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January 29, 2010


Margherita Pizza + Prosciutto Dominic Armato

There's a little more Boston and Vegas before I can start attacking Phoenix, but first, a quick report from a very quick trip. I spent about 24 hours on the ground in San Francisco last weekend to do some business at the Fancy Food Show. The highlight? Enormous wheels of Grana Padano Riserva. The lowlight? Seeing the Baconnaise people still flogging their concoction which, in what may be one of the most brazen fraud ever perpetrated upon the bacon-loving populace, contains neither mayonnaise nor bacon. Sadly, I wasn't there to eat, aside from whatever I could snatch while sailing down the aisles, but we did have one evening to catch something quick and casual. I took the night off from planning, and my compatriots selected Zuppa, an Italian joint not too far from the hotel and not booked solid with the Fancy Food Show in town, the latter of which was a bigger consideration than you might think.

SausageDominic Armato

It's kind of rustic-industrial, if that makes any sense, big and quirky and kinda hip but not so hip that it scared off the family with kids that shared our long, communal table. The fare is pretty much straight-up Italian, with pizza, pasta, salads, a few meats -- nothing too complex or pretentious. Affettati -- that'd be your sliced, cured meats -- looked formidable and were shaved on a snazzy-looking slicer, but having hit the cured Italian meats pretty heavily the night before (more on this shortly), we opted instead for one of the pizzas which, at your option, could be topped with the same. The pizzas are three of the classics -- margherita, funghi and a bianca with prosciutto and artichokes -- though you're encouraged to request a little cured meat on the top, which we did to the tune of a margherita with prosciutto. As simple Italian pizza goes, it was plenty serviceable, but nothing I'd be going out of my way for. Tasty toppings, but the bread was a little flat. Of course it was flat. I mean-- you know what I mean.

Roasted BeetsDominic Armato

Our other starter, on the other hand, was really quite enjoyable. A long length of fennel sausage was coiled up in a small cast iron skillet, seared hot and crispy and hit with a little sharp cheese and fresh basil. It was big, bold, unabashed flavor, nicely presented, and though I should have thought better of it, I even took some bread to the pan drippings left behind after we'd demolished the sausage. My only regret was that we didn't order some kind of bitter, leafy green dressed with olive oil and lemon juice to go alongside it. That would've made the perfect pair. We did, however, have some roasted beets which -- simply roasted and salted with a little fresh basil atop -- wouldn't have passed the David Chang Test, but I didn't mind. Give me some good roasted beets and I'm a happy camper.

Tagliarini with Crab and Nettle Pesto Dominic Armato

Pasta was disappointing. One of my dining companions had one that was dressed with something red and meaty and he wasn't overly impressed. I went with a tagliarini with crab and a nettle pesto, and while it wasn't bad, per se, it had problems. It arrived, a rather saucy-looking tangle with a raw egg yolk seated in the center, and the first problem was that my server grabbed a set of utensils and, before I could say a word, tossed the pasta to thoroughly incorporate the yolk. I sure would've liked to let it ooze a bit. The pasta itself was solid if unexceptional. Could've had some more bite for my taste. It really needed a little more crab, and I would've been happy to pitch in an extra couple of bucks for it. The pesto, though I thought it had a nice flavor that brought out the greens, played too far towards the oily end of the spectrum. And that pesto, combined with the egg, gave rise to the biggest problem. It was pure richness without anything to cut it. No prominent salt, no acid, no sharp cheese -- nothing. So it came across mostly as heavy and oily. There's a reason your basic Pesto Genovese is generally made with a healthy dose of pecorino. And it's too bad, because with some tweaks, I think there was a good pasta in there somewhere.

But hey, the pizza was tasty if somewhere short of memorable, and that sausage was a real treat, so I'm open to the possibility that if you knew the menu well you could pick your way through a pretty tasty meal. Zuppa's the kind of place I might try to get to know if it were local and there weren't other similar, better options around. So... um... I won't.

564 Fourth Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Sat 5:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Sun 5:00 PM - 10:00 PM

January 27, 2010


Chicken Wing Dominic Armato

It's always tricky, since it seems like even the places that look close on a map are a $20 cab fare in either direction, but I at least try to make a token effort to get off-strip for a meal when visiting Vegas. Of course, I haven't visited Vegas much recently, so my off-strip knowledge is basically nil these days. But the hubbub surrounding Raku combined with plans for a more laid-back dinner on our first night in made it an easy sell on this last pass.

Yellowtail CarpaccioDominic Armato

It also means that I got to fulfill my obligation as a visiting food blogger. Seriously, is there a food blogger who's visited Vegas in the past year and NOT gone to Raku? I shouldn't be surprised. Tiny ethnic joint off-strip, extensive and diverse menu, underrepresented subgenre of Japanese cuisine, incredible attention to detail... how many strip mall joints are James Beard semifinalists for Best New Restaurant? Well, okay... maybe this one too. My point is, though we like to take potshots at those who put the proverbial sizzle before the proverbial steak, foodnerdia is no less susceptible to buzz, and the buzz surrounding Raku has been a little ridiculous. I tried my best to go in with tempered expectations. Difficult when even TonyC raved about one of the dishes he had there. And TonyC doesn't rave about anything.

Crispy Fried ShrimpFresh Kobe Beef LiverDominic Armato

Getting a table at Raku is supposed to be a chore, since there are only seven of them, but calling on Tuesday, it was our choice of time for the next evening. I've no doubt it's a different story on the weekends, given robatayaki's affinity for booze and the fact that they're open until 3:00 AM. Raku's downright swanky for strip mall Asian, nicely appointed and dramatically lit. It's immediately evident that Chef Mitsuo Endo is a little obsessive. The soy is a house blend of five different imported sauces, and the sea salt is spiked with powdered konbu, shiitake and matcha? With the attention and care given to the table condiments, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that he manages to handle such a massive menu with precision, but it's still impressive. There are full sections for oden, noodles and soups, but we stuck with what seems to be Raku's focus... some amazing-looking creative starters and the robatayaki.

Steamed Egg Custard with Foie GrasDominic Armato

A little yellowtail carpaccio seemed like a good start, and it ended up being one of the night's best on the basis of some stellar fish flown in from Tsukiji. Portioned perfectly for three -- one bite with fresh wasabi and one bite with chili daikon for each of us -- I don't recall whether the sauce was a simple soy or some sort of soy/dashi concoction, but the fish was absolutely magical. Other than the fact that it comes from Japan, I don't know where they're sourcing this stuff, but it makes me wish we'd gotten more fish. Crispy shrimp were a bit of a letdown, partly because I had such a brilliant version thereof last month. They were hot and crisp but lacking some natural sweetness, and in dire need of salt. About halfway through it occurred to me to use the aforementioned seasoned table salt, and that made a huge difference, even if I couldn't help from thinking that I enjoyed Peach Farm's more.

Fried Homemade Tofu in Hot BrothDominic Armato

Whether or not the fresh Kobe beef liver is for you pretty much boils down to whether you're into raw liver. Served almost completely unadulterated, with only a sliver of raw garlic, these were some livery slabs. I dug 'em, but I don't see myself going back. When it comes to foie gras, however, I'll go back to the liver well again and again. The steamed egg custard with foie gras was a real treat, mellow and warm and topped with some truly spectacular dashi, fresh scallions and -- in a departure from its normal composition -- a seared slab of foie. The dish is normally topped with seared duck, with bits of foie beneath. But with the kitchen short on duck that evening, we got an especially decadent substitution. Truth is, I would've liked to have tried it with the duck meat. But as makeup calls go, you won't find me complaining.

Poached Egg with Sea Urchin and Salmon RoeJuicy Deep Fried ChickenDominic Armato

The agedashi tofu, listed on the menu as "Fried Homemade Tofu in Hot Broth", is one that's been getting a lot of play -- it's the dish that TonyC flipped over -- and it's pretty freaking good. The tofu is some clean, cloudlike stuff, fried to a light crisp only on the top of the dome, leaving the interior cool and silky smooth. I didn't get the intense smokiness out of the dashi that Tony describes (too bad), but it's some serious stuff that I'd be content sipping all on its own. Salmon roe provides a little salty pop, there's the requisite shredded nori, and a smudge of kanzuri (a Japanese chile paste made with yuzu) to mix as you see fit. I'm not quite as blown away by it as some others have been, but that may be symptomatic of the fact that I've only had agedashi tofu a couple of times prior, and not in recent memory. Can't know how exceptional it is without a frame of reference. But even for somebody who might not fully appreciate the finer points, it's a great dish.

Butter Sautéed ScallopDominic Armato

Poached egg with sea urchin and salmon roe was the one I couldn't wait to get my hands on. I love sea urchin, I love it with barely-cooked egg, and the addition of dashi, mushrooms and salmon roe (not to mention okra and a crisp diced vegetable I couldn't identify) set this up as a total umami bomb. On that count, and on the quality of the ingredients, it didn't disappoint. But it hurt me to feel that the dish was lacking something. It was big umami but it was ALL umami, and it needed some kind of contrast -- salt, maybe vinegar -- I'm not sure. I got a spoonful or two that was a little heavy on the roe, and the saltiness brought it out. For me, it came thisclose to being awesome, which is a shame because so much about it was so right. Less complex and really excellent was the juicy deep fried chicken, which absolutely lived up to its billing. Cuts of light and dark were rolled in skin and fried, almost completely unadulterated but tender and moist and juicy like the very best kind of fried chicken. The spinach with a sweet soy dressing beneath was a nice complement, but in no way critical. He could have served the chicken as-is and I would have been completely happy with it.

Kobe Beef Outside Skirt with GarlicDominic Armato

At this point, we transitioned to the robatayaki, mostly skewered items grilled over charcoal, and the restaurant's specialty. I'm not sure where the "sautéed" figured into the "Butter Sautéed Scallops," since they'd obviously been kissed by charcoal flame. Perhaps they were finished on the robata after the fry pan. In any case, I'm generally one for scallops done a little less than this, but if you're going to cook them more thoroughly, this is the way to do it, with a little char and smokiness to accompany. Still, for me, less heat would have been more. Chicken options were multitudinous, and we went with three that ran the gamut. Tsukune, ground chicken seasoned with (among other things) shiso, was something of a disappointment to me, completely underpowered and lean bordering on dry. Chicken thigh (not pictured) was more like it, grilled chunks that were moist and juicy and charred to a smoky crisp on the edges. The winner for me, though, was the chicken wing, for which the robata did magical things to the skin.

Kobe Beef Fillet with WasabiTomatoesDominic Armato

I appear to have had some camera issues that evening, which is odd given the incredible light I had to work with. So sadly I can't show you what was probably my favorite skewer of the evening, the Kurobuta pork cheek. I mean, of course my favorite was the Kurobuta pork cheek. But really, it was fabulous. What about a hot, smoky charcoal grill doesn't scream pork fat? Marriage made in heaven. Beef was solid as well, and all Kobe, for whatever that's worth anymore. We went with both beef (muscle) options, outside skirt with garlic and fillet with wasabi. Though my compatriots disagreed, the skirt was the clear winner in my book. Great flavor, nice glaze, and the fried garlic took it over the top. As for the fillet, as much as I loved the healthy dose of freshly grated real wasabi, it takes a lot to get me excited about tenderloin, and this was no exception.

Potato with CornDominic Armato

Vegetables were, for the most part, pretty straightforward. We had some grape tomatoes, cooked just enough to blister the skin and warm them, but otherwise left alone. Asparagus -- another photo that didn't make it -- was interwoven with bacon, but the bacon could have used a little more heat for my tastes. A little more crisp, and little more glistening fat and it might've been stellar. The one that completely caught me off-guard, however, was the corn and potato. Can somebody explain to me how the hell they do this? That's not the cob in the center. That's seasoned mashed potatoes. the kernels are completely intact, and there's not a hint of cob. Do they somehow grind the cob out of the middle while leaving the kernels undisturbed? The only other thing I can imagine is painstakingly sticking every single kernel in a potato cylinder to mimic a corn cob, but criminy, that's insane. As you can see, they're perfectly placed. Setting my shock at the presentation aside, however, it wasn't purely cosmetic. That mushy middle with the perfect rows of corn morsels made it really compelling from a textural standpoint. I'd just hate to be the poor bastard who's doing the prep on this dish. If I ever want to know who it is, I'll go back, order twenty of them and see who comes running out the kitchen brandishing a cleaver.

Assorted DessertsDominic Armato

Desserts were entirely worthwhile, light and refreshing. Green tea crème brulée, on the bottom left, was a little thicker than convention dictates, but the flavor was great so I wasn't about to get bent out of shape. On top was whipped cream, raspberry and a dense, luscious scoop of green tea ice cream with enough green tea to brew a pot. No vague hint at the flavor, here. On the bottom right is the brown sugar "bubbly" pudding, which arrives swimming in a frothy bath of what I believe was plain old milk. I loved the presentation, loved the cold milk, but the pudding got a little lost. I was looking forward to that caramel brown sugar flavor and only got a hint of it. Seasonal sorbets -- Asian pear and pomegranate for us -- were mislabeled, with a texture much more like a chunky granita, and they were killer finishes with pure, bold flavors.

Okay, I get it. The buzz is valid, if perhaps a little overly pervasive. The attention to detail is bordering on clinical, especially considering the place's casual nature. Ingredients are top notch and painstakingly sourced. If you order carefully and avoid some of the pricier options, you could consume a dozen little plates and escape for less than $40. And though we didn't partake, the booze is flowing. It's just as well that Raku isn't in Phoenix. 2:00 AM is just about my sweet spot for late-night dining. In most places that means I just have to accept that everything worthwhile is closed and go to bed. If this were nearby, it'd be a weekly stop, and I already eat too much and sleep too little.

5030 West Spring Mountain Road #2
Las Vegas, NV 89146
Mon - Sat6:00 PM - 3:00 AM

January 25, 2010

Sichuan Shindig?

Ma Po Dofu @ Lao Sze Chuan Dominic Armato

Anybody in the Phoenix area up for a little ma la this weekend?

It turns out we live pretty darn close to the Chinese Cultural Center, which I noticed while driving to the airport last week. So I buzzed through, did a little shopping at the market and checked out the three restaurants there. I haven't had good Sichuan since my Baltimore farewell dinner seven months ago, and Szechwan Palace looks like the real deal. But my ladylove doesn't do spicy, the strength in numbers rule applies threefold to Chinese restaurants, and I'm anxious to meet some fellow food nerds in our new town. So anybody want to join me?

I'm thinking a late-ish lunch... maybe 1:00 or 1:30... on Saturday or Sunday, depending on when folks are free. Standard chow outing rules apply. We order way too much food, share everything and split the check. And at least for this visit, let's call the Americanized stuff off-limits.

Hope some folks will be able to make it. Drop me a line if you're interested!

UPDATE : We're officially on for 1:00 PM on Saturday the 30th. Last-minute additions totally welcome... just drop me an e-mail!

Peach Farm

Spicy Salted Shrimp Dominic Armato

Back to Boston for a little more of the backlog!

Cambodian is one of the cuisines that is most new and interesting to me, and Peach Farm doesn't serve it. But there's a logical connection here, I promise. When the possibility of our move to Phoenix arose and we thought it would occur in the spring, my chow pals in Boston informed me that we'd better get working if we were going to hit the stuff I needed to hit before skipping town. Then, when our move was suddenly accelerated and we had just a few weeks to get ready, it simply became a question of where we'd get together for my last taste of Boston with the food nerds. Since I'd been hitting the lobster pretty hard, it was decided that we'd do Cambodian, an area where Boston's apparently pretty strong.

Peking DuckDominic Armato

So on a rainy winter night, we all converged upon Floating Rock, only to discover that the beloved little family-run Cambodian joint had been booked for a private party that night. Regrouping in a dive-y but incredibly friendly neighborhood bar to dry off and warm up (the latter by means of liquid fortification), talk turned to an alternate plan. Amy, a fellow food nerd who I'm sad to have not had the opportunity to spend more time with, declared that if this would be my last dinner out in Boston -- a strong possibility at that point -- our destination was a foregone conclusion, especially considering my affinity for Cantonese seafood. We'd hit Peach Farm, one of the crown jewels of Boston's Chinatown. And so it would be that my last dinnertime taste of Boston seafood would be of the less-than-traditional variety. And this was just fine with me.

Duck Stir FryDominic Armato

Peach Farm is tucked away, quite literally, in a basement space on Tyler street, accessible only via a steep, narrow staircase, and it's in this basement -- perfectly well-appointed for a casual Chinatown joint -- that pretty much all of the standards of Cantonese seafood are available. And since the suggestion was Amy's, I sat back and put myself in her hands. We got off to an absolutely stellar start. The spicy salted shrimp are swimming just minutes before they hit your table, and it shows. Tiny whole shrimp, fried hot and crispy with scallions, fresh jalapeno and an abundance of salt, they fulfilled the promise of so many similar dishes. Shell, head and all is, as far as I'm concerned, the most enjoyable way to eat a shrimp, but getting that shell crisp requires an incredible amount of heat. Most places get 90% of the way there, making it edible but a little tough. Not so here, where they were fried to a perfectly light and crispy consistency. Little bite-sized morsels, it's easy for a small crowd to tear through an enormous plate of them very quickly. I've had their equal in China, but I don't believe I've seen them done better. They almost made my Deliciousness of 2009. They probably should have.

Salt & Pepper Squid and PorkDominic Armato

Even though it's not exactly Cantonese, we couldn't pass on the Peking Duck. Amy momentarily expressed reservation at the prospect of straying from Peach Farm's core mission, but I assured her I had no hang-ups about thematic unity. 'Sides which, it had been a very long time since I'd had a good Peking Duck. That Peach Farm does it very, very well was not a surprise, given the quality of our first dish. That they did so without any advance notice was. Peach Farm does it as a two-course affair, first sending out the skin with pancakes and the usual accoutrement. Here, they're definitely on the minimal size. The skin is almost completely unadorned by any bits of meat, which suits me just fine. It's a great iteration, lacquered to a beautiful golden brown, and though perhaps not quite as glistening with juicy duck fat as I prefer, it's exceptionally crisp and delicious, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better version at a place that doesn't specialize in the dish. And even at many that do, frankly. Stage Two of the Peking Duck was a simple stir fry of the shredded meat with bean sprouts, woodear mushrooms and the other usual suspects. It was a fresh and tasty treatment of the remaining duck meat, even if it wasn't quite up to the exceptional standards set by the previous courses. I've no complaints whatsoever, it just wasn't a standout dish.

Clams with VermicelliDominic Armato

It could be argued that our next dish was somewhat redundant, but I had a hard time complaining. We attacked a plate of fried salt and pepper squid and pork, executed with precision. Both had just enough chew to play hard-to-get while remaining alluring, and the intensity of the flavor on the pork was great. Our only disappointment of the night was the closing number, enormous clams that had been given the classic vermicelli and garlic treatment. Boston, of course, does big clams well, and while I'm accustomed to getting smaller varieties in China, I liked that the macro version served as a reminder that clams are not beasts of uniform consistency. They'd been diced for ease of consumption, and you could really get a sense of the differing textures and flavors of the individual parts in a way that isn't possible with a smaller clam. Sadly, the dish was otherwise lacking. My compatriots thought they suffered from noodle overkill, symptomatic, we suspected, of the fact that they were short the number we'd wished to order and had perhaps tried to compensate by piling on the toppings so there'd be enough for everybody (this was not an issue -- these things are huge). Rather, I thought the issue was one of flavor. I found them light on both the garlic and the oil to carry its essence. I'm used to this being a big, bright wow dish, and this version was simply flat.

But our final dish aside, this was an excellent meal and one I'm sad to no longer have available to me. And the same goes for the company. It's always frustrating feeling like you're just discovering things as you're permanently skipping town, and the sentiment applies here on both counts. I should've had many more meals at Peach Farm, and even more importantly, I should've had many more meals with the good folks with whom I shared the table. Thanks for the wonderful sendoff, guys!

Peach Farm
4 Tyler Street
Boston, MA 02111
Mon - Sun11:00 AM - 3:00 AM

January 24, 2010

Range Rage

It's Bolognese Sunday... the best kind of Sunday™. Which is always great. Especially when it's the inaugural Bolognese Sunday of a new home. But as I start encircling the new range with bowls, bottles and cans of mise, I'm forced to ask a question:

Who the hell designed this?

I'd like to know so I can "thank" him.

Really, what kind of designer, when given a 30x22" space in which to work, says to himself, "I know, self... rather than running the knobs up the length of the cooktop, let's stack them side-by-side to take up as much real estate as possible, and then cram all four burners into an 18" square so that using a plain old pot or 12" fry pan on the big burner knocks all of the others out of commission."

I mean, at the VERY least, wouldn't you shift the big burner an inch or two the right and, you know, actually utilize some of that vast region of unexplored space in the upper right corner so maybe you only lose that little simmer burner, leaving just enough room for another medium-sized pan on the bottom left and maybe a little one on the top left? And what's with all of the dead space, anyway? Is it being reserved for future burner expansion? Because I'm pretty sure this thing isn't modular. Or is that where they put the bud vase in the promotional photos?

Ahhh... I see Whirlpool was founded in 1911. I guess these are the kinds of little kinks it takes a company a century to iron out.

January 23, 2010

Pete's Fish & Chips

And now, the shortest writeup in the history of Skillet Doux:

Fish and Chips Dominic Armato

Any questions, or are we good?

Pete's Fish & Chips
Multiple locations in the Phoe-- you know, does it really matter?

January 22, 2010

Fleur de Lys

Cod Fritter with Potato Salad Dominic Armato

Once upon a time, I had Vegas restaurants down cold. What's the occasion? What kind of food do you like? How much do you want to spend? Where are you staying? Go here, here or here. Done. Squeezing 20 or 25 visits into a five year span will do that. Today? *pfft* Clueless. I spent a few days in Vegas last week, and I didn't even recognize the skyline. And we're not talking a token building here or there. Heading north on the 15, cruising past the new CityCenter, it was like they just dropped a whole new entire skyline right in the middle of the existing one. I ate at restaurants in casinos I'd never even heard of. Which is actually pretty sweet, now that I think about it. So on this past trip, we mixed it up a bit. A little old, a little new, and a little off-strip.

Truffled Onion SoupDominic Armato

That Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay qualifies as old, at this point, pretty much sums it up. I've stayed at Mandalay a number of times, and been burned by Aureole almost as many, it seems, so when looking for an early evening option close to home that skewed more towards the traditional end of the spectrum, checking out Hubert Keller's Vegas outpost struck me as the logical conclusion. And if only because I needed to take a little step back from Top Chef while I could, I passed on the menu highlighting his dishes from Masters (his salmon from the finale was notably absent) and instead, I actually ordered a la carte at a high-end restaurant for the first time in as long as I can remember. First taste out of the gate was a cod fritter amuse with potato salad and cayenne mayonnaise. Crisp and hot tempura-style fish and a little zip from the mayo were nice, but the key was a heavy shot of vinegar in the potato salad, keeping it bright and punchy.

Veal RavioliDominic Armato

To start, I went with a simple soup... as simple as truffled onion soup with braised duck crepe and red wine shallot puree gets, anyway. It played simply, though, taking a sweet and unexpectedly creamy angle that still didn't feel as though it had been drowned in dairy. This was an onion soup, not a cream soup, deepened by the red wine reduction that swirled throughout when the soup was poured tableside. The duck-filled crepe, while it seemed like a fine idea, was kind of superfluous. It was tiny to begin with, it got lost in the flavor of the soup, and a soft crepe around shredded, stewed meat didn't provide any kind of textural contrast whatsoever. But as an onion soup, this delivered. I wanted big onion flavor and I got it, even if the truffle was borderline AWOL.

Stout Braised ShortribDominic Armato

My ravioli wasn't without merit, but it was unquestionably the weak link of the evening. I try not to prejudge and I strive to avoid thoughts like, "Don't order pasta from the French chef," but I probably would have done well to listen to my first impulse in this instance. A braised veal and yukon gold filling got the delicate treatment, with diced sunchoke, a few token peas and a light veal sauce, and its delicacy was just the problem. In wasn't so much a problem in terms of flavor, as the elements were well-balanced and it's hard to go wrong with a good veal stock, but the pasta just didn't work. Even setting aside the fact that my five or six ravioli had fused in the center of the plate, creating a kind of pasta Pangaea, they just had no body or substance at all. There's a school of thought that's okay with this kind of symbolic wrapper -- the school that thinks of dumpling skins as a viable alternative to pasta -- but I just don't see how it makes for a better dish.

Carrot CakeDominic Armato

While my main dish may have been treading over well-worn ground, it did so with skill and made me happy in the process. A boneless block of shortrib was braised in Guinness, set atop melted leeks and root vegetable purees, then topped with some manner of foam, a slathering of grainy mustard and more of the reduced Guinness and beef jus. This is a tough dish to screw up, but it did achieve a really nice depth of flavor and had the perfect texture. It may have been undershooting the restaurant's price point a bit -- I've had similar braised shortrib dishes at a fraction of the cost -- but the addition of the mustard, simple as it was, gave it a bit of a spin that I enjoyed, cutting through the meatiness and keeping the dish from striking too simple a chord. As twists go, this was hardly inspired, but it was effective.

Dessert -- carrot cake with cream cheese ice cream filling and some manner of sorbet -- was completely forgettable. But even with that and the problematic ravioli, I walked away pleased with my dinner but less thrilled about the overall experience. My first thought was that I somehow expected more, both from the price point and Keller's reputation. My second thought was that even if the meal had been at a level that I thought justified the price, there are so many other compelling options on the strip that I really couldn't see myself returning. And my third thought, oddly enough, was regarding the service. When's the last time I wrote anything about a restaurant's service? Have I ever made an issue thereof? The fact that I found it glaringly and distractingly inappropriate should probably serve as a stark warning to those who, unlike me, usually care about such things. Plates and utensils were stacked with loud clattering, both on the table itself and right behind our heads. Staff seemed vocally pushy about clearing, which was especially puzzling considering that the room wasn't nearly full enough to suggest a need to turn the table quickly (not that rushing us would have been appropriate had the need existed). Many of those working the room seemed, for lack of a better way of putting it, uncomfortable with the level of formality the decor and price point dictated. And I was particularly amused by the fellow bearing the bread basket, who aggressively gesticulated with his tongs, going so far as to point them at you, arm extended, when it was your turn to choose your roll. I found it all more comical than anything, though others, I've no doubt, would be far less amused. My dining compatriots were wonderful company, and for that reason (and perhaps the menacing bread tongs), the dinner will stick with me. But otherwise, I'm comfortable checking Fleur de Lys off the list as a place I need no longer consider when picking restaurants in Vegas.

Fleur de Lys
Mandalay Bay
3950 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89119
Tue - Sat5:30 PM - 10:30 PM

January 20, 2010

Jo Jo TaiPei

Oyster Pancake Dominic Armato

Woooo, it's been a busy few weeks. During the break I managed to relocate the family to Phoenix, get mostly settled, squeeze in a quick business trip to Vegas and San Francisco and, incidentally, clear one million pageviews over the lifetime of Skillet Doux. I'm still having a hard time wrapping my head around that last one, so let me just take a moment to say... wow, guys. I'm simultaneously flattered and flabbergasted, and I guess the most appropriate thing to say is thanks. So... thanks!

Back to business, however, there's a bit of a backlog to start clearing, and I think the best place to start is with some Boston spots I never quite got around to writing about. We'll mix in a little Phoenix and a little Vegas, but I'm hoping to put the Boston stuff to bed over the next couple of weeks, starting with a write-up I promised a good buddy I'd get posted.

Cold StartersDominic Armato

Chinese, I have a pretty good grip on, but Taiwanese is pretty much a total mystery to me. It's familiar, of course, for obvious reasons, but there are plenty of curveballs for somebody like me who's spent all of my time in Hong Kong, Guangdong and some exceptional Sichuan restaurants stateside. In fact, before visiting Jo Jo TaiPei, I think my experience with Taiwanese was exclusively limited to the amazing homemade sausages that one of my high school roommates used to bring back to the dorm once a month (more on this later, I hope). It was, in fact, these very sausages that kept me from writing about Jo Jo TaiPei sooner. Though we didn't have them when I visited back in July, I knew they were on the menu and I wanted to revisit my introduction to Taiwanese cuisine to make a nice bookend for the post. Aaaaand, then I never quite got back. But it wasn't for lack of desire. The first (and only, thus far) official Skillet Doux outing was a great night with some great folks and pretty darn good food.

Xiao Long BaoDominic Armato

Jo Jo TaiPei is one of the obscene number of little ethnic joints crammed into Allston, and it's a very small, cozy and comfortable place that's open late and has a huge menu. This is always a good start. Foodwise, we got started with a selection of what I could best describe, for lack of the actual term (which I'm sure somebody will reveal in the comments) as Taiwanese panchan. Our server brought out a large platter of chilled items from which we selected three. Thinly sliced pig's ear in sesame oil was a little tougher than I would have liked, but was simple and tasty, nonetheless. Pickled bamboo was tart and spicy, but the most interesting, hiding in the rear right corner of the photo, was some manner of fish, I believe, that had been transmogrified into something almost meaty. The seasoning was heavily soy-based, it had been dried to create a very dense, chewy and almost jerky-like consistency, and then smoked.

Pork Belly BunsDominic Armato

Immediately following the cold dishes, and pictured at the top of the post, was an absolutely dynamite dish. The oyster pancake was simple enough, made with eggs, rice flour (I assume), mushrooms and greens with oysters cooked within and an almost ketchupy tomato sauce on top. But it was beautifully executed, the tender, plump oysters set against the pancake's crisply fried edges and absolutely vibrant vegetables. If I hadn't forgotten about it, it might very well have made the Deliciousness of 2009 a few weeks back. Beautiful dish. Less beautiful but perfectly pretty were the xiao long bao, which always seem to find their way to my table if they're on the menu. I'm usually just courting disappointment, but Jo Jo's were worthy. They weren't nearly so delicate as others I've had, the flavors weren't quite as clean and intense, that telltale sag wasn't present, but they had good flavor and were plenty soupy. I'd get 'em again without hesitation.

Three Cups Tofu and EggplantDominic Armato

We also went for the pork belly -- surprise -- which was a bit of a new and interesting preparation for me. Thick slices were stewed or perhaps steamed tender, and then folded into a small bun and topped with fresh cilantro and some sort of pickled green that I suspect was mui choy. The little packages were great, with a deep caramelized flavor and a nice bit of contrasting tartness from the greens and herbal freshness from the cilantro, even if the pork could have been a little more tender and lush for my tastes. The curveball, however, was sprinkled over the top. I swear it must have been granulated sugar, or perhaps a seasoned version thereof, but it added a little sweetness and a really unusual texture that, while jarring at first, I found I really enjoyed. For me, this was the other big hit of the night.

Shredded Pork with Black BeansDominic Armato

Our next two dishes, both of which I believe were specials that day, were serviceable if unremarkable. Three cups tofu and eggplant hit that magically smooth (and apparently quintessentially Taiwanese) marriage of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil, but something about the combination of this sauce and the eggplant wasn't quite working for me. I may yet be convinced, but my first impression is that this isn't the strongest pairing. The other special was shredded stir-fried pork that was treated with fermented black beans, an abundance of scallions and fresh cilantro. I couldn't fault it. The flavors were nicely balanced with a little zip and the finely shredded texture was great, but it just wasn't a standout. If you have a hankering for pork and black beans, it's your dish. Otherwise, it's entirely missable.

Ginger Scallion LobsterDominic Armato

Strangely, the big disappointment of the evening was the dish the Boston Chowhounders have been falling over themselves to praise. Twin ginger scallion lobsters are, indeed, a very good deal at $17. But maybe I caught an off night, or maybe the fact that I'd just had Chun's version of the same at my farewell dinner in Baltimore less than a month prior set the bar unfairly high, but it just struck me as flat. The sauce didn't pop, it didn't bring out the lobster, and rather than those vibrant aromatics enhancing the fresh lobster's sweetness, it played more like generic Chinese-American brown sauce atop a slightly rubbery crustacean. This particular disappointment aside, however, I rather enjoyed Jo Jo TaiPei and wouldn't have hesitated to return if we'd stuck around, not least of which because there's a lot on this menu that's unfamiliar to me. I suspect I could've learned a little, and consider it a missed opportunity.

Jo Jo TaiPei
103 Brighton Avenue
Allston, MA 02134
Mon - Sun11:30 AM - 11:30 PM

January 18, 2010

A Tale of Two Carnitas

Carnitas Tacos - Border Grill Left, El Nopalito Right Dominic Armato

As somebody who tries to be non-discriminatory when it comes to the source of my food, I find myself defending both ends of the spectrum. Some people don't understand why anybody would want to pay for decor in a fine dining restaurant, and some don't understand why you'd want to eat at some dingy-looking joint in a strip mall. While those reading here probably don't embody either extreme (or they wouldn't stick around), I came across a great example this past week for the latter.

Above, plates of carnitas tacos from two restaurants. On the left, the Las Vegas outpost of Border Grill. On the right, El Nopalito of Phoenix. Both included three tacos of approximately equal size, beans and rice. The tacos on the left were served in a stylish and modern room in the Mandalay Bay casino. The tacos on the right were served in a nondescript strip mall near downtown Phoenix. The tacos on the left were from a kitchen overseen (to some degree) by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken of early Food Network's Two Hot Tamales fame. The tacos on the right were from a kitchen overseen by... well, I have no idea. The tacos on the left cost $16. The tacos on the right cost less than $5. The tacos on the left were decent. The tacos on the right were much, much better.

Really, everything about them was better. The flavor of the El Nopalito carnitas was more intense, more porky, more engrossing. The El Nopalito carnitas had that great mixture of crispy and succulent textures, where the Border Grill carnitas were simply soft. Even the tortillas -- billed as handmade but suspiciously shaped in perfectly cut circles at Border Grill -- had better flavor and a freshly-griddled texture at El Nopalito.

And this is why the hardcore food nerds who seek out the dives have a hard time understanding the appeal of a place like Border Grill. To be clear, I like Border Grill. I have for a long time. Though this was the first time I've eaten there in probably six or seven years, I've spent many a meal in both the Santa Monica and Las Vegas locations and I'm sure I'll be back again. I know they turn out some great food. But even for me, somebody who has had positive feelings for the place for a very long time, the question has to be asked -- is the pretty room worth paying more than three times as much for tacos that are half as good? There isn't a right or a wrong answer. Though the focus here may be on the food, other elements factor into a great dining experience and what matters to you is a very personal thing. And I'm not the least bit opposed to spending some dining dollars on the surroundings. I'm unfazed by plenty of fine dining establishments where it's clear that at least a third of my check is going to the room. But if you've ever wondered why some people -- myself included -- spend so much time slumming it in the strip malls, this is why.