I went to the Farm and the Fisherman (1120 Pine Street, Philadelphia) for dinner a couple weeks ago for a special dinner.  Josh Lawler, the chef/owner is a disciple of Dan Barber and the fame of Blue Hill Farm.  This is widely known as one of the best and first farm to table restaurants in the US.

We started our meal with two wonderful starters: the chilled carrot soup and a salad of strawberries, beets and a mysterious nutty paste.  The soup was indicated to have chocolate mint in it, which I didn’t get, but it was wonderful nonetheless.  The salad was a perfect balance of sweet and savory with a painted ‘nutty’ paste that I couldn’t quite pinpoint.  Suffice to say that it was yummy either way.

The second course offered stuffed quail and a tempura soft shell crab.  The quail was stuffed with stinging nettles, purple komatsuna, pine nuts – prepared perfectly and tender.  The crab reminded me about how much I love soft shells: no work, all meat.  This was fried, just barely and sitting up on a plate, ready to eat.  I had to pace myself to make sure I didn’t rifle through it.

Now, the main course…was a bit of an adventure.  When we ordered, I selected a special that night: braised baby lamb shoulder.  The server came back a few minutes after we ordered and told me that the chef was also offering the lamb brain with the shoulder if I was interested.  I asked the server for a better description and was told (after a chef consultation) that it’s like “sweetbreads on steroids.”  How could I say no?

Bar La Grassa: Some of the Best “small” plates anywhere…in Minneapolis @beardfoundation

I was in Minneapolis a couple weeks ago and had an incredible meal at the James Beard Winner (Best Chef – Midwest: Isaac Becker), Bar La Grassa.  They offer many wonderful options in the theme of “small plates”…but as we know in the Midwest, not much is small.  These are more like 65% of an entree size portion.  The space is welcoming with dark wood tables and floors, a large kitchen-side steel bar and a lot of natural light (there’s daylight in May until after 8:15pm).

Now, the main focus: the food!

CALAMARATA with RAW TUNA – a fiery red/orange sauce on the pasta topped with raw tuna, this has some kick, but the mixture of temperatures and textures is fantastic.

ORECCHIETTE with BRAISED RABBIT – the braised rabbit had a richness more akin to a pork shoulder or chicken thigh in soup.  Either way, a real treat.

FARFALLE with BRAISED TRIPE and SWEETBREADS – some people are scared of sweetbreads and tripe, but not me…  For those that are, this is a very approachable dish and one that will allow folks to try these two delicacies.

SILK HANKERCHIEFS with BASIL PESTO – The pasta is incredible with a soft, ripeness that’s only possible in fresh pasta.  The pesto is a wonderful match both due to its ‘stickiness’ and balance.

ST. LOUIS PORK RIBS – How do you go to the midwest without having ribs or steak?  These ribs are marinated and then dry-rubbed for cooking.  Just picking one up causes the meat to fall off the bone.  It’s a great mix of tomato-ey backbone, spice, and meatiness.

SEARED SEA SCALLOP with BLACK RICE and GREMOLATA – scallops are a hard dish to get just perfect, but this dish was just that.  The gremolata provided the acidic balance to really open up the flavor.

SOFT EGGS and LOBSTER – My favorite dish.  The eggs were mixed with giant chunks of lobster and a fair amount of butter too.  I tasted a hint of something like truffle, but can’t be certain.  It was that je ne sai quoi that made this dish, I suppose.  Either way, this should be a breakfast staple once a month.

Dessert was good, but clearly the main focus is the savory portion of the meal.  This place is worth braving a Minneapolis winter night to try.

Amazing Salad: Grapefruit and Jicama Salad at Out the Door, San Francisco

Usually, I write posts about an entire meal and the experience, but in this case, I’m concentrating on one dish because it was just that good.

A couple weeks ago, I was in San Francisco on a business trip and ate at Out the Door (OTD) in Westfield Center.  For those who are not familiar, this is an outpost of the famed Slanted Door restaurant owned by Charles Phan.  I devoured the grapefruit and jicama salad with red cabbage, carrots and candied pecans.  It was a heaven of crunchiness from the jicama to the cabbage, carrots and sweet pecans.  The balance of salty and sweet didn’t go unnoticed.  If you want to sample Chef Phan’s cuisine, but can’t make it into the Slanted Door, try OTD and definitely this salad.