Category Archives: Restaurant Reviews

Where to Eat?

Best of 2016: Restaurants

sI wrote about my best photos of 2016 on my sister blog here… and honorable mentions .. here.  As I went through my photos and refreshed my memory of all the great experiences we had throughout 2016, I also ran across photos of restaurants we had been to… some of which you have read about in this blog.

So while I’m doing the ‘Best of’ series… why not include BEST restaurants we went to in 2016.  We had some amazing meals throughout 2016, so it’s fun to go back and Mmmmm and Ahhhh about their yumminess.  So here goes (in no particular order):

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  1. Twist, Las Vegas.  Wow!  It was an expensive restaurant to be sure, but the food was amazing… and the best part was the staff.  The servers could see how much we were enjoying our meal as we savored every bite.  So they offered to take us back in the kitchen to meet the chef!  They even gave us a Thank You card for dining with them (can you imagine?!).. and a little parting gift all tied up in a bow of sweet treats.  Fantastic!

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2. Raku, Las Vegas.  I just love this place.  Every time we are in Vegas we go.  I can’t help myself.  It’s reasonable priced, and the food is fantastic.  It changes from time to time, and is inventive, beautifully presented, friendly, and absolutely delicious.  I love their tasting menu.  It always includes things I would never order otherwise, but just love… like their tofu.  I am NOT a tofu fan… but Raku’s homemade version could make me one.  Great spot!

 

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3.  Mon Ami Gabi, Las Vegas.  I’d be remise if I didn’t include the best eggs benedict with smoked salmon I have ever eaten.  I love eggs benedict, it is my go-to breakfast meal on the off occasion we splurge on breakfast.. so I’ve tasted a lot.  But none better than this mainstay french restaurant in Vegas.

 

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4. Social, Costa Mesa  CA.  This charming little place in Costa Mesa had memorable little plates that had perfect balance.  I loved the way they brought different textures together for wonderful, flavorful bites.

 

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 5.  Pok Pok, Los Angeles  CA.  We had a fabulous meal full of ethnic flavor and spice at Pok Pok in LA.  Their glazed wings were to die for… crunchy spicy yumminess.

 

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6. Trois Mec, Los Angeles  CA.  Trois Mec is a very difficult ‘ticket’ to get, but we were thrilled when we did.  The food was interesting, cutting edge, and fun.  The staff with engaging and interactive, and the whole experience fun.

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7. ANQi, Costa Mesa  CA.  This restaurant is part of the Thanh Long family of CA restaurants.  If you haven’t eaten at one and have the chance, you should.  They are famous for their chili crab and garlic noodles.  Outstanding.

 

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8. The Bite House, Baddeck  Nova Scotia.  Outstanding! Simply Outstanding!  This very small  tucked away place outside of Cape Breton was perfect.  The tasting menu was fantastic.  Each bite was perfectly balanced, fresh, and beautiful.  The chef has mastered the art of color, texture and balance.  Each little plate had a edible flower, some kind of crunch, and some element of freshness.  Each and every one was terrific.  I’d go back in a heartbeat given the opportunity.  Really great.

 

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9. Elvira’s,  Tubac AZ.   Years ago we used to frequent  Elvira’s in Nogales.  It had the best true Mexican taco’s and burritos.  But then the son came to work there and the food went all upscale… and Nogales fell into crime, drug lords, and despair.   So Elvira’s moved to Tubac.  While we were in Tucson, we opted to make the drive to Tubac to see how Elvira’s had evolved.  I’m glad we did!  Their Mexican food is just stunning.  This dish of squash blossom stuffed poblano with a red chile sauce was fantastic.  They were kind enough to share the recipe, so I’ve had a few lucky friends get to enjoy this fabulous dish in my own home.  I hear they opened a new Elvira’s in Tucson.. you can bet when we next are in Tucson, we will be checking it out.

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10. Escalante Outfitters Cafe, Escalante  UTAH.  First off, sorry for the terrible cell phone pic.  But I just had to include this one, albeit a bad photo.  We had this Eggs-in-a-nest breakfast at this little cafe in Escalante, Utah, and have made it at least a dozen times at home since.  This photo represents the original dish that we have replicated over and over for ourselves and our friends.  It is a great breakfast, and easy to make, and has definitely been added to our repertoire.

 

Wow!  This makes me hungry.  We had some amazing restaurants out in all our travels this last year.  It was great fun to remember every bite.

Check out my best photos here  and  here.

 

 

 

Best Thing I Ever Ate

There is a show on Food Network, called Best Thing I Ever Ate.  I guess if we all thought hard enough we could come up with something.  If we’re lucky, more than one something.

I’ve actually written about this before, and the Best Thing I Ever Ate were these pork candy goodies from a long defunct restaurant.  But that’s ok, because this past week it toppled from it’s pedestal and was replaced by something we had at Raku in Las Vegas, NV.

It’s no secret that I love to be WOW’d by food, both in restaurants and at home.  I’m not looking for some chef that can flex his technique-dejour.  Just because he just learned how to make foam or gelatin or some other IN thing, doesn’t necessarily make it good… just over used.

I’ll preface this to say, I love soft shelled crab.  Now I get that that’s not everyone’s thing.  But for me, the crunchy exterior, and luscious interior is just awesome.

So, without further ado… check this out:

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These are river crabs.  I had never heard of them.  But you have to admit, this presentation is amazing.  I couldn’t capture them well enough to convey the awesomeness we felt when they delivered this platter of cooked river crabs.  Talk about unbelievable finger food.

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So, YES, you just pop one of these tiny little guys in your mouth and crunch through the crunchy soft shell to the soft interior.  I ate them in two bites, and savored them.

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I get that these are not everyone’s thing, and to some it might look more like Fear Factor than Best Thing I Ever Ate.  For me, they were the best.  They totally wow’d me.  The people next to us even took a photo.

Whether you like these little guys or not, if ever in Las Vegas, Raku, has an amazing tasting menu that I can never get enough of.  It’s worth the trip.  Just GO!

 

The Bite House, Baddeck NS

We just got back from a great trip to Nova Scotia.  You can check out my posts here and here.

While the scenery was beautiful and the drive pleasant, I’d be remise if I didn’t talk about the food.  We had many good meals, great seafood and fresh lobster.  Ryers Lobster Pound in Peggy’s Cove is lobster at it’s best; and Baddeck Lobster Suppers in Baddeck for their mussels was great.  But our BEST meal hands down, without hesitation or question was from The Bite House.

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Bryan & Mary Isabelle are making fantastic food in this small little unimposing spot truly off the beaten path in Baddeck, Cape Breton (Nova Scotia, Canada).  They have only a fixed tasting menu (60 CAN /person), so no need to fuss with choosing what to eat… they do it for you.  And I’m so glad they do.

To begin, you are brought little snacks, like the ‘haddack, basil mayo, dulse’, which is a crunchy ball of delight.  Crispy on the outside and smooth and creamy on the interior.  It’s light and tasty finger food.

As a matter of fact, there are no forks served.  The first three snacks are to be eaten with your fingers.  The ‘coldwater shrimp, spinach, chives’ is as tasty to eat as it is to look at.  We have to make this at home.  It’s so simple, yet so delicious.  A simple chive yogurt ‘glues’ the bay shrimp to a fresh spinach leaf dressed with the perfect chive flower.

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The final snack, just as before is eaten with your fingers.  This time using a buckwheat pancake for the carrier of fresh herbs and butter.

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As we start the parade of 4 main courses and dessert, I am struck by the beautiful presentation, simple fresh flavors and great textures.  All the courses have a perfect balance of freshness, crunch, color, and texture.  I love Bryan’s use of flowers for that nice added color and floral element, and the crunch of greens or cracker make for the perfect bite.

The next course may be my favorite, and it’s so surprising… roast radish with sesame, mint, and sea chickweed.  It would convert even the radish ney-sayer.  It’s not only beautiful, it’s crunchy, herby, and creamy.  I loved it.

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We move on to a fish course of ‘hot-smoked trout, pickled pumpkin, and crispy rye’.   The salad of fresh greens has a lovely buttermilk dressing.  The trout is perfectly tender and vaguely smoky.  The chards of rye cracker bring that terrific crunch to the party that finishes this tender luscious mouth feel with just the right textural crunch.  It’s perfect.

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The next course is called ‘goat dumpling, bacon thyme broth, sunflower shoots’.  In reality it’s more of a de-constructed preparation with meatballs in a flavorful broth with a pancake-ish dumpling cover on top.  Staying true to Bryan’s perfect balanced bites, it is topped with a fresh crunch of sunflower shoots.

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Our final main course is a perfectly cooked boneless chicken meat served with fiddleheads, a green sauce and hakurai turnips.  The green sauce adds a wonderful freshness and sauciness to the dish, while the fiddleheads and turnips give it that fresh crunch.  Together with the tender flavorful chicken, it’s a beautiful combination.

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By now I think I was just swooning over the inspiration of these wonderfully balanced bites.  I took no photos of the beautiful dessert of ‘grilled rhubarb, lemon balm ice cream, woodruff’.  So you’ll just have to take my word for it… it was a beautifully delicious closure to a very fine meal.

If you find yourself in Baddeck, Nova Scotia… do yourself a favor, and stop in at The Bite House.  You’ll need reservations in advance, as the word is out.  They are making inspirational delicious bites, full of freshness and creativity.  It is not to be missed.  Thanks, Bryan and Mary Isabelle for a terrific evening… our best of the whole trip.

Historic Brewing Co.

So it’s funny, because I just wrote a blog  – here –  , about breweries in Flagstaff.

We took a mini-trip to a distance not far from home, Williams, AZ.  We thought we’d wander the streets, pop in and out of the charming, kitschy Route 66 junky souvenoir-y stores, and generally tourist in our not-too-far-from-home town.

One store in particular, The Gallery, really caught our eye with truly creative and talented local artists.  It was like going through a unique art gallery with merchandise you can buy… easily the best shop in this outpost south of the Grand Canyon South Rim.

But the subject of this blog entry is the food!  We had planned to go to Red Raven restaurant for dinner.  It was recommended to us, so we were set to go.  While it looked great, we were more in the mood for something casual and light.  So we wound up at this cute brewery (I think John steered a bit).  The menu was appetizer-ish, with plenty of interesting sides and salads.

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They sell all sorts of merchandise: t-shirts, wines, beer, glasses, etc.  … and locally brewed beers – lots of it.  They have cute names like Undercover Cucumber, the Deer Lord,  Blood, Sweat, and Cheers, Joy Ryed, and Raisin Da Roof, among many others.  Their wine comes in names like The Traveller and Voyager, grown by Page Cellars (a local AZ winery).

We were surprised to hear that this brewery was one of 3 such outfits, with this one in Williams, one in Flagstaff, and one in Sedona, AZ.  It was started by a group of friends and family who are passionate (and a little crazy) about beer and marketing.  It works.  We loved it.

And the food?

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As far as we were concerned, it was just what we were looking for.  It was perfect.  We had the AZ Caesar Salad with fried avocados over a bed of fresh mixed greens with a spicy jalapeño dressing.  We also had the charcuterie board which was a mix of house cured meats, house made mustard, an amazing cherry mostarda, and artisan cheeses.  It was great.  We’re glad we didn’t order an more, and it was quite plentiful and absolutely delicious.

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I’d be remise if I didn’t mention our great waiter, Joe, who was super accommodating, friendly, and helpful.  He was just awesome.  We will totally be trying their outlet in Flagstaff. (And this coming from someone who doesn’t like micro-brew beer).  It was atmosphere in your face, full of character and personality.  We were very comfortable there… and will definitely be back.  Go.

 

 

Eggscellent Eggs

We recently got back from a big adventure traveling the back roads, camping, hoteling, and doing the National Parks in southern Utah: Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef.  You can check out posts of our adventures here and here.

We ate well the whole time, and admittedly our best meals were the ones we made ourselves.  We went fully provisioned to make our own meals on our grill and Coleman stove….and we never had a bad meal.

We ate out 3 times in 2 weeks… and the best meal we had out was at a quirky little shop in Escalante, Utah called Escalante Outfitters.  This cute shop is not only a nice gear store selling books, t-shirts, and hiking equipment, but also rents cabins… and has a great little restaurant.  Had the weather been better when we were there (and not predicting heavy snows) we would have stayed awhile.

But as it were, we wanted to get over the 9600′ pass before the snow came in. As a result we were only there for a quick overnight.  But fortunately we opted to stop in for breakfast at this charming spot.

I ordered the ‘Eggs in a Basket’, for which I am very grateful.  It was great!  It was one of those meals you want to take home with you, in terms of the recipe.  The baker was fabulous and explained in detail just how to make it.  So it was the first thing we made the morning after we got home.  It was absolutely Eggscellent.

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Escalante Outfitters Eggs in a Basket

  • Cut a cooked croissant in half and roll out with rolling pin.
  • Put croissant in a greased muffin tin, pressing into corners.
  • In the bottom of croissant sprinkle shredded mozzarella cheese & diced bell peppers.
  • Line the croissant sides with baked bacon (bake strips at 400F for 20 minutes).
  • Crack a raw egg into croissant ‘basket’.  Sprinkle with salt, parsley, and paprika.
  • Bake at 350F for 20 – 25 minutes.
  • Serve with hollandaise if desired.

Pok Pok LA

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If you’re a foodie… you’ve heard of Pok Pok.  It has made quite the splash in Portland, Oregon.  Andy Ricker won the James Beard award for Best Chef.  His recently released cookbook by the same name, Pok Pok, has been awarded numerous ‘Best Cookbook’ awards by impressive publications the likes of Food & Wine, Epicurious, Eater National, Chowhound, The Atlantic, and Andrew Zimmern to name a few.

I have the cookbook.  It’s a beautiful book with scrumptious food and long ingredient lists.  Someone asked me once why I buy the particular cookbooks I have.  In large part, it’s either because it’s a restaurant I want to go to (though may or may not ever get the chance) or a restaurant I have been fortunate enough to have gone, and want to prepare that food at home.  Many times both will be true… as in the case of Pok Pok.

I never actually expected to go to Portland and go to Pok Pok… but when or if I next go to Oregon, it’ll be on the top of my list.  So I bought the cook book wanting to prepare Andy Ricker’s food at home and taste for myself (without actually going to Oregon) what the buzz was all about.

So when Andy Ricker opened a Pok Pok in LA, well… the rest was history.  We put it on our restaurant go-to list… and when in LA, went to Pok Pok.

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We just had to try Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings.  These tender wings are marinated in fish sauce and sugar, deep fried and caramelized with fish sauce and garlic.  This is the signature dish, and a dish which Andy claims is so popular it pays the mortgage.  After having tried them… I can see why.

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The crispy fried fish appetizer, Yam Plaa Salit, was a spicy salad of crispy fish with lime juice, palm sugar, and fish sauce with celery, sweet onions, garlic and chilies.  I loved the sweet, sour, spicy sauce with the crunchy fish.  I love the sauce, the crunch, and the vegetables… but I didn’t love the bones, as they were very distracting and completely compromised an otherwise great dish.

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The beef salad, Neua Naam Tok, was a flavorful salad of flank steak, fish sauce, lime, chili powder dressing, shallots, lemongrass, mint, cilantro and toasted rice powder.  It was delicious.  Again, loved the sauce, and that sweet-sour-spiciness.

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I felt like we just scratched the surface.  I wanted to try so many more of the amazing looking items on their menu.  The couple next to us had a one plate meal of thai curry, called Khai Soi.  It looked so good, I want to order that next time.  But then, I have the cookbook… so I may get inspired.

ANQi Costa Mesa

Talk about a family traditions.  The An family (House of An) has been making people happy with their Vietnamese / Asian food across California since 1971.  I was first introduced to them via my brother, Paul, at the Thang Long installation in San Francisco, where he raved about the famous roasted crab and famous garlic noodles.  This is a dish you can’t be afraid to get in and get dirty.  The dungeoness crab is roasted with a garlic sauce. A large part of the fun is to get in with your hands and crack the crab, and suck the savory bits off the shells.  It’s delicious fun.

There are also sister restaurants: Crustacean restaurant in Beverly Hills, Tiato in Santa Monica and AnQi in Costa Mesa with 4  An family sisters manning the individual kitchens with their secret recipes, overseen by matriarch Helene An.

Tuesday’s is the only day that AnQi in Costa Mesa offers An’s Famous Roasted Crab, so we actually extended our trip to partake.  We couldn’t help ourselves but go for lunch… and dinner, giving us the opportunity to try some of their small plates and appetizers as well.

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AnQi is a beautiful place.  It is much higher end than we expected.. but then we were in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa.  The interior had red lights, indoor trees, and hanging lights.  It was a stunning interior.  It’s a very Euro-Asian design.

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For the purposes of this review I will combine the various courses we had at both lunch and dinner.  In summary, there wasn’t a bad meal there.  It was all good.  Where I had expected to love the crab… I actually enjoyed the appetizer dishes (like the fabulous calamari) even more.  Not that I didn’t enjoy the crab.. it was an experience unto itself.

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The calamari was lightly fried and very tender, crispy on the outside and nicely seasoned. The little bites of fresno chili and scallions added a nice kick… and the thai basil aioli was just the ice cream on top.

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The seared ahi tuna salad was fresh and crisp.  I loved the crunch of the cucumber, carrot, basil, and cabbage.  The soy – chili sauce that accompanied it made for a wonderful spicy dressing.  Very nice fresh tasting dish.

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The Crustacean shaken beef with sautéed Chinese broccoli with Chef An’s secret sauce was  perfectly cooked, tender and wonderfully flavorful.

Then there was that crab.

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The crab was just an adventure.  It was a good thing they sat us in the corner… where we could just go at it and tear apart and devour the succulent tender crab from it’s garlicky shell.  It was delicious… and good fun.