austin food: qui

Last week we ate at a hyped new restaurant in town, Qui. It is Paul Qui’s first solo joint, which he has founded since leaving his role as exec chef at Uchiko.

The restaurant doesn’t take reservations so we arrived promptly at 5pm and were joined by Matt and Amanda who had the night off from their baby. It was no trouble to get seated by 5:30 after we’d enjoyed a custom cocktail at the trendy, locally stocked full bar. I popped up to snap a pic of the very jolly and friendly Paul overseeing his kitchen:

The food was high-end but not too pricey, and universally delicious. My favorite dish was rabbit 7 ways, which included consomme in this cute rabbit cup:

The rest of the presentation was nice too:

The food was inventive, playful, delicious, and the whole place was very down-to-earth and unpretentious. The staff seemed to be having a great time and was really into the food and the service. Paul visited our table several times to see how we were doing and gently nudge us toward the real wasabi (“the good stuff,” he called it) and to make sure we ate our cheddar cracker ice cream sandwich with our fingers and not utensils.

There are a few more pics on gallery. I would definitely visit again!

bay area food #26: the french laundry

You heard that right, folks: Leslie and I finally made it out to that ultimate west-coast food Mecca: The French Laundry. The trip was sort of a combination long-delayed graduation celebration combined with an anniversary dinner. That’s enough justification, right?

It would take quite a while to describe the whole meal (officially nine courses, but also two bonus amuse bouche and an extra dessert course). If you really wanna know every detail, here’s the menu with our notes:

We arrived about half an hour before our 9pm reservations, figuring there would be stuff to see. And sure enough, there was! Right across the street from the restaurant is the incredibly well manicured restaurant garden, where they get a lot of their produce. Representative pic:

The garden was right off the road, in the middle of town, almost like a public park. It had no gates or entry control at all, so we just walked around through it. Very fun. So I guess what it takes to support sustainable urban agriculture is… to use it to supply a super-high end restaurant across the street.

The food itself was… well, just plain outstanding. It was course after course of expertly combined ingredients (LOTS of them, and never one repeated!), always in harmony, always with high-art-grade presentation. The second amuse bouche was a “coronet” of salmon, but obviously it’s supposed to look like a tiny ice-cream cone. So fun!

I got pictures of several more of the courses, but not all of them, and posted them on gallery. I’ll put one more in here for fun, though, check out this crazy-ass dessert (too many ingredients for a succint name… maybe just “anglaise?”):

The interior of the restaurant itself was pretty interesting… it was in an old house, and it felt pretty cramped (the staff and diners were constantly impeding each other up and down the narrow stairs, for example). I overheard one of the servers say it had 16 tables, which sounds about right. Most were 2 and 4 tops but there were a few bigger, and a private dining room with a table for 10 (every table was constantly occupied, of course!).

We sat down promptly at 9, after I was fitted with a borrowed jacket. Such an anachronism, requiring jackets for men, at a modern restaurant on the west coast! My shirt, tie, and slacks made me better dressed than many of the other male diners I saw, but there’s still something magical about a ratty sport coat that makes you acceptable I guess.

As for drinks, they initially brought out their wine list, on an iPad I shit you not. There we were, in this elegant restaurant, with the blue glow of a frickin’ iPad blinding us. I guess in someone’s demented mind (Thomas Keller? Yep, I’m sure this was his idea) this was trendy and a cool solution. Luckily, we didn’t really have to interact with it: we just gave our server a budget ($150/person, wince) and she brought all the pairings, which were great on the whole. They even included a champagne made exclusively for the French Laundry! They’re mostly written in our notes on the menu.

After working our way through every last course, we speculated as to the time and were pretty shocked to discover it was 12:45am–we’d been eating for almost 4 hours! I guess that’s the kind of marathon meal of relentlessly excellent food you’d want to have experienced before being handed this:

Yeowch! At least the tip was included.

Overall, it was an amazing experience. There wasn’t anything about any individual dish that was unlike what we’ve eaten before–we’ve had courses at several places (most recently Commis in Oakland) that could go head-to-head with anything served at the French Laundry. The difference was the scale of the meal, the ambitiousness and variety of the ingredients, and the complete consistency of the flavor and presentation.

Will we go again? I doubt it… when we eat we’re more interested in exploring new things than seeking out extremes. It was a fun adventure, but I think there’s more to learn by eating everyday examples of regional food from all around the world (plus, that’s the stuff we could actually cook!).

Still, I’ve got to say: The French Laundry is a shining example of what complete, single-minded obsession with great food can yield. Wow.

bay area food #25: bay wolf

Last night we tried a new-to-us place in Piedmont: Baywolf. It’s been around for over twenty years, and on our list for at least a couple, so it was high time.

I think they are going for mediterranean food, although if you hadn’t told me that I would have guessed it was just the usual worldly Californian that you see so much around here. I liked the way the restaurant was set up: An old, many-times-refurbished craftsman house with a modern, enclosed deck added to the front for extra seating. Although we sat inside, the deck looked and felt really pleasant.

We started with a grapefruit, avocado, and mango salad with miscellaneous greens that seemed to be spinach and arugula. It was my least favorite dish of the night, mostly because it had this creamy cumin dressing that totally dominated the way everything tasted in my mouth. I get the combination of avocado with cumin, but the sourness of the grapefruit and mango just couldn’t stand up to the aroma.

We also had “duck liver flan” which as far as I could tell was purely a euphemism for foie gras. It was delicious as usual, and served with a nice selection of little pickled this and that (cornichons, shallots, olives).

For the main course, we shared roasted duck with peas, fava beans, artichokes and pancetta. This was the star of the night for me: the duck was perfectly rare in the middle, with a nice crusty coating of fat on top, and the rich, mild combination of vegetables and pancetta was a great accompaniment.

(Not my picture; taken by Flem J. off Yelp, and of a slightly different duck dish. But that’s what the duck looked like).

We also had the Bomba di polenta: polenta layered with short ribs and fava bean greens. The flavor base of this was wonderful, with a great pan sauce covering the plate and smothering some random mushrooms (shitake, and even a few errant chantarelle chunks). The main event though was kind of disappointing: the polenta cakes were all chewy at the edges and I could barely find any trace of the short ribs (though the chunks I did find were darn tasty).

Overall, I’d eat there again, but not before we get through a few more of the east bay places on our list.

nyc: mostly just ate

Our little mini-trip to NYC was a blast. We got a hotel in midtown for $100/night on priceline and spent our two days wandering around, seeing sites, visiting clare, and (most of all) eating. A few highlights:

Momofuku Noodle Bar. Shitake buns, hanger steak with polenta, and the best ramen I’ve ever had.

shitake buns

hanger steak


And Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn. Slice of bacon = $3, and wow. Was probably 1/2 inch thick before they threw it on the grill. Hamburger = $9, best I’ve ever eaten. Steak for one = $40, definitely in my top 5 ever. (They only serve porterhouse, which is great, but I’m more of a ribeye guy if I’ve got the choice).



2nd anniversary eating

To celebrate our second wedding anniversary, Leslie and I decided to spend the day in San Francisco eating. We started at Samovar Tea Lounge, where we shared a pot of green tea and another of Pu-erh, which is fermented Chinese green tea–Leslie was a fan. The caffeine seems to have affected my eyebrows.

Bryan with tea at Samovar

From there we did lunch at the Monk’s Kettle, which is kind of like Toronado in that it has an amazing bottled and draft beer selection, but minus the sticky counters and loud punk music and plus a very tasty food menu. We kicked things off with 0.5L of Weihenstephaner Hefe, which reminded us of our newlywed summer in Berlin where we drank it in the Weihenstephaner restaurant in Hackescher Markt.

leslie with beer

From there, we did some shopping, saw Up at the Castro theatre, then quickly got back to eating at the Anchor Oyster Bar in the Castro. The oysters were just a warm up for the main event, though: Kiss Seafood.

I linked to the Yelp page because Kiss Seafood doesn’t have a website. They also don’t have a lot of other things like a good location, nice decor, a large menu, any employees besides the husband (chef) and wife (waitress) who own the place, nor room to seat more than 12 people (including at the bar). What they do have is the best sashimi I’ve ever eaten. We sat down and ordered the chef’s omakase menu, which is like a prix fixe menu at a French place where the chef decides what you eat. This menu came recommended, and it was also the most convenient option because we couldn’t read the specials anyway:

kiss specials

I’m now going to bore you with a description of each course because this, my friends, was a dinner worthy of rememberance and it is my website after all. We didn’t get enough pictures of the food, but just imagine everything coming out looking half like a sparse, modernist painting and half like something you really want to eat, now. First was a sweet, light salad of soybeans, bean sprouts, and seaweed with a delicate vinegar and sesame dressing. Then, we got a trio of flavors that I’m not used to at a japanese place: smoked (maybe braised?) octopus with what I swear was a barbecue sauce—and it tasted like brisket, not rubbery at all; turnip slices with the most amazing hash of marinated scallop on top; some unidentifiable, firm, delicious root vegetable.

The third course we hit the fish. It was a plate of two slices each of six kinds of sashimi. Here’s the plate after one of each has been eaten:

sashimi of the gods

Let’s be clear: this was the best sashimi I’ve ever had. The pieces were bite-sized, bursting with flavor, each one an adventure of texture in my mouth. I wish had gotten down all the names; here are some snippets from my notes. (Yes, I started taking notes. It’s not weird at all.)

“Something like red striped bass that tastes, according to Leslie, ‘like the deck of a ship—but in a good way.'” “Giant clam. Crunchy like the plumpest oyster, but smoky sweet and not salty at all. Wow.” “Thai snapper with the skin still on. Delicate. Perfect.” “Mackerel fin. Totally unique texture, not marinated.” “A chunk of white fish that looks like that flavorless, crunchy stuff you get everywhere but which tastes like cod that was force fed melted butter for its entire life.” “Please, don’t let the sashimi be over.” You get the idea.

The fourth course was a clam broth with steamed clams and turnip slices and a ground fish patty. I wasn’t blown away until I had all the ingredients together, then quipped “Wow! Turnip + patty – what a combo. I’m a bad person for judging it early.” Fifth was a miso soup with egg custard, steamed veggies, lotus root, trumpet mushrooms, and chunks of poached whitefish. It was like the platonic ideal of miso–every other bowl I’ve had is a dancing, hollow shadow. I thought for sure that was the end, but no: round six brought an entire plate of nigiri, bite sized and and just as astronomically good as the sashimi (so I guess Kiss is taking “best nigiri” title as well). We waddled out of the restaurant and headed home for sleep.

Not a bad way to celebrate two years.

berkeley food #23: sea salt

2512 San Pablo Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94702

We arrived at Sea Salt early (about quarter to 6) to take advantage of the $1 oysters they offer from 4-6. The restaurant was well put together and felt new, though Les assured me that it has been around in Berkeley since before we arrived. We ordered a dozen oysters (chef’s choice, we ended up with “calm cove”), which were very tasty and came along with the usual horseradish/red sauce and also with a citrus and onion concoction that was quite tasty. We paired them with pints of Scrimshaw pilsner, which was crisp and light with the bready finish I like to see in good pilsners, and which was a great match for sea food. Things only got better from there.

We started with slices of monkfish liver topped with sea urchin (a.k.a. uni) and sturgeon caviar, resting in a pool of cucumber puree with cilantro sprouts. We spent about 20 minutes savoring two slices; it was absurdly good. It pushed all of my “this is awesome sushi” buttons without being corralled into the usual settings you would see these ingredients in at a Japanese place. In our opinion, the combination was transcendent.

We followed this up with a pair of crabcakes coated in a layer of cioppino and another of a rich rouille. The cioppino probably wouldn’t have stood on its own, but that was alright because these crab cakes were definitely in my top-five-ever category. Heavy on the crab, light on filler, perfectly put together (not too dense) and lightly fried, we teased out every bite. The acid in the cioppino was right there to cut the richness when it threatened to be too much.

For the main course we had a vietnamese-style barbecue eel sandwich and grilled walu. We knew we would like the eel, and were pleasantly suprised to be assured when we asked that it was cooked on-site (often it’s just reheated from frozen). The sandwich was filled with onion cilantro, shredded carrots, and slices of jalepeno pepper. It made a great combination, except for the jalepeno. It was raw and quite spicy, and Leslie and I both thought there was too much of it. Leslie got a bite with a huge slice and spent the next five minutes just trying to cool things down enough to appreciate the walu.

We’ve had walu before, but only raw. Another name for it in the sushi world is “butterfish,” which I think gives you the right idea of its essential properties. I was skeptical about subjecting such a great raw fish to the flame, but we were astounded by the characteristics it took on when (absolutely perfectly) grilled. It had a nice metallic meatiness of a carnivorous fish, a perfect amount of char, and was flaky and moist throughout. I dream of someday having the timing and equipment to cook fish so appropriately. Surrounding the walu were some large slabs of “sunchokes,” which I would describe as a mix between an artichoke heart and a potato, and baby leeks, all resting on a puddle of “sauce americaine.” I wouldn’t have thought much of this sauce looking at it or reading it’s name, but it turns out that it’s basically a reduction of lobster, butter, and a bit of flour, and it just kept giving and giving. It helped out the veggies and the fish equally. It was the third example (after the liver and the crab cakes) of the right sauce in the right place to perfect the dish.

Overall, the dinner was outstanding. It definitely outshone the experience I had at its mother restaurant, Lalime’s. Not cheap, but so great that I’m sure we’ll come again on our own dime.

berkeley food #22: la cascada

2975 College Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94705
(510) 704-1789

This is another place we at with Leslie’s parents. I feel like it’s a nice counterpoint to Rivoli–cheap, counter-service mexican food in the middle of a cute little shopping district south of campus.

I had the fish tacos, made with wild salmon. Usually fish tacos are made with some heavily seasoned white fish, and that’s pretty good. Here, the salmon tastes great on it’s own, helped out by the breading and seasoning they add for the perfect crunch. A little skimpy as far as size for the price, but great taste–ranking among the best fish tacos I’ve had.

I also tasted Susan’s mole, which was nice and spicy but too sweet for me. It also came in enchilada form, a particular mexican food trope I’m not a huge fan of.

In any case, it’s one to remember when in the mood for a quick lunch/dinner south of campus.

berkeley food #21: rivoli

1539 Solano Ave
Berkeley, CA
(510) 526-2542

Tonight I had the pleasure of eating for the first time at Rivoli, a gem of a restaurant on Solano, a strip with plenty of food and shopping that we haven’t explored much because it’s more than walking distance from our apartment. I don’t know how this place slipped under the radar for so long, but luckily someone more knowledgeable than I about Berkeley food pointed it out to me.

The layout of the restaurant is a bit unconventional. It’s tiny, so you walk right into a combination bar/waiting area/service prep room. You’re greeted by warm lighting, well selected but unobtrusive jazz and blues, and a very friendly and accommodating staff. You walk right through the service area to get back to the main dining room, which is maybe 30 feet on a side at most. The entire back wall is filled with windows which look out onto a well-kept garden–word has it that you’ll see raccoons and skunks frolicking back there, though all we saw was a hungry-looking but cute cat.

The food was inventive and unusual, not at all forbidding, and universally tasty. To start we had the “signature” appetizer of portabella mushroom fritters with a├»oli, parmesan, arugula and caper vinaigrette, as well as Grilled scallops and dungeness crab in phyllo with ginger relish, avocado, cucumber, watermelon radish and saffron yogurt. The first was simple, but delicious. The mushrooms held a lot of their water which helped to offset the heaviness of the fried breading, as did the bed of greens they sat on. The scallops were heavenly in my opinion: nice and rich (made even more so by the shredded crab they were surrounded by), made light by the cucumber, creamy by the avocado, and finally given a bit of zing by the yogurt.

As usual, for entrees we shared four different dishes. My pick was the slow cider braised pork roast stuffed with wild mushrooms, served with sweet potato gnocchi, braised tuscan kale and pink lady apple and walnut vinaigrette. All four parts of the dish were good, but I need to especially call out the gnocchi as the best I’ve ever had. It had all the great taste I expect from good gnocchi, but it was light and fluffy, and not pasty at all as gnocchi tends to be. I think Les put it best when she said it was as though this was the true Platonic form of gnocchi, and all my life previously I had been eating only the shadows it cast on the cave walls. Ahem. Second was cassoulet of duck leg confit, chicken sausage and ham hock with runner beans, tomato, thyme, garlic and breadcrumbs. While delicious, this was probably the least interesting dish. Hearty and fall-like, but a bit heavy (there was more left over if it than anything else). Marc got the grilled mint and garlic marinated leg of lamb with artichoke, bacon and scallion bread pudding, braised cippolini onions and french beans with lemon. This was your straightforward red-meat dish, cooked well, seasoned well, and simply presented. There was some spice involved that reminded the two licorice sensitive palates at the table (mine was one) of anise, but we confirmed with the waiter that there was none. Finally was Leslie’s butternut squash and chestnut torta with pecans, oyster mushrooms, braised rainbow chard, pearl onions, fonduta, red wine sauce and salsa verde. It tasted as complicated as it sounds–if I worked at it, I could pick out all of the distinct pieces, but that wasn’t really necessary; the flavors fell in well together. In all the choices were seasonal, creative, and not at all pretentious or meager as is sometimes the fear with “upscale” food.

For dessert the four of us shared an utterly perfect hot-fudge sundae, and then staggered out the door, bellies full from the dinner (which capped off a day full of tasting of caterers’ food). I think this place is right up there with the cafe at Chez Panisse (and it’s worth saying that we got a table without having to plan a month ahead), and in the same ballpark price-wise ($20ish entrees), so it’s a place I’ll only see on my birthday or when parents are in town, but that being said, it was worth every penny (that I didn’t have to spend). Yum!

berkeley food #20: jupiter

2181 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA

Jupiter is the last of my long-delayed reviews. I may have been here more times than any other restaurant in Berkeley. This is mostly because it’s such a great place to take guests, and we have a lot of guests. Jupiter is a brew-pub, run by the same people who run Triple Rock, just about a quarter mile down Shattuck from that venerable old pub. It’s closer to the heart of downtown. The interior is very welcoming, all dark wood, soft light, hammered copper wall coverings, hand-made, astronomy-themed tables. Outside is even better–a large patio with multiple levels, little heating-lamp things for when the weather turns “cold,” and giant painted versions of their beer posters that I love so much.

The draw here is dual: the beer and the food. To start with the latter: they have sandwiches at lunch and pizzas at dinner. The sandwiches are more interesting than you with think, with boring-sounding options like the tuna-melt or roasted chicken breast both ending up outstanding. The pizza is the same–cooked in a wood-fired brick oven, nice and crispy, never burned, with a large and universally tasty menu of toppings. My favorite is probably the Triton (all their food and beer has astronomically-themed names), which is covered with Italian sausage, sweet onions and basil. I’m hungry just thinking about it.

Because the pizzas are made one at a time, you’ll have to wait a bit for your order to come in. That’s okay, though, it will give you the time you need to drink a couple of thier massively-sized (20oz) ultras of some of my favorite beer, anywhere. Their hefeweisen is definitely my favorite, fruity and rich without being cloying. It’s not for everyone though; they aren’t kidding when they describe it’s taste as including “banana-like esters,” but don’t let it scare you away, it really tastes great!

Although I spend most of my time their drinking the hefe, all the beers are good. Other favorites include the insanely hoppy and alchoholic Quasar double IPA, and the simple, classic Red Spot red ale. Go ahead! Take a look at the whole list.

Jupiter has already earned a special place in our hearts. In fact, if you’re coming to party with us next may when we get hitched, you’ll be treated to some their great food and drink at our rehearsal dinner after party. So if you were on the fence about flying out to California, maybe this will tip the scales.

berkeley food #19: dopo

4293 Piedmont Ave
Oakland, CA 94620
(510) 652-3676

Okay, so this is cheating a little bit; the restaurant is actually in Oakland. Whatever. It’s worth the write up anyway. The place is small, brightly lit, huge glass windows, filled with blonde wood, an enormous open kitchen, and not that many tables. People on yelp predicted a wait (they don’t take reservations) but we had none (it was about 6:45 when we showed up, on a Tuesday). Within about 20 minutes however, all the tables were full and people were sitting outside waiting in the little patio area.

We started with a sort of mashed-together-and-fried-into-patties appetizer made with sausage (house made), fingerling potatoes, and greens. It was really good–an unexpected mix of flavors, kind of heavy but in a small enough portion to be enjoyable to the last bite. For the main course we had prosciutto, rosemary, and red-onion pizza and chanterelle pasta. The pizza crust was perfect: light and crispy, non-scorched, and so tasty that even I finished my crusts (this is saying a lot). There was no red sauce on the pizza, just some olive oil and garlic sitting on the dough with big slices of prosciutto layed over the top. The mix of flavors was delicious. The pasta was my favorite (Leslie’s was the pizza). It was fresh pasta (also made in house), cooked just right so that it has a lot of body without being gummy, covered in a basil-based cream sauce with sauteed chanterelles. It was almost like the pasta had been tossed in the sauce; the coating was very light. The flavor was subtle but heavenly.

For dessert we had esspresso-soaked pound cake filled with mousse and topped with whipped cream. I wasn’t crazy about the espresso (big suprise) but the mousse knocked it out of the park. It was that perfect balance between chocolatey and sweet, and not too wet so it was almost crumbly. Mmmm. Overall, a great experience, great service, and stellar food. A bit on the pricey side for the size of the entrees ($10-$15), but a definite will-visit-again kind of place.