Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What Happens in Vegas, Goes to Straight to My @$$

Before I moved to New Orleans, I promised to say good-bye to the Western United States the proper way. Thus, I stayed for a week in the Wynn Hotel and Casino. Unfortunately, I paid for it dearly. Both out-of-pocket and straight-onto-my-behind.

My entire experience can be summed up into thirteen eloquent words: "I friggin' ate Kobe beef and foie gras in one day! Whoa mama!" Despite these articulate words, PETA would have had a field-day on my face if they knew what I consumed at Vegas.

When a friend and I first arrived at the Wynn, my friend and I began our day with a few simple breakfast items. A spot of tea. Some fresh fruit. And a breakfast bagel. Quite good, but nothing blogworthy.

We followed up on our uneventful breakfast with a late lunch at Okada, a nice (but not entirely "upscale") restaurant in the Wynn. There, we temporarily appeased our voracious appetites with a warm bowl heaping with salted edamame beans. We pulled the edamame pods between the rows of our clenched teeth and munched heartily on the firm and verdant legumes, in eager anticipation of our next course.

For me, I stuck to the not-so-basic, and daringly ordered seared foie gras with barbequed eel, braised daikon, and leek-miso mustard.

Now I am not an avid fan of foie gras, but I actually was hypnotized by the contrasting textures of the duck liver. The foie gras was creamy and supple in the interior, yet caramelized and hardened at the edges. It was not grainy, tough, or overcooked, but possessed a subtle, milky, and custard-like texture. Unfortunately, the foie gras was a tad overpowered by a sodium-enriched liquid, which seemed as if it mainly consisted of soy sauce, soy sauce, and concentrated soy sauce. The alleged "mustard" was undetectable to my naked taste buds. However, the softened cubes of braised daikon and the intricate rectangles of crisp noodle skins were delicious accompaniments.

My friend and I shared the Chilean sea bass in a yuzu-soy sauce with braised taro and wild mushrooms. The sea bass came wrapped in parchment paper that had been twisted at the ends into a savory package reminiscent of a hard peppermint candy. As I opened the paper package, I was greeted with soft and gentle billows of steam. The fish meat was delicate and tender and it trembled slightly with the smallest disturbance. As excellent fish does, it melted in my mouth like a snowflake melts on one's tongue.

However, our day of sinful indulgence and decadence was not over yet. For dinner, my friend and I ambled on over to The Country Club: A New American Steakhouse, in the Wynn. There, I started with an appetizer of sea scallops and roasted artichokes bathing gently in a sweet pea ver jus. The scallops looked like amusingly stumpy marshmallows, and were tender and fresh with the essence of the sea. Similarly, the texture of the artichoke hearts was akin to that of a warm and fluffy baked potato.

But the most memorable item of the entire Vegas trip was my main dish that evening: I ordered a five-ounce serving of kobe beef (off the menu).

That evening, my Kobe beef cherry was popped.

I remember letting the first bite-sized portion of Kobe beef sit in my mouth without chewing. As greasy, yet immaculately tender portion of meat sat motionless in my mouth. Like a child with a tablespoon of goopy Robitussin in her mouth, I didn't know whether to swallow or let it sit there. I didn't want to do either.

Thankfully, I can't adequately describe what eating Kobe beef is like. But it actually wasn't a pleasant experience for me. Imagine scooping up a spoonful of butter that has been sitting on the counter that day and smearing it all over the walls of your mouth. Or squeezing a piece of spongy, oil-saturated bread into a fist-sized ball and swallowing it one whole gulp. Weird? Definitely. But I promise you my friends, that is what Kobe beef tastes like. And for even for a Passionate Eater, 5 ounces was too much.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Soul Food Is "Well with My Soul"

When I heard that New Orleans is home to the best fried chicken in United States, I vowed to gain at least 10lbs in my quest to consume this so-called "equivalent-to-experiencing-euphoria-on-earth" chicken.

Recognized by the James Beard Foundation and dubbed by Bon Appetit magazine, the Washington Post, and thousands of New Orleans locals as serving the "best" fried chicken in America, Willie Mae's Scotch House is a beacon for the people of New Orleans. Willie Mae's Scotch House was devastated in the Hurricane Katrina, but with the help of dedicated volunteers , the restaurant has recently reemerged with newfound vitality and vigor. However, if it hadn't been for the donations and the generous assistance of volunteers (many of whom were loyal customers), the famed New Orleans eatery would likely have ended.

Before coming to New Orleans, I knew of a Willie May who played for the San Francisco Giants, but I didn't know the Willie Mae who made fried chicken. I am glad that I do now. Willie Mae Seaton founded the legendary soul food outpost in New Orleans in the 1950s and has maintained or overseen the family-run business till today. Now, in her early nineties, she is one of the most lovingly regarded individuals in the New Orleans community, not only because of her welcoming and gracious demeanor, but also because of her uncanny ability to cook up unbelievably good-tasting food.

Her simplified, no-frills menu offers the staple soul food items. Although there wasn't even a menu when I was there, but the waitress adeptly communicated the restaurant's offerings via word of mouth. Based on the offerings, my dining companion and I ordered white rice, shredded green beans, and butter beans to accompany our fried chicken.

At Willie Mae's, each side worked in tandem with one another. The fork-fluffed grains of white rice acted as perfect sponges to sop up the warm and hearty gravy exuded by the slow-cooked butter beans. And the shredded green beans were just as I like them, cooked for a long duration of time until limp and slightly yellowed, but flavorful and tender to the bite.

In appearance, butter beans are shaped like a flattened, pressed bean, with a structure akin to a lima bean, but beans are the color and consistency of a rich seafood bisque.

But, as to be expected, the chicken took center stage. One nibble of the crackly fried batter cloaking the chicken, and I understood that the fried chicken is "hella" good. And the gorgeous appearance of the chicken correlates with the unreal taste. When I closely inspected my thigh piece, I was amazed by the intricate patterns the batter made when it solidified in the bubbling oil. The golden-fried chicken skin had formed into gnarled, paisley-patterned wisps, and was crunchier than a bubbly pork rind. Each battered nib that I picked off of the hot chicken piece packed a full-bodied, spicy bite, and thus channeled the classic "heat" unique to the bayou. Furthermore, the chicken flesh hidden snugly wrapped within the crackly skin exterior was tender, supple, and literally exploding with juices and flavor.

At Willie Mae's, there is nothing to debunk as unceremonious hype--Willie Mae's recognition for serving the "best" fried chicken in the United States is well-deserved. In San Francisco, the cuisine is provocative, edgy, and innovative. In New Orleans, the cuisine is soothing, generous, and homey. Thanks to people and time-honored institutions like Willie Mae's, I hope it will remain that way.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Have It Your Way. Literally.

A few days before I was scheduled to fly out to New Orleans, Custom Burger / Lounge, a new eatery, opened up within one block of my workplace. The San Francisco Chronicle lauded the restaurant for being half-lounge, half-burger joint. Indeed, Custom Burger is a gourmet version of Fuddruckers, if you will.

I am all about customization. Just look at my vehicle. I might not have a gold-plated grill, spinning hubcaps, painted flames, or a upward-reaching foil, but I do have a pine tree-shaped air freshener and two plush dice dangling from the rear view mirror. Thus, I knew that I would like Custom Burger, where I could choose everything and anything for my burger lunch.

When I arrived at the restaurant for lunch on opening day, I was surprised by the significant line. However, the burgers are made-to-order, so a wait is more or less to be expected. Even with the wait (and the extended time to review the menu), I still had trouble deciding what to order. After much agonizing and indecisiveness, I finally decided that my burger would be made of an Angus beef patty with a rosemary focaccia bun and creamy blue cheese sauce. For my three toppings, I opted for balsamic marinated onions, sauteed mushrooms, and arugula.

Thankfully, my selected toppings melded together well. The balsamic marinated onions were supple and pleasantly acidic. The deep, bronzed color of the onions reminded me of a comforting bowl of warm French onion soup. The fresh arugula provided a verdant color and a biting and taste bud-awakening zestiness to my burger. Finally, the concentrated and meaty flavors in the sauteed mushrooms accentuated the smoky aroma from the Angus beef patty.

My open-faced burger was served in a wire basket with a plastic cup of the blue cheese sauce on the side. I was afraid the blue cheese sauce would overpower the other ingredients, however, the blue cheese crumbles were heavily diluted in mayonnaise. Thus, the sauce befittingly acted as the "back-up vocals" to the other powerful flavors in my burger.

I also tried the tower of beer-battered onion rings, and the "half and half" order of fries, which included sea salted skin-on potato fries and sweet potato fries. Thankfully, the sweet potato fries were crisp and freshly fried, not limp and lifeless. However, I was a little put off by the uneven clumps of batter on the sweet potato fries. The regular fries were unremarkable, but were paired pleasantly with the burger.

The "towering" presentation of the onion rings was amusing, and, just as I like 'em, the piping hot onion string inside slid out easily from the breaded onion ring tunnels.

My only beef with
Custom Burger (pun intended), is that it wasn't really "custom" for two of my friends and fellow diners. My friends ordered the sesame bun, but were given the plain bun instead. Similarly, a bun substitution also happened to Bunrab!

Despite those shortcomings, if I was in the area, I think I would "lounge" around
Custom Burger again.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Cafe Du Monde Rocks My "Monde"

I am still in the arduous process of unpacking and acclimating to New Orleans (literally, the humidity is killing me), but I wanted to take a moment to share with you about a fabulous way to taste the the City of New Orleans.

A visit to New Orleans is not complete if you do not sample the illustrious Cafe Du Monde beignets (pronounced "been-yay") in the French Quarter.

A beignet is a doughy square that has been deep-fried until it has inflated into a golden-brown pillow of spongy, soft cake-like bread. Unlike a glazed
Krispy Kreme donut with its glistening sheen, a beignet is not light or airy, and does not go down "smooth" without the need to chew. Unlike a danish or croissant, a beignet is not buttery, flaky, or overly rich. Rather, it is like a piping hot funnel cake freshly fried at the state fair. When you bite into a beignet, expect to be greeted with a hearty crunch as you break open the textured surface. The interior will release a plume of steam and I am sure you will be taken aback by the deep nooks, pockets, and tiny tunnels made by the yeast in the beignet. Although the fried beignet bread is good enough to eat alone, Cafe Du Monde generously blankets the hot fritters with mini-mountains of powdered confectioner's sugar. If you order the beignets take out, they provide you with a one to two pound bag of powdered sugar for you to "do the honors" yourself.

The classic accompaniment to a beignet, is
Cafe Du Monde's cafe au lait, which is made with whole milk, ground coffee beans, and chicory. I am unfamiliar with chicory, but I must say, I was amazed at how silken and sweet the coffee was. I needed to be repeatedly convinced by our server that there was no sugar in the coffee. The coffee was fragrant and full-bodied, and as my friend the Taste Tester says about her wine, the coffee went down with a "smooth finish." There was no trace of bitterness or burnt coffee grounds at all.

If you are in the area, stop by Cafe Du Monde at any time of the day. They are open 24 hours--
merci mon dieu for that!
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