Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

Maison Akira
713 East Green Street
Pasadena, CA
Dining date: 2/3/11

My last dineLA meal of this past season was here at Maison Akira. Maison Akira has been somewhere I’ve been interested in trying, but not enough to actually plan a trip there. One of my high school friends recently moved to Pasadena, so it was a perfect opportunity to come try some of Chef Akira Hirose’s Japanese-French cuisine.

The dineLA menu was a 3-course meal, but I put up the pictures of everyone else’s food for the heck of it.

Amuse Bouche – tofu cake, uni, pesto sauce

amuse 500x335 Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

This sounded pretty interesting, but I thought it fell flat. The flavors were rather muted in the cake, with mushroom and seaweed the most prominent. The uni was just okay, and the pesto didn’t really have the vibrant, fresh flavor I was looking for.

Côté Seared House Smoked Scottish Salmon with Japanese Eggplant Caviar

salmon 500x335 Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

Sautéed Hokkaido Scallops with Shimeji Mushrooms in a Yuzu Kosho Jus

scallops 500x335 Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

These were some tiny scallops, for sure. I thought the sear was good, resulting in a nice scallop. I didn’t get a lot from the yuzu kosho, though, so this dish was sort of one-dimensional for me.

Sautéed New Zealand Wild Tai Snapper in a Black Mussel and Seaweed Chardonnay Sauce

tai snapper 500x335 Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

Angus Beef Château Steak in a Cabernet & Béarnaise Sauce with Gratin of Potato & Oyster Mushroom Sympatic

steak 500x335 Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

Maple Leaf Duck Breast Rôti, Sauce à L’Orange With Daikon Pot au Feu and Shiitake Mushroom

duck 500x335 Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

Snake River Farm ‘Kobe’ New York Steak in a Marchand du Vin Sauce with Potato Mousseline

kobe steak 500x335 Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

The steak was very good; tender and flavorful with a really nice pan sauce. Disappointingly, the mashed potatoes were surprisingly bland and clumpy, and the vegetables didn’t add too much either. The plating reminded me of a frozen dinner, with the meat in the bottom, and scoops of potatoes and vegetables at each corner.

Vanilla Yuzu Cream Brûlée

yuzu creme brulee 500x335 Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

This was a good creme brulee, exemplifying the French and Japanese influences of Hirose’s cooking. The yuzu lent a subtle tart flavor; I find yuzu to sometimes be overpoweringly sour, but I thought the custard and bruleed sugar tempered it well.

Crêpes with Baked Banana and Caramel Ice Cream

crepes 500x335 Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

Hazelnut Chocolate Mousse Cake and Maccha Ice Cream

choc mousse cake 500x335 Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

The cake was pretty good – moist and chocolatey. I didn’t get any hazelnut flavor in the cake, just from the nuts on top – I would have preferred them to be incorporated a little better. The green tea ice cream was pretty good.

I found Maison Akira to be disappointing. It wasn’t a question of execution; frankly, I found many of the dishes to be rather boring. I could see how his type of Asian fusion cuisine was more exciting in the 90’s, but it seems like it hasn’t really changed with the times. The dineLA menu didn’t include some of the dishes the restaurant is most famous for (like the miso Chilean sea bass and Grand Marnier souffle); however, these dishes did not exactly inspire me to return and try those out.

Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

Spago Beverly Hills
176 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Dining date: 2/25/11

6194000027 d311f5a364 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

Spago has one of the richest histories in LA dining, having been Wolfgang Puck’s flagship restaurant for decades. It used to be one of my favorite restaurants when I first moved to LA; there was something about the upscale Asian-inspired dishes that captured my attention. However, when the first Michelin Guide in LA came out and awarded Spago two stars, I was perplexed. I enjoyed the food, sure, but the cuisine wasn’t as refined and innovative as other two-star restaurants I’d been to.

Enter the tasting menu. I’ve always ordered a la carte in previous visits – when I heard the tasting menu was a very different meal altogether, I knew I had to visit again. Kevin of kevinEats was also looking to make a return trip, so I joined him, Christina of food, je t’aime, Sam of Bites for Me, Diana and Jackie to come try out the tasting menu. In true kevinEats fashion, Kevin requested an extended tasting and the restaurant obliged; what resulted was a 23-course meal with 15 wines to match. Goodness.

We started with seven (yes, seven!) amuse bouche.

Spicy Tuna Tartare in Sesame-Miso Cone

6193998899 c7a4986ea9 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

I think you always get this amuse at Spago, one of their signature. It’s a good one, with tender chunks of tuna balanced well with a little sweetness and texture from the sesame miso cone.

Smoked Salmon with lemon-herb blini, salmon eggs

6194516540 5a65cc791e Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

One of Spago’s famous dishes is a smoked salmon pizza. Here we have the house-smoked salmon on top of a blini; unfortunately, I didn’t get too much of the smoked salmon flavor, as I thought it was overwhelmed by the tart crème fraiche and salty salmon eggs.

Hamachi Ceviche

6194516500 399c118d0c Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

I wouldn’t say there was anything too special about this course, but it was done well. A little bit of citrus and herbal notes complemented the fish.

Toad in a Hole with black truffle

6194516580 f023a6ee2a Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

A very light brioche was filled with a quail egg, and then topped with black truffle. Sounds amazing….and it was! Runny egg yolks work so well with truffles, and this was no exception.

Oyster Gratin with caviar

6194516628 27988e3a05 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

The saltiness of the caviar worked well here in cutting through the richness of gratin; the bite as a whole was pretty tasty with the oyster.

Pastrami-Cured Duck Liver Mousse with rye crisp and apple puree

6194516670 5e9f75dcdd Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

I liked the tandem of the sweet apple and rich duck liver. The rye crisp added just a little bit of texture, as well as a more interesting presentation.

Bacon Confit en Croute with black truffle

6194516708 a653325bf5 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

I really liked the smoky, meaty bacon within the flaky dough; however, I found it overwhelmed any black truffle flavor whatsoever.

Pear-Rhubarb Sorbet with jasmine tea

6194516768 bbae8d857c Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

This was a palate cleanser to signal a transition from the amuses to more traditional courses. The sorbet was interesting – very creamy and sort of floral…I didn’t really care for it actually. The jasmine tea was pretty solid though, as well as the small chunks of crisp, sweet Asian pear floating within.

Crispy Phyllo-Wrapped Santa Barbara Spot Prawns with black bean vinaigrette & Asian slaw
Chablis, Domaine Francois Raveneau, France 2008

6194516836 601f804246 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

This was a standout dish for me. I love fried shrimp so I really liked the light, crispy phyllo dough around the prawn. There was a cucumber flower on the plate (never had this before); when eaten, it tasted just like a cucumber, adding some cool and refreshing crispness.

Sauteed Veal Sweetbreads with onion-mushroom “pastille,” maitake mushrooms, confit bacon, orange-kohlrabi puree
Chignin-Bergeron, Domaine Jean Vullien, France 2009

6194516870 ff728e82f4 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

I liked this dish as well. The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked with a crispy exterior. A rich pan sauce added depth of flavor, while the “pastille” was a fun way to add some sweetness and earthiness.

Fromage de Tete with truffled red wine sauce & truffle salad
Riesling Spatlese “Eitelsbacher Karthauserhofberg,” Karthauserhof, Germany 2003

6193999387 19417e3356 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

I don’t think I’ve ever had head cheese before, so I had no idea what fromage de tete was at first. The “cheese” was very tender and rich, though the truffles were overwhelmed (again). The paired Riesling, with its mild sweetness, was a fantastic accompaniment.

Seafood-stuffed Sepia with fried calamari
Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle, Ermes Pavese, Italy 2009

6194516964 7eb18acbca Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

The sepia (cuttlefish) was stuffed with Dungeness crab, which I thought was an awesome idea. The sepia was very tender, and the fried calamari was executed well, providing some crunchy texture as well.

Rye-Crusted Loup de Mer with littleneck clams & lemon butter meuniere
Firmint “Csontos Vineyard,” Bott, Hungary 2009

6193999503 fb358390fd Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

The fish was extremely moist – perfect. However, the rye added a wheat flavor which I didn’t totally like with it. Still, the fish was very good. The littleneck clams were tasty, though not really cohesive with the dish overall.

Hand-rolled Garganelli with Maine lobster & spring rapini
Pinot Grigio “Alisos Vineyard,” Central Coast 2008

6193999553 4420c1c2f0 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

The garganelli was a nice al dente, but wasn’t quite as chewy as some of the garganelli I’ve had elsewhere (ie Drago Centro). However, a solid dish with the tender lobster in a tomato sauce.

Handmade Agnolotti with celery root & French black truffles
Lazio Bianco “Coenobium,” Monastero Suore Cistercensi, Italy 2007

6194517094 16744e51d3 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

The pasta here was wonderful. The celery root added some savory sweetness, while the butter sauce and truffles added some richness and the bulk of the flavor. Very nice.

Duo of Rabbit: Bacon-wrapped Loin and Rack of Rabbit
Lanzarote “Maceracion Carbonica,” Bermejo, Islas Canarias 2008

6193999633 7612fdc62c Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

We progressed into some richer, meat courses here. Look at the rabbit ribs! I found it a little uncomfortable to eat since I imagined this small bunny rabbit. I didn’t regret eating the meat, though, which was delicious. The loin was wrapped in bacon, which added a little bit more moisture and flavor to the dish. I thought the jus really brought everything together.

Sonoma Lamb Loin with fennel puree and brussels sprouts and black olives
Saint Emilion Grand Cru, Chateau de Candale, France 2006

6325205818 b1c71a2ffd Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

Nothing too imaginative here, but this was a solid dish. I like my meats, so I enjoyed this lamb, especially with the fennel puree. It wasn’t as tender as I expected, though.

Slow Braised Short Ribs with Baked Bone Marrow
Cabernet Blend, Rothwell Hyde, St. Helena 2006

6193999715 83ddd4657e Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

Love the idea of the bone marrow! The short rib was really tender, meaty and rich (though..when isn’t it?). The bone was filled with chunks of marrow and maitake mushrooms, adding even more richness to this dish. A cabernet blend was the ideal wine pairing for this.

Selection of Artisanal Cheeses
Madeira Sercial, Rare Wine Company

6193999765 058967c2ec Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

I’m never a huge cheese fan. Given we had 18 courses already and had 4 desserts coming up, I opted to just try a small piece of each. Still not a huge cheese person.

Lemon Souffle and blackberry sorbet
Moscato D’Asti “Bricco Quaglia,” La Spinetta, Piedmont 2010

6194517376 ba173160f4 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

Pastry chef Sherry Yard came out to present the first dessert. The soufflé was warm, light and airy and contrasted well with the refreshing fruits and blackberry sorbet.

Kaiserschmarrn
Cuvee Beerenauslese, Kracher, Austria 2006

6194517418 38c6feb12e Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

This Austrian favorite is one of Yard’s signature desserts. This was very much like a strawberry and pancakes brunch. I liked the dough quite a bit – it was very light with a subtle sweetness from the powdered sugar. The strawberries were okay, though I feel like I’ve had these flavors together dozens of times.

Dobos Torte
Dow’s 20-Year Tawny Porto

6194517462 deeb7c1976 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

This is a rendition of a Hungarian cake, with layers of chocolate and a little caramel. The cake was pretty light, which I liked.

Chocolate Pot Pie

6193999965 701bff22e2 Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

Lastly (finally!), we had this “chocolate pot pie.” I think the top crust was a chocolate puff pastry, which we cracked to find more chocolate, crunchy cocoa-puff-like balls, as well as raspberry sorbet. This was probably the most interesting of all of the desserts.

This meal was the strongest I’ve had here, and I quickly understood the Michelin stars…well, at least one of them. With 23 courses presented, I expected some to be very good and some to perhaps be duds. I wouldn’t call any of the dishes bad, though I found the desserts a little disappointing. My favorite courses were the toad in a hole, spot prawn, sepia, agnolotti and rabbit. Consider my opinion of Spago changed; while I’ve enjoyed my a la carte experience each time, the tasting menu presents a more refined meal worthy of Michelin recognition. Next time, though, I don’t think I need to try as many courses!

6194000059 e87af0c91f Spago (Beverly Hills, CA)

Photo courtesy of kevinEats.

The House – 12/23/10

The House
1230 Grant Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133

house exterior 500x335 The House   12/23/10

The House has been around for almost 20 years and had been serving Asian fusion even before it became cool to do it. Quite fittingly, its location straddles the border of San Francisco’s Chinatown and North Beach (Little Italy) neighborhoods.

It’s one of the top restaurants on Yelp in the city, garnering 4.5 stars overall on over 1,500 reviews (any restaurant with that pedigree would be a must-try in my book). I’ve been here once many years ago and really enjoyed it. The food is by no means avant garde, but the dishes are executed well, with just enough ‘fusion’ to keep things interesting. So when it came time for us grandchildren to take our grandmother out for her birthday, this seemed like a good choice.

Everyone starts with this Japanese-inspired amuse of pickled cucumbers with sesame.

cucumbers 500x335 The House   12/23/10

Kobe beef steak tartare

steak tartare 500x335 The House   12/23/10

This was one of the daily special appetizers. Domestic kobe beef tartare was mixed with an aioli, then topped a crostini and slices of green apple. I thought the aioli here was overwhelming to the point where I couldn’t really taste the meat. The crostini, which I think was a brioche, provided some texture, and the green apple lended a little bit of tartness. But, this was a disappointment.

White shrimp and chinese chive dumplings

dumplings 500x335 The House   12/23/10

These dumplings were steamed and were pretty similar to what you’d get at a dim sum house. Small pieces of perfectly-cooked shrimp and just the right amount of chives filled a really good dumpling. The soy-based dipping sauce was just right. However, a little steep at $9 for 6, considering these were akin to something you could get for much less at dim sum.

Deep-fried salmon roll with Chinese hot mustard

salmon rolls 500x335 The House   12/23/10

I found the salmon to be cooked well, but to not have a lot of flavor. The crispy wrapper provided a nice cripy crunch to each bite, but I was looking for some bolder flavors here.

Maine crab cake with pickled ginger remoulade

crabcake 500x335 The House   12/23/10

This was a pretty large crabcake…more like crabmound. I was a little disappointed to find there were no chunks of crab; rather it was in small bits along with the other fillings. The crab flavor was present, but there wasn’t a whole lot.

On to the entrees.

Warm wasabi house noodles with angus flatiron steak

flatiron 500x335 The House   12/23/10

The noodles were definitely a little bit spicy from the wasabi, but not overly so. I thought there was a little too much cabbage though. The flatiron steak was cooked a perfect medium-rare and had good beefy flavor. It wasn’t quite as tender as I would have hoped, though.

Grilled sea bass with garlic ginger soy

sea bass 500x335 The House   12/23/10

This was a standout dish. The flesh was perfectly cooked – light and moist, yet buttery at the same time. The dark soy-based sauce was a nice accompaniment with garlic and ginger accents. The noodles were purposely a little mushy, which I didn’t mind.

Chicken breast with roasted portabella white truffle oil sauce

chicken 500x335 The House   12/23/10

This may be the most boring entree on the menu, but I’d have to say the chicken breast was prepared well. It’s a generous skin-on piece of breast that was pretty moist and flavorful. The truffle flavor wasn’t too evident, though.

Kurobuta pork chop with pomegranate currant sauce

pork chop 500x335 The House   12/23/10

This pork chop was quite tender and had good porky flavor. The sauce had some smokiness to it, almost resembling a barbecue sauce in a way. Fruits (especially apples) tend to work well with pork, and this was no exception.

Red velvet cake

red velvet 500x335 The House   12/23/10

This was one of the dessert specials. I found it a little out-of-place here as it didn’t really involve any Asian ingredients. The cake didn’t have too much flavor and wasn’t all that moist. Not inedible, but disappointing.

Bittersweet chocolate truffle cake, coffee ice cream, coconut caramel

chocolate1 500x335 The House   12/23/10

This was a pretty good dessert. The chocolate cake and coffee ice cream were both pretty tasty, and the chocolate-coffee combination is a reliable one.

For the most part, The House’s dishes are as advertised – accessible, Asian fusion cooking in a comfortable setting. The strength was clearly in the entrees on this night, especially with the sea bass. My overall experience this time wasn’t as good as I remember my last time, but I can see how it continues to draw people in night after night.