Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Rendezvous - Memphis, TN

This past year, I've had the pleasure of taking a number of business trips throughout the United States. One of my stops this past year was to Memphis. Memphis is known for 3 things: Elvis, country music, and barbecue. Even before I got down there, so many people told me that I had to try Charlie Vergos Rendezvous. So, I knew that I had to check this place out.

One thing I quickly learned is that Rendezvous is difficult to find. It's located in an alley called General Washburn's alley in downtown Memphis. After 2 unsucessful attempts, I finally found the restaurant. My colleague and I parked at a nearby hotel, and as soon as I got out of the car, I could smell the charcoal and I could feel my mouth beginning to water. At this point, nobody needed to give me directions because my nose knew where to go.

You enter this restaurant by walking down a flight of stairs. The restaurant is packed with numerous tables and was very crowded. After waiting a few minutes, we were seated and were greeted by a very nice waiter. My colleague and I ordered a full slab of the charcoal broiled pork ribs.

Before I go into the details of the meal, I must explain that Memphis barbecue is very unique. Typical barbecue is drenched in barbecue sauce and slow cooked for hours in the pit. Memphis is unique because instead of drenching the ribs in the barbecue sauce, they coat the meat with a spice rub.

The waiter came back with our ribs and it smelled incredible. One would think that meat would be dry and tough without using barbecue sauce, but that was not the case. The ribs were juicy and so tender that the meat effortlessly fell off the bone. And for those of you who need barbecue sauce with your barbecue, there is a bottle of sauce you can pour onto your meat, but I wouldn't use too much because it'll mask the true flavor of your food. The ribs also were served with small containers of beans and slaw.

So, if you're ever in the Memphis area, this is a place that you must try. I already want to go back.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Dumpling Man - New York, NY

Potstickers, gyoza, mandoo, ravioli. Many different cultures have different names for dumplings....I call them bite size pieces of goodness. Dumplings can be a meal by itself, it can be a side dish, or it can be added to various soups. They can also be seared, deep fried, steamed, or boiled. Any way you cook them, you know that they'll taste great, and that's why today I'm featuring (drum roll please)....Dumpling Man.

Dumpling Man is a small restaurant hidden within St. Marks Place in the East Village. They are most known for their seared or steamed chicken, pork, shrimp, and veggie dumplings. As you walk into this restaurant, you see a narrow hallway with long counterspace for people to eat. In front of the counter is a glass looking into the kitchen as you can watch very unhappy looking Asian women slave away preparing the dumplings. Everything that goes into the dumplings is made from scratch. You can watch as these women prepare the dough, roll it into flat wrappers, spoon the filling into the wrapper, and fold them into dumplings.

The dumplings can be purchased in sets of 6 or 10, or you can buy them individually as long as you purchase at least 4 dumplings. Most people simply add a little soy sauce to the dumplings, but a few people will take advantage of Dumpling Man's two exotic sauces. Although the dumplings are prepared using Asian techniques, people can order the dumplings with Marco Polo sauce which is a marinara type sauce or Red Monster sauce which has a spicy bite.

I've tried this restaurant, and I quite like it. I think one could get better and less expensive dumplings in Chinatown, but there's something about this trendy hole in the wall that I find appealing. If you're ever down in St. Mark's and you don't want authentic Japanese food, check this place out.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

New Additions at the TWC

Last weekend I had the pleasure of walking around Central Park in extremely humid weather. Before venturing into the park, I took a break inside the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. Time Warner Center ("TWC") houses some of the worlds best restaurants including Thomas Keller's Per Se, Masa Takayama's Masa, Jean George Vongerichten's V Steakhouse, and Gray Kunz's Cafe Gray. As I walked to the restroom I spotted a "Coming Soon" sign, so I walked over to the sign to get a closer look. It turns out that Charlie Trotter is opening a yet-to-be-named seafood restaurant at TWC, and Thomas Keller is opening a Bouchon Bakery. Charlie Trotter's is known as one of Chicago's finest restaurants, and they serve New American cuisine with French and Asian influences. This new restaurant at TWC is set to open in late 2005. Once it opens, it'll be at the top of my list of new places to try. I'm also especially excited about the opening of the Bouchon Bakery. As a huge fan of Thomas Keller, I have already been to Per Se and the Las Vegas Bouchon. The Las Vegas Bouchon had pastries that were just as good as the pastries one could find in France, so I expect a similar product at his new venture at TWC. I'll be sure to post about these eating establishments once they open.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Nishino - Seattle, WA

My last stop before I headed to the airport was a restaurant called Nishino. Nishino is known as the top Seattle sushi restaurant in the very nice Madison Park district. The restaurant has a plain yellow sushi counter with matching colored tables on an elevated platform. The decor was very Americanized, and if weren't for the sushi bar and the name of the restaurant, I would never have guessed that this was a Japanese restaurant. The vibe that night was calm, and it wasn't too crowded.

The server introduced himself, and provided us with hot damp towels to clean our hands. I inquired about the tasting menu, and he said that I wouldn't be able to order it because I didn't give them 24 hours notice. He was nice about it, but I don't know how was I supposed to know that I had to call them in advance. A little disappointed, I reviewed the menu, and I decided to start with the Nasu dengaku appetizer. Nasu dengaku is fried Japanese eggplant with miso paste. The portion of this appetizer was much larger than I expected. The nasu was cooked just right, but the miso had a bit of an after taste. By the time I got to the last few pieces, the dish lost its flair, and as a result, I had to force myself to finish it off.

For my main course, I ordered their combination sushi platter with one separate order of amaebi (sweet shrimp). Whenever I go to a quality sushi establishment there are a few different nigiri I order to test the freshness. The first is uni (sea urchin). Uni is always a hit or miss item. It could be the most delicate and flavorful piece of sushi, or it could be the most disgusting thing you've ever put in your mouth. Unfortunately that night, uni wasn't available. The second item is ikura (salmon eggs). I have the impression that ikura tends to lose its freshness faster than most types of sushi, so it's another item I like to enjoy at the finer sushi restaurants. Ikura is extremely salty, and as you chew it in your mouth you feel the pea sized eggs explode in your mouth. The third and last item I always like to try at a sushi restaurant is tamago (egg omelet). The tamago test is a very important one. Sushi restaurants are tested on the freshness of their fish, and there is almost no cooking involved. Tamago is one of the few items that the sushi chef must cook on his own, and therefore he has ultimate control over the flavor of it. And I'll be honest...I also like to order this item because it's usually the cheapest sushi on the menu. Both the ikura and tamago were included in my combination sushi plate. In addition, the combination plate came with one piece of maguro (tuna), hirame (halibut), ebi (shrimp), tobiko (herring roe), unagi (eel), sake (salmon), and one california roll. Each piece of sushi was very fresh and was very flavorful.

The other piece of nigiri I ordered, Amaebi, is one of my favorites because it tastes great and it comes with an added bonus. Real Japanese restaurants serve the amaebi along with the deep fried shrimp head. To many of you, the deep fried shrimp head may sound disguting, but I recommend that you try it. I actually like it more than the nigiri itself.

All in all, Nishino is a great sushi restaurant, but I didn't find anything too special about it. If you want quality sushi, this would be a good place to go. However, if it's a special occassion, I would recommend going elsewhere.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Mistral - Seattle, WA

I recently took a week vacation out to the Pacific Northwest with AI, my girlfriend. While out there, we had the opportunity to try some of the best food the area has to offer. The first and best restaurant we tried was Mistral. Mistral, located in the Belltown area of Seattle, serves modern European cuisine. It is a small restaurant with only about 8 to 10 tables, and the décor is simple with modern paintings along the light yellowish/orange wall.

Mistral offers diners three distinctive menus, changing on a daily basis. The nine course Mistral’s Experience menu, the seven course Chef’s Experience menu and the five course Market Experience menu. Each course is designed to showcase seasonal local and regional ingredients. Each menu may also be paired with a matching flight of wine.

AI chose the nine course Mistral’s Experience menu, and I chose the same as well as the wine pairing with the meal. The meal began with the Amuse Bouche which consisted of two different plates. The first was a Kumamoto oyster with tomato consommé and cucumber cloud, and the second was a hamachi sashimi with cucumber cloud, paprika oil, and pan seared melon. The Kumamoto oyster dish tasted like taking a bite out of a fresh tomato and cucumber simultaneously. The hamachi sashimi was very fresh, and the pairing of the fish with the cucumber cloud and seared melon was genius. The addition of the paprika oil gave a nice spicy bite to the fish as well, and it reminded me of the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno dish I tried at Nobu in New York City. The Amuse Bouche was a light, but very delicious start to our wonderful meal.

The next dish was a pan seared scallop in onion soup with carrot foam and vanilla oil. This dish was paired with a 2003 Mason Sauvignon Blanc. The pairing of the sauvignon blanc with the carrot and vanilla flavor was magnificent. What made this dish extra special was that we were served by William Belickis, the executive chef of the restaurant. Belickis did not appear to be older than 35, and it was the first time that I was ever served by the executive chef of a restaurant.

The fourth and best dish of the evening was a grilled halibut with gooseberries on top of a bed of sweet carrots and currants with a red beet and basil reduction. The halibut was crisp, and the sweetness of the gooseberries, sweet carrots, and currants, added so much flavor which enhanced the flavor of the fish. The addition of the wine pairing, a 2000 Arcadian Chardonnay, brought the taste of this fish to another level.

By the time I finished the fourth course, AI and I were quite pleased with the chef’s offerings that night. I couldn’t imagine that the food would get any better. The fifth dish was a sea bass with sea and fava beans, smoked paprika oil, and basil oil. Unlike the sweet flavors that accompanied the halibut, the sea bass came with more of a light savory taste. It was a great dish, but not quite as incredible as the halibut. This dish was paired with a 2003 Failla Viognier. For those of you who are not familiar with viognier, it is a white wine which originated in Northern Rhone. It’s an intense dry white wine with lots of fruit flavors. It is usually served with spicy dishes or with medium to strong cheeses. It is also sometimes served with simply prepared shellfish, chicken, or fish. I had never tried a viognier, so before I took a sip, I asked the server about it. He mentioned that people either love it or hate it. Unfortunately, after trying it, I have to say I definitely do not love viogniers.

The sixth dish was a foie gras with apricot puree and granny smith apple chips. The preparation of the foie gras with fruits is quite unique. Very different…but good. You can never go wrong with foie gras. If anyone from PETA reads this posting, let me just say that it was so soft, delicate, juicy, and ohhhh so good. The foie gras was paired with a Cambell’s Muscat. The muscat was very thick and had a bit of an orangish taste to it. I believe muscat wines are typically served as dessert wines. Dessert wines are very foreign to me, and I just don’t seem to enjoy them quite as much. Maybe it’s an acquired taste.

For the seventh dish, AI had the Mollard duck with potato puree, red wine reduction, figs, and chanterelle mushrooms. I had the Oregon rack of lamb with potato puree, red wine reduction, and onion puree compote. Both the duck and lamb were very soft, tender, and very flavorful. Potato puree a.k.a. mashed potatoes were very buttery. This dish was paired with a 2001 Miste Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. On the positive side, this dish was great. On the flip side, the food snob in me says that there just wasn’t anything unique about either of these dishes.

The eighth dish was a cheese plate. The cheese plate came with 4 different varieties of imported cheeses from Italy. From left to right, the potency of the cheese got stronger and stronger. The server provided thinly sliced bread to eat with the cheeses. I’m not much of a cheese fan, but these cheeses were quite good. The last cheese I tried, a type of bleu cheese, was just too strong and salty for me. AI wasn’t even able to finish hers. This dish was paired with a 2001 Paradigm Merlot. I do love my red wines, and this one was not an exception. It was my last glass of the night, so the server decided to give me a refill on this glass. By this time, I was definitely starting to feel the effects of the alcohol. I was a bit buzzed, but not drunk.

The ninth dish was dessert. It came with two separate dishes. One was a pineapple sorbet in peach soup and the other was a flourless chocolate cake and buttermilk ice cream with raspberries, strawberries, and poached cherries. The sorbet was very light and the union of the peach and pineapple was very nice. A nice chocolate cake and ice cream to top off the night made it perfect.

I can’t say enough positive things about Mistral. Based on Zagat, I had very high expectations. Those expectations were blown out of the water. Mistral is an incredible restaurant. In my opinion, the only meal I’ve had better than this one is a restaurant owned by a Mr. Thomas Keller in New York City. The criticisms described above are not meant to be contrived as criticisms of the chef, but merely a bias of my palate. Belickis’ dishes are magnificent, and if you have never heard of William Belickis, I’m glad that you do now. If anyone is ever in the Seattle area, please go try this restaurant. It really is a special place. And for those of you who found this posting way too long, I apologize. I had a difficult time condensing this meal down to only a few paragraphs. The meal lasted over 3.5 hours, so there was quite a bit to talk about. Next up…Nishino.