Sunday, January 3, 2016

Charleston Grill - Charleston, SC - December 24, 2015

We’re new to town, so you can imagine the hundreds of times I’ve googled, “Best Restaurants in Charleston,” and poured through the plethora of places that my search revealed.   I have to admit that hearing Charleston is some kind of foodie destination, had me both excited, but yet a little bit doubtful.  On our house hunting trip, I wasn’t terribly impressed with any restaurant, so I wasn’t just dying to go anywhere except maybe the Waffle House (scattered, smothered, and covered, ya’ll).

Enter Charleston Grill. 

Christmas Eve, and I do like to go all out.  I called them up on the Saturday before the big day.  The host a little bit laughed at me for trying to get a reservation so late.   He says there is a waitlist forty deep.  I mentioned I was new to town, and he graciously said he’d take my name as a symbol of Charleston hospitality.  Thank goodness for that Charleston hospitality because guess who called me the next day with a table? My good friends at The Charleston Grill, that’s who!

We arrived in plenty of time to enjoy the Christmas pomp at the Belmond Hotel, and the Babe was able to admire the fabulous train set.   Truly worth a visit this time of year!

Once at our table, we were promptly greeted by one of two wait staff assigned to us.  He was both casual and professional, which really is the perfect personality combination as a server.  He was friendly toward for the Babe and patience as he thought of the words, “Chocolate Milk.”  

The dinner was a three-course menu for $95, and it included your choice of appetizer, entrée, and dessert, but did not include tax and 20% gratuity. There was a standard children’s menu, though children were welcome to dine from the adult menu at half the price (I do, SO, love that!).  The Babe, though a rather adventurous eater at the age of five with his favorite foods being Mac 'N Cheese and Ahi Tuna, chose the pasta with butter and Parmesan. 

First Course:
Dear Ben chose the Ace of Spades Oysters from the East Coast.  He just can’t get enough oysters.  Served on a bed of rock salt and peppercorns with a Yuzo-Ginger Mignonette, he said he was pleasantly surprised.  He’s a northwest oyster snob, but he said these were mild and tasty.  No oyster was spared from his plate.

I ordered the Charleston crab cake.  After just one bite, I knew I would like living here.  Perhaps I am in a food Mecca?  Served with sweet, little Creek Shrimp, gorgeous cherry tomatoes, and a lime-tomato-dill vinaigrette; the combination was out of control.  Even the Babe requested multiple bites. After breaking the initial breading, it had me wondering how the chef kept these babies together. The crab cake was indeed made of crab, crab, and more crab. 

Second Course:
Dear Ben picked a choice that I don’t make a home, the Grilled Domestic Lack Rack.  His grandmother used to make lamb every time he would visit, so not only did have a culinary interest, but a sentimental one as well.  He enjoyed that the chops were both a bit fatty and perfectly cooked rare, and he had only love for the mint chimichurri.  I have to admit that I was a little bit wide-eyed that this perfectly dressed man was chewing on the bone.  Then I remembered why we are such a good pair, so I smiled inside and kept on eating my own plate.

I had serious trouble deciding what to order for my main course, but I went with the Seared Snapper.  I wanted something a little bit light, but my server assured me that my choice was far from that.  The fregola, very similar to a couscous, was cooked in cream, in addition to the sherry and red wine reduction.  The server couldn’t quite get this description out before I could say, “That’s what I want.”  The sherry flavor was quite prominent, and thankfully, that was A-Ok with me.  The dish was perfection with the crispy seared skin, creamy balls of pasta with the tang of sherry and bits of wild mushrooms.  Shear happiness.

I’m actually too full, but I manage to push forward. 

Dear Ben goes with yet another dish I don’t make a home, the Spiced Yogurt and Pear Panna Cotta.   This plate was a beauty though with the poached Forelle Pear, walnut baklava, and the honey whiskey drizzle.  He would order it again.

I don’t always go chocolate, but Chocolate Pate had a certain ring that I couldn’t refuse.  So very glad that I went with this intuition.  The rich, decadent chocolate was dense and had a marshmallow mousse surprise inside, a la Ding Dong -- though much, much better, with a tangy cherry compote and a pair of homemade graham cracker cookies.  I knew I had a friend in our server when he offered to fill my dessert wine on multiple occasions.  What a finale!

As we walked out, the Babe stopped to shake the hand of the head of table next to ours.  He had been dying to say hello after he got a he’s-a-cute-kid comment from them earlier in the meal.   Saying hello proved to be the cherry on top of the night.  Perhaps an indicator of the people of the South, his college-aged daughters took selfies with the Babe and the Mother said she would love to take him home.  This friendliness made us all feel warm inside, and though we miss our Seattle friends like crazy, we feel a little bit better about moving across the country.

This meal was a turning point in our attitude about the City of Charleston.  The food surpassed my expectations, the service was a delight, and equally important, the hospitable charm had me feeling a little bit more at "Home." 

So, what’s next, Charleston?  Can’t wait to dig into everything you have to offer.  

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Goldfinch Tavern - Seattle

To say I've been looking forward to this restaurant opening is an understatement.  I adore Ethan Stowell establishments, and when I read about the effort put into the perfect french fries, I hoped it would be open for our anniversary.  For our rehearsal dinner, a short twelve years ago, I was dying to have steak and fries for dinner.  Of course my stomach was in too big of a knot that I actually had a bowl of rice, so since then, I've tried to make a point to have steak and fries on the anniversary of our rehearsal dinner every year.  Enter:  Goldfinch Tavern.  It checks so many boxes.  

Goldfinch Tavern is located in the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Seattle, in the former space of ART.  It goes without saying, the place is beautiful.  Check out the view from our table.  I'll admit it was maybe a little sweaty with the sun beaming in on me, but the view was so lovely that I did not utter a complaint.

Are you kidding me?  I live here, friends. 
Cheers to twelve years of martial bliss! 
Dear Ben wanted to skip the oysters, but I know how very much he loves oysters, and I could not let him pass them up.  Goldfinch has some great oyster options too.  He chose the Penn Cove, Chelsea Gem, and Virginica.  They were out of Penn Coves, and he really didn't care which ones he got, so he said, "Surprise me.".... so they did.  The large one, and the one dressed up in the pic with the red wine mignonette and peppercorn ice, is a Pacific.  This was his favorite of the three, and I can't remember the rest.  

We asked our fabulous server about his favorites from each section of the menu.  The beef tartare was one that he noted, and this was on my radar during the countless times I had studied this menu before arriving. The cucumber relish is what you see atop the beef, and though that sounds simple enough, it was truly much more extraordinary.  I'm finding that so much lately.  Less is more is not just a trite saying your dad says.  I mean, it also comes drizzled with a 12-year scotch, and four thick slices of grilled bread, so this is not merely a simple dish, by any means. Light, fresh, ... I didn't want to seem too eager, but I was.

The Fried Castelvetranos were also on my radar. I don't like chewing around the pit, but I understand this makes it a better olive - and certainly better for frying.  I liked it, but felt all right about offering Dear Ben the last few.

I so, so, so wanted the Hamachi Crudo with chevril and red onion, but guess what?  Dear Ben does not like goat cheese and onions.  So, I took one for the team, and we ordered the Ahi Tuna Poke.  Before you feel sorry for me not getting my first choice, our server shared that he had arrived at restaurant around 2pm that day and saw the kitchen crew cutting the fish a part.  It was fresh.  It was terrific.  Again, no-frills and simply prepared.  There was nothing standing in the way of the raw flavor of the tuna.  No fried wonton strips or chips, just seaweed, a touch of ponzu, paper-thin radish curls, and a sprinkle with sesame seeds. 

The Babe wanted the burger.  He did not want the "kid" burger, but insisted on the adult burger.  A half pound of beef?  Sure, our 5-year old can do it. He asked for the Beechers cheese and housemade pickles to come on the burger, but wanted the onion marmalade on the side - he hears his dad talk about not liking onions too much, perhaps.  Let me just tell you, this burger is amazingly delicious.  Peppery and flavorful. We stole a few bites, and from the look on Dear Ben's face, it looked like he was starting to second guess our order...

... then he tasted the Chef's favorite cut, the Mishima Ranch Wagyu Beef Culotte.

The same spicy pepperiness, with a black currant sauce, tangy wilted greens, and simply fried artichoke hearts. I can't imagine anyone eating the whole portion if you're taking advantage of other parts of this menu, so it's great for sharing.  Of course, we chose the fries for our steak-and-fries-tradition, and they really are stand-out.  I think the Babe's fries were better, ours could have used just one extra minute in the fryer, but life is still pretty great from where we sit.  I don't usually like dill seasoning, so don't be turned off by the "dill fries" in the name.  They have a subtle dill flavor, but the crispy outside and soft inside, make it a site to be beholded - errr, tasted.

Goldfinch Tavern embodies the word "tavern."  It's not just a place where alcoholic beverages are sold, but a place where people from all walks of life can feel comfortable.  Wear your Kate Spade dress or your Levi jeans, and you'll be genuinely welcomed to enjoy the ambiance and fabulous Pacific Northwest fare.  I'm hard to please, but this place is special.  Way to go, Chef Stowell and Chef Ritchie!  Can't wait to continue working my way through the menu while enjoying one of the best views in the city.

*Dined Friday June 26

Monday, June 29, 2015

Loulay - Seattle

I had a friend from my teaching days who just raved about the Chef in the Hat. She loves him, you could see it on her face, and I love that kind of passion about food.  So, I tried Luc, and it was cozy, then life got in the way, and it took so very long to finally make it to Chef in the Hat's latest endeavor, Loulay.  I totally missed the boat on Rover.  

Looks like my school friend isn't the only one who thinks the Chef in the Hat is pretty great:  Seattle Met named it the Best Restaurant of 2014, Thrillist lists it in the Top 21 restaurants nationwide and included the Loulay burger in their in the Top 10 in 2014, and as if that wasn't enough, Zagat has Loulay as one of the 25 Most Important Restaurants of 2013.  Impressive, for sure.

So, Friend Elaine and I set out on a sunny Seattle day for a lunch date to Loulay.  Loulay is located in the Sheraton Hotel near the convention center in downtown Seattle.  There is easy valet parking, though no self-park is available on site. 


The host was a nice, chatty fellow.  We probably didn't need to know the tidbits he shared as he brought us to our table, but alas, he was friendly, and we like friendly.  Our server, however, was too-cool-for-school.   Her words were nice enough, but her demeanor was a bit aloof and not super helpful.  I guess for a restaurant with such great press, we expected more. 

Since it's lunch, and we have to pick up our kids from school afterward, we went for their non-alcoholic beverage menu.  I get my zen on with the Lotus Flower.  It's made with basil, lime, mint, sage, cucumber, and soda served in a martini glass.  Friend Elaine chose the Citrus-Rise.  This drink combines fresh citrus, cranberry, a splash of tonic, then served up with a sugar-rimmed glass.  Both drinks were lovely, though not inexpensive for the serving size - both $7 each.   The value was further diminished when the server knocked my glass so hard that at least a quarter of the drink spilled over the table and on my clothes. Remember how cool she is?  She's so cool she barely said she was sorry, and a replacement drink was not offered.  Um, not cool. 

Our first course comes out, and the food looks delish. The French Onion Soup, a must-try item in a French restaurant, was bursting with the veal broth flavor and topped with a hat of comté and baguette.  It was good, but Friend Elaine didn't finish her bowl; she thought the cheese was too chewy.  I probably would've finished it for her if I wasn't completely mesmerized by the scallops.  

The scallops came in a deep bowl.  They sat on a shallow pool of thin cream sauce and served with black garlic, beets, arugula, and pickled red onion.  A thing of beauty. They were prepared perfectly medium with a nice sear on the outside.  The combination of flavors and textured shined.  I would've licked the bowl if that weren't frowned upon in public.  

For our second course, Friend Elaine and I split the Bacon Sandwich and the Pastrami Sandwich. They split this up for us and served a simple salad of greens and carrot.  The table was not quite big enough to accommodate both plates.  Maybe these plates should be rethought; good thing we were only a party of two.  

The Bacon Sandwich was my pick of the two. I have a hard time saying no to bacon under any circumstance.  In fact, Friend Sophia says that like death and taxes, she can depend on bacon being a part of any dinner menu when she comes over.  Maybe it's my Arkansas roots, but I do so love bacon.  This bacon was fancy and treś thick.  I prefer crispy bacon, and unfortunately, this bacon was too thick to be crisp, and whole pieces of meat wanted to slide out with every bite.  I could barely taste the harissa jam and arugula.  The combination sounds good in theory, but tasted more like toast with salty, cured pork.  

Friend Elaine chose the Pastrami Sandwich.  While there was more complex flavor in this sandwich, with smoked beef, green cabbage, leek and horseradish aioli, there just wasn't much to it.  Maybe this is how the French stay thin?  Take a look at this sandwich.  Where is the middle?  I ate the middle and left the crust.  I try to use my carbs wisely, and this was just not worth it.  Guess we should've taken the advice of the Thrillist and ordered the burger. 

Both sandwiches were anti-climatic, yet we took he dessert menu.  Boy, am I glad we did!   The desserts made me forget the less than impressive sandwiches. 

We couldn't pick just one, so we went with the Portuguese Beignets and Ice Cream Sandwich.  Friend Elaine also added the Chef's Hot Chocolate.

The Ice Cream Sandwiches were the big winner for Friend Elaine. Frozen Valrhona milk chocolate parfait with cripy malt wafers and a passion fruit coulis.  There were two, which was perfect for sharing. It was delicious, truly delicious, but not quite as good as the beignets. 

Seriously, eating these yummy pillows of goodness remind about how grand life can be. It's perspective, ya'll. The roasted rhubarb was tangy and sweet, like the inside of the pie, and the chilled cylinder of mascarpone mousse provided a clean and buttery finish that completed this dish.  These components worked marvelously together.  Amour! 

Friend Elaine enjoyed the Chef's Hot Chocolate, but we didn't read the menu carefully, so she was not expecting the toasted brioche and the smear of salted butter.  You know when you're expecting one thing, but the taste isn't anything close to it? That's what happened. I suggested she try dipping it in the hot chocolate, but that didn't work either.  This dessert was actually created based on the chef's childhood memories, but alas, we had reached our bread quota earlier in the lunch. 

We are totally leaving on a high note.  The dessert was absolutely phenomenal. The overall space had good energy, and I felt good dining there.  It's a shame that the sandwiches didn't hit the mark, but it's hard to be good at everything.  Plus, I find it's always true that sharing food with close friends is one of life's greatest pleasures. Thanks Friend Elaine for this wonderful belated birthday lunch! Muah!   

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Joule - Seattle

You might imagine that Joule has been on my "list" for a long time.  Chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi are a dynamic culinary duo with an impressive culinary history. Words like, James Beard, Iron Chef America, and Per se are always enticing, aren't they?  Yep, Chef Yang was a James Beard Award semi-finalist for four years in a row.  I've been to and enjoyed their other Seattle restaurants, Revel and Trove, so when Friend Claire said she had reservations for us at Joule, who am I to say no?  

We arrived right on time and were immediately welcomed to a nice table on the patio.  You won't be surprised to know that I wanted everything on the menu, but even the server said that would be too much.  He suggested that we order eight sharable plates for the four of us, so we ordered ten.  

From the Starters section, we chose the Beef Tartare and the Yellow Curry Pickled Beets. 

Friend Claire wasn't terribly excited about the tartare, but the server assured her that it was a good  "beginner" tartar with Asian pear, pine nuts, and spicy cod roe aioli.   I'm happy to report that we all tried it and liked it.  The beets were a refreshing and tangy. I loved the combination of flavors and textures with figs, olives and a spicy pistachio oil. I'd order both of these again. 


From the Salads, we chose the Tat Soi with a warm Chinese sausage vinaigrette and smoked tea egg and the Smoked Tofu with honshimeji confit and a soy truffle vinaigrette.

Tat soi are the greens of the salad; it's a cross between spinach and a kind of bok choy - and  it's delicious. There were little bits of Chinese sausage throughout, and with the eggs, this was a hearty salad that was full of flavor.  The Smoked Tofu was terrific as well.  Hom shimeji is a mushroom found in East Asia or Northern Europe.  It has a bit of a nutty taste which paired perfectly with the smokiness of the tofu. I really, really enjoy most things tofu, and I have no qualms in giving this dish two thumbs up.

From the Rice and Noodle category, we chose just one: The Spicy Rice Cake with chorizo and pickled mustard green. This yummy, yummy dish was the favorite of the night!  The rice cakes, those lovely little ovals, were the perfect chewy texture and thickness to soak up the spicy chorizo sauciness. Spot-on in every way.  I would pop into Joule solely for this dish.

From the Vegetables, we chose the Long Bean, Burdock, and Mushroom Vadouvan.  This plate was a good one, but didn't send me over the edge.  Don't get me wrong, we ate the entire plate, but nothing wow-ed me after the rice cakes.  It is a hard act to follow.

We tried two seafood plates and two steak plates: The Octopus with bok choy and hot bacon vinaigrette, the Mackerel with green curry cilantro chimichurri -say that five times fast- and black currant, "That" Short Rib Steak with a kalbi marinade and grilled kimchi, and the Snake River Farms Kobe Flank Steak with cucumber larb and sorrel.


I actually didn't care too much for either of the seafood dishes, though applause is certainly given for thinking outside the box in the preparation.  While the mackerel has a ton of health benefits, it's just too fishy of a fish for me. The octopus was the largest piece of octopus I've had on a plate.  Maybe I just wasn't used to such a big portion of meat outside of the tentacle. The bacon and bok choy were nice accompaniments though.

The beef dishes were also just all right.  The short rib steak is taken directly off the of the rib to keep the meat in tact.  It was prepared well, and I love kalbi, but for me, the texture was off.   As for the flank, the presentation was the best part.  It was good, not great.  

I thought maybe I was getting full and that's why the final batch of plates didn't really do it for me, but that thought was proved wrong when dessert came.  The Joule Box was ... Holy Tapioca!  It was so, so good.  So fresh,  so perfect, and I so wished I had my own plate. Pearl tapioca with a ruby grapefruit brûlée and coconut bits.  I never could have imagined that this dessert would be such a gorgeous little dance. 

Despite a few plates that didn't quite suit me, I'm walking away with a happy feeling.  The restaurant itself had a good vibe, the service was outstanding, the food was innovative -and had me looking up words on the internet to find out exactly what I was eating-, and the company, of course, was superb.  A nice night out, indeed.