Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Bottega is the brainchild of world-renowned chef Michael Chiarello, located just a hop, skip, and a jump from Napa. We made our reservations months in advance, and even then the best we could do was an 8:45 dinner slot. The late dinner actually worked out really well, since it allowed us to take our time with the winery tours and do a little shopping too.
The best way I can describe Bottega is to say that it's modern Italian mixed with remnants of the old country. I'm not sure if that description even makes sense, but it'll have to do. Our waiter was very knowledgeable about all of the wines and food selections, though I didn't expect anything less from Napa Valley. On his recommendation, I tried a glass of the Chiarello Family Vineyards' Ribolla Gialla "Chiara Bianco." It was a little drier than I prefer my wine, but very tasty nonetheless.
My wife and I were both salivating with anticipation, so we started with an antipasti course of their Monterey Calamari, which is crisped with Arborio rice flour and served with an aioli nero.
The calamari was fried perfectly and had a nice crispiness to it. My wife is partial to calamari tube rings, so I usually get stuck with the tentacles (which are actually my favorite). Neither of us had any idea what the charcoal-colored aioli nero was, but it was absolutely delicious. I had to ask the waiter about the aioli, if for no reason other than to satisfy my curiosity. Apparently, it was a garlic aioli with squid ink added for both color and an umami taste. Odd color aside, it had an incredible flavor.
For my secondi (entree) course, I ordered the Smoked and Braised Short Ribs that I had my eye on ever since making our reservation months prior. These short ribs come with an espresso argo dolce glaze and a smoky jus, served with a side of polenta-speck polpette. This must have been a good choice, because after I ordered, the waiter commented, "Short ribs. Well played."
It took great restraint not to immediately dive into the short rib, but I managed to sample the polenta-speck polpette first. The term "polpette" usually refers to Italian meatballs, but these were tasty enough that I didn't mind the lack of meat. They were crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside, and delicious all over. It was almost like the Italian version of a hush puppy.
The smell of my short rib was incredible, and I really wished I could swallow it whole. The meat was amazingly tender, making my knife completely unnecessary. Truth be told, you could probably eat this rib with a spoon. The espresso glaze gave it a nice sweetness as well as a touch of acidity. The trick is to eat each bite upside down so the glaze is on your tongue. I also found a decent amount of smoke, both from the smoking process itself and the addition of the smoky jus on top. As much as I wanted to inhale the short rib in one fell swoop, I ended up cutting much smaller bites of meat than usual, just so I could savor it even more. All in all, this was a very interesting twist on smoked meat. I could have easily eaten twenty of these.
Although we were both extremely full, we couldn't resist dessert. All of their dolce options sounded spectacular, but we ended up picking the Tiramisu Fantasia: marscapone mousse with cocoa ladyfingers, kahlua coffee syrup, rum, and crunchy chocolate meringues. I also decided to pair it with a nice decaf espresso.
What we ended up with was a slightly deconstructed Tiramisu in a glass. Like everything else I ate at Bottega, the dessert was phenomenal. There were multiple distinct flavors dancing on my palate at the same time. I had great difficulty containing my giddiness as I scarfed it down.
I don't think it was possible for this meal to have been any better. On a scale of 1 to 10, this was at least a 16.
6525 Washington St.
Yountville, CA 94599
My wife and I were on Day 2 of our stay in Napa Valley, and we were in serious need of tasty food after a full morning of wine tastings. Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen was only a few minutes away from the winery, so I had it on our itinerary for lunch.
Cindy's is a fun little bistro in St. Helena, just a tad north of Napa. We had a reservation, though it really wasn't necessary on a weekday. There is a perfect courtyard for outdoor seating, especially given the sunny, mild afternoon weather. It has nice shade from the overhanging tree, as well as a good breeze blowing through. This was the perfect outdoor ambiance for wine country.
Although the majority of Cindy's menu consists of salads and sandwiches, today's lunch specials included a few "Supper Club" southern options. Intrigued, I ordered their Louisiana Hot Links, which come with braised collard greens and mac n' cheese. I was certainly looking forward to the hot links, but given my mounting hunger, I decided to nosh on an appetizer of Jalapeno Hush Puppies first.
The hush puppies were beautifully cooked. They had a great, crisp crust with a soft and fluffy interior. This wasn't the typical grainy cornmeal batter. I could definitely taste the jalapenos, although I didn't really catch much spice. The accompanying Tabasco remoulade definitely added some heat, but it was creamy and delicious at the same time.
After I had completely polished off the hush puppies, it was time to dive into my Louisiana hot links.
The mac n' cheese was creamy and homemade. I really enjoyed the crisp crust on top, though what I found beneath was cheesy and delicious. It was more of a sharp cheese, which worked very nicely. I'm not really a big greens fan in general, maybe it's the carnivore in me. These, however, were very good. The grilled onions and bacon added a lot of flavor.
As for the hot links, they were probably grilled rather than smoked, but were still nice and tasty. They had crisp casings and a good char from the grill. These were tight casings around a medium-grind meat. They weren't oozing grease like the typical East Texas links. I found a really interesting spice blend, although not much spiciness. In fact, for something called "hot links," there was barely any heat at all. Then, on my last bite, I caught a big hit of pepper which actually made me tear up a little. I think the potential for the hot links is definitely there, but they need to work on consistency some.
It wasn't the best attempt at barbecue I've seen, but Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen was a good lunch spot nonetheless.
Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen
1327 Railroad Ave.
St. Helena, CA 94574
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
My wife and I watch a lot of Food Network, so no trip to wine country would be complete without sampling the culinary masterpieces created by Iron Chef Morimoto. We made our dinner reservation at Morimoto Napa months in advance. This ensured that we'd have a table for dinner, but also made the anticipation almost unbearable.
Morimoto Napa is a rather ritzy, upscale sushi restaurant located on the scenic Napa riverfront. As you might expect, this place has very modern Japanese decor. It is Napa Valley, so of course they have a huge selection of local wines, but you'll also find a tremendous selection of beers and liquors. Chef Morimoto has his own line of beers put out by Rogue in Newport, Oregon. I had to go full force for this meal, so I opted for a 22-ounce glass of the Morimoto Soba ale.
One of the things I most enjoy about this blog is writing about barbecue in unexpected places and unusual forms. All of the sushi we ordered was, unsurprisingly, spectacular. My wife's favorite was the Shrimp Tempura Roll, but I was absolutely blown away by their Eel Avocado Roll: barbecue eel and avocado.
Of all the different kinds of barbecue I've had over the years, I can honestly say that eel is probably the most unique. There was a very pleasant sweetness from the barbecue sauce. I found only a very, very mild taste of smoke, but it was definitely there. The creamy avocado was a nice compliment to the saltiness of the eel. The rice was soft and sticky, rolled tightly and beautifully. I also liked that it was served only slightly chilled, which I think is the perfect temperature for sushi. This certainly wasn't true oink-and-moo barbecue, but an interesting and very tasty offering nonetheless.
We were both completely stuffed after all the sushi we had scarfed down, but it was impossible to resist an Iron Chef-caliber dessert. The couple next to us had ordered this amazing, modern Japanese take on a s'more, so we decided to try it out for ourselves.
From the menu description, the s'more consisted of a kurumitsu graham, smoked soy chocolate mousse, and toasted marshmallow. It's not often that I'm at a loss for words, but it's actually really hard to describe just how absolutely incredible this dessert was. This s'more was the total package: sweet, salty, chocolatey, smoky. The real "culinary curve ball" to this dish was the smoked soy, which really elevated it to a whole other level.
If you're looking for barbecue in the traditional sense, then Morimoto Napa definitely isn't for you. But, if you're feeling adventurous, come here and let Chef Morimoto dazzle your taste buds. A la cuisine!
610 Main St.
Napa, CA 94559
Saturday, May 25, 2013
My wife and I had been planning a West Coast roadtrip for a few months now. When I discovered that Snoop Dogg's uncle Reo owned a barbecue joint in Portland, I couldn't resist!
This is a very new location for Reo's Ribs, so a lot of the interior is still under construction. It looked like they had borrowed most of their tables and chairs (which say "Mi Casa Su Casa" on them) from the Mexican restaurant next door. I didn't mind, since I came for the ribs not the ambiance. There is a big stage area in the works, which will probably make this a very hip spot once it's all finished.
There's not really a menu other than the small paper ones at the register, but I'm sure that's in the works too. Reo's doesn't have combos available other than their big 5-meat platter. I wasn't quite that hungry, so I made my own rib platter with a la carte items: 2 spare ribs, 2 baby back ribs, hush puppies, and potato salad. Even though all of these items were listed with a la carte prices on the menu, the woman at the register seemed utterly confused by the whole thing, but we got it sorted out just fine.
For some reason the meat was taking longer than expected, so they brought out the sides as appetizers. I usually eat them first anyway, so I was fine with that.
The mashed potato salad was mustardy, but interestingly sweet at the same time. Sugar seemed to be more prevalent than the mustard actually. There was a good crunch from the pickles, and a nice spice blend. I liked it a lot. As for the hush puppies, they were fried fresh and had a good crisp crust. These weren't quite as dense as your typical hush puppies. They were also fairly spicy from the jalapenos scattered throughout, which gave them a good punch. Their sides were definitely tasty, but it was the ribs that brought me to this place.
My duo of ribs came covered in a thick, shiny glaze. I'm used to Central Texas style barbecue, but these ribs still looked delicious. There was a nice crust to them, with very juicy and tender meat underneath. The baby backs were almost falling off the bone (though not overcooked), while the spare ribs had good meat retention. The sugary sauce was really nice actually. Reo sells it by the bottle, and it's easy to see why. I'm not usually a big sauce eater, but I liked it a lot. Despite all the sauce, you could still taste a pronounced smokiness. Both varieties were tasty, but the spares were my favorite of the two.
They were having a little birthday celebration for Reo while we were there. Nothing fancy, just a simple gathering of his friends and employees. Reo came over and asked if we wanted cake. Yes please! Having birthday cake with Snoop's uncle was definitely the highlight of my experience here, and it's something that I'll always remember.
After we finished our meal, we ended up talking to Reo outside for a few minutes. He was extremely friendly, and very nonchalantly exclaims "Snoop's my nephew!" According to Reo, Snoop comes into his restaurant from time to time, along with Katt Williams and Mike Epps. Despite the obvious celebrity-related reasons to eat at Reo's, the food was absolutely delicious and I highly recommend it.
UPDATE (June 8, 2015): Reo's Ribs is currently closed, but they are looking for a new home in the Portland area. Godspeed, Reo.
11140 SE Powell Blvd.
Portland, OR 97266
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Luling's City Market (not to be confused with the similarly-named Houston restaurant) is almost always ranked in "Top Ten" lists for Texas barbecue, and is one of the first stops on the unofficial Texas BBQ Trail. In fact, Newsweek has listed City Market in their "101 Best Places to Eat" in the world. When I had the opportunity to head to Luling for the day, I made certain that this master of smoked meat was part of our itinerary.
Even at 1:00, there was a huge line of customers that wrapped around the entire restaurant and continued right out the door. With this many people waiting for their grub, snagging a table is tricky. Basically, you have to keep an eye out for people leaving, then cast aside one member of your party to go reserve it while the rest stay in line. A line this size also meant that the door was almost always open, which in turn meant that the dining area was hot and full of flies, gnats, and mosquitoes. Yum. Another unfortunate byproduct of the long lines is a lackluster attitude amongst the City Market staff. It's clear that they aren't hurting for business, so the employees aren't all that concerned with how customers get treated. For every one person that gets unhappy and leaves, there are probably five more to take their place.
The layout at City Market is a bit unusual and confusing. Although there appears to be only one line, there are actually two separate lines/counters: the long main line for the meat counter, and a small separate line to the counter where drinks and side dishes are available. The drink/sides counter takes credit cards (at least I think it does), but the meat counter is cash only. Don't worry, you have plenty of time to use the available ATM while you're waiting in line for over 45 minutes.
The meat options are pretty limited here, but thankfully, it's the Texas Trinity: beef brisket, pork ribs, and sausage. I ended up with a link of sausage, 3 ribs, and a few slices of brisket. They had potato salad and beans available from the side dish counter, but that seemed like too much effort. I didn't stand in line for 45 minutes for vegetables, so I decided to let the carnivore in me take this one.
All three meats looked delicious scattered across the humble butcher paper plating. I had to pick one to start with, so I gave the honor to the sausage this time. It came in nice little rings, which were priced just right at $2.00 each. I enjoyed the crispness and the snap to the casings. It had a coarse grind, with plenty of pepper and seasonings mixed in. The meat was pink all the way through, and the smokiness was evident in each bite.
Next, I tried the brisket. My slices were a little too lean for my liking, but I'm not sure if fattier slices would have really solved things. The meat was just dry in general. It had a good crust and a hefty smoke ring running down both sides of the slices, but I couldn't really taste much smoke here. I also think the brisket could have used a little more seasoning.
I finished things off with the ribs. When I flipped them over to the meat side, I didn't find as much of a crust as I was hoping for. Even the crust that was there didn't seem very well seasoned. The ribs were tasty, and I could definitely find the smoke here. That being said, I wish there had been a little more pepper. The meat was tender, but also had good staying power. Only one or two bites were a tad dry.
City Market had good food, but I felt let down. Sadly, I've had better barbecue in Dallas, which is by no means a mecca for smoked meat. This was certainly not the legendary Texas barbecue that I was expecting. Perhaps one of the mighty has fallen from grace...
633 E. Davis St.
Luling, TX 78648
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
I knew I'd be up in Plano this afternoon for work, so I did some recon to find a good lunch spot nearby. Kenny's Smoke House was only a few miles away from my destination, and I've wanted to try it out for a while now. I don't find myself in Plano all that often, so I took advantage of the opportunity and headed on over.
Kenny's is definitely more posh and upscale than your average barbecue joint. If it hadn't been for the smoky aroma, this place could have easily worked as a fusion restaurant of some kind. Just the other day, I found myself commenting on the pleasant unpretentiousness of Mac's Bar-B-Que in Dallas, with its humble decor and low-key atmosphere. Kenny's Smoke House is the polar opposite.
Shortly after sitting down at the bar, I managed to gracefully knock over my glass of sweet tea, making a gigantic mess in the process. The staff quickly swooped in to clean everything up. The bartender even took the blame and insisted that I stop apologizing, though I'm certain it was entirely my fault. Say what you will about this place, but their service is impeccable and the staff is extremely friendly.
There were several different items I wanted to try out, but I finally settled on The Kinahora sandwich: jalapeno cheddar sausage, chopped brisket, and pulled pork. I don't usually order sandwiches during my barbecue outings, perhaps out of principle if nothing else. However, The Kinahora was one of the few multi-meat offerings on their menu, so I thought I'd give it a try. You get one side with their sandwiches, and I decided that the Smoke House BBQ Fries seemed appropriate. When I gave my order to the bartender, she told me that I could do a "half-and-half" on the sides if I wanted to sample two different ones. I happily acquiesced and tacked on their Smoked Gouda Mac n' Cheese.
The fries came very heavily seasoned. They were a little spicy, though slightly sweet at the same time. I have gotten accustomed to bland, frozen, crinkle fries, so these were a welcome change of pace. Although the fries were quite tasty, the mac and cheese was incredible! I could definitely taste the smokiness of the Gouda. The diced ham mixed in was a nice touch, as was the drizzling of white truffle oil on top. Some places get a little heavy handed with the truffle oil, but this was just the right amount.
From the outset, my massive sandwich seemed nearly impossible to eat by hand, but I decided to give it a shot. I appreciated the homemade bun, though I really didn't expect anything less from Kenny Bowers. The jalapenos added a good kick, which was tempered nicely by the cheddar cheese. Each bite also emanated a decent amount of smoke. About halfway through, I decided to disassemble my sandwich so I could sample each meat individually.
The brisket was tender, moist, and loaded with spices. I couldn't see much of a smoke ring, but I could certainly taste it. I also found a great black crust on every bite. My preference is usually for sliced brisket over chopped, but this retained enough of a fat content to make up for things.
As for the sausage, there was a nice char on the outside and a good snap to the casings. It became even spicier once I had separated it from its meaty cohorts. I couldn't taste much smoke here, though I'm sure this was a byproduct of the added jalapenos and cheese.
Last but not least, I moved on to the pulled pork. Here again, it was tender and very juicy. The pork also had a great amount of smoke. The cut I got wasn't by any means lean, which I always enjoy. The fat was rendered nicely, and it added to both the tenderness and the smokiness of the pork.
The atmosphere in Kenny's Smoke House probably isn't for everyone, especially the more "rustic" of barbecue aficionados. Pretentiousness aside, Kenny's serves up some pretty legit barbecue.
Kenny's Smoke House
5760 Legacy Dr.
Plano, TX 75024
Monday, May 6, 2013
Every issue of D Magazine ends with categorized lists showcasing some of the best food that DFW has to offer. Mac's is usually listed as a "D Best" for barbecue, so I thought I'd see how it measured up.
Mac's only has a counter and a humble little dining area, which works just fine for barbecue. I loved the unpretentiousness of this place. The wall decor consisted only of a few old-timey photographs of a simpler Dallas (if that's even possible) and a plaque boasting their 2010 award from D Magazine for having some of the best 'que in the city. You don't need any frills when the food speaks for itself.
I happily and hungrily ordered their Three Meat Plate: pork ribs, sausage, and beef brisket with potato salad and barbeque beans on the side. I also topped things off with a big glass of Southern-style sweet tea for good measure.
The potato salad was nice and creamy, with plenty of mustard to boot. I also found a good amount of crunch from all the veggies. It was served a little too cold for my liking, but that's easy enough to look past. Unlike the potato salad, the beans came piping hot. There was a pleasant sweetness to them, with a nice hit of spice on the back end. No canned beans here.
Apparently Mac's brisket comes chopped by default. There was lots of smoke, both visibly and to the taste. It was moist and juicy without being overly fatty. The brisket didn't really need any sauce, but I tried it anyway just for grins. Theirs is an amazingly flavorful Texas-style sauce. It was definitely a winner.
My combo plate came with a generous helping of sausage, which is always appreciated. I found a gorgeous black char on most of the slices. It had a nice crispness to the casing and quite a bit of pepper and assorted seasonings beneath. Just like the brisket, the sausage paired very nicely with the barbecue sauce.
I finished things off with the ribs. Visibly, they had a great crust and a clearly evident smoke ring. Surprisingly though, the meat was a little dry and tough. The ribs also could have used more spices (especially salt) on the crust. Most disappointing, they were a little skimpy on their meatiness, so I'm glad Mac's neglected to charge me the advertised extra $2.00 for a combo plate with ribs.
This place would be 5-star barbecue if they could get the ribs on par with the rest of their food. Next time around, I'd like to sample their somewhat unconventional barbecue frito pie. All things considered, Mac's is definitely worth checking out.
3933 Main St.
Dallas, TX 75226