Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The best Thai restaurant in the U.S.??

"The single best Thai restaurant in North America"
- Jonathan Gold, Gourmet Magazine

We were in Las Vegas, looking for a place to have lunch, when I recalled reading about Lotus of Siam years ago. I had not visited because I didn't have a rental car at my disposal on my past few trips - but since we did have a vehicle this time, we decided to venture forth and try to locate this famous place.

If you think it looks pretty unprepossessing, you're completely right. It's located about a mile off the Strip, in a dingy strip mall with Korean restaurants and an Asian senior center. Everyone in the car was ragging on my restaurant choice when we parked, and I have to admit that I was having my doubts.

We walked in to a completely packed restaurant with a 30 minute wait for a table. This was at 11:55 am on a Wednesday in Vegas. With baby in tow, the wait was beyond us so we ordered a number of items to go. Clearly it was very popular and successful.

Now the specialty of the restaurant is northern Thai, or isaarn, cuisine. Unfortunately, we just ordered what Thais would consider regular lunch food - pad see eew, chicken panaang, fried rice and noodles. And it was all just ok - adequate but nothing to rave about. A touch sweet on some of the dishes (btw this is usually the biggest complaint that Thais have about Thai food in the U.S. - it's usually sweetened up for American palates).

We did try their mango and sticky rice, which was touted in all the reviews I had read. This is one of my favorite dishes and all I can say is, meh. It was gussied up with extra flavors that detracted from the authenticity. Although we still gobbled it all up...

I don't know if our reaction was due to the simple food we ordered or Jonathan Gold's lack of expertise on Thai food. I'm inclined to think it was the former and am hoping to give it another try the next time I'm back in Las Vegas.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Not many memorable meals

One of my travel companions in Las Vegas last week was my 13 month old niece. This greatly limits fine dining opportunities, especially when her usual bedtime is 7:30 pm. For the very first time ever, we would be done with a full meal (including dessert) by 7 pm. In Vegas!

We had a nice dinner at Noodles, the Asian place in Bellagio one night. I had a very good Hainanese Chicken Rice, one of my favorite dishes.

Another night we dined at Olives, also in the Bellagio. I had always envied those people who had one of the coveted outdoor tables on the patio. I now know the secret of scoring one of those few tables - show up at 5 pm when the restaurant opens. Yes, 5 pm. That's when we were seated! But the view was beautiful, the fountains were awesome and my niece happily sat through a 2 hour meal. And like I said before, we were done by 7 pm!

Jean-Phillipe's Patisserie

There was a lovely new patisserie near the Spa Tower lifts at the Bellagio that we patronized multiple times every day. We would start with breakfast drinks, as well as pastries. They made a fabulous nutella-stuffed brioche that was even better than a standard pain au chocolate. And a mean breakfast panini, filled with ham, cheese and egg.

Later in the day, there were crepes, more paninis and a beautiful dessert selection, although the key lime tart proved to be a bit of a disappointment.

The most impressive part of the shop was a huge waterfall of milk, white and dark chocolate that flowed on multiple levels and down to chocolate pools on the bottom. The accompanying certificate showed that it was certified as the world's largest chocolate fountain by Guinness World Records.

Alas, it was fully enclosed so you couldn't stick your fingers in for a taste. I don't know if the photo does it justice, but it was pretty cool. I stood there and watched it flow for quite a while.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Our penthouse suite

You might have gathered that I'm a big fan of nice hotels. And suite upgrades. The penthouse suite at the Bellagio was pretty good - about equivalent to the suite at the Wynn that we stayed at a few years ago, but not as good as the incomparably crazy suite at the Venetian in Macau last summer. Yes, the suites are most over-the-top in high-end gambling establishments.

Our suite at the Bellagio was about 2,500 square feet with a master bedroom with two complete bathrooms (so you never have to see each other) and two huge closets.

And a second bedroom that had a paltry single (albeit large) bathroom. We also had a wet bar, a dining area and a sitting area with one of the most comfortable hotel couches I've ever sat on.

The final touch for my happiness? An extensive collection of bathroom amenities both necessary (the usual stuff) and unnecessary (a new loofah every day?! bath salts?). Which were generously refilled. All this I happily contemplated as I slid into my hot bath filled with a whole bottle of bubble bath every night...aaah...

What Happens in Vegas...

I spent a few days in Las Vegas with my parents last week - I know I keep reading about how everyone is canceling their meetings and conferences, and how Vegas is suffering tremendously from the current economic climate. But hey, the place was crowded. Seriously packed for a midweek trip.

We stayed at the Bellagio, which I haven't stayed at for a few years. Here's a tip for those of you going to Vegas... book the cheapest room that you can at a very nice hotel. And then when you check in, make some vague indication of interest in an upgrade. You will get a really nice suite for WAY less than the rack rate. This is a strategy I've employed for my last few stays and I'm quite convinced of its effectiveness.

So we ended up in a penthouse suite in the new Spa Tower at the Bellagio. The best thing about the new building? You don't have to walk through the casino to get to the guest elevators. I used to hate that about their old tower. And the new building is right next to the Conservatory, which is my favorite part of the Bellagio.

Every time we left the room, instead of the classic Vegas mix of stale air and cigarettes, we smelled daffodils and hyacinths instead. Much more pleasant. The conservatory was decked out for spring, with gorgeous beds of tulips in bright colors, and a little greenhouse with live butterflies inside. And giant watering cans shooting arcs of water all over the place (hey, it's Vegas!)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Another Ad Hoc Experience

As I mentioned before, our hotel was located almost next to Ad Hoc in Yountville so after we had slept off the big meals of the previous day, we tromped through the rain to brunch at Ad Hoc late Sunday morning.

The last time I was here, I loved Ad Hoc - this time, I just liked it. I guess it really depends what's on the menu for the day. I was so hoping for a repeat of the fried chicken we had last time.

The first change was that there was no longer a basket of Bouchon Bakery pastries :( Instead regular bread was served. Don't get me wrong - it was nice bread. I just had high expectations from last time...

We started with a salad of frisee and smoked red trout, which was really good - even for someone who's not usually a fan of smoked fish and salad. This, like all dishes here, is served family-style - so we cleaned the plate very quickly between the four of us.

The main course was smoked beef shortribs with homemade tagliatelle. The beef was delicious and cooked just right. And the tagliatelle was really good - thin and flavorful and tossed with some great mushrooms. This was served with some broccoli rabe - the photo on the right is after I had served myself a good sized portion.

I had been disappointed to see Rum Baba as the dessert of the day. I'm not one for liquor in my desserts. In my mind, there's nothing worse than biting into a delicious looking dark chocolate truffle only to find a liquer-filled center. All things considered, the Rum Baba wasn't bad. Especially if you slathered it with the accompanying chantilly.

The first photo is of the special $25 bottle of Blue Ribbon Ale that is only available at Thomas Keller restaurants. See last post for the back story.

All in all, not quite as stellar as my first experience, but still an excellent value - and the service was as good as always. Wish this place was closer to where I live...

Monday, March 2, 2009

Fancy Vegetables at Ubuntu

A few short hours after we rolled ourselves out of the French Laundry, we found ourselves in downtown Napa (which had an awful lot going on) at the entrance of Ubuntu.

Now if you've not heard of Ubuntu, it was probably one of the biggest restaurant openings last year. Jeremy Fox, who was sous chef at Manresa, has been very well-reviewed and Ubuntu came very highly recommended. I was told that I wouldn't look at vegetables in the same way once I dined there.

The space was more industrial than I had expected with stairs that led up to the yoga studio (apparently, there are lots of mat-toting passers-by if you dine here at lunch). And the menu was very interesting, with many, many terms I was not familiar with.

Our server told us that many of the menu items came from the restaurant's bio-dynamic 2 acre garden. Yeah, we had to ask what exactly that meant...

We started with the set of three bites - olives marinated in pesto, marcona almonds with lavender sugar and sea salt, and the chickpea fries. I loved the almonds with their unusual finish and the chickpea fries because, well, they were fried.

We had a harder time deciding on the dishes, so we went with the waiter's recommendation and did "the cycle". It was a fancy name for "bring us one of everything on the menu, please". That's 13 dishes. For the 4 of us. After 10+ courses at the French Laundry. Hmmm...

Artichoke, Arugula and Parmesan Salad
This was my favorite dish of the entire meal. It was an amazing salad. The artichokes were a revelation - I don't usually like artichokes. The juices left at the bottom of the dish were even great mopped up with bread.

Crunchy radishes with chevre and nori
This was a pretty dish but just ok for me as I'm not a big radish fan. Hubby really liked it though.

Today's Leaves & Things
Dressed lightly with olive oil, this was a great light green salad.

Beet Tartare with Pistachio "dirt"
This was probably the most impressive presentation - and the "dirt" was delicious. I'm not much of a beet fan but it was served with grapefruit wedges, peppers and lettuce, and was quite good.

Mustard greens, truffled pecorino with rosemary cracker
Again, beautiful presentation. Delicious but a little hard to eat. Everything fell apart when you served yourself, so you had to put together each bite by piling everything back ontop of the cracker.

Warm sunchoke carpaccio with black trumpet mushrooms, shaved fennel
Did you know that a sunchoke (also known as a Jerusalem artichoke) is not related to the artichoke at all?! This is what you can learn during a meal when one or more of your party wields the iPhone.

Rustic "yellow eye" bean stew
I'm not usually a bean fan but this stew was terrific.

Carrot gnocchetti
This looked a lot like mac 'n cheese. But it was little mini carrot gnocchi. It was good, but very rich.

Fregola in spinach broth with broccoli rabe
Fregola is a pasta, in case you didn't know - I didn't. I think I liked this dish, but also think I might have been filling up so that my food appreciation ability was beginning to be seriously compromised.

Yellow corn grits smoked with hickory, with fried brussels sprouts and apple sticks
I liked the brussels sprouts - they were fried.

Cauliflower in a cast iron pot
This is the dish that all the reviewers raved about. It comes out mouth-burningly hot but I didn't quite see what all the fuss was about. See last comment about compromised food appreciation due to severe over-indulgence.

Finally we had two pizzas - a nice margherita with super ingredients and a sauerkraut and emmental pizza, which so scared me that I was only able to muster a single bite.

Phew. 13 courses plus 3 bites at the start. We were exhausted. But we rallied for the dessert course. Which was (dare I say it) way better than the French Laundry's. I had the meyer lemon and white chocolate parfait, served with rose geranium meringue. Just look at this dessert! It was sooo pretty I almost didn't want to eat it. But then I did anyway. It was great. I'd come back just for this.

Their signature dessert is the cheesecake in a jar - so we ordered that as well. Vanilla bean "cheesecake" in a jar with sour cherries and a lovely nut crumble on top. It would have been great with another fruit. I am not a sour cherry fan. But it almost worked, it was that good.

And so I came to the end of yet another meal and trotted back to collapse in bed with visions of meyer lemon parfaits dancing in my head.

My third time at the French Laundry

After last year's FL experience, I realized I much preferred having lunch there rather than a heavy dinner that ended around 10 pm. So when I was making other restaurant ressies on OpenTable in January, I idly searched for a weekend lunch slot at FL. Much to my surprise, there was availability for 4 on Sat Feb 28 at noon. I've subsequently read an article that mentioned that FL ressies are easier to get these days with the economic malaise. No matter what the reason, we were in!

We all ordered the 9 course chef's tasting menu, although there are really way more than 9 courses offered. Our amuse was the usual smoked salmon cones, with a little creme fraiche and minced chive buried within the cone providing a lovely little burst of richness when first biting into it.

The first course was a White Truffle Custard with a ragout of Perigord truffles. The truffle flavor wasn't too overwhelming, and this was a nice mellow start to the meal and served in a cute eggshell. Hubby, who is not a truffle fan, requested the first course from the vegetarian tasting menu called "Bloody Mary". It was described as tomato pickle, celery branch, horseradish, brioche croutons and smoke. And smoke it did - the bowl you see on the left was covered by a glass lid and smoke was swirling around inside when it was brought to the table. When the lid was lifted up, the smoke swirled up and out, and a delicious applewood smoky smell permeated the air for a few short moments. I have no idea what it tasted like (although it seemed to vanish quite quickly) but the presentation was fabulous.

Somewhere around here, we were each brought a lovely warm roll with a very specific name which I cannot recall. We were served two kinds of butter - an unsalted, almost cheese-like butter from Andante Dairy that was very yellow, and a pale yellow salted butter from Vermont. I loved the latter!

Next up was sauteed foie gras. The standard preparation on the menu was "foie gras au torchon", which is a cold service that makes the foie gras taste a little too much like the pate de campagne you can buy from Trader Joe's. They were kind enough to switch the preparation to the warm sauteed foie gras for us. Which was small, but packed a wallop. It was delicious served with toasted brioche (which oddly enough, I had to request). The foie gras also came with a selection of fancy salts which I remember from last year - the jurassic salt from Montana, the french sel gris and a Hawaiian salt.

The other choice for this course was a salad of FL garden turnips, which looked perfectly composed on the plate. I was much happier with the foie gras, needless to say...

My next course was a confit of Columbia River sturgeon, served with some diced yukon gold potatoes and english cucumbers. The sturgeon was a great petite piece of fish. The other choice was a Japanese Bluefin Tuna tartare served with asparagus, tomato compote, olives and Jidori hen egg emulsion. Although the tuna presentation won the day, I think my sturgeon was the better dish.

We moved on to Maine lobster tail lightly poached in butter which I got so excited about that I forgot to take the requisite photo. Trust me, it was a pretty dish. And yummy.

Next up was a choice between Salmon Creek Farms pork belly or Wolfe Ranch white quail. The pork belly looked good but the quail was fabulous - the skin nicely crisped up.

And finally, the Elysian Fields lamb rib-eye served with black trumpet mushroom ravioli, carrots and spring garlic. A small and deliciously tender piece of lamb and a great finish to the savory courses of the meal.

By the way, all the servings are quite small, lest you think that we've stuffed ourselves with 6 mega courses so far. Thomas Keller's philosophy is the "three bite" approach; the palate is never as stimulated as it is in the first three bites.

We next had a cheese course of Zamorano, a Spanish sheep's milk hard cheese, served with an extensive choice of breads. This was followed by a palate cleansing course of Andante Dairy yogurt sorbet which was delicious but not quite tart enough to cleanse the palate. Also forgot to take a photo of these two courses.

Our next course was a little freebie that is usually available on request - "coffee and doughnuts" used to always be on the menu but they've moved on to other desserts these days. But this is one of my favorites - a hot donut, topped with a donut hole, served with a coffee semifreddo. Do ask for it if you're there, they don't charge extra for this bonus course.

I have to admit that I've not been wild about their desserts (aside from "coffee and doughtnuts"). I had the parfait au citron which was composed of various lemony items and it was light but just ok. The other choice was a chocolate mousse served with some toasted cashews and a wonderful banana ice cream.

Then we had a mignardises course, which is a choice of all sorts of miniature candies, chocolates and cookies. Served in a three tier rotating canister. I got too excited about this as well and my camera was left sitting in my purse. I had a nice apricot pate de fruit, a calisson and an orange chocolate almond thing that was delicious.

Finally, some chocolate covered macadamia nuts and homemade chocolates which were extremely fresh tasting. I had the salted caramel, the key lime and the peanut butter. The caramel was exceptional and the peanut butter was very good. Meh on the key lime.

Along with a nice coffee and tea service, plus a packet of shortbread cookies for us to take home, we rolled out 4 hours later, happy, satisfied and ready for a nap.

A Weekend of Gluttony

Of all the seven deadly sins, I'm afraid that gluttony might be my biggest weakness. Well ok, maybe pride as well.

We were in Napa for a food-filled weekend - Sat lunch at French Laundry, Sat dinner at Ubuntu and Sunday brunch at Ad Hoc. With a few hours in between to digest while lying in a stupor on a very comfortable bed.

We stayed at the Yountville Inn, which is in walking distance to FL, Bouchon and Ad Hoc, were it not pouring most of the time we were there. It was a good deal at $175 for a king deluxe room with vaulted ceilings and a fireplace, and most importantly, no 2-night minimum for a Saturday night. The continental breakfast featured pastries from Bouchon Bakery, and some very nice french bread served with brie.

Now, on to the catalog of meals!