Monday, January 23, 2006

A sushi sensation and experience at SUSHI OTA in San Diego

Prior to coming to San Diego, I did lots of research into where to dine. We need a place that was convenient and reasonably quick on our final night, since we had to get up at 530AM today for the early flight home. I decided on SUSHI OTA, since it has the highest ratings for sushi in the San Diego region and it happened to be less than 5 minutes from our hotel at 4529 Mission Bay Drive (at Bunker Hill) just north of Mission Bay where we were staying.

The unpresuming location in a mini-mart mini-mall next to a 7-11 and a car dealer was daunting at first. We entered the small establishment to find numerous groups waiting and told the hostess we had a reservation. She mumbled something to another women and we waited (albeit not very patiently). Smokers hovered outside the door, so every time someone entered a huge blast of chilly air (it was about 55 degrees last night) blew in, first chilling us, then filling our noses with tons of cigarette smoke, as we stood next to the door to avoid the wait staff and bumping into the clients eating nearby. For 30 minutes we endured this, finally speaking up and ultimately getting the next table 2 minutes later (right next to that same door!). A bottle of DRY CREEK 2003 FUME BLANC helped to dull our nerves that were twisted as we perused the confusing menus, not being sushi experts at all.

We stared at the table of six Japanese men (the place was full of Asians) who were dining on a special multi-course meal that looked intoxicating and fabulous. We assumed it was ordered in advance, as most of the dishes we saw were not on the menu (we did ask our waitress that much). I honestly felt like it was the tasting part of an IRON CHEF show going on next to us. Next time we do this, I will try to arrange such a tasting in advance as we have done before at KAZ Sushi at home!

We settled on several menu items and several specials and Will asked for an order of the SHRIMP FRIED RICE that was quite tasty with lots of large shrimp all bundled up in it.

First came the SUSHI SELECTION including the traditional sorts: CALIFORNIA ROLL, TUNA, YELLOWTAIL, OCTOPUS (Will loved that), EEL (perhaps the best I have ever had), WHITEFISH, SALMON & SHRIMP (the least exciting as it often is). Next came the TORO SPECIAL a superior slightly-seared version all piled up around a mild white julienned radish with a pile of delicious GARLIC PASTE on top in PONZU VINEGAR SAUCE. It was superb!

Within seconds another large plate arrived with more beautiful white shredded radish covered with a hollowed lobster tail for decoration. Surrounding the OMAKASE SASHIMI Platter was a gorgeous presentation of raw fish: FATTY TUNA BELLY, SEA URCHIN, GREAT AMBERJACK, BABY ABALONE, and a hefty portion of LOBSTER TAIL. This dish offered some of the best and perhaps the worst raw fish we have ever had. I can take or leave Sea Urchin, but Will truly did not care for its spongy texture that has the most bizarre feel in the mouth. The tuna belly was superb, the GREAT AMBERJACK perhaps the best piece of sashimi I have ever had in my life and the LOBSTER was a new and exciting experience, never having eaten it raw before. Quite delicious! The biggest disappointment, and the oddest part of the entire meal was the raw BABY ABALONE. I asked both the waitress and the hostess if was supposed to be SO HARD, think like trying to chew through gristle on meat, and they both said they didn't know. We had to ultimately swallow the think whole, or spit it out (which we really couldn't do). Having swallowed it, I got virtually no taste out of it, Will called it cardboard. I have had the rare cooked abalone before, but this was truly AWFUL. I wonder if any of you out there can say if you have had sashimi abalone and if it IS supposed to be this way.

Our final dish was a magnificent KOBE BEEF CARPACCIO that deserves a million bravos. I had this with a small portion of heated MASUMI "OKUDEN KANTSUKURI" ("Mirror of Truth") Sake which was dry and tasty, but while warm, has a "cool" feeling in the mouth. I loved it. Will had his traditional Sapporo beer and we headed back to hotel for an early bedtime.

Phyllis in the air again

Sunday, January 22, 2006

make way for the MARINE ROOM in San Diego

We disembarked the MS Oosterdam yesterday, and Samuel was devastated about leaving our Penthouse Suite after a week of luxury and lots of space! The food on board, as always, was pretty good (avoid the overcooked passed hor's d'oevres at the bars before dinner) and we all gained a substantial amount of weight.

Not to belittle the food on board, we planned a fabulous dinner in San Diego last night as we are here for a short visit before returning home. The MARINE ROOM is located right on the water (2000 Spindrift Dr) in La Jolla with a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean. Ideally, one should arrive for the sunset, but at this point of the year 5PM is a bit early for dinner. The restaurant does light up the shoreline, and the most adorable seabirds, including a bevy of miniature sanderlings that look like teeny white blobs that ebb and flow with the water as the waves come in. At first, we thought they were fake, but they moved in so many directions and there were hundreds of them scattered down the coast; it was really cute.

After being seated at what had to be one of the worst tables in the restaurant (next to the kitchen exit and a waiter's prep table) we quickly asked to be moved. We didn't mind the 20-25 minute wait at the bar (where a Russell Crowe look-alike was tending) because we ultimately got one of the coziest window tables for two in the place. (We were told that tables were assigned based on arrival time, and they were sorry--every one did their best to make the rest of the evening a stellar success).

We started with a superb bottle of DUE FAMILY CELLARS Chardonnay 2001 from Russian River. This wine is a new find with an okay nose, slight acidity and huge honeydew flavor in the mouth. It has a huge finish, which actually changes in the mouth as you swirl it around! WOW! I hope I can find it at home. We decided to pay for the wine at the bar (so the bartender would be assured HIS tip) and I was totally shocked with the $160-something bill. A computer error had repriced the wine from its $40-something menu listing. Another good reason, ALWAYS to check the bill!

The menu was not huge, but the descriptions of Chef Bernard Guillas' creations was almost daunting. We asked lots of questions and finally settled on our choices. Will started with the ALMOND MUESLIX CRUSTED CRAB CAKE with Beluga Lentils, Butternut Squash, Duck Prosciutto and Watercress Emulsion. The waiter said the dish was very popular, and we did have reservations about the crab (last time in San Diego years ago a nearby 5-star establishment used stringy Indonesian crab--yuck!), but he proved correct and the monstrous tasty crabcake was a huge success. My SPINACH WRAPPED PACIFIC OYSERS with Lobster Mousse, Parsley Myrtle Oil and Caviar Quintet was even more adventurous. Fix gorgeous plump KUMAMOTO Oysters were baked in spinach and presented in a long
canoe-shaped dish each topped with a different caviar: Truffled Whitefish, Ginger Whitefish (with little ginger taste), Paddlefin, Spanish Trout (big red eggs) and my favorite the American Ossetra. A truly stellar preparation.

Wine number two was a substitute as the recommended wine turned out to be out of stock. The maitre d' apologized and gave us the HANZELL 2002 Sonoma Chardonnay at a discount of over $25 so that it was the same price as his first recommendation. It was a French style chard with low oak, hi acidity and steely tones that worked superbly with our intense seafood entrees. Will opted for the CHANTERELLE CRUSTED BARRAMUNDI, Crimson Fingerling, Duck Sausage, Vino Santo Jus and Heirloom Apple Fritter. We don't get much of this intense Pacific fish back east, so he tried something new and it was quite a wonderful combination. My choice was the special, MAINE DIVER SCALLOPS and ARCTIC CHAR with Fennel Pollen, Pistachio Risotto, Apple Fritter, Gooseberry and
Plum-Lemon Myrtle Emulsion. You can see from this description that Chef Bernard really tries to get everything into his huge platters. At $25-45 (except $65 for the Lobster & Fillet) we DID get our money's worth. Apparently, the "fennel pollen" is a creation of this chef and he often uses it, although I couldn't detect any intense fennel taste in my dish. I adored having the one delicious gooseberry on my plate (a rare treat on this continent seen very often in European desserts during the summer), and each bite I managed to take was a wonderful blend of flavors, especially the huge dusted scallops and the perfect

We managed to split one dessert of BLUE HERON FARM ORGANIC LEMON TART with Morello Cherry Coulis, Rosewater Chantilly and Meringue Kiss that was tasty, especially the gooey cherry coulis. We rolled home and have just one final day left in San Diego today...more later.

Phyllis on the road again

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A superb lunch and a relaxing resort at the ONE&ONLY PALMILLA in Baja California

On Monday, our cruise ship the MS Oosterdam ported in Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of Baja California and we decided to rent a car and spend the day checking out what is considered one of the top resorts in the world. ONE&ONLY has numerous properties around the world and is growing fast, but keeping the best quality possible in its product. For example, at their PALMILLA Resort just 5 miles outside of San Jose del Cabo, the older colonial town at the tip of Baja California (20 minutes from our port of Cabo San Lucas), the fine dining restaurant is run by none other than Chef CHARLIE TROTTER!

Alas, our lunch was at the poolside restaurant, but was no less impressive. As soon as we were seated with Sam, the waiter came over with a huge box of toys, crayons, books and a Shreck Etch-a-Sketch. This kept Samuel busy and quiet while he waited for his Chicken Fingers and Fries. We ordered a bottle of BADOIT from the menu of bottled waters that might included about twenty different types of mineral waters from all over the world. It was a treat to have our favorite bottled water from France that is so rare in the US.

Will & I split an appetizer of the GUACAMOLE that came with the best homemade nacho chips on earth and the preparation was not only beautiful and superb tasting with creamy chunks of avocado, but it was sprinkled with the most delicious bits of crispy duck meat that was like crunchy bacon bits (but duck flavored!).

Will had the excellent ENCHILADAS for this entree while I ordered the caught that morning PARROT FISH served over a bed of sauteed leeks that was my first tasting of this fleshy, flaky and delicious fish. We were too full to enjoy dessert, but did have beautiful afternoon relaxing at the resort's gorgeous pool and beach with perhaps the best staff and service we have experienced ANYWHERE in the world. It truly was the ONE&ONLY PALMILLA.

Phyllis in the Pacific headed back towards San Diego.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Super CEIBA in Restaurant Week - ooh la LA MICHE

You must forgive my delay, but it's been a very busy week and we are now headed to the west coast and Mexico. I write from about our flight, and will try to catch up.

While Restaurant week comes to a close in DC, we did manage to have a super $30.06 dinner at CEIBA on Monday evening. We chose one of the wines served by the glass to start with our first bottle. We always adore Susana Balbo's wines, and her CRIOS SRAH/BONARDA Blend from Mendoza 2004 (Argentina) is as delightful as all her others. A ripe fruit forward wine with a plum nose, a bit of acidity on the tongue which works great with those tangy and spicy appetizers.
Ours were the SHRIMP CEVICHE and the excellent WEST INDIAN CONCH CHOWDER with Sweet Corn, Johnnycakes and two little pitchers of Gosling's Dark Rum and Outerbridges' Sherry Pepper Sauce that you can add to your own liking. I liked it all!

The second wine we chose was white: ANDREW RICH SAUVINGON BLANC "Croft Vineyard" 2004 from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. I'm not familiar with Oregon Sauvignon Blanc's, but adore the Pinot Gris, Chards and other whites, not to mention the Pinot Noirs. The wine exhibited a grassy nose, but less grass in the mouth with citrus overtones, so it was like a combination of older style California SB and New World SB, say from New Zealand. An excellent choice with my SCALLOPS A LA PLANCH with Lentils, Serrano Ham, Grilled Frisee in Sweet Potato Curry Sauce. The scallops were large slices of dollar coin size and were layered in a large line over the creamy yet mild curry sauce. Others raved over the PERUVIAN BOUILLABAISE and the TILAPIA Special was a true treat, as
this fish tends to be dry flaky and boring. Here it was treated with respect and had tons of flavor and benefited greatly from its sister ingredients (I forget what they all were). The one dud dish was the GRILLED ATLANTIC SALMON with Blue Crab-Avocado Fingerling Potato Tacos, Haricots Verts, Roasted Poblano Corn Sauce which sounds much better than it really is. The fish itself is a typical and plain salmon, and the preparation here did not excite the fish as the Tilapia dish did.

Desserts were, as always, wonderful preparations of pastry chef David Guas, with mine being the FLAN with Almond Crisp and Cajeta Cream, and some choosing the yummy CUBAN FRENCH TOAST. A glass of ROYAL TOKAJI 5 PUTTONYOS sent us happily on our way!

Wednesday night, a large number of you decided to join us for the Italian wine tasting at LA MICHE in Bethesda. It was a fun night with great friends, great food and great wine. We arrived to hor's d'oevres of BLINIS with SMOKED SALMON & CREME FRAICHE and others with CRAB SALAD that was yummy. The excellent GAVI de GAVI 2004 "La Giustiniana" from Lugarara that kept getting poured endlessly was a treat. The Cortese grape that makes Gavi wine is not usually on my favorites list, but this vintner's version had a soft acidity with citrus hints and huge melon overtones that burst in our mouths.

The second wine was a DOLCETTO d'ALBA 2003 ROCCHE COSTAMAGNA which comes from the 3rd oldest registered estate in Piedmont. Dolcetto is a soft wine, and while this was a nice well-rounded one, it was a bit too tannic for my tastes. It did pair superbly with my appetizer of the superb RABBIT RILLETTES, a pate that anyone would adore.

I chose the VEAL NORMANDIE with its rich and creamy mushroom sauce for the entree and it was supreme with a tender yet huge chop and wonderful sauce. The wine was a magnificent BAROLO 1999 BRIC SANT'' AMBROGIO that apparently has less than 3000 total bottles made in production! It's jammy flavor indicated that this was a Barolo ready to be drunk.

I kept my dessert simple choosing the fresh berries which was a bowl of yummy BLACKBERRIES and a huge gob of chantilly cream, which I avoided for the most part. The wine was a not very exciting MOSCATO d'ASTI 2004 from ASTI LODALI. No matter, we drank more Barolo instead and bid our friends goodnight. Hopefully, you can join us at the next LA MICHE wine dinner.

BIG is an understatement at INDIGO GRILL in San Diego

We are presently sailing south in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Baja California on a 7-day cruise to 3 Mexican ports (Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan & Puerto Vallarta). As I write this from our (yes, we got upgraded a THIRD TIME in a ROW within one year) beautiful huge Penthouse Suite, I stare eastward at the peaks that form the Sierra Columbia, the range that forms the spine of Northern Baja California. While we are getting our fill of food (and we have not even been on board 24 hours yet) nothing can compare to the humongous portions we received at the delicious INDIGO GRILL (at the corner of India Ave &
Cedar) in downtown San Diego on Friday night. Indeed, the the plates were any bigger, we would have had to vacate the restaurant!! We started off with superb, and yes, huge, martinis, then went on to two bottles (well. we were four people!) of citrusy BRANCOTT SAUVIGNON BLANC 2004 from New Zealand, a perfect wine to pair with some of the intense spices of the food such as the DUCK QUESADILLA, the SHRIMP TAMALES, or just my STACKED BEET SALAD with Orange Segments, Shaved Fennel, Orange Caraway Dressing and Dried Beet Chips. This was served in a huge bowl, the size of a giant cake mixing bowl, and I barely was
able to polish off half the greens, let alone all the yummy purple beets.

A treat with our entrees was the excellent, and rare, STAG'S LEAP 2002 PETITE SYRAH which perhaps was just a bit too young, but paired very well with our strong dishes: HICKORY & APPLE SMOKED PORK RIBS, the one pound portion of SALMON and the GRILLED DUCK with Sauteed Green Beans, Bing Cherry Reduction and
Smashed Purple Potatoes.

We did love Indigo Grill, which is one of four restaurants run by its signature chef, but it can get a bit noisy (it is very casual) and while the service is pretty good, it seemed that for each course the dishes did seem to come out at short intervals, rather than at once for the entire table. There was, however, no way we could even eat a bite of dessert, due to the immensity of the previous portions!

There won't be much to report while at sea, unless we lunch somewhere in Mexico amazing, but for those of you who requested, Will is sending out his regular on-board reports called "Sam at sea!" More on fine dining in San Diego when we return there next weekend.

Phyllis on the road again

Sunday, January 08, 2006

fun in Fort Worth at FIZZI, a dining conundrum

I have moved thirty miles east to Fort Worth where the temperatures yesterday reached a record high of 83 degrees! It's been gorgeous weather, but sadly much of the outlying region is still wary of the burning ban and wild fires; even barbecuing has been banned statewide!

Last night I was the guest of an old friend at FIZZI for a wonderful tasting dinner ( at 500 Commerce Street in Sundance Square; Tel. 817-366-FIZZ(3499)). Sundance Square is a huge downtown entertainment, dining and shopping district that has been restored using many of the original turn of the (20th) century) buildings of the historic cattle drive days. There are some wonderful shops, a gorgeous new performing arts center (I will attend the opera there today) and it's just a pleasure to wander around in the nice weather. Last night Chef/Owner Bobby Albanese insisted on preparing our meal himself (he apparently usually runs the front of house) and there were many highlights. Our first wine was easily the best, a smooth raspberry toned CABERNET SAUVIGNON 1999 from WENTE's LIVERMORE VALLEY in California, that made me wonder, "where could we go from here...?" It was served with a small cheese plate, beautifully arranged with a tall vertical wedge of HUNTSMAN Cheese (a combination of English Stilton and Cheddar) and surrounded by various nuts, grapes, raspberries, blueberries, a slash of Balsamic and a roll of Prosciutto di Parma. It seemed that this should have ended the meal, but nonetheless, it was a
great start.

The conundrum came next when the server poured a POUILLY FUISSE 2001 LABOURE-ROI "Vallon d'Or" that seemed corked to me. What does one do when presented with this situation? If you are the guest of someone who has ordered everything specially, you can hardly say the wine is off, especially if everyone at the table is swooning over the chardonnay. This is surely a test for Miss Manners! The SCALLOP CARPACCIO that accompanied was superb, with a medium weight brown butter sauce that hinted of truffle and a beautiful salad of Watercress, Endive and Radicchio with Champagne Vinaigrette.

An intense LOUIS LATOUR 2003 PINOT NOIR came next which was an excellent choice to go with the SURF & TURF entree. It was a superb huge fillet sitting atop creamy mashed potatoes and a brown sauce. A perfectly poached lobster tail and claw sat on the side and atop the fillet. Some of us had trouble finishing it all, but I managed to persevere, as a doggie bag would have been useless in my hotel room!

The dessert was a wonderful WARM CREPE wrapped around Fresh Berries, Rhubarb and a GINGER ORANGE SAUCE. The only thing I could not figure was the choice of dessert wine, a Portuguese VINHO VERDE from CASAL GARCIA that was just an odd choice for me as I am not used to this "green" young wine being served anywhere except in the heat of the day as a cooler.

Headed home tomorrow and don't forget that RESTAURANT WEEK starts in DC this week!

Phyllis on the road again

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Dallas WINE at CRU and comparing BARBECUE

Last week while in the Virginia Shenandoah, we moseyed into a diner (the only place to eat in downtown) in Basye, VA. The kitsch-filled place was fun, but the order took forever (we were told the cook didn't show for work) and when it came, it was pretty sad. One burger was overcooked (they did take it off the check, as we didn't want to wait for a replacement), my Pulled Pork Sandwich was dry and overcooked. Enough said, AVOID the Diner in Basye!

Yesterday, I arrived in Dallas and had a yen for Barbecue, so I headed right to SONNY BRYAN's BARBECUE House, which is now all over the are and has been in business for ages. I started with the ONION RINGS and homemade Barbecue Sauce (served in a Corona beer bottle) which were perfect. They were not over battered and I loved the fact that you could bite all the way through the ring and not end up slurping out the entire onion on the first bite! The sauce was supreme. My $11 or so entree was made up of two choices of barbecue (you can choose from one to seven from Sausage, Turkey, Ribs, Ham, Chicken, Pulled Pork and Beef Brisket). I chose the last two and the pulled pork was a billion times tastier that in Basye, but the Brisket was one of the best barbecues I have ever had with its own tasty sauce. The entire assemblage is served in blue plastic melamine that is so adorable you want to buy the set and take it home. The selection of sides is mind-boggling and they come in matching blue bowls on the large plates. I had the yummy cole slaw and the spectacular GREEN BEEN CASSEROLE which is like the kind your mom (or grandma) might have made in the 60's with a creamy base and sprinkled here with freshly fried onion pieces. It has a strong peppery influence for flavor that I adored. The huge buttery biscuits are great for pushing the pork or making a small sandwich of your own, and the lemonade was tangy and cold with UNLIMITED refills (when was the last time you had that? except in Basye, VA. last week!).

All this for $22 including tax and a very large tip (the waiter suggested the brisket)!

After the opera, we decided to try CRU, a trendy wine bar and dining spot at 3699 McKinney Ave only minutes from downtown Dallas (there are several in the area). The SEARED AHI TUNA was tasty and served with an odd but good Warm MEDITERRANEAN SALSA, Balsamic Reduction and small salad of fresh micro-greens. The highlight here are the wines. We sat next to a wall that had at least 30 bottles priced over $200 each! I tried the flight of three "SEXY REDS" (they offer 13 different flights for $11-20). These were three Napa Valley blends: O'BRIEN "Seduction" 2003 which had a huge nose and a nice smooth finish; CAIN CONCEPT 2002, with a smaller nose, but bigger body from the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot and Merlot; and ROSENBLUM "Lyons Vineyard" 2002 that was the biggest and most exciting, described well as "jazzy...smoky..and a burst of raspberry jam" in their notes. I would love to return to CRU for a full dinner, but have to head to Ft. Worth today.

Phyllis on the road again