CITY Night @ Border Grill (Los Angeles, CA)

CITY Night
Border Grill

445 S Figueroa St
Los Angeles, CA 90071
Dining date: 2/8/12

Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger opened City Cafe in 1981, at the time a relatively nouveau restaurant serving food with accents around the globe. The success of that restaurant led to a much larger CITY restaurant and eventually Border Grill. As a tribute to their first restaurant, the downtown Border Grill will be hosting a one-night throwback meal on Feb. 29th (they’ve been doing it every Feb. 29th since 2000). Like the original City Cafe, the menu highlights flavors from around the world – France, Italy, India, Portugal, Thailand are some of the countries represented on the menu. I was invited to a preview dinner to try a few of the dishes on the upcoming menu.

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Lemon Ginger Tea fresh lemon, ginger, honey

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Yogi Tea milk, ginger, clove, cardamom, black pepper, honey

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We tried a couple of the non-alcoholic drinks. The tea tasted as expected, with a balance of ginger and lemon flavors. A little bit of honey ensured it wasn’t too tart. The yogi tea was very interesting, with strong savory spice flavors and ginger coming through strongly.

Supremo Mojito 12 year old rum, fresh mint, lime, sugar, hand muddled

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I also went with a cocktail – this rather large mojito. Not too sweet at all, with the lime and mint flavors upfront.

Our first dish was a sampling of a trio of appetizers.

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Potato Bhujia spiced potato fritters, cilantro, mint chutney, yogurt sauce

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Fried Sage Leaves tomato salsa, tomatillo salsa

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Chinese Sausage Salad grilled chinese sausage, red onion, celery leaves, chiles, garlic, kaffir lime leaves

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The potato bhujia (a potato fritter) was lightly crisped on the outside and creamy on the inside. Cilantro and mint yogurt added a cool acidity to counter the fried bhujia. The fried sage leaves were quite nice too, with a mild sage flavor and crispy texture. However, I may have been looking for a lighter batter. The tomato salsa added much of the depth of flavor. Finally, the highlight of the trio was the Chinese sausage salad – served in a red onion bowl. The richness of the sausage was well-balanced by the cool vinaigrette and kaffir lime, while the sausage’s chewy, waxy texture made for some nice bites. Refreshing and delicious.

Sautéed Halibut Cheeks with Tomato and Pernod tomato concasse, snow peas, pernod, homemade fettuccine

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The halibut cheeks were perfectly cooked – dense, meaty and still moist. Crispy snow peas and sweet tomatoes provided more flavor with the fresh fettucine. The sauce had a little more butter than I would’ve liked, but I appreciated the richness.

Braised Duck with Red Curry grilled japanese eggplant, scallion, basmati rice

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This was a pretty flavorful Thai curry with a mild heat; chunks of duck were in the sauce as well as slices of the seared breast. I thought both duck preparations were good. The eggplant was very tender, though I’m not sure it added too much to the overall dish.

Chewy Date Bar golden oat crumble, caramel ice cream

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A sweet, slightly chewy date puree was sandwiched in between a layers of granola. I thought this was done pretty well, with the date flavor being front-and-center, along with earthy oat notes. Lemon and caramel ice creams completed the dish.

The CITY dinner was a completely different experience from the typical Border Grill menu, and I quite enjoyed myself. The menu was pretty varied in its influences, but I thought the team executed them pretty well. Perhaps some of the worldly knowledge behind Susan Feniger’s STREET has also been shared at CITY. Catch CITY on February 29th in downtown.

Mary Sue Milliken, new-ish executive chef Monique King, and Susan Feniger.

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Note: This was a sponsored meal.

Picca (Los Angeles, CA) (4)

9575 West Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Dining date: 12/14/11 and 2/1/12

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Generally regarded as one of the top restaurant openings in 2011, Picca has truly been a hotspot since opening in June. It seems that every time I’ve visited, the restaurant’s been packed – boisterous and full of energy. It’s easy to see why; the restaurant has an addicting combination of delicious and interesting food, top-notch cocktails and a unique vibe. It’s still somewhat of a novelty cuisine-wise for many people, and I think that’s some of the appeal – it’s something different.

I’ve dined here on six occasions now; this post recounts the last two visits. The first was in December, a dinner hosted by Steve Plotnicki (Opinionated About Dining). The second was a week ago; originally searching for a DineLA dinner, we ended up just ordering a bunch of plates off the regular menu. Given there are a lot of repeat dishes with previous posts, I’ll just touch on some of the new items and highlights.

Dinner One:

albacore ceviche rocoto-infused ponzu leche de tigre, japanese cucumber

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chicharron de costillas crispy pork ribs crostini, sweet potato puree, feta cheese sauce, salsa criolla

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Rich and savory flavors were at play in this dish, led by the succulent pork and zesty salsa. With some creamy sweet potato and feta cheese, it all came together on a thick toasted bread for some pretty delicious bites.

causa snow crab cucumber, avocado, huancaina sauce
causa spicy yellowtail spicy mayo, gree

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conchas a la parmesana scallops, parmesan cheese, spinach, lemon dressing sauce

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anticucho tomatoes burrata, black mint pesto

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Bursting of juicy flavor, I thought the burrata (warmed slightly) and tomatoes were heighted by just a little bit of smoky flavor. Some mint pesto completed the take on the Italian classic.

anticucho black cod miso anticucho, crispy sweet potato

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The smoke of the grill worked really well with the buttery fish, accented by a  little bit of miso.

grilled eggplant

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anticucho corazon beef heart, rocoto walnut sauce

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Always reliable at Picca, the beef had a wonderful chewy texture and good beefy flavor; some rocoto sauce spiced things up a bit.

arroz con erizo peruvian paella, mixed seafood , sea urchin sauce

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grilled 32oz rib-eye aji amarillo

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I’d been wanting to try this dish for a while, a daily special. Satisfying anyone’s inner carnivore, the rib-eye is prepared sous vide and finished on the anticucho grill – a perfect medium rare every time. The meat met my expectations; it was tender and flavorful on its own…honestly I didn’t even think it needed the aji amarillo side.

seco de pato duck leg confit, black beer sauce, cilantro rice

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alfajores dark chocolate, dulce de leche

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vanilla bean pisco flan

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bonbon churros

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quinoa pudding

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Dinner Two:

Before dining, our friend brought in one of his prized spirits, a 20 year Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.

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Mixologist Julian Cox called this “liquid gold” – I found it to be very smooth, sweet and rather maple-y.

albacore ceviche rocoto-infused ponzu leche de tigre, japanese cucumber

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chicharron de costillas crispy pork ribs crostini, sweet potato puree, feta cheese sauce, salsa criolla

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Just as good as the previous time; this has become one of my favorites at Picca.

causa albacore garlic chip, ceviche sauce
causa spicy yellowtail spicy mayo, green onions, wasabi tobiko

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anticucho tomatoes burrata, black mint pesto

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arroz con erizo peruvian paella, mixed seafood , sea urchin sauce

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Hearty and very comforting, I love the flavor of the rice in this dish. Sea urchin was blended into the sauce, adding a richness and an additional depth of sea flavor.

anticucho corazon beef heart, rocoto walnut sauce

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anticucho beef filet sea urchin butter, garlic chip
anticucho papa a la huancaina potato, quail egg, pancetta, chives

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ceviche mixto mixed seafood, sweet potato, choclo

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tiradito de atun tuna, soy ceviche dressing, sweet potato paste

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pig foot stew

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I actually didn’t know this was pig’s feet until afterwards. The pork was pretty delicious, soaking in its own rich braising liquid with some roasted tomatoes and lime to brighten things up.

bisteck a lo pobre skirt steak, egg, pan fried banana, chickpeas tacu tacu

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choritos steamed mussels, pancetta, aji amarillo butter

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The mussels were pretty tasty, accented by some salty pancetta. I think the aji amarillo butter was what brought everything together, adding a richness and warm peppery flavor to the dish.

oysters a la chalaca pan fried oysters, cherry tomatoes sarsa

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One of my favorites – the oysters were fried and put back in the shell, complemented by the acidity of a fresh salsa.

arroz chaufa de mariscos mixed seafood, peruvian fried rice, pickled radish

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Interestingly, the fried rice was very Chinese in flavor. Topped with a mix of shrimp, mussels and squid, I enjoyed this plate.

seco de pato duck leg confit, black beer sauce, cilantro rice

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quinoa pudding

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I liked these cookies; rather light with a sort of shortbread texture, I think we had a chocolate one and a dulce de leche one.

vanilla bean pisco flan

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Picca has become a reliably good meal; in fact, I think these last two meals were probably the strongest I’ve had here. The execution’s been on point and the flavors spot on. Really tasty. My favorite dishes would have to be the tomato, black cod, and beef heart anticuchos, the always-reliable ceviches (though they can be found at Mo-Chica too), arroz con erizo (Peruvian paella), choritos, oysters a la chalaca, and the chicharron de costillas.

Previous Picca posts:
Picca | (2) | (3)

Mexicali Taco & Co. (Los Angeles, CA)

Mexicali Taco & Co.
702 N. Figueroa St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Dining date: 2/7/12

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I first heard about Mexicali in the early part of last year, when LA Taco was hosting a popular vote for best taco in Los Angeles. They ended up winning that competition, and I made my first visit to the taco stand (located in a parking lot at 1st & Beaudry downtown) shortly thereafter. I immediately became a convert and cursed myself for not hearing about them earlier, given I lived just a couple of blocks away.

My weekly trips (sometimes more, sometimes less) became part of a routine until, all of the sudden, the operator of the parking lot decided to end their partnership. It was a most inopportune time given their burgeoning popularity, but just a few months later it has led to this: the brick & mortar location of Mexicali Taco is set to open, a couple blocks from their original setup. What’s in store? Regular hours (lunch service!), less smoke, and the same grub many in the city have been craving during their hiatus.

The grand opening is set for Feb. 15th, but I stopped by during a soft opening for friends & family. The new restaurant is clearly a stark contrast from the old parking lot with bright lighting and ample seating. An open kitchen allows generous views of the action to anyone walking by.

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The menu is pretty similar to before with a few additions. Prices are nominally higher, no doubt to help cover the cost of rent and overhead.

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Like the old parking lot setup, a variety of salsas and other toppings are on-hand to allow customization of the tacos.

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A few drink offerings were available too, including a pretty nice horchata (and a barley version).

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In our group, cachetadas were a popular choice. The tortillas were grilled until very crisp, having the texture of a large nacho. They were then topped with a choice of meat, cheese and a chipotle aioli.

Chorizo and chicken cachetadas

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Chorizo cachetada

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Carne asada cachetada

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A new option is to top any item with a fried egg, ranchero style. What a nice touch. The texture of the tortilla was the difference-maker, being extremely crispy, while the meat, cheese and spicy aioli made for some tasty bites.

A couple of new items were the Cantonese-Baja style peppers and nachos. I shied away from the potentially spicy pepper but did go for nachos, topped with a choice of meat, cheese and a salsa with peppers. Probably the easiest dish for sharing and pretty well done.

Cantonese-Baja style peppers

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Chorizo nachos

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Perhaps the simplest of items and also one of the ones that put Mexicali on the map – the carne asada taco features a choice of corn or flour tortilla (the flour tortilla is brought in from Mexico) topped with chopped up steak. That’s it. The salsa/topping bar offers a host of options to customize the taco to individual liking.

Carne asada taco

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My favorite item happens to be the vampiro, a chicken vampiro to be specific. It looks like a quesadilla on the outside; when opened up it reveals melted cheese, garlic sauce, and a wonderfully smoke-imbued chicken. So delicious.

Chicken vampiro

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For dessert, there was a special appearance by The Churro Borough – I hadn’t seen these guys since Baja Night 3.0.

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Five flavors of ice cream/custard were available, sandwiched between two warm, flat churros.

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These babies were as good as they looked. Delicious. The textural contrast was something else, with the rich creaminess countered by the light, flaky dough. Great balance of flavors too, with the cinnamon-sugar of the churro being a good accompaniment; not overly sweet at all. Why haven’t I seen this elsewhere? So good.

Congratulations to the whole Mexicali team. The food was exactly what I remembered; comforting, full of flavor and ultimately very satisfying. The Churro Borough is not a permanent fixture here, but I hear it will pop up on occasion. If so, it can’t be missed.

Mexicali Taco is a great addition to the downtown area, and I’m hoping to make it part of my lunchtime rotation too. I expect the place to quickly be a popular destination downtown, particularly for the late-night fix (open until midnight Fri-Sat). Selfishly, I just hope it’s not too popular – I hate waiting for my chicken vampiro.

The Mexicali partners: Esdras, Javier and Paul.

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Note: All food and drink were hosted.

Lucques (Los Angeles, CA)

8474 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Dining date: 1/31/12

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Lucques is Suzanne Goin’s first restaurant (opened in 1998), located in West Hollywood. The menu is seasonal and market-driven; every restaurant claims to be doing that nowadays but Goin was doing it before it become so cool. It’s probably attributable to her background at Chez Panisse, the landmark Berkeley restaurant focused on Californian market menus.

I’ve been to Lucques before a few years ago for DineLA. I don’t remember much; I remember it being fine/good but nothing particularly special.  Coincidentally, DineLA was the impetus for this next visit: three appetizers, three entrees and three desserts were available to choose from, all from the regular menu. It turns out that it was actually the exact same menu and price as the “Sunday Suppers” the restaurant promotes every week.

root vegetables “fattoush” with romaine, radicchio, feta and fried pita

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cranberry bean soup with winter greens, pecorino pistou and crostini

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Two of us ordered the “fattoush” salad to mixed results – I went with the soup. Warm and comforting, the bean flavor was evident with some strong herbal notes. I liked the sweetness of the onions on top, as well as the melted cheese adding extra textural and savory flair. A thin crostini sat in the soup for more texture and body.

ricotta dumplings with wild mushrooms, sunchokes, walnuts and wagon wheel

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The vegetarian at the table opted for this entree. The dumplings were very light, fluffy and pillowy – pretty much like gnocchi. There was a creamy cheese flavor in the dumplings, accompanied by the bold earthy flavors of mushrooms in the sauce. Quite nice.

grilled hanger steak with polenta, mustard crème fraîche, kale and horseradish gremolata

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pancetta-wrapped trout with parsnips, hazelnuts and balsamic brussels sprouts

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The rest of us split between the steak and trout. I tried a piece of the steak and found it to be cooked well, tender and flavorful. I thought the trout was more interesting, with a moist tender flesh and crispy skin. Oddly, I found the pork flavor of the pancetta to be missing though. There was a little bit of a sweetness in the sauce (I think from the reduced balsamic) that went well with the brussels sprouts, while some hazelnuts provided a nutty texture.

bittersweet chocolate torta with mascarpone, hazelnuts and coffee ice cream

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This was a fairly typical chocolate tart with a rich, bitter flavor (that I liked). Hazelnuts added texture and some nuttiness, while the coffee ice cream was quite good with a deep, strong coffee flavor.

sticky toffee pudding with pineapples, macadamias and coconut ice cream

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The pudding was actually a hearty pudding cake, warm and rather light. Pineapples added a different kind of sweetness, while some crunchy macadamias were the main textural component. Coconut ice cream was a nice accompaniment.

warm apple tart with fennel, almonds, salted caramel and vanilla ice cream

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Light and flaky, I really enjoyed the pastry of this tart. I missed the fennel and didn’t think there was enough salt in the salted caramel, but the caramel-vanilla-apple combination was still a tasty one. Some whipped creme fraiche was a nice touch.

I had a good meal at Lucques – the food was comfortable and sort of homey. However, similar to my previous experience, there wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy about the food. I’m not sure if the DineLA menu was just more conservative (though all of the items we tried were on the regular menu), but I wanted something more, perhaps something less predictable. I wouldn’t object too strongly if someone suggested coming here, but I’m not in a hurry to return.

Wolvesmouth (Los Angeles, CA) (2)

Wolvesmouth Underground Dining
Various locations
Dining date: 1/14/12

I first dined at Wolvesmouth about a year ago and it was one of the more memorable dining experiences of the year. I almost never get to see this caliber of cooking up close, and I found the process to be as intriguing as the food itself. Since then, I’ve dined at Wolvesmouth’s streamlined Beer Belly event as well as the gluttonous 40-course event, but this was my first trip back to the “standard” ~10 course setup. There was a fortuitous (for me) last-minute cancellation, and I jumped at the chance to fill in.

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The ever-changing menu is posted on the refrigerator, an amalgamation of what’s fresh at the farmers and fish markets (and meat purveyors), combined with whatever ideas come up in Craig Thornton’s head. While always different, the menu is reliably interesting, displaying varied flavors and techniques.

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potato puree, cheddar, broccoli cheddar fritter

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We started with this dish. The puree was very thick and rich, likely from the added cheese, and it definitely had a potato flavor kind of resembling a richer mashed potato. The fritter was tasty, fluffy and airy, with a little bit of texture (I think from the broccoli stems?) that worked quite nicely. Some lime juice was a nice touch to cut through some of the richness.

ocean trout, chickpeas, harissa, yogurt, meyer lemon

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The trout here was cooked well, and I thought the hearty chickpeas helped add some body to the dish. Yogurt and meyer lemon provided some tart acidity.

rabbit, cornbread, fried green tomatoes, tobasco

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Here, pureed cornbread polenta was topped with a slice of fried green tomatoes and a rabbit meatball. Interesting. The sweetness from the cornbread and tomatoes worked well with the savory meatball, while a touch of tabasco aioli really brought everything together. The delicate crunch of the tomato’s batter was pretty nice too.

chicken liver, radish, toast, apple, parsnip, almond

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The fresh bite of radish and green apple was integral here, complementing the rich mineral flavor of the liver. Some almonds added a nuttiness and crunch, while there were two different breads available for spreading.

squash, coffee, cider, pistachio, oil, cherry

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I liked the fact that this squash was roasted, bringing out a little more of the sweetness. The coffee cream added a lot of depth, while pistachios added a nutty texture. Some tart cherries completed the bites.

bay scallop, uni, sweet shrimp, avocado, cocktail shrimp head ice, cucumber, onion

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This was another very interesting dish, with flavors of a shrimp cocktail and a seafood salad. The shrimp head ice was very intriguing; it was cool, refreshing and slightly spicy at the same time. Tomato and a little bit of sea flavor were the primary complementary flavors with the seafood. I also liked the meaty avocado and the cool crunch of the cucumbers here too.

I caught these slabs of meat coming out of the oven. Nice!

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pork belly, jalapeno tofu mousse, glazed carrot, freeze-dried peas, crab

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When I saw the large slab of pork belly in the immersion circulator, I knew we were in for a treat. Cooked sous vide then crisped in the oven, the pork was luscious and succulent. However, I thought the skin could’ve been crispier – it was a little limp. The crunchy, glazed carrot was a nice accompaniment with a subtle maple flavor while the jalapano tofu mousse provided a very mild heat and creaminess. Lastly, freeze dried peas added some delicate texture.

duck, wild mushrooms, brussels sprouts, skin-breast-sauce, roman gnocchi

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The last savory dish was this piece of duck breast, served with brussels sprouts and gnocchi. The duck was flavorful and tender, but the skin wasn’t as crunchy as expected (diced and sprinkled on top of the duck), similar to the pork. I liked the balance of sauteed brussels sprouts and gnocchi with the duck though.

I found the wolf surveying the kitchen.

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malt panna cotta, pain perdu, whiskey banana sauce

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The panna cotta clearly showed off the malt flavor, and I liked the warm French toast to go along with the cool treat. Warm bananas and grated chocolate completed the dish.

vanilla pound cake, kabosu curd, black sesame, mandarin, lime pop rocks

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This dessert was a work of various textures and citrus. The kabosu curd and mandarin slices were the fresh, fruity base while the black sesame crumble and pound cake were the bulk of the body. Lime pop rocks were a fun addition too. This was rather light and a nice way to end the meal.

This meal was on par with my first Wolvesmouth experience. I think around 10 courses is ideal; each plate is substantial on its own, while still showcasing a diverse example of Thornton’s cooking. For me, the highlights were the fritter & potato puree, rabbit, pork belly and the last dessert. Considering the dinner as a whole, it’s easily still one of the unique and tasty experiences in the city.