Saturday, June 28, 2008

Golden Truffle (Orange County)

If you ever drive down to Balboa Island off of Newport Blvd, you're bound to pass by a restaurant with a giant gold awning.

The Golden Truffle, owned by Chef Alan Greeley is a true "hybrid/fusion" restaurant with influences from the Caribbean, France, Asia, and Spain. Chef Alan is truly an artist at what he does, his creativity shines from each dish. The very best thing you can do is when come to the restaurant, ask if Chef Alan is there. If he is you have him make whatever he wants. It'll be dishes that aren't on the normal menu, just whatever he thinks of impressing you with that day.

The problem here is that Chef Alan does not always cook. He's always there for lunch, but more often than not he's at a catering event at night. The waiters/hosts don't seem to know when he's working at night either. Whether they are lying.. or they truly don't know, either one is quite vexing.

So for your viewing pleasure I have two trips to the Golden Truffle. One.. where the hostess told us he was working when we made the reservation but in fact he was not.. and Two where he was working.

First meal, Dinner... no Chef Alan.

The waitress promised us the quality was up to par with Chef Alan, of course the real big difference is everything is off the menu for this meal. $55 prixe fixe for 5 courses, one dish wasn't on the menu.

First dish, Chicken liver marinated in chicken broth.

This was probably the best dish of the night. Chicken liver doesn't have that overly rich flavor that comes with Foie. The interesting part of this dish was the way it was constructed, chunks of liver were put together ,then lightly cooked with chicken broth, and then chilled so there is a lining of chicken broth around the liver. Pretty good strong chicken stock flavor. Nice briny pickles to pair with it.

Next dish, Soft shell crab roll.

Fresh soft shell crab (still swimming before our meal) mixed with avocado on a thin chinese tortilla. Topped with shaved green onion, pea sprouts, and cilantro, this wasn't like the standard "crab roll." Instead of rice, a chinese style tortilla was used, it's a very thin yet doughy tortilla. On the side is house made hot sauce and hoisin sauce. The hot sauce here is very good, slightly sweet with a lingering burn at the back of your throat.

Next was the quail eggroll (not on the menu)

Ground quail stuffed with far too much ginger. Served with a side of fish sauce the giner flavor overwhelmed everything. Incredibly spicy.. which is always a + for me. Some shitake inside but not earthy at all.

First entree, Argentian style steak

Strips of well done filet marinated in lime and spices and topped with tomatoes. A very strong Chimichurri sauce was poured over the steak. Reference to Chimichurri here! The steak was tender even though it was on the well done side. The lime was a bit strong but the tomatoes were really well marinated.

Final dish, Jamaican style soft shell crab

Two whole soft shell crabs grilled and then lightly stewed with a "Jamaican" style sauce. The sauce is a generous amount of basil, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, red and yellow pepper, and cilantro. A very spicy, savory dish with a light vinegar taste. The sauce is really good with bread because it's so rich.

Finally the dessert, a Tiramisu with vanilla gelato

Star of the evening! Delicious dessert! Tiramisu with a torched hard sugar topping. Light espresso flavor and soft lady fingers. Really well done thick vanilla bean gelato.

Now the meal with Chef Alan. Lunch time on a sunny Newport day.
Since it was lunch, we asked for a more limited menu.. lighter and only 3-4 dishes. We were told.. 3 appetizers and an entree. All dishes were not on the menu. We were the first people there so each dish he made that day were inparted to those that ate after us for lunch =P.

First dish was smoked scallop with soy sauce and wasai infusion.

The scallops are thinly sliced and topped with pea sprouts and sesame. A bit heavy handed with the sauce so the wasabi is very intense, but the scallops were tender and almost like abalone. A new set of chopsticks was given to us with the dish. Very cute presentation.

The second dish was a crab louie with chicken feet and infused flavor tomatoes.

This dish is made to be eaten together. That's the problem with deconstructed dishes, if you eat it piece by piece it might not be what the chef had invisioned. If you eat the crab by itself, it has too much mustard.. but the mustard balances out when you have a piece of the tomato, with the crab, and the avocado. As a combined dish, it's done very well. Spicy, meaty, with a bit of acid.

The tomatoes are interesting, one had a pepperoni infusion flavor and the other tomato was more of a citrus flavor.

Ahhh chicken feet. Since I love me some dim sum I eat quite a bit of chicken feet and this was well done. Not as strong of flavor as the normal chinese style, it actually made it easier to eat. When I told the waiter I love chicken feet, he brought out a giant plate of it for us to eat.

The 3rd "appetizer" was more an entree than anything. Stuffed mussels with ground veal and chinese sausage with egg noodles and fresh tomato sauce.

Look at the size of this puppy, how is this an appetizer.. huge! I was not a fan of the egg noodle.. it just has a weird consistency that matches soup more than Italian sauce. Big chunks of tomato with flaked basil and oregeno.

Six large mussels wrapped in rubberband.

DELICIOUS chunks of veal sweetened by the Chinese sausage. The mussels themselves were just okay, a bit bitter. I really didn't like the use of the rubberbands for the mussels. It was hard to remove, every time you took a rubber band off you got sauce everywhere and some of the dishes had a bit of rubber band flavor.

Final dish. Braised Pork Flank with stewed beans.

This is one of the best pork dishes I've had in my whole life. The dish itself took about 20 minutes later than the noodles but it was well worth the time. A great porportion of fat and meat and so tender it melts underneath your fork. Incredibly flavorful, strong pork notes with light salt and pepper.
I'm normally not a fan of beans but these were stewed perfectly. Not too mushy but cooked just right.

We had some leftovers of the pork and I devoured it.
All in all a good deal for $40.

There is definitely a stark contrast between Chef Alan's cooking and his chef de cuisine, so much so it might be worth going only when Alan is cooking.

Golden Truffle.
1767 Newport Blvd.
Costa Mesa, CA 92627


Friday, June 20, 2008

Message to Orange and Los Angeles County Residents

A few easy steps for culinary <3

  1. Go to 611 E Balboa Avenue, Newport Beach.. Golden Truffle.
  2. Go at lunch..
  3. ask if Chef Alan is in.
  4. If 3 is a yes, tell the waiter to have Chef Alan make whatever he wants.
  5. Enjoy a delicious 4-5 course lunch for under $40.
  6. Also applies to dinner ONLY if Chef Alan is working.. doesn't always work at dinner.
  7. Said dinner expands to 6-7 dishes for $55.
Will have a blog post up soon.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Chez Panisse (Berkeley, CA)

Warning, there are literally 15+ pictures in this post, so if you're on a 56k modem this probably isn't good for you. Heck.. some of the pictures won't even have words accompanying them.. we all know you're really here to see the pictures anyways right? Now back to the blog!

A few weeks ago I drove up to Berkeley, California all by my lonesome. Six+ hours listening to Bill Simmons podcast and singing along to the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge. Now what would inspire me to sing along to movie soundtracks (albeit one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time) for six hours?

Two reasons.
  1. To see a special someone and take a well deserved post finals vacation
  2. Chez Panisse.
Located in North Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, Chez Panisse IS California Cuisine. Started by Alice Waters in the 70's it's a multi level dining establishment serving California Cuisine. The downstairs serves their daily prix fixe menu and their upstairs restaurant is your standard restaurant style order off the menu kind of joint. The restaurant specializes in produce and meats that are organically grown and local so you get the very freshest in ingredients. As you'll see from the pictures, some of the most vibrant vegetables on this side of the Mississippi.

The restaurant itself is rather discreet, unlike most "fancy" restaurants with large bright signs and grand opulent entrances you get a very natural.. some might even say "hippy" entrance that says Chez Panisse in rather faded colors.

The downstairs restaurant has seating for approximately 45-60 guests. Nestled in a dimly lit and home-style surrounding.. almost.. wooden cottage interior each table is served Filtered sparkling or still water done by the restaurant itself. Chez Panisse pride itself in not serving bottled water. Heck, I'm happy that they are serving free filtered water, carbonated and non-carbonated. To match with our fine seafood menu I brought a bottle of Krug Champagne as a supplement to the wonderful water service.

Before we get to the set menu for the day, I'd like to take you all in for a tour of the kitchen.
Our table was near the kitchen entrance, when we first arrived I noticed a little boy sitting in the middle of the kitchen and eating. APPARENTLY if you are a VIP you get to sit in the kitchen.. this particular father/son combo comes from a rather popular SF eatery.

The restaurant allows for you to wander in their kitchen as long as you don't disturb the cooks or the service (which we may have done once or twice). Composed of soft brown wood tables (I was always under the impression wood isn't good for a kitchen.. bacteria infestation?), a handful of stoves and ovens, the kitchen is as simple as the cuisine itself.

The very first thing you see is a long L shaped table.

Garnish/salad creation for Chef #1

If you take a closer look at the table you can see they use one part of the L as a cutting area for the loaves of fresh baked bread as well as a display of some of the freshest looking leeks out there.

The first chef was responsible for doing the vegetables.

Cutting up fresh parsley, mind, beans, arugula the chef is one of the last people to touch the entree, and dessert (at least for today's menu).

Green as a freshly watered lawn, the fava beans sit in the bowl waiting to be devoured. Course salt, olive oil, leeks, onions.. everything to make a salad or any other vegetable dish.

To the right of the table is the grill.

Filled with burning hot charcoal, one person man's the grill and everything that's cooked on it. He/She seasons the meat and cooks it. The flame is a deep dark purple that seems to just be roasting away at everything around it.

The chef has his/her own seasoning table for the protein course. As you can see.. this dish is prepared with pepper and salt.. classic recipe for a not so classic dish.

On the other end of the L shaped table is the 1st dish of the night.

One chef is also responsible for this. He creates the salad that goes with the dish in a small bowl. After slicing the main part of the dish he puts a small handful of the salad on the dish. Add some sauce.. and it's ready to go!

Another island is for the 2nd dish

One Chef manning a stove with multiple pans. A bit of seafood here, a bit of stock there, and a bit of white wine in the pan. Each tables order is made fresh when they arrive.

Quick plating of equal portions seafood on each plate, some noodles, and the dish is ready!

And at the very back... the dessert table.

Here we have the chef chopping fresh fruit and another chef on the left scooping and plating. Aren't those ruby grapefruit gorgeous? Look at how well cut the grapefruit are, I was tempted to pick one up and just bite into it. Luckily I showed self restraint!

Anyone notice that they have quite the large amount of decorations composed of the ingredients at each station? I think quite a few guests venture through here =).

Now on to the dishes!

A few olives to nibble on

Still on the stem, the olives refresh your pallet. Too bad I dislike olives. These went to waste =p.

Next up is the loaf of bread you my dear readers previously saw.
You know, I'm a fan of warm soft bread that wraps around mounds of butter. I never understood the need to serve hard crusted cold bread. PASS! Of course.. this meal is not decided by what bread they serve. I would like if the butter was made by an old man with a beard in Russia who's sole job is to churn butter in the lonely mountainside.

First dish of the night is Gravlax with a horseradish sauce accompanied by a side of arugula and beets tossed in a light vinaigrette .

If you don't know what Gravlax is, it's a Swedish/Danish dish that is essentially cured raw salmon. It looks just like smoked salmon. The salmon is thinly sliced and about 3.5 inches long. Perfectly cured, the salmon is of upmost quality. A sushi chef would look at this salmon and say "HI! I WOULD PUT THIs ON MY RICE!". Oddly enough.. even as good as the salmon was.. it was... salmon. I enjoyed it even if it was JUST salmon. It was prepared well and it was a joy to start the meal with. But what was the star on this dish was the side salad. Sweet and fresh yellow/red beets along with a slightly bitter tossed arugala it was a refreshing pairing with the rich and slightly spicy nature of the Gravlax dish.

The next dish was the best dish of the night, Seafood Ragu with Parsley noodles.

Generous chunks of lobster , mussels, and a whole scallop adorn the plate of freshly cut noodles. A small quantity of seafood broth is poured over the dish with chopped basil.

All I can say is WOW. WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW. The dish is so simple. You can see in the picture. But the noodles are a perfect consistency, they are as al dente as al dente gets. All the seafood was fresh and seasoned well with the broth, you don't even taste the white wine reduction. To top it off you get a nice big diver scallop to go with it. It really doesn't get better than this. A light course that was so perfect in its execution I couldn't help but gush to the chef. It was also so good I ASKED FOR SECONDS!

Which leads to another story: When the waiter took the dishes away he asked "How did you like it". I replied "So good I could go for seconds"..... Which the waiter arranged shortly after free of charge. That's the first time I've seen seconds at a Fine Dining restaurant.. especially with all the fixings still.

The protein dish was Grilled yellowfin tuna steak au poivre with Fava beans, asparagus, onion rings, and a red wine reduction.

The style of this dish is to mimic the way you classically cook steak. Salt and pepper is packed on the steak and seared on a grill. It was a fun way to do protein.. but like the salmon dish.. this was just tuna. I really didn't find this dish to be that special. Sure, it was good quality tuna, it was seasoned well... I just can't get that excited for tuna. I'm just not a fan of thick/steak-y fish.

My dining mates liked the Fava beans, but they were too mushy for my tastes. But I don't like any beans that are mushy =P. But they did have great asparagus, crispy and well cooked I ate one of the dining mates asparagus.

Finally the dessert. A tangerine sorbet with ruby grapefruit ice and a touch of mint.

This was an interesting dish. I wasn't sure at which point of the bite would my taste buds say sweet or sour. I enjoyed the more "subtle" flavors of the ice that toned down the pepper heat from the tuna. I enjoyed the texture of this dish, the play on soft and crunchy. What I didn't enjoy was the ice cream being sweet and suddenly the sour acidity of the grapefruit piercing right through it and destroying all appreciation of the dessert as I make the scrunched up bitter face. But some people like that acidity with their grapefruit.. I just don't.

I found in the end that the dishes were well put together... each part in the dish was a compliment to the other part. The seafood Ragu was so tremendous that I'll overlook the fact that I paid $65 (after tax/tip 85+) to eat Tuna and Salmon. Ultimately you can only enjoy those two fish so much, they are simple fish that really are limited by their texture and flavor. But the simplicity of the dishes excited me and I'll definitely go again. The use of simple materials to make complex flavorings is a type of culinary art that I have great love for.

Service was a bit spotty in the beginning. We actually didn't see our waiter (only the bus-girl) until a good 15 minutes into the meal. He even went to tables around us that were seated later to talk to them. One table right behind us came 10 minutes after us.. and he still got to them first.. explained his wine choices for them.. brought their wine.. and then finally came. When he finally did start to talk to us, it went along far better. Hey, not too often you get seconds on a dish and corkage waved.

All in all a great experience made even better with great company. What more can a man want? Eating a fine culinary meal with two of my bestest friends and a glass of premiere sparkler.. more than enough of a reason to drive 6 hours while singing along with show tunes.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Zachery's Pizza (Berkeley)

Zachery's Zachery's Zachery's. Since my first visit to Berkeley nearly 7 years ago people always tell me I HAVE TO go to Zachery's. When I tell people I like the food in Berkeley they ask me if I've tried Zachery's. When I tell people I'm going to go visit Berkeley they tell me to go try Zachery's. Finally I relented.

If you've never heard of Zachery's it's rated one of the best pizzas in San Francisco and the Bay area. They make deep dish as well as thin crust pizza, but deep dish is what they are known for. It's not a traditional Chicago style deep dish, but a "stuffed" deep dish pizza.
They start with a thin layer of dough in a 2 inch pan. They then add the cheese + toppings and cover the cheese + toppings with another layer of dough. Finally they put on the tomato sauce.

At the restaurant you can either dine in or do take out. We went around 1pm and there was a line outside the door for both options. I'm sure dinner time is horrible here since it takes almost 30 minutes to make a pizza. Since the restaurant is across the street from a school, during lunch time you can watch as the students mill around outside of restaurant doors and employees of the restaurants carefully screening who comes in to the restaurant.

So for our selection today, we had one of their specials: Italian sausage, hot peppers, onions, and green peppers.

As you can see the pizza is smothered in tomato sauce. Large chunks of tomato, basil, oregano are baked into the multi layered stuff pizza.

The dough itself is very thin. I'm not sure why but when I think deep dish.. I think of a thicker crust on the bottom. The pizza at Zachery's is almost crispy on the bottom.. probably the same thickness as a NY style pizza. As well the deep dish style pizza I'm used to has a softer texture, lightly doughy and just a bit crispy (kind of like pizza hut), but here the crust is very crisp almost like eating a bread stick.

Since the pizza is laden with sauce and cheese the bottom part of the dough gets soggy quickly. This ends up quickly becoming a knife and fork pizza eatery =).

As you can tell, I was not the biggest fan of the preparation of the pizza dough. I'm sure some people like flavorless thin pizza crust but not at $20 a pizza.

On top of that the combination of the pizza toppings made my mouth cry tears of sadness. Overly sour hot peppers with the pound of oregano they put in the sauce makes it so you can't even taste the sausages on the pizza. Of course.. that could also be because they only put about 9 slices of sausage on there. The precious few slices of sausage that we tasted were meaty and peppery, just how I like my sausage. I guess if you like random flavors hitting your mouth that don't meld well together.. this would be a pizza you'd like.

Now.. I do understand Zachery's does their pizza is a rather innovative way. I haven't seen a pizza so loaded with tomatoes and cheese in awhile. But the lack of REAL toppings on the pizza and the pretty underwhelming taste makes me wonder why the restaurant is one of the "best pizza" joints in San Francisco. Is everyone a follower? Is there really just no good pizza in San Francisco? Is it like saying "best burrito in Chicago".. where that doesn't really say much?

*shrug*. I might give it another shot when I visit again.. just in case it was the fault of the toppings (which shouldn't be a problem to begin with).

Zachery's PizzA
1853 Solano Ave.
Berkeley, California 94707