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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Reflections on food: 2008 Review (LONG POST)

(More GoalBusters Restaurant Reviews at "Alice's Restaurants")

It has been said that an army travels on its stomach. We agree. So here's the Food in Review for our "army"--our favorite restaurants from our 2008 travels.

Castroville CA: any restaurant that has a sign outside promoting fried artichokes
These little nuggets are shockingly good. Most any restaurant or roadside stand in the Castroville area knows how to make these is the artichoke capital of the world! We got one tray of 'chokes and inhaled them, wishing there was another tray! Lightly battered, crisp, not greasy, tender on the inside--road food at its finest!

Gila Bend AZ: Outer Limits Cafe at the Space Age Lodge
Eat in a space ship! But go after the lunch rush--they seem to spend a little more time preparing the food after about 2 pm. When they take their time, the broaster fried chicken and the chicken fried steak are...out of this world.

Kykotsmovi AZ: The Hungry Bear
When they have the Hopi Hot Beef on special, get it--it's fry bread with roast beef, gravy, mashed potatoes and a green chile on top. Yes, you can get this anytime at the Hopi Cultural Center, but it's a little different at the Hungry Bear. You can also make your own in Window Rock, as long as you don't tell them it's the "Hopi" hot beef.

Las Vegas NV: Bouchon at the Venetian
Yes, it's Thomas Keller, so how can it be bad? We go for the terrine de foie gras, an intensely buttery, rich jar of foie gras. That's all we need. Well, and a cocktail to go with it.

Las Vegas NV: David Burke at the Venetian
Discovered David Burke when Bouchon was closed. The server was Jay, a mohawk-wearing, well-dressed dude who made the evening by being highly professional without being pretentious. The Angry Lobster, half a lobster poached in chili oil and somehow crisped but still tender, was the highlight, along with the finale bowl of pink cotton candy!

Las Vegas NV: Alize at the Top of the Palms
Incredible view of the strip from the Top of the Palms. The food is pretty darn tasty as well.

Las Vegas NV: Rosemary's
A stellar off-the-strip restaurant, they almost always have a coupon online for a three course, prix fixe lunch for $23 or $25. Andrew is our other favorite server in Las Vegas, and the service here is, much like David Burke, professional and unpretentious. The barbecued shrimp with gorgonzola cole slaw is a delicious study in flavor balance.

Las Vegas NV: Lotus of Siam
A totally unassuming Thai restaurant in an off-strip strip mall, this is the best Thai we've had in the US. We always order too much, though, and usually right before we hit the road back to Flagstaff. So the leftovers torture us with their intoxicating spices until we decide to just open up the boxes and eat the leftovers cold. Our favorite appetizer is the Nam Kao Tod, a combination of crispy rice and sour sausage that tastes way better than it sounds. The roasted duck curry is also exceptional.

Nashville TN: Loveless Cafe
About 30 minutes from downtown Nashville, this place is where everyone still calls you "hon" and they serve down home, stick to the ribs, comfort food. The biscuits with sausage gravy are like a sausage cloud, and will now be the gold standard by which every other biscuit with gravy will be judged. The fried chicken and barbecued meats are pretty dang tasty as well.

Oklahoma City OK: Cocktails on the Skyline
A summer oasis on the roof of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, they have live jazz performances and access to a full (cash) bar included in admission to the museum after 5 pm. Got to walk through the Chihuly glass exhibit and then get a glass of something.

Peoria AZ: Hope Kee Hong Kong Style Restaurant at Lee Lee Supermarket
We never would have thought there would be a good, sit down restaurant inside a grocery store. But Hope Kee is definitely unusual, serving a broad selection of Chinese barbecued meats, very fresh (out of the case next door!) seafood, and seasonal specials like sauteed snow pea leaves, which Alice hadn't seen since Taiwan. The servers also like to tease people who spend too much time on their cell phones at meals.

Phoenix AZ: The Fry Bread House
When you need a plate size piece of fried dough with spicy red or green chile stew, this is the place to be. Located near downtown Phoenix, you get a very hearty meal and get to experience a Southwestern specialty.

Phoenix AZ: Durant's
This is old school, baby. With dark paneled rooms, large booths, and appetizer selections like sauteed chicken livers, you come here for steak or fish and a martini. We saw Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio here, dressed in a elegant suit and surrounded by other tough looking guys in suits. Their motto says it all: "Good friends, great steaks and the best booze are the necessities of life."

Prescott AZ: SweetTart
You get a sugar rush just walking in here. Remodeled and expanded in 2008, Alain turned his little rustic cafe into a totally hip, modern bistro. The pastries sit like jewels in a lighted case in the front of the restaurant, beckoning you to save room for dessert. Crystal is one of our favorite servers in Prescott.

Prescott AZ: American Jazz Grill 129 1/2
Maurice is our other favorite server in Prescott. Tall, imposing, and with a European accent of unconfirmed origin, Maurice takes good care of you, timing your courses and making good recommendations. After the chef took escargot off the menu, we lobbied Maurice to bring it back. We always get the escargot now.

Prescott AZ: Peacock Room at the Hassayampa Inn
Two words: Monte Cristo. This is our favorite, served with a jalapeno jelly. Awesome. Alice also adores the coffee, which is made from a special concentrate that makes the coffee incredibly smooth and never bitter.

San Diego CA: Peohe's on Coronado Island
Lovely view of the San Diego bay and the Lobster Bisque is delicious.

San Francisco CA: Sam's Grill at Belden Place
A San Francisco institution, their waiters still wear starched white shirts and black bow ties. The wait staff and kitchen team have worked together so long, they are like a family! The power brokers of the Financial District lunch here, so if you go a little after the typical lunch time, you have a better shot at a table. They make the best Manhattan in San Francisco! We had halibut cheeks for the first time here, which were tender and flavorful, and sand dabs, reminding Alice of the movie, Spirit of St. Louis.

San Francisco CA: Asia de Cuba at the Clift Hotel
Hip, stylish restaurant tucked into the Clift Hotel near Union Square. Beautiful looking bar and lounge, and the centerpiece of the dining room is a cross-shaped, etched glass, mirrored table that reflects patterns throughout the room! Creative spins on Asian fusion cuisine.

San Francisco CA: Grand Cafe Brasserie and Bar at the Hotel Monaco
Got an incredible deal on a half bottle of 1994 Bordeaux here. The cassoulet was very rich and hearty--probably could have served three! Alice's Dad was perplexed by the Soupe à L'Oignon Gratinée, which Alice had to explain was French Onion Soup. Dad asked, "Well, why didn't they just write that in English then?"

San Francisco CA: Yank Sing
King of all dim sum (or deem sum, as they spell it) in the western United States. The Shanghai dumpling, their signature soup dumpling, is worth the trip in itself, but then there's the Peking duck, the lettuce wraps with pine nuts, the ha gow, the sui mai.... The special Yank Sing XO sauce is also a great spicy condiment for just about anything. We prefer the Rincon Center location, which expands into the building atrium on the weekends. Be prepared to wait for a table, or better yet, make a reservation!

Tempe AZ: Rula Bula
The one place on Mill Avenue that you can guarantee will be open late and serving food. Irish pub fare absorbs the copious amounts of Irish beer and whiskey being consumed by the local college students. The bartender will even set drinks on fire if you ask.

Tucson AZ: J-Bar
GoalBusters friend Chef Janos Wilder gets to show off his "cantina" side at J-Bar, the less formal sister establishment to Janos at the Westin La Paloma. There are many creative dishes here, but a favorite is the Dark Chocolate Jalapeno Ice Cream Sundae!

Winslow AZ: The Turquoise Room at La Posada
The bartender is clever and the signature soup is wonderful. The soup has a corn chowder and a black bean soup poured into a yin-yang pattern with a red chile "T-R" squiggled in the center. The bartender knows how to make Jim's signature cocktail, which is another post entirely.

Winslow AZ: E & O Kitchen at the airport
Oscar, the "O" in E & O, is the host and server pretty much every day, and once gave us a detailed treatise on the proper way to make chile rellenos. He's absolutely right, because the E & O rellenos are our favorites--smoky, with a meaty texture and just the right amount of cheese. The gorditas are also a favorite, with a crispy corn exterior and meat filling of your choice. There are five or six different meats at E & O, all of which are good, but we enjoy the ground beef and the stewed pork.

Washington DC: Burma Restaurant
We had never tried Burmese food until this restaurant and were pleasantly surprised to discover that the foods didn't remind us of anything in other cuisines! The sour mustard plant and the green tea leaf salad were the highlights.

Washington DC: Cafe Atlantico, Oyamel, Jaleo and Zaytinya
Chef Jose Andres and his ThinkFoodGroup restaurants provided an unforgettable "progressive dinner" at four different concept restaurants.

At Cafe Atlantico, we enjoyed tableside prepared guacamole, and two very creative cocktails: the Magic Mojito, featuring cotton candy in a martini glass, which dissolved "magically" into the drink when the rest of the liquid was poured on top with a flourish; and the Faux Syrah Syrah, which took the flavor elements of syrah--blackberry, black pepper, and lavender to name a few--broke them down into their parts and recombined them into a cocktail.

At Oyamel, Jose's Mexican cantina, Dave Andersen, the manager, treated us like VIP's and brought out Jose's favorite margarita, topped with "salt-lime air," a delicate looking but surprisingly sturdy seafoam that added a hint of salt and lime to every sip. In addition, we savored red snapper ceviche, pozole, and three kinds of tacos--carnitas, lengua and grasshopper! Funny enough, the grasshoppers, about an inch long, kept "jumping" out of the taco. They were deliciously spicy and crunchy.

After that, off to Jaleo, Jose's tapas bar. There we enjoyed a buttery Iberico jamon with a dry sherry.

Finally, we braved the cold to walk to Zaytinya, where we were greeting by Andy, our server, with the question, "How hungry are you at this point?" When we replied, "a light appetite," Andy responded with, "Okay, then the chef will provide three courses...." At one point there were 20 small dishes on the table! Exceptional dips--hummus, baba ghanoush, tzatziki among the six, with a companion of a light pink bubbly. Grilled octopus--tender, lightly charred and mildly sweet. A pinot noir-esque red wine from Lebanon. Braised short ribs, a stewed lamb and chicken kabobs with an airy garlic aioli. Finally, we were presented with a glass of dessert wine and two desserts--a yogurt, brandied cherry and cherry sorbet parfait, which was light and refreshing, and a deconstructed chocolate covered cherry--crushed chocolate cookies, brandied cherries, caramel sauce, chocolate mousse-like pyramid and cherry sorbet. Taste a little bit of everything at once and it does indeed taste like a chocolate covered cherry!

Yuma AZ: Los Manjares de Pepe
In a little house on 8th Street in Yuma, this is our go-to Mexican place. Favorites are the chile relleno and the Pepe's Special, a slow braised pork in a green chile sauce.

Yuma AZ: Pupuseria y Taqueria Cabanas
Another little hole-in-the-wall restaurant recommended originally by our Chowhound guru, "Ed Dibble" aka Ed in Yuma. A little Spanish is helpful here, since this is a family run place. The pupusa is a cornmeal hand pie with various fillings depending on the day. We've had them with pork, chicken, beans, and cheese, and all were delicious. We also had the arroz con pollo, and the chicken was fall off the bone tender. The tamales here are ethereal--incredibly fluffy and a perfect balance of filling and dough. This place is also one of the best values--we fed three of us on about $20.

Yuma AZ: Mariscos Nayarita
Another Ed recommendation. This is a "permanent" taco truck on 8th Street. Their shrimp empanadas are crisp, not at all greasy and filled with just the right amount of chopped shrimp. When you bite into them, they let out this hot puff that we initially thought was grease, but it was trapped hot air. Great with a touch of hot sauce.


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