Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Omakase at Neta

It's funny how most menu items cost about same across the board -- a good burger is about $18, a nice roasted chicken dish is $25, a filet's about $32 -- and tasting menus are completely all over the place. We had an awesome four-course meal at Cava in Portsmouth for $35 and 11 courses at Europea in Montreal for $70 -- not including the multiple courses of desserts. It's hard to go from getting so much bang for your buck to paying high end for omakase -- $135 at Neta -- and getting so much less. Yeah, you have to factor in where you are (West Village is not New Hampshire) and the quality of food you are receiving (high-end sushi is not Spanish tapas) but when the difference of two tasting menus are over $100 apart, its hard not to wonder where all that additional money is going.

Anyway, with that rambling cost analysis aside, I have to say that Neta's sushi is great, fresh, high-quality and all that, but it's not very memorable. It was funny going through Europea and Au Pied de Cochon pictures and remembering what every bite tasted like, and then looking through Neta pics -- literally taken the day we got back from Montreal -- and only having a few items stand out.

While I waited for my dining counterparts to show, I sipped on this Rangaku, a punch made from "merlow barrel aged birds eye chili mead" from South Africa (so... red spicy honey wine?) and rooibus ginger tea and yuzu sorbet. It was kind of like a sake -- clear, sweet, balanced.

I asked the difference between the $95 and $135 omakase. Like I expected, the higher priced omakase includes higher quality ingredients, and isn't necessarily larger save for a course or two.  

We started with this. I don't remember what it was. Was it fluke and shrimp? Maybe.

Then one of the dishes for fancy omakase only: toro tuna tartar with sturgeon caviar and toast. It was pretty decadent.

Then Spanish Mackerel Tataki topped with a myoga vegetable salad with ginger and soy. Not as memorable. But then back to the kickass...

Sea urchin with raw scallops! I mean, what more can I say. It's more about the freshness and the fact that they're my favorites than anything else. The preparation is an afterthought.


This next tempura dish was meant to flaunt their veggies, I think. The Times review said they had respectable vegetable sushi, and most people aren't going to ask for it by name, so here it is. Shisito peppers and tofu and a little bit of soft shell shrimp. The spiciness and crispiness was a nice counterpoint to the scallop and uni from before.

My absolute favorite of the evening: rice with spicy salmon tartar and bonito flakes, served on a hot plate. It reminded me of a decadent bibimbap, hot crispy rice with cool, wet fish on top and saltiness from the dancing bonito. Sooo gooood.

Now onto the sushi. My favorite kinds to start: salmon with Szechuan sauce, spanish mackerel and toro. As you can see, the fish was gleamingly fresh, and had that perfect bite to it. Is umami a texture thing, too?

Then orange clam, scallop and kanpachi (amberjack).

The cooked fish. Softshell crab and seared toro.

And rolls. Tuna and eel. None of which were as good as the rounds of raw sushi.

Finally, a palate cleanser of rice in shiso.I thought it meant more fish was coming but...

... we were cleansing for dessert. Which was this grapefruit sorbet.

Okay, so when I left I was pretty pleased and all, but as I thought about it I realized that as one of the more expensive tasting menus we've splurged for, not just in that past week but ever, and thus it should be one of the more memorable. The fish was fresh -- can't argue that -- and the creativity was there -- sure, to an extent -- but I feel like we should have been eating less shrimp and a little more types of toro, maybe some crab, maybe that duck & foie I saw on the menu (though after our weekend in Montreal it was probably the last thing we needed). And definitely dessert! Ice cream, chocolate, something. Grapefruit sorbet is more of a palate cleaner in and of itself!

I also think we missed out on something by sitting at a table. They say there are two types of people in a sushi restaurant -- those at the sushi bar and tourists.

I'm going to Yasuda in a few days and when making the reservation I said the word "counter" and "bar" at least five times. I'm excited to do more... uh... comparison research.

Anyway, I'd definitely recommend hitting Neta for a cocktail and some a la carte sushi. I think I'm getting stingy with my omakase recommendations.
61 W. 8th St.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Adventures in Montreal: Europea

Europea wasn't on the list of places to visit in Montreal originally, but after doing some research I knew it'd be the perfect counterpoint to Au Pied de Cochon. The place is a little more upscale, the food is a little more fun, the portions are smaller so you can add some variety to your meal. 

I knew it'd be a great dinner, but I can't say I expected it to be quite so memorable. With the parade of creative amuse bouches, it reminded me of our dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, only more fun, less pretentious, and oh yeah -- way more affordable! Three of us had the $70 pre-fixe and shared everything. Since we got to choose from three appetizers and four mains, we got to try almost everything in this range (in case you're wondering, the only thing we missed out on was the cornish hen). 

The amuses started with Parmesan lollipops and truffled popcorn. Putting their playful foot forward. 

Next, Canadian prosciutto hanging on a miniature clothes line. The smiles had already started by now. Such a cute idea, and the pork had this unique texture like it was laminated flat.

Then came the breadsticks. We were fooled into thinking things were regular again...

Until the woman that was not our waiter (but we wished she was -- she was so much fun!) presented us with a cigar box and asked us with a straight face if we would like a cigar before our meal came. We shook our heads. She asked if we would like to take one home for later. Again we said uh, no, thank you. Then she opened the box and asked if maybe now we would change our minds? It was three mozzarella sticks. Easily the best mozzarella stick any of us had ever had. I didn't know anyone had ever even attempted to gourmet-ify a childhood favorite of mine!

Now the bread and butter. I don't think the bread was necessarily better than APC's, but the butters were on par. The plain was great, but there were also three flavors -- a colorful flower butter, a creamy rum butter and a salty seaweed butter. Check out the beauty of the flower power!

You might think the amuses are done, but you're wrong. Now there's a tiny olive muffin. And rice crisps in a takeout container.

And then the best one! A lobster cream cappuccino, which I thought was loads better than the one we had at the Modern a few years ago. It was like a foamy bisque, and the truffle oil added an extra element of decadence.

But we're still not done. My favorite amuse bouche was the final one. Our fun lady jester of the evening gave each of us a book that we were invited to open when we were ready. The anticipation heightened. We opened the books and a cloud of smoke poured out. When the smoke cleared, we saw a tiny freshly-wood-smoked salmon tartlet on lemon cream. Reminded me a bit of the amuses we frequently get at Annisa, but with chicken liver mousse. Something about those little bite-sized cups that get me every time.

Okay. Finally, the starters. As Frank Bruni once said, everyone always has a special affinity for whatever it is they order when sharing with a group. It was true for the appetizers in this case. Soup made with chestnut and porcini cream with artichokes, burrata and crunchy fried quinoa for texture.

Now the surprise of the starters -- the calamari, which I typically cannot stand and was blown away by here. Somehow they make the squid into tender noodles that aren't unlike pasta (it actually is called "tagliatelle of lemony calamari") and topped with a poached quail egg and squid ink. I can't say I was expecting to enjoy it, and then I was left trying not to eat more than my portion.

And, of course, the foie gras. The foie is placed to sizzle on a hot stone at the table. Then it's covered in a glass case and you have to rely on self control to wait out the four minutes while the crispy lobe caramelizes in ice wine sauce. It's worth the wait. And it's so beautiful to watch the steam billow around the glorified goose liver. It's like something out of Willy Wonka. 

The palate cleaner was one of the most memorable parts of the meal. Believe it or not! It's actually one of the few things I knew I had to take notes on because I didn't want to forget. Dig your spoon past the top layer of foam and you'll find bits of granny smith apple with flavors of yuzu and cucumber, and a bit of ice cream at the bottom. Seems like it would confuse your taste buds, right? But really, it sets them up for the second round so perfectly. I would gladly eat a bowl of this for dessert any day.

My favorite main was the scallops wrapped in a "celery veil" with meringue powder, enokis and bleurre blanc. The scallops almost seemed to be enveloped in dough, and the sauce was so addicting it was hard to limit myself to my own two little dollops.

I think I ordered the dud of the group. The tagliolinis were good and all, perfectly cooked and clearly house made, but even with the mushrooms I felt it lacked flavor. There was white truffle oil, but it seemed to disappear as the foam dissipated. There were a few kernels of popcorn, but it seemed out of place. Plus it had that weird consistency of overbuttered-to-the-point-of-stale.

Finally, the veal cheek with salsify roots and more foam. The meaty sauce might have been my favorite, again.

There is no dessert menu. There is only "passport to sweetness." Which sounds a little silly until you realize that the desserts. Never. Stop. And then you don't mind so much. Somebody stamp that sucker ASAP.

First, a GIANT cloud of pink cotton candy. Chocolate lollipops rolled in poprocks. We're kids at the fair again. "I'll be back with the rest," says our court jester.

Then a little pina colada for each of us...

A container full of lemony madelines...

A champagne macaron, a passionfruit marshmallow and a caramel cookie with fleur de sel. One trio for each of us. "I'll be right back with the rest..."

We've circled back around to breakfast: a fried egg and french toast sticks. It freaked me out to see what looked like a peppery egg and tasting...  apricot puree inside an emulsion. The french toast was coated marshmallows. Great presentation. Not my favorite though.

And now the desserts for the ride home. Two freshly-baked brioche. A bag of cookies. FOR EACH OF US. With the leftover madelines and two bags each, we walked back to the car with our arms full.

Then we headed over to Au Pied de Cochon for second dinner. Total rockstar weekend.

Okay, so APC was amazing and all, but I have to admit that Europea will stick out in my mind for much longer. The ongoing parade of carnival treats was endlessly entertaining. There was a lot of excitement of wondering what would come next. And, as I write this post, I realize it incorporates components of some of the best of the best meals I've had. Amuse bouches like at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, lobster cappuccino like at The Modern, madelines like at DB Bistro Moderne, soup with intense chestnut flavors like the ice cream at Nougatine, tartlets like at Annisa. 

I can't think of another restaurant I could recommend more.

1227 Rue de la Montagne
Montreal, QC

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Adventures in Montreal: Au Pied de Cochon

As a good friend said recently, "The cool thing about Montreal is how it changes as we age." To say "it has something for everyone!" is a corny way to put it, but its true. When we were 19, we took trips up there for cheap pitchers of beer and sought hard liquor shots with whipped cream on them. Ten years later, we're taking long weekends up there in search of three major food groups: duck, foie gras and bagels. 

I'll admit, a large part of my reason for wanting to visit Montreal was to finally set foot in the foodie capital of North America, Au Pied de Cochon. Last February we had an amazing meal at Joe Beef that I still dream about, and knowing that APC could be even better has kept me salivating for a good portion of the past year. I'm so happy to report that it was everything I expected. They put so much care and effort into each dish, but with the size of the portions you know they aren't being hoity-toity about anything. It's just good, rich food treated with a lot of care. Everything seems to be house made, from the butter on your bread to the cream whipped on top of your milkshake. It makes all the difference. We visited APC not just once but twice, once for dinner and again for... second dinner, after Europea (review to come). Actually, you could call it third dinner as we had Brit & Chips for a quick pre-dinner. The waiter was so impressed with us that he poured us digestifs and drank one down with us. A pretty good sign, as his first reaction to our declarations of foodie achievement was a French-accented "I do not understand."

For continuity's sake, I'll group everything we had from both dinners into a single post.

To start: amazing sourdough bread with butter. Easy to make the rookie mistake of filling up on this glorious carb.

The first night I had their house beer, which was clean and crisp, a fantastic accompaniment to all the fatty, flavorful foods. But the second night I was really curious to try their orange slushy that spun around in a container on the bar like something in 7-11. They splash it was Compari. It's a bit strong, but for second dinner, I say its ok.

They had a sea urchin special that I will dream about for years to come. I'm learning to ignore sea urchin on the menus at raw bars because its always overpriced, its always boring. Uni on nicely vinegared sushi rice is one of my favorites, but it's never impressed me any other way. I'm glad we were pulled into the waiter's description because here, they did something I'd never seen. They placed the urchin on a heavenly, creamy mixture thick like batter and sweet like vanilla. It was so fantastic I wiped up every last drop with bread like a true Italian.

This place had my heart the minute I saw they had a Foie Gras section on the menu. Both nights we had the cromesquis de foie gras, bite-sized croquettes so hot you have to wait 30 seconds (according to the waiter, but who has that kind of self control?) before popping it in your mouth. Beneath the crusty exterior, the foie is so smooth its almost entirely liquid. It squirts out as you bite down. Then the outside melts. A revelation.

There's also the Tout Nu, hot (seared?) foie with a dark gravy served on toasted bread. And the cold terrine, that you smear on the same toasted bread like meaty butter, and topped with some kind of sweet jam. 

You know what else they considered an "appetizer"? This porky sandwich on French toast, glistening in butter and fat. A quick search on Chowhound tells me that its "maple-custard dredged brioch" with "jambon, turkey, Gruyere, Comte cheeses and guinea hen liver mousse, maple butter, apple jelly and caramelized onions." Silly me, all I had remembered was that it was a monte cristo of sorts with maple syrup on top. It was a face-punching combination of sweet and salt. Appetizer of kings.

Now onto the real food. Seafood, to lighten the mood. One night we had a whole, giant snow crab. We'd crack open the shell and mix the snowy white meat with a lemony mayo. It was worth the work, and there was lots of it.

What better way to follow up a giant snow crab than with a giant lobster roll? Usually I place lobster rolls in one of two camps: with butter or with mayo. This lobster roll was an entirely different beast. There was butter, yeah, but also foie and cheddar and slick greens and onions. It was impossibly heavy. The entire thing seems to be rolled in fat and it helps the insanely rich food just slide down your throat. 

We really wanted to try one of APC's tartes, so we went with the boudin. I was literally speechless when I saw this is what we got -- for $17! I'll admit the blood sausage weirded me out a little, since I don't think I've ever tried it. And this was crazy fluffy sausage that made me feel like i was eating just-congealed blood. Lots of it. The seasoning was really earthy, almost Indian-like, strengthening its effect. The tarte itself was buttery and flakey, and the cheese on top (brie maybe?) helped the boudin go down.

We didn't have the appetite for the world famous duck in a can dish, but hey, its Montreal and we still need our duck, so here it is. The duck breast special with onions and mushrooms in a hearty broth. Can you believe this is one of the lighter things we ate here? And, obviously, it was perfectly cooked and really delicious.

Now for dessert, because even though we were going to bust both times and I was worried that my heart was going to explode, this is Montreal and this is why we drove 6 hours to get here. Our waiter suggested the Lait frappe a la tire eponge a l'erarable PDC. Which I think means "milkshake." It's funny how they don't advertise every little thing they do to their food, but they SHOULD, because holy mother of milkshake was this thing amazing. We asked how it was so perfect. It's vanilla and maple flavored ice creams, probably  house made, with maple syrup and topped with  house made whipped cream and toffee. I don't even like toffee but I found myself sucking down constantly with only a few air breaks because this milkshake seriously was just that good. 

Following the theme of APC converting me to foods I'm not crazy about, this was a particularly good lemon meringue pie with just the right amount of acidity. Finishing this tiny pie with my dining partners was a particularly proud moment. 

Some people climb mountains, but we aspire to road trips of marathon-style gluttony. Actually, make that a triatholon, as I hopped out of our car during crazy traffic to run the rest of the way and make our reservation on time. Almost rented a bike on the way. Would have swam, too, if need be. Hail chef Martin Picard!

Au Pied de Cochon
536 Avenue Duluth Est