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August 21, 2009

Stunning Timing

Chile en Nogada at Izote Dominic Armato

It wasn't a Oaxacan black mole, but snagging a Chile en Nogada in the immediate wake of Bayless' big win sure felt like excellent timing. For those lamenting the monotony of the various combinations and permutations of tortillas and meat and beans and cheese and thinking that has anything to do with Mexican food, know that this little number -- a poblano chile filled with a spiced pork and fruit picadillo and topped with a creamy, sweet walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds and served cool -- is straight-up traditional Mexican fare. No BS.

(And, P.S., What a freaking awesome dish.)

Hit San Francisco and Mexico City this week, and just like that, the backlog is restored. This is a good thing. Oughta keep this from being purely a Top Chef blog over the next couple of months.

More soon. And if you've never had one of these, do.

What are you waiting for? Go!

August 13, 2009


Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Rolls Dominic Armato

Has kind of a tiki nightmare vibe to it, huh?

Rest assured, I haven't been downing mai tais and sniffing sterno at Trader Vic's. This isn't Halloween in Polynesia. It's just that at Present, they sometimes get a little... flamboyant.

Golden Gems of the AtlanticDominic Armato

Back in April, an invitation dropped into my inbox that was pretty much impossible to refuse. A crowd of Don Rockwell folks had a blowout Vietnamese extravaganza on the docket, and one (1) chair had opened in last-minute fashion. I was advised that there would be 13 courses. I was advised that it would be prepared by an award-winning chef from Vietnam. And I was advised that if I wanted any shot at it, I'd better respond quickly. I took a look at the website and responded in six minutes. This was a Vietnamese I didn't know. I'm accustomed to pho, goi cuon, chao tom, bun bo hue, banh mi... the simple stuff. But this looked different -- refined, upscale, carefully presented. It was, in other words, vaguely familiar but for the most part completely new to me. And there were thirteen courses of it. Yes, please.

Lobster Swimming in Coconut GroveDominic Armato

This was shorly before Seitsema visited and the DC press started falling over themselves to praise the place, so this dinner was, for my host Joe H, a mission to get the word out. In that sense, given that it's now August, I suppose this means I failed. Today, Present couldn't be less of a secret. Seitsema has raved, the Washingtonian has put it on their 100 best of 2009 (88... of course), and the blogs and boards have been all aflutter. On this particular Thursday night, however, it was dead. From our vantage point in the back of the restaurant, I saw no more than a few tables filled throughout the evening. The scene was, however, easy on the eyes. A large space, clean and modern, pale wood throughout, this is not your typical Vietnamese strip mall joint. Nor is it your typical Vietnamese strip mall staff.

Treasure from the SeaDominic Armato

Over dinner, owner Gene Nguyen told the story of how he essentially badgered his lead chef into moving from Vietnam. An award-winning chef for best restaurant in Vietnam four years running (though I never did quite catch the judging body -- nor, I suppose, would it have meant anything to me if I had), Tran Luong was a hot commodity, and though it took over a year and countless phone calls, Gene finally got his man. Three other chefs -- all of whom are responsible for their own preparations -- share the kitchen, though one of them, if I'm not mistaken, is almost solely responsible for garnish and presentation. This wasn't the Western theory of kitchen staffing, where a lone auteur designs the menu and trains a crack team of underlings to execute his vision with the utmost precision. This was the kind of thing that seems far more common in the East, where it becomes a matter of assembling as much talent under one roof as possible. Point being, Gene wasn't hiring a staff, he was assembling a dream team.

Smoky PetalDominic Armato

What's more, he clearly wasn't going for your typical vibe. For starters, the menu is billed as "Imperial Vietnamese Cuisine", which does a lot to set expectations right there. Second, the menu is filled with the kind of metaphor-laden dish titles that always seem a little corny and awkward when they occasionally appear in a typical Asian restaurant, but are bordering on comedy when they comprise the entire menu. When your choice of dishes is between "Northern Gentleman", "Being Here and Now" or "Calling the Mountain Dewdrops", that's when you start scanning the kitchen to see if you can catch a glimpse of the magnetic poetry kit on the door of the walk-in. And then, of course, there's the restaurant's name, a high-concept double entendre meant to relay Gene's belief that his guests are a present, and also to encourage his guests to savor the moment, living not in the past or the future, but the present. So, to review, pedigreed staff from the mother country, overly poetic dish names at every turn, swanky space, thirteen courses... these fellas were setting expectations rather high. And how did our dinner measure up?

Medallions of the Seven SeasDominic Armato

To be honest, it had me a little off-balance from the start. Maybe it was the fumes from sitting on the freeway for two and a half hours, but the thirteen courses were a truly dizzying procession of dishes that threw a number of unfamiliar elements at me. I've mentioned it before, but sometimes when you have a meal, your mind is sharp, you taste every little detail and you know exactly what works and what doesn't and why. Other times, there's simply too much to process and you're just along for the ride. This meal was definitely one of the latter. As such, we may be a little long on impressions and a little short on detail for this one. Plus, a number of them were off-menu items made especially for us. But hopefully I can give you some sense of what to expect.

Pilgrim on the BeachDominic Armato

Our first dish, Golden Gems of the Atlantic, was a simple, if luxurious, start. Halves of bok choy, large mushrooms and huge slabs of abalone were simply braised in a warm, comforting sauce that felt very Chinese to me. I love abalone, and while I don't think I'd ever had it Stateside before this evening, I didn't come away the least bit disappointed. It was exactly what I've come to adore -- dense and meaty but possessing a hint of that subtle, unmistakable aquatic mollusk funk. There was nothing that wowed in this dish other than the ingredients themselves, which is probably for the best. Up next was the zany tiki totem meets Hellraiser presentation called "Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Rolls". This was a hit and miss dish at the same time. While the unorthodox wrapper -- a light and crispy lattice of fried rice noodles -- was exceptional from a textural standpoint, that was pretty much the dish. The filling, comprised of shrimp and pork, was largely unremarkable. The most frustrating thing about the dish, really, was resisting the urge to turn off the lights and pop in some disco.

Shrimp in the Fresh OceanDominic Armato

"Lobster Swimming in Coconut Grove" was up next, and it would have been something of a revelation to me if not for the fact that I'd prepared a very similar sauce for the first time just a few weeks prior. It's done -- I believe -- by frying up a seasoning paste, adding coconut milk and cooking it way down until it gets extremely thick and creamy and takes on a bit of an almost caramel-like flavor. Though this particular dish was an off-menu special, if they do a similar sauce on anything else, I recommend it. Downside? The lobster arrived somewhat cold. Not their last such problem of the evening. Though, in their defense, they were throwing a number of unusual dishes at us that evening

Fish in Emerald RiverDominic Armato

"Treasure from the Sea" was a fairly typical Vietnamese salad, atypically good, made with slivered pineapple, carrot, onion, lemongrass, peanuts, thin slices of squid and large poached shrimp. It was nicely balanced, very enjoyable, but the shrimp puzzled me, looking pretty perched on the edge of the pineapple, pale white and tied into little knots, and not dressed or integrated into the dish in any way. It would be the first time I thought the food took a bit of a backseat to the presentation. No such issues with "Smoky Petal", which was in the running for my favorite of the evening, if for no other reason than because it was completely foreign to me. An enormous puffed rice bowl -- think taco salad shell -- was filled with a warm salad of minced baby clams and ground beef, seasoned and tossed with peanuts and plentiful herbs I couldn't begin to identify. Though I lack the frame of reference to fully describe what I was eating, it was fragrant, a little funky, very much unlike anything I'd tasted before and I really, really enjoyed it. Long after the rest of the table had moved on, I parked it in front of myself and cleaned up.

Basking in the Summer SunDominic Armato

"Medallions of the Seven Seas", at least the one of them I received, was a lovely, understated little bite. It was a perfect silver dollar-sized scallop, lightly charred on the edges, tender and sweet in the center, with peanut and scallion and a lightly salty sweet sauce that served simply to bring out the seafood. I could've torn through two dozen of these without breaking a sweat. "Pilgrim on the Beach" saw the return of the oddly aloof poached shrimp, this time sitting atop a fried rice with lump crabmeat. My initial impression was, okay, fried rice. That's all fine and good. But this was unusually compelling. Most fried rice -- at least in my experience -- is made with chilled rice that's reheated in the wok as it's cooked, serving to help separate the grains and make them easier to stir-fry without turning them to mush. This fried rice, as Gene explained when I commented on the incredibly light and fluffy nature, was made with steaming hot jasmine rice, and the fact that it had never cooled allowed it to maintain that feathery texture. It was a surprising dish, beautifully executed.

Imperial Delicacy TreasureDominic Armato

From there, we moved onto the fried seafood portion of the evening which, sadly, came up short. "Shrimp in the Fresh Ocean" were flavored salt and pepper fried shrimp atop chunks of pineapple and under a pile of fried shallots. The flavor on the shrimp was fine if unexceptional, but the shrimp shells weren't nearly as crisp as they should have been, leading many of my dining companions to peel when they should've just been popping the whole thing. "Fish in Emerald River", an enormous whole fried Rockfish, was a big disappointment. It was overfried, tough and heavy, and I'm not convinced that Rockfish is a good choice for this preparation at all. I adore whole fried fish, and I know others have spoken highly of this dish, so perhaps it was an off night. But it was definitely off.

Golden Tropical Orchard Winter RollDominic Armato

"Basking in the Summer Sun" was another of the evening's weak links, though it was not without drama. When the serving container arrives slathered in sterno, it's best to take cover. Once the smoke had subsided, however, we removed the beef in "chef's special sauce", rolled it in typical Vietnamese style with vermicelli, fresh herbs and vegetables in lettuce leaves and rice wrappers, and dipped it before consuming. The beef was fine, a sort of dark caramel flavor, but a little cloying and a little muddy. The star, in truth, was the dipping sauce. I couldn't begin to identify what was in it (well, okay... fish sauce... go!), but it was exploding with all kind of flavors, fresh herbs and aromatics in a sweet, salty and sour base. Too bad it wasn't served with a different dish. The "Imperial Delicacy Treasure", the last savory item of the evening and another off-menu special, was simultaneously one of the simplest of the evening and probably my favorite. It arrived, a whole duck with a deep bronze color, submerged in a huge tureen of dark duck jus, scented with a mix of aromatics that put bright highlights on the duck's sweet, mellow scent. We each received a small bowl of the jus and chunks of fall-apart tender duck. It was really, truly wonderful. It was the kind of dish you could spend ten minutes just breathing in before you even bring a spoon to it. And it was one of the least ostentatious of the evening.

Banana Fritter with Coconut CreamDominic Armato

Dessert was one of the rare ones that I've found compelling. The first, "Golden Tropical Orchard Winter Roll", was one of those "Oh, wow" bites. A hot, crisply fried wrapper that encircled a frozen and exceptionally sweet filling, like a tropical ice cream with chunks of exotic fruit. The temperature and textural contrast was an absolute showstopper, and that they managed to somehow maintain that perfect balance in one package was an impressive technical feat, to say the least. Our last dish, though not nearly as showy as is predecessor, combined a simple banana fritter with a sweet coconut cream. I've had this and similar many times before, but rarely executed as well.

Cucumber CarvingDominic Armato

Reading back, I think I've given a slightly more positive impression than I had. I did, indeed, have some really wonderful dishes. I'm not sure I found any of them transformative, and it said something to me that the simplest of them all was the best of the night. But these folks are bringing an angle to Vietnamese that I've certainly never come across (though that's undoubtedly a function of my lack of experience). Gene is trying to do something really special with Present, and that was simultaneously the meal's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. At times, it made for some rather inspired dishes. At others, it seemed like a lot of superfluous window dressing that at best (cute carvings like the lobster to the right) did nothing for the food and at worst (the uninvolved shrimp) actually distracted from it. I'm not sure they really need a chef who spends so much time carving. I'd rather the lobster come out hot and the fish not be leathery in places. But you have to appreciate the moxie, and when it works it really works. It's hard to get a handle on what a regular meal here would be like, since ours involved so many off-menu items and such careful attention was paid to our table. But these are passionate, friendly people and it's clear they can do some truly excellent things. I suppose this write up may have been more meaningful four months ago when the place had barely been covered, but hopefully it drives home the idea that Gene is stretching and trying to achieve great things. If this dinner was any reflection, he doesn't always succeed. But the successes make me very glad he's trying.

6678 Arlington Boulevard
Falls Church, VA 22042
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 3:00 PM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat 11:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun 11:00 AM - 10:00 PM

August 11, 2009

Philly Pit Stop

Tony Luke's Dominic Armato

I spent a lot of time on the road in June. In the course of dropping off the family, moving out, moving the cars, moving in and reclaiming the family, the final route, over the course of two weeks, ended up being Baltimore to Cleveland to Baltimore to Boston to Cleveland to Baltimore to Boston to Cleveland to Boston. And what did this mean to me? Two shots at redemption. A number of years ago, I attended the wedding of some dear friends in Philadelphia, and tops on my list for non-wedding-related activities was a quest for cheesesteak. As it turned out, the schedule didn't quite allow for it, and I left Philly without having sampled the local meaty specialty. I swore then and there not to let such an opportunity pass me by again. While on the road, a man's gotta eat. And if he's gotta eat, better a local specialty than service plaza fast food.

Pat's King of SteaksDominic Armato

Trying to research Philly cheesteaks is tricky. Like its cousin, my beloved Italian Beef, the cheesesteak engenders extreme and sometimes belligerent passion in its local devotees. So when a comprehensive citywide tasting isn't an option, trying to determine where to go and what to get is a tricky proposition. Top round or ribeye? Whiz or provo or American? Geno's or Pat's or neither? Amoroso or... well... Amoroso? How to settle on the quintessential steak for a quick pit stop on the way north? It's impossible. So I resolved simply to eat what I could and not beat myself up over it. Despite warnings that I could do much better elsewhere, I kind of felt obligated to hit one of the big boys if for no other reason than to have a reference point. Pat's and Geno's are famously located across the street from one another, and while the media would make the rivalry out to be a bitter feud, on the balmy summer evening I drove through the neighborhood I detected no signs of sandwich-related turf wars. Consensus seems to be that they're pretty interchangeable, so I opted for Pat's -- the less ostentatious and purportedly more original of the two. Like any good local downscale foodstuff, cheesesteaks have a certain ordering protocol, which Pat's is kind enough to outline on the wall next to the register. The fellow who took my order and my money didn't respond with so much as a grunt. I think that means I passed.

Pat's CheesesteakDominic Armato

Because a sizable portion of the cheesesteak's fanbase swears fealty to it, and because Pat's is widely credited with first introducing it, I went ahead and selected whiz to accompany my steak and onions. Pat's serves a sandwich that's large, if not exactly brimming over when it comes to fillings, but still more than any rational individual should really be eating in one sitting. The meat itself is not a classy product. This cheesesteak was -- and I say this with the utmost affection -- junk food. Griddled and heavily seasoned, if a little dry, it sat atop a light, spongy roll accompanied by softened diced onions and the aforementioned processed cheese food. I was a little leery of the whiz, but having now tasted my first cheesesteak with, I understand the appeal. The saltiness plays up the craveable junk food angle, and its *ahem* unique texture combined with the moist bread make it kind of a sticky, gooey mouthful that probably sounds a lot less appealing than it is. And for me, the little bit of heat and vinegar provided by the pickled peppers put it over the top. If this is a "true" Philly cheesesteak, this is pretty lowbrow food. But it's also indisputably tasty.

Tony Luke's CheesesteakDominic Armato

There was no way I was escaping Philly without making at least one more stop. Some folks I trust had recommended Tony Luke's, which was conveniently situated beneath the highway I'd be taking. So with six hours of late-night driving ahead of me and little sense of self-preservation, I made my second stop of the night. But standing in line at Tony Luke's, I made three critical errors. The first, we'll get to in a moment. The second was ordering fries, which were a particularly tasteless frozen version. And the third was passing on the sharp provo in favor of whiz with the idea of comparing apples to apples. The third was the most egregious because Tony Luke's is, frankly speaking, a better quality sandwich and deserves a better quality cheese. I was a little taken aback by the crusty roll, since I'd been led to believe that Amoroso's had cornered the market. The big difference, however, was the meat, a tender, juicy, flavorful sliced ribeye in lieu of Pat's steak hash. My spies had served me well, but I'd let them down by going the processed cheese food route. As it was, I enjoyed it more than Pat's, but I'm thinking their sharp provo makes it even better.

Roast Pork Italian with RabeDominic Armato

The final mistake, alluded to above, was not also trying Tony Luke's Roast Pork Italian. Though it had inexplicably escaped my detection while reading ahead of time, in the week after my first trip through town no fewer than three people asked if I'd tried the fabulous roast pork sandwich. What could I do? I went back on the next trip through. And while it was a little oversold, this is a very good sandwich. Tender, sliced pork flavored with herbs and garlic is piled on the same roll with cooked broccoli rabe and the same sharp provolone that I should have tasted on the first go-round. Perhaps I'm not quite as enthused because this sandwich only reminds me of its ancient antecedent, the jaw-dropping-when-it's-on Italian porchetta. Tony Luke's Italian pork is no porchetta. But that said, it's a really good sandwich and eschewing the cheesesteak in favor of one wouldn't be a terrible choice, even if it's your only shot at the former.

So what did I learn on my dual sojourns to Philly? I learned that Pat's is good, but there's better elsewhere. I learned that whiz is worthy. I learned that even if the Philly cheesesteak won't be upending my beefy allegiances anytime soon, I'd love to do a Philly Beef-Off given the opportunity. And I learned that even if you find yourself questioning the wisdom of consuming the better part of two cheesesteaks around the time you hit Connecticut, it's totally worth it.

Pat's King of Steaks
1237 East Passyunk Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19147
24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Tony Luke's
39 East Oregon Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19148
Mon - Thu6:00 AM - 12:00 AM
Fri - Sat6:00 PM - 2:00 AM

August 09, 2009


The Menu Dominic Armato

Napa is a special place for us. To this day I'm not sure why, but I know that once one of us had floated the idea that that's where we should be married (Me probably? Not even sure.), it seemed so perfect and so obvious that we never even gave it a second thought. Doubly surprising since neither of us had even been there. But it was perfect. We got married, had an incredible time, ate dinner at The French Laundry on our first full day as a married couple, and left anxious to return and do some real exploring. We... uh... still haven't had that chance. But spending four days in Sacramento, it was clear we'd at least make a side trip of it for dinner one night, which is exactly what we did, and some traditional French sounded absolutely perfect.

Thomas Keller has joked that he opened Bouchon because he wanted someplace to go have dinner after closing up The French Laundry for the night. It's unclear just how serious he was, but it's entirely plausible. Bouchon's small, cozy, a quick jaunt down the block, open late, and has a menu full of the kinds of dishes that Keller has often identified as his favorites -- which is to say, traditional French bistro fare. But the familiarity of the menu belies what -- quite famously -- sets Bouchon apart. Keller is a perfectionist. He's a man obsessed. So while The French Laundry looks forward, taking the cuisine in new and unexpected directions, Bouchon looks back, and Keller directs that laser-focus towards making every classic dish as perfect as it can possibly be. The result is a meal that's entirely familiar, and yet somehow still surprising.

Pâté de CampagneDominic Armato

It starts with the bread service, a stunning epi with crunch and tenderness and the incredible real bread flavor that you forget exists in between rare experiences with the genuine article. I could've had six helpings of bread and the beautiful butter and walked away content. It was hard to stop, but we resolved, reluctantly, to save our strength. My ladylove started simply with a pâté de campagne, exactly what you expect but perfectly done, carefully barded and served with toasted bread (more bread!), cornichons, sliced radish and a small dollop of mustard. We devoured the first half with the available toasts and... uh... requested more bread with which to finish it. By the book forcemeat, perfectly done and minimally presented.

Tête de PorcDominic Armato

My starter was the first real indication that we were operating on a different plane of precision. Tête de Porc -- exactly what it sounds like -- adorned the specials board, and there was no way I was passing on that. The tender morsels of pork were formed into a small round with a crisp cap, and served atop simple stewed lentils. But look at that mold, the color and crisp of the topping, the perfect brunoise of the vegetables in the lentils, the perfect little leaves of onion strewn about the edges... heck, the single parsley leaf on top. Yes, it was delicious -- simple, no-frills and perfectly evocative of the primary flavors. But I felt as though I'd mistakenly gotten the plate that was intended for the visiting Queen Mum. Obsessive attention to detail is something you expect at famous fine dining restaurants, but it's rare to see humbler food prepared with this level of precision.

Soupe à l OignonDominic Armato

After starters, we opted for a soup course. My ladylove had onion soup because she adores it. I had onion soup partly because I adore it, but mostly because Keller's treatise on onion soup was one of my first glimpses into the depths of his quest for perfection. In his Bouchon cookbook, Keller devotes a full four pages to the dish -- a two-page recipe kicked off with a two-page preamble, discussing how the onions must be sliced at just the right thickness, "uniform so that they caramelize evenly. You don't want noodles, you don't want a piece dripping down anyone's chin; you want the pieces to fit on a spoon, not too wide and not too long, but not so narrow or short that they disintegrate." Reading it is like staring into the soul of a beautiful madman, and the most remarkable thing about it is that you get the sense he could have easily filled twice as many pages if his co-writers didn't hold him back. And after all that preamble, what's to say? It was perfect. Warm and comforting and as noble a use of an onion as you'll find anywhere.

Croque MadameDominic Armato

Presented with such a robust bistro menu, I was a little taken aback by my ladylove's choice of entree. She went with a croque madame. I thought to myself, you're in Keller's bistro, and you're getting a sandwich for dinner? Shows what I know. It was completely entree-worthy, excellent ham and cheese between two geometrically proper slices of bread, and topped with pure awesome: a lightly cooked egg with a yolk that oozes everywhere once broken, and a velvety mornay sauce with just enough tang to cut through the egg's richness. It was a gooey mess and absolutely delicious, a simple sandwich elevated to entree status through impeccable execution -- and accompanied by some excellent frites, to boot.

Rabbit Rillettes and BoudinDominic Armato

My entree was another special, a two-way rabbit dish that dressed rabbit rillettes and rabbit boudin with a splash of jus, soft napa cabbage and cippolini onions, and a scattering of plucky little stewed cranberries. The rillettes were similar to my tête de porc, formed into a soft, moist patty with a wonderfully crisp topping. The boudin was remarkable in its texture, a sausage so light and fluffy that if you were to submerge it in water, I suspect it would float. The vegetables rounded it out, the jus added depth, the cranberries added tartness and a little sweetness. It was a wonderfully conceived little dish, made extra wonderful by the manner in which every ingredient spoke with a clear voice, asserting its nature while still happily mingling with the rest. Another excellent dish.

Reading back, I almost worry that I've oversold Bouchon. Let me be clear, these are -- with a couple of exceptions -- textbook bistro dishes. What you've had before is exactly what you can expect here, and as good as it was, it isn't as though I walked out of Bouchon thinking that it would end up being one of my best meals of the year. What I marvel at is the process: the degree to which Keller has embraced that traditional essence and refined it as much as he possibly can. The curse of eating out a lot, as any food nerd will tell you, is the inability to turn off the "yes, this is good, but--" reflex. You're always musing about what could have made the dish better. At Bouchon, I'm at a loss. These dishes aren't strokes of genius. They're old classics that have survived the test of time and been cooked by countless chefs long before Keller was on the scene. But when I taste and ask myself what the kitchen could have done to make it better, I find myself thinking... nothing. This dish they've chosen to make, they've made it as well as they possibly can, they've achieved exactly what they set out to achieve, and the only thing they need to do is try to ensure they make it just like this every single time. It's like these dishes are the benchmark, the model, the gold standard for what they are. If you want to improve upon this, you're going to have to do something different with it because the ceiling has been set. There's nowhere to go. That's how it appears to me. That's how I imagine it appears to just about everybody who walks through Bouchon's doors. You know who still finds room for improvement? Keller. And that's why it's so good.

6534 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Mon - Sun11:30 AM - 12:30 AM

August 06, 2009

The Waterboy

Tuna, Yellowtail and Scallop Crudo Dominic Armato

And now, a trip through the wayback machine. Back in the first week of January (did I mention I have a bit of a backlog?), my ladylove and I took a trip out to Sacramento to check out a position she'd been offered. We had three rare nights to ourselves and three very good meals, so despite the fact that I got sidetracked a bit, I hate to let them slip into the ether. As such, here's a quick look at The Waterboy, circa January. A write up of a dead of winter menu at the peak of summer. Let it not be said that Skillet Doux doesn't like to provide its readers with relevant information. But in my defense, the dead of winter in Sacramento could easily be the peak of summer in a lot of other cities, and the essential point remains the same.

Caesar SaladDominic Armato

My four-day opinion of Sacramento is that it's a charming, sleepy little berg, and I can only hope that its residents take that for the compliment it is. Uptown, in particular, seems to provide a particularly comfortable angle on sort-of-urban life, and cute restaurants abound. In cruising the 'net, however, one name kept coming up: Waterboy, Waterboy, Waterboy. To say that chef/owner Rick Mahan's restaurant is locally beloved would be putting it mildly. In fact, I couldn't find an unkind word about the place. So, close to the hotel and sounding like a sure thing, The Waterboy was where we went our first night in town. It's a fairly casual, bustling little joint, with great local wines on the wall (surprise) and a menu that hits both straight-up traditional and California-influenced French. It's a compelling little menu, and traditional or non-traditional was really the only question.

Sweetbreads with PeachDominic Armato

We started out sharing a tuna, yellowtail and scallop crudo that was absolutely beautiful, both from a flavor and presentation standpoint. There wasn't much to it -- couple slabs of fish and a handful of small scallops simply dressed up -- but pristine ingredients, beautifully balanced and composed are generally unimpeachable and this was no exception. Fresh greens, sliced avocado, a bit of diced lemon with peel, a touch of caviar, a drizzle of great oil and the fish is still at center stage. I have a hard time getting excited about raw tuna unless it's the exceptionally fatty variety, but the yellowtail was flavorful and buttery, and while I'm a sucker for raw scallops, these were some of the best I've had in recent memory. Lovely simple dish.

Pot au FeuDominic Armato

My ladylove had a caesar salad that was notable only for the fact that it was unusually good. No frills, no twists, just an excellent caesar. Meanwhile, I went for the item that my internet browsing had made a must-order. Universally lauded were Waterboy's sweetbreads, in whatever format, so I took the format of the evening, in a marsala reduction with mushrooms, capers, fresh herbs and peaches, of all things. And while it may have come across on the menu as something of a hodgepodge, it worked far more harmoniously than I expected. Since marsala can go sweet or savory so easily, it kind of married the sweet peaches with the salty capers and earthy mushrooms. It just worked. And though crisply fried seems to be the most popular way to make sweetbreads acceptable to a wider dining audience (what doesn't taste good when it's crisply fried?), these were confident enough to skip the safe route and still come across as light, fresh and almost creamy in flavor. This is how you sell the skeptical on sweetbreads.

CassouletDominic Armato

For entrees, we couldn't have possibly gone more traditional. My ladylove ordered what turned out to be a shockingly simple pot au feu, again, notable for the fact that it was perfectly executed. Huge, tender chunks of beef, lovingly trimmed root vegetables, crusty crouton, intense broth and a small dish with a tiny amount of mustard, horseradish and sliced cornichons for garnish. If anything, this is the one dish that I felt could have used a little interesting twist, but when it's prepared so well, I'm not about to knock a perfect bowl of warm beef stew, especially on a bone-chilling 65 degree January night in Sacramento. For me, a favorite that I rarely order because I'm so often disappointed. I adore a good cassoulet, the crustier the better, and while Waterboy's wasn't erasing the memory of January in Paris, it made me very, very happy with hearty beans, perfect duck confit, excellent charcuterie -- I wish I could find another place that does it this well.

When we left Sacramento, we thought we'd be returning for good this summer and I was looking forward to making The Waterboy a regular stop. It didn't quite work out that way, so I'm doubly glad we got there when we did. The Sacramentans' pride in this restaurant is well-founded. It isn't flashy. It's just soulful cuisine, perfectly executed. It's the kind of place you make a regular haunt. We almost did.

The Waterboy
2000 Capitol Avenue
Sacramento, CA 95814
Mon11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5:00 PM - 9:00 PM
Tue - Thu11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5:00 PM - 9:30 PM
Fri11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5:00 PM - 10:30 PM
Sat5:00 PM - 10:30 PM
Sun5:00 PM - 9:00 PM

August 04, 2009

Crop Bistro & Bar

Crop Bistro & Bar Dominic Armato

With the recent announcement that season six of Top Chef is just around the corner and the major work project that's been sucking my time now in the rear view mirror, I figure I'd better get this backlog cleaned up before Skillet Doux is once again consumed by reality TV madness. Thankfully, we're slowly settling in and rejoining the rest of the world at large, so let's see if we can talk food for a bit.

Fig & Bacon MartiniDominic Armato

As part of the endless parade of drives and flights that comprised the two-week moving process, we spent a little time in Cleveland and let grandma and grandpa corral the little ones while I transferred our worldly possessions from Baltimore to Boston. But on one of my four stops in Cleveland over that stretch, my ladylove and I managed to get out to another restaurant that's been on my short list for a few months. Situated downtown, Steve Schimoler's Crop Bistro & Bar is comfortable if a little dark inside, but on a beautiful summer evening, seated at a hi-top on the patio and separated from strolling pedestrians by a wall of climbing beans, we couldn't have been more prepared for the local foodstuffs that are Crop's mainstay.

Deviled EggsDominic Armato

Feeling a little saucy and presented with a list of specialty cocktails, I opted for the alcoholic version of one of my favorite flavor combinations, fig and bacon. Unfortunately, while I appreciated the drink's moxie, I couldn't say the same for its execution. The fig was undoubtedly present, but the bacon was a problem (yes, it is possible). It was a fine specimen, cured in-house, I believe, with a great peppery, smoky character and a figgy glaze. But it was jerky. And I like jerky, but not when it renders the meat almost inedible. A for effort, C- for execution. And so, thoroughly liquored up, we moved on to one of my weaknesses, deviled eggs. For a place that cultivates a connected-to-the-earth vibe, Crop's presentations -- for better or worse -- certainly don't lack pizzazz. Half of the whites had been rendered pink with beet juice, which could be mistaken for gilding the lily if not for the nice bit of sweetness that it imparted. Topped with crispy bacon and sitting atop a beet sauce and a balsamic syrup, they were simpler at heart than they appeared, and made this deviled egg lover happy.

Foie with Challah and Gingered ApricotsDominic Armato

My ladylove's appetizer brought some serious umami. She's a sucker for apricots, so there was no denying this dish. I only received a fleeting taste, but that was plenty to get the idea. A rich, seared slab of foie atop grilled bread with a meaty sauce that must've been finished with some demi-glace. The apricots lent a touch of sweetness and brightness, but this was a dish of concentrated meat flavor. Nothing subtle about it. My starter, despite the fact that it featured subtly flavored seafood, was similarly muscular. Seared scallops were set atop crispy bricks of polenta and topped with sun dried tomatoes and a tarragon-flavored butter bomb of a sauce. Butter and scallops, hey, no problem, but again, there was something very meaty about this dish and it was strangely light on acid. What it lacked in subtlety, however, it made up for with flavor. Solid dish. But it was still strange to be dining at a restaurant so focused on locally-sourced ingredients that didn't treat them a little more minimally.

Scallops with Sun Dried Tomato TarragonDominic Armato

With our tasty -- if surprisingly beefy -- appetizers out of the way, we moved onto entrees. My ladylove went for salmon, a thin wild caught variety seared quite crispy on the outside and served skin-on. Nicely done. The accompaniments, however, were problematic. Smashed peas okay, fresh and simple and green-tasting. A swipe of honey brought a little bit of welcome sweetness. The star attraction, however, was a little jarring. I'm not sure how the chef arrived at the word "jam" to describe the tomato sauce. Perhaps because it was sweet. In any case, I found it distractingly mediocre and -- again -- far removed from its fresh state. Rather than a fresh tomato jam prepared from the local crop, it came across as an overly sweet and chunky tomato sauce for pasta. And though it may be unfair to this particular dish, far too many experiences over the years with the kitchen's big pot of one-size-fits-all tomato sauce has conditioned me to get the heebiest of jeebies when confronted with any marinara-smothered protein that isn't breaded, fried and sitting on a bun. My ladylove enjoyed it. I was less enthused.

Salmon with Tomato JamDominic Armato

My lamb loin was the undisputed loser of the night. Sliced, seared loin served atop a sweet pea risotto with mint gastrique and a parmesan crisp, problems abounded. The gastrique was delicious, and a great choice to cut through the creamy risotto, but everything else on the plate was off. The lamb was tough and somehow lacking that distinctive lamb flavor. The risotto was all wrong. Though studded with beautiful fresh peas, the texture was all off, completely lacking bite. Even if it hadn't been billed as a risotto, thereby encouraging unfavorable comparisons to the Italian dish, it still felt wrong and was light in the flavor department to boot. Even the crisp -- though it wasn't billed as such -- was chewy and difficult to eat. Conceptually, I think it was solid. I think there might've been a good dish in there somewhere. But it wasn't coming out that night.

Lamb Loin with Sweet Pea RisottoDominic Armato

Those who have become familiar with my culinary proclivities will be surprised to hear that I considered dessert to be the best thing we ate that night. My ladylove's was fine but forgettable, a dense milk chocolate pie with a pretzel crust. But mine was simple and wonderful. Hot and crisp waffles were served with ice cream and strawberries, then drizzled with a bit of chocolate and surrounded with a sweet basil sauce and a touch of balsamic. I suspect that basil and strawberry will be the most overused dessert flavor combination of 2010. I adored it the first time I had it, I've seen it and loved it a couple times since, and a strawberry/basil dessert just received lavish praise from the critic judges of Top Chef Masters a couple of weeks ago. It's getting trendy. And with good reason. It works! Anyway, it was a wonderful finish to a so-so meal: hot/cold, sweet/savory... right up my alley.

Waffles with Ice Cream and Basil SauceDominic Armato

Crop has been getting some great press. A good friend whose taste buds I trust and who visited around the same time we did even had some wonderful things to say about the place. Heck, my wife enjoyed it, so I can't even write it off as a bad night. But I just don't get it. Crop is singing a popular tune. Fresh and local are de rigueur, bordering on popular dogma these days. But where other adherents to the cause like Woodberry Kitchen zig, Crop zags. The crowd is going minimal and understated, maintaining simple, fresh flavors. Schimoler is drizzling multiple sauces on deviled eggs, slathering dishes in heavy meat reductions, stewing tomatoes down rather than serving them fresh and generally making rich, heavy dishes where the trend is to keep things fairly simple and light -- especially surprising for a Summer menu. And I might consider it a refreshing break from the norm if the execution weren't so scattershot. There's some good stuff here. Schimoler can bring some big, hefty flavor to the table. But at times I found myself wishing he'd brought a little less.

Crop Bistro & Bar
1400 West 6th Street
Cleveland, OH 44113
Tue - Fri11:00 AM - 2:00 PM5:00 PM - 10:30 PM
Sat5:00 PM - 10:30 PM
Sun5:00 PM - 9:00 PM