Marlowe (San Francisco, CA)

Marlowe
330 Townsend St
San Francisco, CA 94107
Dining date: 12/22/11

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Marlowe opened at the beginning of last year and has been a popular spot for its neighborhood bistro fare. Its consistent popularity has already led to another restaurant from the Marlowe team – Park Tavern, one of the bigger restaurant openings in SF this year. Marlowe is probably best known for its burger, often cited as one of the best in the city. It was also named one of the best new restaurants in 2010 by SF Chronicle critic Michael Bauer.

Each year for the last few, myself and fellow grandchildren take my grandmother out for her birthday. Not quite as ballin’ as my dad’s birthday dinner for her, but we put a lot of thought into it and always find something equally satisfying. Marlowe was the choice this year.

The menu is fairly focused, with a few options in various menu categories: appetizers, “pots,” snacks, soups/salads, mains and sides. We ordered a variety of appetizers/small plates as well as an entree each (plus one more burger for good measure).

Warm Deviled Egg aged provolone, pickled jalapeño & bacon

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Served warm, the eggs were complemented primarily by smoky, crispy bacon and a mild provolone. I didn’t really pick up any of the pickled jalapeno, but this was still a good bite or two.

Crispy Brussels Sprout Chips lemon & sea salt

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Lightly crispy with smoky charred ends, these were quite tasty…though some pieces were a little oily. Because they were so thin, the leaves/chips quickly became soggy in any residual oil. Some lemon provided a nice touch of both citrus and acid.

We also ordered a few “pots” served with crostini/lettuce.

Warm Marinated Mussels & Monterey Calamari grilled country bread & green garlic aioli

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Duck Liver Mousse roasted Medjool dates, pickled mustard seeds & crostini

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Dungeness Crab & Rock Shrimp Louie gem lettuce, eggs mimosa & tabasco

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Of these three, I liked the crab and rock shrimp Louie best. The seafood and lettuce cups  felt light while having quite a bit of flavor, particularly with a splash of lemon or tabasco. I thought the mussels and calamari pot was difficult to eat on the crostini, with the small pieces continually falling off the toasted bread. The duck liver mousse was a good one, with the rich minerality playing well with the sweetness of the dates.

Between the six of us, we sampled three different entrees.

Grilled Niman Ranch Pork Chop spinach & ricotta bread pudding, prosciutto & parmesan cream

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My grandmother got this entree. Very juicy and quite flavorful, this was an excellent chop. A little bit of a smoky flavor was present too, adding an extra flavor profile to the pork.

Marlowe Burger caramelized onions, cheddar, bacon, horseradish aioli & fries

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Ah, the much anticipated burger. The meat was cooked a nice medium-rare, though it wasn’t quite as thick as I anticipated. The meaty flavor was there, with a really good smoky char on both the meat and toasted bun. However, I thought there was too much bread (the bread:meat ratio was high) on an otherwise good burger. Overall, disappointing given expectations.

Certified Angus New York Steak Frites red wine- porcini jus

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A good steak, tender and flavorful. It was cooked right on point, and the red wine-porcini jus was quite delicious as well. The fries were the same ones that came with the burger – crispy yet fluffy, pretty good fries. Perfect for dipping in the jus. A simple dish; this was very satisfying.

TCHO Chocolate Cream Pie Graham cracker & chocolate cookie crust, cocoa nib, sea salt

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Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta Affogato Amaretto & lemon biscotti

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We were trying to save room for later, but a meal is not complete without dessert, right? We opted for these two choices, one was fine and one was very good. The chocolate cream pie had the expected chocolate flavor with some nice crumble textures. Nothing special. I thought the affogato panna cotta was more exciting, with the creamy panna cotta doused in a shot of espresso. The bitterness of the espresso countered the sweet vanilla panna cotta quite nicely – addicting!

Marlowe was good. I can’t say anything was special enough for me to return though. Of all of the dishes we ordered, the burger had the highest expectations and fell short. However, the other plates were executed fairly well with the pork chop being the standout entree. And the panna cotta affogato was memorable.

The second part of this evening was a meal at Nopa and an even better pork chop.

Christmas 2011

Dining date: 12/25/11

The Christmas setup has been the same as long as I’ve known, however the food has remained relatively consistent. Lunch is a buffet at my mom’s sister’s house, where they fully decorate the house in a warm Christmas decor.

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Technically it’s a potluck, though my aunt makes the majority of items. My contribution were a few choice brews, fit for the season!

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Lasagna

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Shrimp

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Breakfast Sliders

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Salad Strawberry Vinaigrette

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Chow Mein

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Green Beans

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Fried Wontons

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Pork Ribs

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Tamarind Fried Rice

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Chicken Pot Pie Pockets

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Shrimp Toasts

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BBQ Pork Pockets

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Potstickers

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Crab & Artichoke Dip

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Taro Crisp

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My cousin, who is quite the baker, usually bakes some sweets to take home. Check out this boba milk tea cake she made for a separate occasion.

Salted Caramel & Chocolate Malt Balls

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Gingerbread & Assorted Cookies

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Ice Cream Cake

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Sweet Stop Dream Cake

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Dinner at my grandmother’s (dad’s side) isn’t quite as festive decor-wise, but the food is a little more serious with everyone sitting down around a long table with a large slab of red meat. My grandmother takes the lead on the food almost everything; my aunt made the turkey this year.

Turkey

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Roast New York Strip

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Stir-Fried Lobster

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Mixed Vegetables

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Chinese Sticky Rice

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Stuffing

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Yams

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Mashed Potatoes

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Gravy

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Chocolate Fudge Pie

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Sweet Stop Dream Cake

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That wraps up another Christmas. As always, it’s an overload on good food and drink with family. I look forward to what another year will bring!

The French Laundry (Yountville, CA)

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Dining date: 11/27/11 

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Each year, my dad takes my grandmother and aunt out for their birthdays, usually in December. The food has always been good, with past years being at The Dining Room, Cyrus, Murray Circle, Quince and Masa’s. However, it’s never been this good. I scored a 6-person reservation on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, which turned out to be an ideal time for everyone to go. So, my grandmother, dad, mom, aunt, cousin and I took the short drive up to the Napa Valley. This would be the first trip for my cousin.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve dined here, but everything felt very familiar. The restaurant has been one of my favorites for some time, and has a sort of sentimental value to me since first dining here seven and a half years ago (I still vividly remember parts of that meal). One thing that has definitely changed is the wine list – now via iPad!

Two 9-course tasting menus are offered daily, $270 each (inclusive of service) – the chef’s tasting menu and the tasting of vegetables. There are a number of options within the tasting menu, as well as various supplements, to tailor the meal to one’s desire. We all opted for the chef’s tasting menu, which can be found here.

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GOUGERES

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This was the first amuse bouche, and a constant among my four visits. Light and airy, they displayed a warm gruyere essence.

BLACK TRUFFLE CROQUETTE

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My mother claimed to be lactose intolerant so as to avoid the cheese course (she’s not). The thoughtful kitchen even substituted the gougere for this croquette. She seemed to be quite pleased with it.

SALMON CORNETS

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This was another staple amuse bouche – salmon tartare was complemented by a light creme fraiche and chives, while the cone added a delicate texture.

Bread service has typically been strong, featuring breads baked down the street at Bouchon Bakery. Two butters were available – an unsalted one from Andante Dairy in Petaluma, CA as well as a salted, extremely creamy butter from the Animal Farm in Orwell, Vermont (ha!).

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2007 Schramsberg, Blanc de Blancs “Cuvee French Laundry”

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“OYSTERS AND  PEARLS” “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

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The classic; it was as good as ever. The creamy sabayon was rich and played well with the salty caviar. Loved the soft, delicate oysters too. So good.

ROYAL OSSETRA CAVIAR Dungeness Crab, Salsify and Garden Blossoms (50.00 supplement)

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My aunt opted for this supplement and enjoyed it.

VELOUTÉ OF ROASTED SUNCHOKES Royal Blenheim Apricot, French Laundry Garden Kale and Marcona Almonds

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MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS AU TORCHON” Pickled Huckleberries, Candied Orange Zest, Belgian Endive and Chocolate Brioche (30.00 supplement)

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Instead of the sunchoke veloute, I opted for the foie gras supplement. I’m glad I did. The foie gras was rich, creamy and went well with the tart huckleberries. The chocolate brioche was wonderful too, served hot and just oozing chocolate. Three finishing salts were served alongside, which I thought was a bit of an overkill (but I liked it!).

SAUTÉED FILLET OF GULF COAST RED SNAPPER Hawaiian Hearts of Palm, Sultana Raisins, Young Ginger, Cilantro and “Sauce Japonaise”

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NANTUCKET BAY SCALLOPS Long of Naples Squash, Oyster Lettuce, Black Truffle and Pomegranate Reduction

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I went for the red snapper in this choice. It was a perfectly cooked, moist and flaky fish with a slight sweetness from the raisins. Japanese accents were a nice touch too. I tried one of the scallops and they were equally well-executed, with a sweetness from the squash and pomegranate reduction.

2009 Hirsch “San Andreas Fault,” Pinot Noir

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SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER TAIL Bone Marrow, Roasted Romaine Lettuce, “Pommes Maxim’s” and Bordelaise Vinaigrette

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An excellent piece of lobster tail. Cooked gently to just a rare/medium-rare temperature, leaving it very spongy – really nice texture. A bone marrow sauce (!) added a hearty depth of flavor, while some potato puree added some creamy potato to each bite. Wonderful.

A special supplement was available given it was white truffle season. I think I recently read somewhere that Keller stated his truffles were $2,600 per pound this season. Not cheap. For $150, these truffles from Alba could be shaved atop a risotto, tagliatelle or gnocchi. My dad went for the risotto.

CARNAROLI RISOTTO WITH WHITE TRUFFLES (150.00 supplement)

A plate of risotto came out accompanied by a wooden box.

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Inside the box were five incredibly aromatic white truffles of varying size; one was picked up and shaved tableside. What a sight!

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This dish seriously seemed like equal portions rice and truffle. Crazy. Expectantly so, it was a fantastic dish with a perfectly cooked, creamy al dente rice. The white truffle flavor was clear and upfront, elevating the plate to memorable heights.

The rest of us were served an extra dish as well.

WHITE TRUFFLE INFUSED CUSTARD

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This was a very light custard with a subtle white truffle essence. A little bit of black truffle on top added more of the earthy flavor.

SALMON CREEK FARM PORK BELLY “Pain de Campagne,” Red Wine-Braised Cabbage, K&J Orchard Chestnut and Turnip “Mustarda”

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Rich and tender while not being overly fatty, this was a good piece of pork belly. There was a sweetness from the “mustarda” while the braised cabbage added a little body. A good dish, but it wasn’t quite as exciting as the previous few.

2007 Realm Cellars Farella Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon

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ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM “SELLE D’AGNEAU” Nantes Carrots, Cippolini Onions, Tardivo Radicchio and Black Walnut Purée

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BROKEN ARROW RANCH VENISON Garnet Yams, Candy Cap Mushrooms, Pecans, Arugula and Bourbon-Maple Jus

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In this choice, I went with the venison. Both the tenderloin and loin cuts were served, and the meat was cooked quite well. Not too gamey at all, it was complemented by some sweet yams and peppery arugula. I tried some of the lamb too, and thought it some of the best I’ve had. Exceedingly tender and succulent, there was a ton of flavor in the meat. I found something in the radicchio to be overly acidic, though.

“NOCTURNES” Medjool Dates, Sicilian Pistachios and Burgundy Truffle “Blini”

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A warm, creamy cheese was served with some blini, while Burgundy truffles were grated on tableside. This added a pretty subtle truffle essence to the grassy, funky cheese. Still, I’m really not a fan of the cheese course, this one included.

FRENCH LAUNDRY GARDEN SALAD

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My mother was served this salad and she loved it, particularly the tiny baby radishes (at center).

PUMPKIN SORBET Granola, Honey-Glazed Cranberries and White Truffle

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This intermezzo was perfect for the season. I liked the pumpkin sorbet, along with the tangy cranberry sauce. The granola added some texture, though I was missing any white truffle flavor.

CARAMELIZED WHITE CHOCOLATE “NAMELAKA” Piedmont Hazelnuts, Toasted Oats and Sour Cherry Sorbet

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“POMMES ANNA” Funnel Cake, “Pruneaux d’Agen,” Rum “Anglaise” and Salted Caramel Ice Cream

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Between these two dessert options, I went for the first. The sweet chocolate was complemented by the sour cherry sorbet and actual pieces of cherries, while some hazelnuts added texture.

COFFEE & DOUGHTNUTS
CHOCOLATE COVERED MACADAMIA NUTS

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I was slightly disappointed to see the doughnuts had become just doughnut holes – they weren’t as moist or impressive as the last time I had them. The coffee semifreddo was still very good though, displaying a rich coffee flavor that went well with the doughnut holes. The chocolate covered macadamia nuts were just as good too, with their addicting crunch and wonderful chocolate-nutty flavors.

MIGNARDISES

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My grandmother wasn’t feeling well, so we took these home. I can’t remember which flavors I tried, but I liked the ones I had.

We also took home a bag of shortbread cookies, dusted with sugar. Delicious too!

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Even after four visits now, The French Laundry continues to be an exciting and delicious meal. The restaurant isn’t quite as avant garde as it used to be, and there aren’t any molecular gastronomy tricks at play; instead, the focus is clearly on excellent ingredients and perfect execution. To that end, The French Laundry excels.  There were a number of standout plates (oysters & pearls, snapper, lobster, risotto, lamb) with few lows, mostly on a relative basis. Service was, as usual, excellent though not without flaws including some miscommunication and imperfect timing on wines. Overall though, this was probably my best meal of 2011 so far. For what it’s worth, five in our party have been to Noma (sadly, everyone but me) and they all preferred this meal.

I thought it worth noting that my grandmother started to feel very sick soon after the pork belly course (and for a couple days afterward). I’m not sure if it was related to any of the food or alcohol, but it will probably prove just as memorable as the rest of the meal.

Ludo’s Porchetta Dinner @ Gram & Papa’s (Los Angeles, CA)

Un Petit Porc
Gram & Papa’s
227 E 9th St
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Dining date: 12/19/11

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Ludo has been popping up here and there while finalizing details of his LudoBites 8.0 to come in January. Last week I found him cooking paella at DomaineLA; this week I found him making his way across Europe, preparing an Italian-inspired porchetta dinner. The dinner was a collaborative effort, with the recipes being Mike Ilic’s, owner of Gram & Papa’s. Ludo executed his menu.

Gram & Papa’s is probably best known for hosting LudoBites 4.0, 5.0 and 7.0, so I suppose it’s not at all a surprise to find Ludo popping up here. The $33 three-course dinner, centered around a porchetta sandwich, was titled Un Petit Porc. Apparently, this little piggy went to the oven.

As with anything Ludo touches nowadays, reservations were hard to come by. After about 41 minutes of calling repeatedly, Remil was able to snag a table and graciously invited me to join his party (joining Joanna of LA in Stilettos and my coworker Yury). Three times were available (6:30, 7:30, 8:30) and we got the first one. We were lucky to have that; later seatings were delayed a bit.

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Kind of a cute logo, though somewhat disturbing at the same time.

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Boston Lettuce Salad

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Course one was a rather simple salad of lettuce, green onions and radishes. Clearly, Ludo kept it light in anticipation of the rich porchetta to come. Knowing him, I bet the holiday colors were no coincidence.

Whole porchetta roasts were periodically coming out of the rear kitchen, to be carved up in front. The smell was intoxicating!

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Porchetta Sandwich

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Ah, what we’d all been waiting for. I’m far from an expert on porchetta sandwiches, but I really enjoyed this one. Chunks of herb-scented (rosemary!) pork were sandwiched between toasted halves of bread. The bread is integral in a sandwich like this; I found this one to be soft and yielding, but also with some toasty texture. There was a nice balance of lean pork and flavorful fat, and the dipping sauce (some type of jus?) made a huge difference, softening the bread and adding some extra depth of flavor. Being a little nitpicky, the pork could’ve been a little more moist and I would’ve liked to have seen more of the crispy skin; regardless, this was one tasty sandwich. When Joanna was too full to finish half of hers, I took it and scarfed it down.

Four sides were available to accompany the sandwich.

Greens

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This was a plate of broccolini, well-seasoned with a nice crunchy texture. There was a subtle heat in here too. I was glad to get a little more greens in my diet to balance the meat and carbs.

White Beans

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The creamy beans were decent, sitting in a rich tomato-based sauce. Nothing particularly standout, but it was a good bean dish.

Cheesy Polenta

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While the cheese and corn flavors were on point, I found the polenta to be overly thick with a glue-like consistency.

Burnt Potatoes

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The favorite for me were these potatoes. Really crispy, yet still fluffy on the inside, I couldn’t have asked for more. Well, except for more potatoes.

Roasted Apple and Vanilla Ice Cream

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Dessert was this interesting dish of a roasted apple. The flesh was fairly soft throughout, sitting in a rich caramel sauce that filled the plate. A scoop of vanilla ice cream completed the dish. Familiar flavors, though I was looking for some texture.

I came for a porchetta sandwich and Ludo delivered, preparing what I thought was a delicious and pretty well-executed version. I don’t think the other courses/sides quite lived up to the highs of the sandwich, but the flavors did fit in and helped complement the sandwich. As much as I enjoy some of Ludo’s unique creations, lately I’ve found just as much satisfaction in comfort foods that are slightly elevated with Ludo’s touch. I’m thinking of the fried chickens and souffles, as well as the paella and porchetta as of late. One wonders, if he does open up a permanent restaurant someday, if he will consider a more comfortable, homey concept as well.

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Drago (Santa Monica, CA)

Drago Ristorante
2628 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Dining date: 11/30/11

Downtown’s Drago Centro serves some of my favorite Italian food in the city.  I’ve been there a number of times, but never to sister restaurant Drago in Santa Monica (one of chef-owner Celestino Drago’s first restaurants). The upscale Italian menu is fairly similar at both locations, but the downtown restaurant is just much more convenient for me. However, I was invited to come dine at Drago; it would be the perfect opportunity to finally venture out to the westside outpost.

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Opened in 1991, Drago has been a notable Italian restaurant in this city since opening. Celestino Drago doesn’t cook much these days, so the kitchen is in the hands of chef di cucina Evan Gotanda. He created a special tasting menu for us to sample our way through the menu.

We found some starches awaiting us at the table when we arrived.

Breadsticks and bread

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Arancini

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We were first served this amuse bouche, crispy rice balls (towers?) stuffed with cheese and ground beef. It was as good as it sounded, with a warm, cheesy filling and a wonderful crispy texture.

Ricotta e pere ricotta, pear, red wine, arugula, hazelnut salt

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I believe the ricotta here was house-made, a creamy and sweet cheese that, with the sweet pears, paired well with the peppery arugula and red wine sauce. Bits of hazelnut provided a welcome crunch.

Agnolotti di zucca butternut squash, ricotta, butter glaze

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I was eagerly awaiting some pasta dishes and this one didn’t disappoint. The squash provided a creamy, sweet filling while the exterior pasta still had a nice chew to it. A rich butter sauce with a subtle truffle essence completed the dish. Delicious and I wanted more!

Risotto alla barbabietola beet risotto, shaved candy beets, puffed risotto

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Next up was this vibrantly-colored risotto. Sometimes I enjoy beets and sometimes I hate them; it was definitely the former this time. It lended a sweet dimension to the risotto, the rice of which was perfectly cooked. The addition of crispy puffed rice added some nice texture too.

Cecaluccoli al fagiano cecaluccoli, roasted pheasant, morel mushrooms

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There was a pasta substitution here from one of Drago’s signature items – pappardelle with pheasant and morels. Instead, we were served a hand rolled cecaluccoli which had a delectable, addicting chew. The rest of the pasta was as good as I remembered from Drago Centro – a deep, rich sauce and chunks of tender pheasant.

Trota salmonata Arctic char, carrot, rapini, oregano, balsamic

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Next was this Arctic char, seared to a superb crispy skin. The flesh was moist, and I liked the addition of the earthy rapini. However, I found the rapini to be surprisingly bitter and the dish overall to be a touch salty.

Costata di manzo New York steak, soft polenta, bacon, brussels sprouts, red wine

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Here we also had the addition of braised short rib, completing a duo of beef. Both were cooked well, and the short rib was expectantly tender. A little bit of smoky bacon flavor came through on the brussels sprouts, while the polenta was light and creamy. Not quite as unique as the other dishes, but it was tasty.

To complete the meal, we had two desserts.

Brioche al mirtillo orange espuma, orange dust, cranberry granola

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This dish had a breakfast feel to it – a warm brioche, orange (espuma), and granola. I thought the idea was fun and found the individual flavors to be pretty spot on. I really liked the texture of the granola too.

Crostata al cioccolato dates, brown sugar gelato, walnuts

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Lastly was this dessert; it was a solid chocolate tart with a creamy date puree. I enjoyed the brown sugar gelato, while some walnuts added a bit of crunch to each bite.

My meal at Drago was as strong as expected. I thought the highlights were in the pasta/risotto area, which were some of the strongest I’ve had in recent memory in LA. Compared to other Italian restaurants I’ve tried in Santa Monica (Valentino, La Botte), I think I preferred Drago particularly for this reason. Thank you to Diana and Cathy for making this happen!

Note: This was a sponsored meal.

Yank Sing (San Francisco, CA)

Yank Sing
Rincon Center
101 Spear St
San Francisco, CA 94105
Dining date: 11/26/11

Somewhat surprisingly, I didn’t eat a whole lot of dim sum growing up (it’s a pretty regular occurrence nowadays). I’ve tried a limited number of dim sum spots in the city and unfortunately I can’t say I’ve found one I’ve really liked (Koi Palace is not in the city). However, I’ve heard from a number of people that the best is at Yank Sing, perhaps the most expensive dim sum restaurant I’ve been to. I’m talking $1.50 per shrimp dumpling (ha gow), $2 per Shanghai juicy dumpling (xiao long bao), and $5.40 for one slice of Peking duck. Goodness. I’ll admit I was in sticker shock.

Located in the Rincon Center, this location of Yank Sing is actually the second one. The restaurant itself is decent in size, but it’s huge when considering it spills out into the atrium of the building. Must fit hundreds. And it was packed (always a good sign!). Given the prices and sheer mass of people, this place must be making a killing.

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The service is cart-based, but ask for any menu item and someone will bring it out to you ASAP. And the servers are conversational in English. Probably the easiest, best service I’ve had in a dim sum place.

Nice teapot.

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Shanghai Kurobuta Pork Dumpling

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Pretty good actually. Nice skin and juicy on the inside, these were quite tasty. Given the price, I’m glad it was kurobuta pork but honestly I didn’t notice a difference.

Shrimp Dumpling

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Pork Siu Mai

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Both were not bad. Nothing special but decent variations.

Peking Duck

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I thought the duck was quite tasty and the skin was crispy too. I liked that the bun was fluffy and warm. Worth $5.40? Not so sure about that.

Pork Spareribs

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A rather typical variation. The pork was pretty tender and the black bean sauce was a classic, yet tasty accompaniment.

Half of our party were vegetarians, so we got a selection of veggie dumplings too.

Mushroom Dumpling

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Spinach Dumpling

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Chinese Broccoli

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Mushroom Rice Noodle

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I tried the mushroom rice noodle. The noodle was pretty well done, translucent and sticky. The mushrooms added their characteristic earthiness, but I thought it needed some soy poured over.

Honey Baked Seabass

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The fish was dense and  flaky but just a little bit overcooked. The sweet, gingery sauce was a good combination, but not worth $18.

Typical dessert-ish items came around on a cart and we opted for a few.

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Tofu Soup

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Egg Custard Tart

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Sesame Ball

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These were all pretty good. The tofu was light, silky and sitting in a warm gingery soup. Both the egg custard tart and sesame balls were served pretty hot and were good variations.

Compared to what I’ve become accustomed to in Los Angeles, Yank Sing was good (not great) but rather egregiously priced. Hell, I might as well have dim sum at WP24 for those prices. Still, I’d have to say this may have been the best I’ve tried in San Francisco Nothing was bad, and a number of items were quite good. Plus, it’s one of the cleaner dim sum places I’ve been to and the service was excellent. I could see this being a very viable option for a special occasion or for a large party (they take reservations) that was too lazy to make the trip to Koi Palace. Just don’t park in the underground lot; the Rincon Center garage is the most difficult parking lot I have ever seen. The spaces are incredibly small and it’s difficult to even navigate without hitting anything. The irony still amuses me.