Saturday, December 30, 2006


I'm not a big fan of steakhouses, mostly because they serve a very nice steak very plainly, and if I'm dining out, I really want something different from what I can prepare on the grill at home. Enter: RAY'S THE STEAKS.

Most of you have heard of this new phenomenon in Arlington (just seconds from Key Bridge) at 1725 Wilson Blvd (tel 703-841-RAYS) in one of the most unassuming tiny strip malls around. Ray's accepts no reservations as the place seats only forty people. The secret, however, is to try and stop by after 4PM to request a table for a time later the same evening. This works quite well as we were seated seconds after arriving for our 6pm "time." The decor is basically nonexistent; white walls with not a thing hanging on them (surely a poster of a cow or a steak would be nice), exposed ducts and wooden tables and chairs make this a place to go for the food, clearly not the ambience. Indeed, they could even do without the pounding bass music over the sound system, as the place is always so jammed, the din of the crown needs nothing else to add to it.

But, as I said you don't come here to see or be seen, you come FOR THE STEAKS, which are con fed aged Angus & Hereford Beef, the best I have ever had anywhere.

As you ponder your choices, some spicy cashews are placed on the table, so we quickly ordered a bottle of KUNIN ZINFANDEL "Westside" 2004 from Paso Robles, Calif. which had a monster berry and plum taste with a slight sweetness to it and huge fruit and alcohol at 15.25%, so much so that it worked much better with the food. Our starters were superb from the tasty BURGUNDIAN ONION SOUP au GRATIN which has bits of pot roast shredded in it (vegetarians have virtually no options here, and should steer clear of anything other than a salad) to the superbly rich and creamy SHERRIED CRAB BISQUE loaded with chunks of tasty crab. My BLACKENED JUMBO SEA SCALLOPS with SAUTEED GARLIC came with sauteed onions and peppers as well and packed a tasty punch. The portion was large enough to give the other three folks at the table
each a 1/3 scallop as well and they were huge! Four sad chunks of dry bread were delivered and I simply didn't even bother with it; I knew the food would fill me up, so why waste my time. We moved on to a tasty Blend of Zinfandel, Syrah & Cabernet  called "THE GRAPPLER" from TWENTY ROWS in California that had an intense spiciness and was bound to be just perfect with the entrees to come.

If I have to complain about anything at RAY'S THE STEAKS it is just its popularity, and hence their need to keep things moving. I like to DINE, and sadly we had less than 10 minutes between courses making it quite difficult to relax. They want to move a group of four out within 90 minutes and they usually do. I know that when I return next time (and we will!) it will be on a quieter evening when perhaps we can linger an extra 15 minutes between courses.

The steaks were the best, and the sauces were heavenly. The filets are huge 8 ounce portions (all in the mid-$20 range) and are also available in 6 and 12 ounce sizes. Each steak can come with almost any topping, and one of us opted for the excellent BEARNAISE on the Filet Mignon. There are probably over a dozen different cuts with over seven or eight different toppings. One of us had no complaints about the Filet Mignon in its lone state with no sauce, as the meat was just perfect. the SIRLOIN DIABLO is a superb cut as well and a huge portion with CHIPOTLE Marinade, GARLIC, PEPPERS & ONIONS. The winner at out table was easily my FILET MIGNON au POIVRE which is first Seared with a BLACK PEPPERCORN CRUST and then served in a PORT WINE PEPPERCORN SAUCE that was creamy and to do for. It was quite spicy and truly tasty. I have found my steak and MY SAUCE as well here at Rays.

I must also mention that unlike other steakhouses that nickel and dime you for every side dish, at RAY's the CREAMED SPINACH and HOUSEMADE MASHED POTATOES are served family style and in unlimited portions!

There is dessert and it does sound good at Ray's, so we chose one slice of superb KEY LIME PIE which disappeared faster than you can say "the limiest pie around." A nice touch is the demi-tasse amuse of HOT CHOCOLATE that was served to us all at the end of the meal before we headed out to the chilly evening and home (yes, after just 90 minutes!).

I look forward to returning to Ray's to try the other steaks (especially the Hanger) and sauces, as well as to its new sister location in Silver Spring, Ray's The Classics, because this is truly the most perfect classic steak around!


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

possibly PORTABELLO's in Arlington

Last night we took Samuel with one of his best friends Joshua, and his two daddies to PORTABELLOS Restaurant (I forgot to ask why it is spelled "porta" rather than "porto," as the former means "pretty door," the latter "pretty seaport" or the mushroom) in Arlington at 2109 N Pollard Street (at Lee Highway just minutes from Key Bridge) and had a reasonably enjoyable time. The prices are mid-range (appetizers mostly below $10, most entrees in the high teens) and the service is pretty decent. The have a small kids menu with three options which did the trick as Samuel always seems happy with the CHICKEN TENDERS & FRIES (while these were good, they did not compare with the truffled ones at Nage two weeks before). Joshua opted for the PENNE PASTA which ingeniously came with a small bowl of both cream and red sauce and another of grated cheese to "make your own." Joshua loved his and even enjoyed sharing some of Sam's chicken!

We started with a bottle of nice light but enjoyable DOLCETTO di OVADA from LA SLINA 2005, which was one of only three Italian reds on the menu. For an Italian "bistro" this seemed to be a bit slim on the Italian side, indeed the menu while offering many pastas, is quite "American" in its concept. The brick walls are simple with the standard boring drop tile ceiling (that had some sad stains in places), and it is clearly a NEIGHBORHOOD place, and despite the mid-week vacation mode, was quite full by 7pm.

I started with a delicious WILD MUSHROOM RAVIOLI made of Shitake and Portobello mushrooms and served in a very mild LOBSTER GINGER SAUCE. Someone in the kitchen likes those 1960-70's chinese noodles (think from a LaChoy can) which decorated a number of the dishes including this. The CHICKEN TORTILLA SOUP got a high rating and the FRIED CALAMARI was tender and crisp with a SWEET & SPICY CHILI Dipping Sauce. Will opted for what must be the signature PANKO CRUSTED PORTOBELLO MUSHROOM with Boursin Cheese & Red Wine Sauce which was also quite yummy.

We moved on to a slightly bigger PINOT NOIR RONCIER 2002 from L. TRAMIERE et Fils with our entrees:

The CRAB CAKES were delicious (not an easy feat in DC) although the remoulade was not my favorite (a bit too tartar saucy) and the Basmati Rice was like a giant rock! The SPICED LENTILS with CRISPY TOFU, Golden Raisins, Toasted Almonds in a COCONUT CITRUS CREAM Sauce is a great vegetarian idea which sounds better than it tastes. It was a bit dry and the flavors just didn't seem to come through. The MAPLE CRUSTED SCALLOPS were a novelty and also quite delicious, probably the big winner on the menu, as my PARMESAN CRUSTED CODFISH with Cole Slaw, Crispy Potato Cake & Asparagus in a Dijon Cream Sauce was decent, but the cod was a bit hard in one small section. I very much liked the potato cake which was basically made of mashed potatoes on the inside and a bit crunchy like a latke on the outside. All I could think was that perhaps I should have opted for my other choice, the Sauteed Shrimp Provencale.

We shall never know, as while Portabello's is nice, I think we have some better real "ITALIAN" bistros around at similar prices.

Best wishes for a truly HAPPY & HEALTHY NEW YEAR, of course, full of much good food, wine and friends! One more posting this weekend for 2006!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

FarrahOlivia by Morou - Alexandria's newest baby

We took our second trip to Alexandria this week to visit the recently opened FARRAH OLIVIA by Morou ( just south of downtown at 600 Franklin Street (lots of street parking!). Those of you who know Chef MOROU OUTTARA are well aware he has been a prominent fixture in the DC food scene for many years, with over ten years at Red Sage (many as Executive Chef) and then as the genius in the kitchen at the now defunct Signatures. He has finally got his own place, and while it might be on the small side (70 seats or so) and a little cramped, it is quite adorable and well worth the visit. The white etched twigs on one wall and floor to ceiling windows on two others create an airy feeling with the center raised ceiling hung with hundreds of little wooden discs on vertical strings. Our super friendly server Heon was adorable as he made recommendations and was always most attentive.

We started with a bottle of BENTON LANE 2005 PINOT GRIS from Oregon which was perfect in the recent warm weather. An amazing amuse of SEARED SQUAB with a piping of TRUFFLED MASHED POTOTAES came and easily filled our hungry tummies. The wonderful bread came with four tapenades (Calamata Olive, Bok Choy, Pumpkin Raisin and the slightly odd Cottage Cheese with Horseradish). and it was very hard to choose a favorite. Sadly, the tables for four are a bit small so that there is little room for the bread, bread plates, tapenades and any food plates once the appetizers come. Sharing is made a bit difficult, so I would opt for a larger table if you can! The only other problem is that there is no differentiation between the glasses used for bottled and tap water, so the bus staff can't tell which a diner is drinking and might attempt to refill a sparkling water glass with tap water.

We started with some yummy appetizers, but they were delivered a bit sporadically and the tasty BUTTER POACHED LOBSTER with TAPIOCA, VANILLA & CAVIAR (with an adorable foam "hairdo") was alas room temperature and a bit too sweet for the tasting (from the vanilla, perhaps). The DIVERS SCALLOP with BACON POWDER, MELON SEED MILK was interesting, but the winner was easily the magnificently presented HANGAR TARTARE with a 65o egg, grated radish & Berbere Oil. The tasty raw meat was in two pillar-like cylinders with a toasted bread bridge across the top and a magnificent sauce running down the center of the plate. The slightly cooked egg on the opposite side with various condiments for the tartare.

Salads area MUST and don't miss the super-stellar DECONSTRUCTED CAESAR which has a SOURDOUGH FLAN, PARMESAN & ROMAINE over GRILLED FRESH SARDINES and ANCHOVY CRUMBLES. This is a dish to SEE and EAT! We all thought it was easily the star of the meal.

We switched to red, but our first request was out of stock, so we opted for a delicious fruit forward and mouth-filling KALIN 1996 CUVEE DD Pinot Noir that would make anyone happy (watch the sediment).

The entrees were superb across the board with an AMERICAN LAMB CHOP, PLANTAIN LOAF, RED PALM JUS and an adorable MINT "Caviar" in small clear light green caviar shapes. The CURED QUAIL with GARDEN VEGETABLE BRULEE & CHORIZO OIL had a superb Cornbread Raisin Stuffing and two adorable Lollipop Deep Fried Quail Legs on the side that were delectable.

The Cheese course is another that comes highly recommended. We tasted the creamy rich and dreamy BONNE BOUCHE Goat's milk, which may be the creamiest goat cheese I have ever had. The PLEASANT RIDGE (Wisconsin) was also quite nice, and the presentation with grapes, honey and granola was a change as well.

Everyone was full but knowing that the pastry chef is LEON BAKER (who came here with Morou from Signatures, where he created some of the most beautiful desserts in DC) I had to try something. I opted for the lightest: a TART of LEMON PANNA COTTA with CARAMEL RICE KRISPIES and Tangerine Oil--it was just right; a truly tart tart, but also with richness and depth, and definitely not filling at all. The accompanying rice krispie caramels beat any previous incarnation of this standard American treat!

It will be fun to return, perhaps in the spring when there is outdoor dining on the side patio!

All the best for a WONDERFUL HOLIDAY season to all...and try not to eat as much as me!

Next week: with the kids at PORTOBELLO in Arlington!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

2 AMYS terrific pizza

When it comes to pizza, we are often stumped where to buy, especially when it comes to delivery. Well, when we go out, there will be no further doubts, since we visited 2 AMY's ( in Cleveland Park for the first time. Not only did Samuel eat 7 out of 8 (albeit, small) slices in his mid-size pizza, I think that the flaky puffy crust on their pizze (plural of pizza) could perhaps be the best in the world.

2 AMYS is perfect for anyone who loves pizza or just a munch. It's location just off Wisconsin Ave, NW not far from the National Cathedral (which Sam still insisted was Cinderella's Castle as we drove by) has something for everyone. Children are warmly welcomed by the entire staff and quickly supplied with crayons and paper, but we kept Sam busy with lots of wonderful presents from his Uncle Rick (a very dear and special friend who had joined us for dinner).

Even better is the fact that it's five minutes away with plenty of parking in a big FREE lot around the corner. At 6pm, the place was virtually empty, so we got Sam's 2AMYS plain pizza order in fast and he was munching away within minutes. By the time we left at 720pm, there was already a short line for tables, so beware what time you arrive since reservations are not taken (although, I doubt the wait would be that long, except perhaps on a very busy night).

We started off with a bottle of TREBBIANO d'ABRUZZO 2005 from CATALDI MADONNA which was dry and refreshing. Kudos to the wine list which features a huge variety (but beware of some semi-sweet or slightly sweet wines that are not too well described, especially if you like your wines dry) and offer many wines by the glass (starting at $5), the 1/4 liter (starting at $8) and many bottles in the $20's and $30's!

We decided to try some of the small starters and opted for the SALT COD CROQUETTES which were superb, especially with the little lemon splashed on from the accompanying slice. The SUPPLI A TELEFONO (I'm not quite sure what the name literally means) are deep fried risotto and mozzarella balls that are fairly heavy and while delicious, need just the slightest bit of zesty tomato sauce or such to dip them in as they can be a bit dry.

It was tough to decide which pizza to order so we chose two to share for the three of us which was just PERFECT after the appetizers. First was a MARGHERITA which we added POLPETTINI (small meatballs) & PROSCIUTTO to. It was heavenly with huge thin slices of yummy prosciutto and those tasty meatballs scattered all over. It suffered only in the fact that it needed a bit more fresh basil.

There are a number of specials each day and we chose the 2AMYS special pizza of the day which was topped with PORK SAUSAGE, FONTINA, HOT & SWEET PEPPERS. Oddly, Rick & Will seemed to get the huge mouthful each of hot peppers, while I savored the sweet ones mixed with the slight hotness of the sausage and residual tastes of their hot peppers--great for me, but their mouths did burn for a split minute.

We thoroughly enjoyed a literally "new" wine in that 2AMYS offered a special on CANTINA del TABURNO NOVELLO ANGLIANICO 2006. While I have had many Aglianico varietals before, never before did I know that offered a novello, which is akin to the "nouveau" of Beaujolais in that it is released the SAME FALL that the grapes are harvested. This young wine, unlike the Beaujolais Nouveau is intense and fruity with a little spice and truly is an EXCELLENT pizza wine, especially with some of the heavier meats or those hot peppers!

You might wish to skip dessert at 2AMYS or perhaps order ice cream or a plate of cookies. The GRAPEFRUIT CANNELONI are way too creamy for my taste and none of us really got the grapefruit, although the pastry was flaky and decent. The SFOGLIATELLE with FIORE di LATTE Ice CREAM was not quite as wonderful as our waitress described. She said it takes two days to make, and believe me, it did not seem worth the effort. It is a flaky pastry strudel and stuffed with almond paste, although Samuel devoured the superb ice cream within seconds!

So, in a nutshell, EAT PIZZA at 2AMYS!

Tonight---the brand new FARRAH OLIVIA by MOROU in Alexandria! Then, a long rest over the holidays!

Monday, December 18, 2006

an eventful and totally enjoyable evening with EVE (the Restaurant)

Last night we journeyed down to Alexandria for a totally memorable evening in the Tasting Room of RESTAURANT EVE ( with some dear friends, and it was simply one of the best dining experiences around. Even the restaurant glittierati at a table nearby (Chef Robert Wiedmaier and his charming wife Polly along with Washington's photographer to the chefs, Les DePas) all agreed that Chef CATHAL ARMSTRONG and Eve are worthy of the maximum number of stars in anyone's book.

One of the reasons I felt this way was due to the special "Old World Charm" that is exuded throughout the dining room and indeed amongst all the staff. There is something special here that is often lacking in some of the other gastronomic temples of Washington; it has nothing to do with friendliness, charm or even quality, just a sense of "old world charm" that can't be described in words.

As we were seated I love the way a plate of three amuses arrives even before we ordered; this is great when you are hungry and have already started to drink. A QUAIL EGG on Brioche was topped with OSSETRA Caviar, a tasty RILLETTES of TASMANIAN TROUT and a yummy COD FRITTER on AIOLI.

Our first wine was a memorable DOMAINE de la BECASSONNE Rhone (Vaucluse) 2005 that was termed "oily" by star General Manager & Sommelier TODD THRASHER. It was big, mineral and had almost no fruit save for a hint of perhaps grapefruit; its acidity paired wonderfully with the amuses as well as later rich cream sauces.

The menu comes in either a 5course $95 or 9-course $125 tasting, the former offering a choice of 4 or 5 options in each course. We pondered our choices for the 5 course menu as we sipped on a wonderful warm VELOUTE OF POTATO & LEEK that will be even more welcome with the cooler weather today.

For the first course (entitled CREATION) The HOG HEAD BURGER wins for presentation, but perhaps is not everyone's choice for a burger. The rich, creamy VELOUTE of TOG JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES with Burgundy BLACK TRUFFLES was almost "meaty" in flavor and very filling. The very CRISP MUSCOVY DUCK LEG CONFIT with Butternut SQUASH PANNA COTTA & Walnuts was spectacular, and I loved my simple yet tasty thinly sliced LAMB's TONGUE with BEET ESCABESCHE, Aged Pipe Dreams GOAT Chese & "Per Mi Figlio" Olive Oil.

At this point (think duck, burger & tongue) we had already started on our first superb red (some of us returned to the white later on), a magnificent MONGEARD-MUGNERET SAUVIGNY LES BAUNES 1er CRU 2002 "Les Narbantons."

OCEAN course came next with my amazing QUENELLE of FLUKE with Dill Veloute smothered in OSETRA CAVIAR arriving (as many of the wonderful dishes did) in a small iron-clad mini-pot which was adorable. I was glad I had some white wine left for this dish as well. A lot of thought goes into each presentation as well as each ingredient, another great credit to Chef ARMSTRONG & the staff headed by Evan last night in the Tasting Room. Other "Ocean" choices were the excellent BUTTER POACHED LOBSTER. LOBSTER FRITTER and Braised Endive in Brown Butter Hollandaise and the HOUSMADE GNOCCHI with BABY LEECK & ITALIAN BLACK TRUFFLES which had the added treat of fresh shaved Black PERIGORD Truffles tableside.

We moved on to a huge, yet young J PALACIOS Petalos 2005 MENCIA from Bierzo, Spain that was so dark and thick, yet had the softest of tannins with very berry intensity; this could be the big wine of this winter, folks, despite its youth.

EARTH & SKY featured the POLYFACE FARM BEEF TENDERLOIN "TOURNEDOS ROSSINI, a perfect match for the wine, as was the earthy and richly intense ROASTED WILD MUSHROOMS "VOL AU VENT" with the puff pastry coming from the chef's mother's recipe and the filled with Oregon chanterelles and local HoneyCaps & Hen of the Woods. My STUFFED GUINEA HEN Breast with Braised Celery Root, Baby Leeks and Italian Winter Truffles was also simply superb.

The fourth course was "AGE" and here Chef Armstrong marries cheese like few other places anywhere:
BRIE de MEAUX was intense and shared the plate with a small WARM PINEAPPLE PUDDING, a magnificently brilliant foil of a combination.
BLUE de GEX was light and mixed into a BABY CELERY CUSTARD appearing like a rich cheesy panna cotta, and the GARROTXA with Heirloom
TANGERINE BEETS & 100yr Old Balsamic was simply magnificent.

A wonderful cleanser of BABY CELERY & PINK LADY APPLE SORBET came atop thin slices of Pink Lady Apples before our final course entitled "EDEN." Chocoholics will adore the oozing WARM CHOCOLATE GANACHE CAKE with Dried Macerated CHERRIES and KOBEB (a Japanese peppercorn that tastes like juniper) ICE CREAM, while fruit lovers can embrace the Lavender HONEY BRAISED DATES in PHYLLO with COCONUT PANNA COTTA. I must admit, however, that I fell in love with my Yeasted WARM BELGIAN WAFFLE with HUCKLEBERRIES and Creme Fraiche MEYER LEMON ICE CREAM, Meyer Lemon Curd & Confit.

A selection of dessert wines abounded from a 2001 Domaine Mas Blanc Banyuls (perfect for chocolate, but not my favorite) to a SHIRAZ GRENACHE JULIAN JAMES "Talijancich" Red Solero from Australia that is deep, red, rich and sweet to a wonderfully viscous and sweet fruity KEN FORRESTER 2001 South African Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc. We sipped these with our after-dinner treats of Cranberry Orange Gelee, Cocoa Nib Brittle, Bay Leaf Ganache Chocolates and the most simply wonderful Lemon-Poppyseed Cookies.

A special not must be said that, while the food sounds (and indeed, is) rich and it appears we must have been stuffed, kudos go to Chef Armstrong for creating a dinner that leaves you perfectly full wishing no more, and never feeling overdone; the portions are truly the best sized one could desire.

To quote our dear friend LaVerne who joined us last night, "We were fabulous, as always....."

Monday, December 11, 2006

Sam sups at NAGE and we both loved it all

As tonight is my last night alone with Samuel before Will returns from a week in the UK, I decided to take Samuel out for a night on the town. I chose NAGE ( at Scott Circle, NW as we were there earlier this year and the kid's menu seemed right up Sam's alley. Indeed, on the way to dinner he said he wanted chicken and fries, so he immediately chose the superb BATTERED CHICKEN & FINGERLING POTATOES. These were no simple potatoes, but aromatically amazing truffled ones; so much so, that at first Sam was shoving mouthfuls of five potatoes in at a time WITH NO KETCHUP (so was I!).

I must preface that on the way we were slightly delayed because Sam wanted to drive by "Cinderella's Castle," which I subsequently discovered to be the National Cathedral. I said that Cinderella was out to dinner, so I managed to waylay that one into a visit for breakfast tomorrow (which I hope he will forget about by then). Sam also adored the homemade hummus and bread served at every table (I did too!). I ordered a glass of WILLIAM ROAN VIOGNIER North Coast (Calif) to start which was really aromatic and wonderful. It was fine with my starter, a LOBSTER & ROCKFISH CEVICHE MARTINI with ROASTED PINEAPPLE and CUCUMBER SALSA, but my second glass was a DR. LOOSEN "SAINT M" RIESLING which was simply perfect with the tasty dish--a quite huge martini glass filled with chunks of tasty fish, lobster, mild roasted pineapple and onions.

I opted for the Salmon special which sounded great *wasabi barley cake, soy giner vinaigrette,etc) but got the HOUSE CURED SALMON with Warm Vegetables which was simply superb--loaded with zucchini, leeks, tomatoes (which Sam ate all of), red peppers (which Sam tasted and said were too spicy--so what does he know), mushrooms and a huge chunk of delicious goat cheese on was superb. I had a yummy glass of WAGTAIL 2005 PINOT NOIR from Yarra Valley Australia which was just right with the fish.

Since Sam only ate half his huge plate I asked for a doggie bag, to which he responded, "dogs don't eat chicken and french fries!" Right, Sam, it's for YOU later this week!

We shared a yummy "HEART HEALTHY DESSERT" (Whatever that means) of SPICED ANGEL FOOD CAKE with a swoosh of chocolate sauce and fruit sauce on the plate and orange segments. Sam adored the cake and especially the chocolate sauce and whipped cream, which I allowed him to eat all of. We really did split the dish and I would say, he was quite a gentleman about letting me have half of everything (he had the whipped cream, and oddly, he told me to eat the orange, which he always likes).

I have recommended NAGE in the past and will do so again and again. It is a wonderful neighborhood bar and dining spot that needs more attention since it sits in the Courtyard Hotel at Scott Circle and I think many people pass it by thinking it is unworthy. DON'T. Icidentally, Sam not only wrote "PAPA'" and a semblance of "DADDY" on his scratch paper at the table, he also wrote what I think were his first "other" words :"in" and "out." So tonight was a dining and educational breakthrough.

Now that Will is home, perhaps we can get back to eating out regularly. Next week: EVE, Farah Olivia by MOROU and TWO AMYS.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Partying at PATINA (LA)

Yesterday was my final day on the West Coast and I jaunted from San Francisco down to LA early in the morning to see some friends/clients perform at the opera there. Afterwards I was graciously invited to join the principal members of the cast at a private dinner at PATINA (in the Disney Concert Hall next door where I dined just two months ago after the opera as well) hosted by the underwriters of the opera, who just happen to also own one of the foremost wine importing companies in the country, the Henry Wine Group!

We had some amazing hor's d'oevres served outside on the patio first while I quaffed on Chardonnay and E. Guigal Cote Rotie. The two favorites (of which I had many multiples) were a chunk of lobster in a cream sauce on a spoon and a Braised Short Rib in Coconut Foam, that I said would easily satisfy me as an entree.

We sat down to dinner and Mr. Henry boasted about the excellent wines (where he indicated were very inexpensive as well) and rightfully so. The FINCA ANTIGUA BLANCO 2005 from Spain is a refreshing cleansing wine made from the Viura grape that works with anything and was stupendous with the huge SHRIMP with GINGER-HERB BUTTER.

The FINCA ANTIGUA CRIANZA 2002 was an excellent wine for the big meat dish which was a monster portion of PRIME BEEF TENDERLOIN (cooked perfectly medium rare) and MERLOT BRAISED SHORT RIB (lucky us, we got the short ribs again!) with POMME BOULANGERE (potatoes and caramelized onions) & SWISS CHARD CREAM. It was a superb and way too huge portion that we all wolfed down.

Dessert was no less impressive with an ALMOND NOUGAT GLACE, CARAMELIZED BANANA "en croute" ALMOND PUREE & BANANA ICE CREAM. The bananas and almond creme were molded together inside an egg roll like pastry croute that was simply superb.

Alas, I am now headed back east and won't return to the wonderful cuisine of California until February.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Michael MINA is music to my mouth (San Francisco)

I believe that I may have truly gone to heaven last night after dining at one of the truly great gastronomic temples of San Francisco. Chef MICHAEL MINA opened his gorgeous dining room right of the lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel on Union Square a couple of years ago, and it has quickly become one of the most sought after tables in California. We were lucky to get in and it was worth not only the cost, but anything else that it might take (like checking with reservations several times just to see when they opened up).

The dining room is a bit noisy, but not too much so and is quite grand in that it is a half-flight up from the busy lobby (with bar and piano) below and to the side where six towering three story columns hold up the ceiling of the very grand and large room. The tables are not too close, but they are not that well separated either, obviously they want to get in as many diners as possible. The service was gracious, efficient and even conciliatory in that after being at the table from 6pm to 930pm (we had just finished, but were lingering) we were told that we had to move to the bar, where we would receive complimentary drinks, within 10 minutes if we wished to stay and linger further as another couple had reserved for 930pm. Both of us were thrilled with this!

We opted for the tasting menu, but saw so many wonderful dishes going by we knew there were many other things we wanted to try, especially the monstrous LOBSTER POT PIE that came to the table next to us looking like a gigantic puff pastry souffle. Chef Mina offers the tasting menu at $135 ($85 more with wines, but we ordered our wine separately) as well as a four course menu at $80-something which offers many option of dishes which actually are trios as you will see in the tasting menu below as well. In short, this just gives you so many more things to taste (I ended up having 17 different things in the end!).

We started with an ILLMITZ PINOT GRIS 2005 from Austria that is made by the famous dessert wine maven Alois KRACHER (under the Illmitz label) and it was a true treat as I have never had a dry wine from him before. It was creamy, but also exhibited citrusy notes not unlike a Sauvignon Blanc. Our first amuse was a simple SOUR CREAM & SMOKED SALMON TARTARE BLINI with Poached QUAIL EGG and Hollandaise that was probably the least exciting thing all night, but still yummy. Next came amuse #2 with two BURGUNDY BLACK TRUFFLE items: a magnificent FLAN of TRUFFLE & PARSNIP that was creamy and heavenly and a FRIED OYSTER with BLACK TRUFFLE.

The first course of the tasting was TRIO of SASHIMI featuring TASMANIAN TROUT with AVOCADE and GREEN APPLE PONZU which was quite nice, the JAPANESE FLUKE with HEARTS of PALM, HONEY-LIME & JALAPENO that had a wonderful intense sour taste and finally the big sashimi winner of the year: KING AMBERJACK with SCALLION and MUSHROOM YUZU.

At this point we started a conversation with the young (and very handsome) sommelier and told him we seeked new, different and not $10,000.00 bottles of wine (there are actually many of these on the menu, and many pages of the huge wine list have nothing under $500-1000 on them at all! He recommended an amazing full bodied, exciting and fruit forward Burgundy Pinot Noir GIVRY 1er CRU "CLOS de la SERVOISINE" 2004 from Domaine JOBLOT that was easily the wine highlight of the night as well.

A POTATO CRUSTED POMPANO with PICKLED ZUCCHINI, LIME AIOLI, Micro Basil in Red Bell Pepper Reduction came next, followed by the highlight plate of the evening SONOMA COUNTRY DUCK & FOIE GRAS which consisted of a huge plate with three long sections vertically arranged with a piece of duck and foie gras in each section. Each was prepared completely differently:

It was indeed a huge dish and we requested a long rest to quaff our Pinot Noir and relax before the next course of COLORADO RACK of LAMB with YELLOW BELL PEPPER, CURRIED EGGPLANT, Cranberries & Mustard with BRAISED LAMB CHEEK TORTELLINO and CHEVRIER (Goat) Cheese. It was another taste of heaven with the lamb beautifully rare, but the cheek tortellini stealing the spotlight. We also switched to a CORNAS 1999 "LA GEYNALE" from Robert Michel and this superb Rhone Blend was just coming into its peak at 7 years old with minimal tannins and lots of body.

The next course was another trio BRAISED KOBE-STYLE BEEF ZABUTON again with three pieces of beef on the vertical sectioned plates each prepared completely differently:
and the 1st place ribbon goes to CELERY, GARNET YAMS & SOY GINGER MARINADE.

While my guest opted for the cheese course of three cheeses:
St Nicholas goat with Asian Pear & Spanish Almond
Fontina with Raisins on the Vine
Bleu de Basque with Quince Paste & Pecans

I opted for the DESSERT SAMPLER which included:
and MOLTEN CHOCOLATE CAKE MALTED MILK SHAKE which was actually served in a small glass as a mini-milk shake and was quite refreshing with an intense chocolatey taste.

If this was not enough the treats that came afterwards were a DARK CHOCOLATE MINT ICE CRAM and one of the truly brilliant desserts of the century-MILK CHOCOLATE PUMPKIN STRUDEL.

After we paid (alot) we headed over to the bar for our complimentary drinks and I chose a glass of DISZNOKO TOKAJI 6 Puttonyos 1997 which was not too viscous, but totally intense and enjoyable as the perfect end to a perfect evening in what has to be one of the most perfect places to dine on earth!

Friday, December 01, 2006

wonderful (rare) wines in Napa/magnificent Mel's diner in San Fran

It is always a treat for me to romp through Wine Country (anywhere), but especially in Napa, and find new and especially rare wines.

I had the pleasure of tasting many new wines and buying some as well starting with the bold REGUSCI ZINFANDEL and going onto the most rare SMALL BLOCK (www.smallblockwines,com) Cabernet Sauvignon. The former is from the maker of REGUSCI MERLOT which is easily available at stores, but their superb Zin is sold only at the tasting room in Napa. The latter is made by expert winemaker MARK MOFFETT of the renowned Livingston-Moffett wines. That establishment is now shut down as John Livingston decided to sell his vineyards and properties several years ago. His son, Mark, now produces two or three wines a year in amounts as small as 24 cases (this year's Merlot is already sold out!).

Yesterday's tastings brought me to HOPE & GRACE located in the back of an adorable antique store in the Beard Plaza in Yountville. Sandwiched between the French Laundry and Bouchon (who could ask for a more delectable spot?), the wines are made by the same winemaker as Regusci (his daughters are Hope & Grace). Check out www.hendrickswinescom and if you get to taste the SLEEPY HOLLOW VINEYARD Pinot Noir from Santa Lucia you will definitely be in wine heaven.

My last stop is always a treat each time I go to the Vintner's Collective in downtown Napa ( which offers tastes of dozens of wines from many different small producers. I found one of my favorite Cabs here years ago from FRIAS, and this time I discovered a new hit SHOKET Cab which is a real secret and steal as the vines are next door to the famed Della Valle and the wine is made by the same women who makes Screaming Eagle; it just doesn't get any better than this.

This morning I had the opportunity to take an opera client/friend to breakfast here in town and discovered MEL'S DRIVE-IN which is the essence of a 60's diner right near the Opera House (1050 Van Ness Ave) and has several locations in town ( I loved the coffee and was thrilled with the Low(er) fat TURKEY HASH with Poached Eggs and Tasty Home Made Potato Slices. I might just go back to try the Meat Loaf, but I know this is a place for breakfast lunch or dinner if you want simple, fun and good.

amorous of AME and its Sashimi Bar (at the San Fran St. Regis)

Since I was attending the opera again tonight in San Francisco, I did not want a very large meal and the Sales Manager of the hotel I am staying at recommended the hotel's Sashimi Bar. I looked at the menu, and was hooked.

This is no simple sashimi bar as AME (the name of the restaurant is Japanese) the newest brainchild of star chef HIRO SONE of Napa's Terra Restaurant is a gorgeous intimate dining room in the gorgeous sleek new St. Regis Hotel just across from the Yerba Buena Gardens and Museum of Modern Art. The Shashimi Bar is simply a small prep bar for the sashimi dishes at the restaurant's entrance with six or so seats where single diners like me can sit and watch the chefs at work.

I took the suggestion of the Sales manager and ordered the TEMPURA "POKE" with OJO SEAWEED, Hawaiian Sea Salt and Green Onion and was completely in awe. The sashimi is a combination of three fishes (ahi tuna, sea bream and something else) wrapped in seaweed (sushi style, but with no rice) then flash fried tempura style and served with the seaweed and onion as a salad. Each of the five pieces was scrumptious with a slight crunch from the tempura fried seaweed and the salt added just the right flavor as well.

A glass of CHIGNIN-BERGERON, Quenard Vieilles Vignes 2004 Rousanne from Savoie was a slightly creamy yet light wine that went brilliantly with the dish.

I was so happy I decided to order a second sashimi appetizer of SCALLOP "CEVICHE" which is actually marinated ceviche scallops wrapped in super thinly sliced WATERMELON RADISH with SEA SALT, CILANTRO and CANDIED JALAPENOS. There were three crepe like wraps that were about 3 inches long each and beautifully red from the watermelon radish, a new taste for me completely.

Even the rolls were spectacular as I munched on them and headed off to the opera knowing I had NOT overeaten, but also knowing I must return to AVE soon.