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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Zazu Restaurant and Farm in Santa Rosa

Wine country is filled with superlative food and drink options.  Narrowing down the numerous deserving possibilities is by no means an easy feat.  Based on a number of factors (recommendations from friends, reviews, etc.) we eventually zeroed in on Zazu, a spot we were promised is passionate about fresh, local ingredients, and that delivers on quality.
   Upon arrival, we were kind of surprised by how disparate Zazu was from our expectations.  They might have a Michelin star, but there was absolutely nothing pretentious about this charming, comfortable space that looked like it was more someone's rustic farm than an upscale restaurant.  Immediately we started with a Damnation by Russian River Brewery, which my beer-a-holic companion informed me was not served in the proper glassware to highlight the beer's best features (Strike one).  The beer itself, a Belgian Strong Pale Ale, proved a superb and easy-drinking choice though, as it didn't overwhelm with a lingering hop flavor.  Instead it started slightly sweet and fruity with notes of banana and orange,and then developed into a more earthy flavor, with a coriander, clove, and lemon finality.

While we tried to decide what to order, our waitress (who quite frankly seemed a bit confused) brought out a bread basket.  After a day of wine tasting we were eager to give our bodies something to sop up the alcohol with.  The corn muffins looked tempting, so I grabbed one, and the little cup of butter.  Much to my chagrin, I was met with two of my biggest restaurant pet peeves...the butter was ROCK HARD, pretty tough to grab at all, and certainly not spreadable.  Also, if that weren't bad enough, the corn muffins tasted like they were made from a box of Jiffy, and there was no fresh corn in them whatsoever.  I was not impressed (Strike Two and Strike'll note I gave them far more chances than your average baseball game).  Ok, not the best start to the meal, but I will still hopeful the menu dishes would bowl me over.
After narrowing down our selections, we chose a couple of plates that piqued our interest. We had heard the black pig bacon wrapped dates and saba (a pressed grape syrup like an aged balsamic) were not to be missed.  Even though bacon wrapped dates are a dime a dozen, we decided to grab a quick nosh.  I have to say they literally melted in the mouth, and it was a nice change from the usual to omit cheese.  Simple and tasty, it was enough just as it was.  If we had not had more food coming, I would have wanted to order five of them!
The burrata and bruleed peach salad with black pig speck, backyard basil, and hazelnuts sounded like a light, and refreshing starter.  Presentation-wise it was beautiful, visually stimulating with lots of color.  However, I found myself a bit let down by the minimal servings of peach, only two tiny slices which weren't even very ripe (Strike four).  While I have personally enjoyed the other flavor combinations better (I actually really enjoyed a burrata and grilled stone fruit salad recently which benefited from charring a ripe piece of the fruit), you can't go wrong with some quality pork, and I did thoroughly enjoy the silken burrata and the contrast from the crunch of the hazelnuts.
The next choice seemed like a no brainer.  I love octopus, but it can be a bit tempestuous.  Accordingly, I've found that unless you're in a Greek fishing village where you know it was caught that day, or you're in a fine-dining establishment where they know what they're doing, it is often poorly prepared and rubbery.  Assuming Zazu would fall into the latter category of a fine-dining restaurant with the skill to tackle the sea creature, we ordered the seared octopus with confit potatoes, fennel, and basil chimichurri.  The plate arrived, looking stunning and bright with a welcoming air that suggested we should dig in immediately.  So I did just that, grabbing a sliver of octopus, and rolling around in the sprightly chimichurri.  Chew. Swallow.  Really?  Perhaps I should have thought twice about ordering seafood from a landlocked town, but wow, that was some seriously chewy octopus.  I know this dish has that tendency, but in my experience, really fresh and well-cooked octopus does not under any circumstances resemble chewing a tire (Strike Five).  The green however, were quite fresh, and while the sauce tasted more like a pesto than a chimichurri, it was quite tasty as well.
At this point, I was beginning to feel pretty despondent, worrying that we shouldn't have believed all the accolades.  I honestly wasn't even looking forward to trying the entrees, but we had already ordered.  Then something miraculous happened.  A complete 180 flip unlike anything I've ever experienced at a restaurant. Usually when the meal isn't off to the best start, there isn't much hope things will turn around.  Not to say it was terrible or that it wasn't very good, it just hadn't been the exciting, well-executed kind of cuisine I had been hoping for at such a well-regarded establishment.  Thankfully, in spite of some small missteps, my Liberty duck tostada arrived and changed everything.  Two towering mountains of shredded white meat in a delicate lime crema topped with smashed avocados.  It was heavenly!  Night and day different from the other courses, it was flavorful, succulent, and completely unforgettable.  I wish I could eat this on a weekly basis, so utterly delectable.
My dining partner experienced a similar revelation with his Duoc pork baby back ribs.  They were tender, smoky, sweet and savory.  Also, his dish came served with spicy greens and crispy fingerling "fries" all of which were impeccably cooked.
We weren't quite sure what to expect from dessert, but their options proved too tempting to resist.  Glad we did, this course also proved to highlight their strengths.  I had a lemon pie in a jar which was more of a brisk lemon custard topped with some kind of sweet crumble, strawberry preserves and a whipped pile of fluffy meringue that would make any camper envious with its even, golden sear.  Yum!  My dining partner got the affogato, a bowl of cardamom ice cream topped off with coffee.  It was also really excellent!
After a rocky start, I ended up leaving pretty happy with Zazu, reifying the notion that if at first you don't succeed with a dish or two, try, try again.  The evolution from mediocre to exceptional in the span of a short period is possible, and they really do have the savoir-faire to create some phenomenal combinations. If I lived closer, I'm sure I'd be a regular, especially coming by for their Pizza and Pinot nights!  As an additional side note on that scrumptious meat, the chefs and owners, Duskie Estes and John Stewart, raise the pigs and cure the meat that you receive, and it really is evident in the quality and flavor.  Make reservations and come check it out for yourself at:

Zazu Restaurant and Farm
3535 Guerneville Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95401-3927
(707) 523-4814
Zazu Restaurant & Farm on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Catharsis Restaurant and Lounge sets the bar for quality Latin cuisine on Calle Ocho

     When you think of Eigth Street in Miami what do you picture?  The Calle Ocho festival? Greasy plates of maduros (sweet plantains) or heaps of rice and beans?  The heart of Cuban culture in the United States?  No matter which image comes to mind first, it is a pretty safe assumption that fine dining is probably WAY down on the list.  Don't get me wrong, every now and then I succumb to the pastel de plantano from Versailles (a nicely compact sweet/salty duality made of layered maduros puree and picadillo), or I crave a quick taco fix from El Carnel.  However, I would hardly describe Calle Ocho as a trendy or upscale destination.  Color me surprised to discover the hidden gem known as Catharsis.
     Catharsis is simultaneously the ideal place to bring work colleagues, to impress a date, or to take that out of town guest looking for an authentic Miami experience.  Full of character, the seductive cuisine is Latin-inspired, and they've got a fair offering of wines to boot.  The decor is a blend between a dungeon and a wine cellar, only far more welcoming and sleek.

One of the more unique aspects of the restaurant is their live music, so you can enjoy an upbeat, vivacious salsa song, or a romantic seranade, while enjoying your meal.
     When you're ready to start eating, Catharsis' ceviche is quite fresh, very well prepared, and it has just enough citrus flavor.  I'm also a huge fan of their crunchy tostones, which are perfectly cooked and never overly greasy.  They come topped with a sweet and tangy tomato-mango pico de gallo that breaks up the starchy flavor and infuses some color and a fresh bite.  My true Achilles Heel lies in cheese though, and accordingly, their proveleta wins me over every time.  It sounds ludicrously simple, and it probably is, and yet, there is something about this emphatically salty, addictive option that keeps me coming back for more of this Argentinean specialty.  At Catharsis the round flat chunk of cheese is cut like a pizza into easy snacking slices.  It almost tastes like it is breaded in Parmesan, so strong in umami flavor.  Not that I mind the saltiness, but they do try to scale it back with the addition of fresh greens, bits of tomato, and a caramely aged baslamic that adds just a touch of sweetness.  It is divine.
   The entrées at Catharsis offer a nice range from lighter choices to more heavyweight dishes.  The corvina with guava emulsion is incredibly tender.  Another enjoyable selection is the "Lomon de Cerdo a la Parrilla con Naranha Confitadas, hierbas frescas, y pure de papas con pancetta crocante."  In English, this roughly translates out to a grilled pork tenderloin with orange confit and fresh herbs, served with homemade mashed potatoes and crsipy pancetta.  The mashed potatoes on the plate come suffused with a smoky ham flavor and crispy bits of bacon, as debscribed.  It contrasts well with the lightly seasoned pork, adorned with fresh thyme.  Be warned though, the carmelized orange rind is full of assertive bitterness, so don't bite into it expecting otherwise.
They also offer a selection of pastas, all for pretty reasonable prices.  Yes this isn't traditionally Latin, but they are still quite tasty, and shouldn't be overlooked.  As simple as it seems, the "ravioli de pera y gorgonzola con pesto cremoso," in English the pear and gorgonzola ravioli with a creamy pesto is also quite enjoyable.  Served as a heaping bowl laden with several ravioli, the inner filling is dulcet like a sweet potato mash, and it is speckled green with a creamy pesto with a nice hint of garlic.  As an additional perk, they shave fresh parmigiana cheese tableside, and in my opinion, this is the way to go as the saltiness it offers breaks up the sweetness of the dish quite nicely.
They also spruce up risotto, offering either a more traditional seafood (de Mar), or an inventive  version.  The Latino risotti comes with chopped maduros (sweet plantains), shredded marinated pork, and a guava mojito.  It is not only visually stimulating, but also very well balanced.
     The Latin flair is especially obvious in the dessert selection.   In a town where flan comes a dime a dozen, this is one of the better ones to be had. The flan itself is lusciously smooth, as delectable as it is aesthetically pleasing.
The dulce de leche crepes are literally en fuego, flambeed tableside and stuffed with thick, decadent caramel.

Overall, this Eighth Street destination should not be overlooked.  It is one of Miami's better Latin restaurants, in which culinary skill elevates more traditional dishes to new heights.  The atmosphere is another huge advantage, oscillating between quiet and refined dining to a vivacious, lively event.  So come and enjoy the setting, while indulging in some bold and flavorful cuisine at:

Catharsis Restaurant and Lounge
1644 Southwest 8th Street
Miami, FL 33135
(305) 479-2746
Catharsis on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Cobaya Experiment #27: St. Regis Resort at Bal Harbour/J&G Grill

     Cobaya dinners are that rare combination of whimsy and creativity in which the chefs are given free pass to unleash their genius on Miami's curious "guinea pigs."  I was fortunate enough to get into Experiment #23 at Sustain, and after a few months of being waitlisted, I was lucky to once again find myself receiving the coveted "you're in" email.
     Just a reminder of the process, Cobaya is an underground dining group that holds (approximately) monthly dinners for a small group in an undisclosed location.  You are notified via their mailing list of upcoming opportunities, and then if you choose to bite you sign up for a spot lottery.  If you're in, you pay the fee, and the day before the event you're given an address and basic instructions about where to park and where to meet.  You then eat whatever the chef wants to prepare, no substitutions, no complaints.  It is not for picky eaters.  Should you decide to proceed though you're in for a real treat.  The Cobaya experience, and yes I say "experience" rather than "meal" is carefully constructed from start to finish.  You can also choose to add wine pairings onto the meal for an additional fee, however, it is also an option to BYOB.  The obvious advantage to the wine pairings is that a sommelier who already knows the menu planned, has carefully selected the wines that will optimally pair with the food.
     For Experiment #27, we arrived at the opulent St. Regis Resort to gather in the lobby.  Greeted by courteous staff the room was abuzz with excitement as we checked in and some grabbed drinks at the bar. When it was time for the meal, we were lead to the elevators and ushered into one of the resort's meeting rooms.  We came to appreciate the impeccable service throughout the evening, and straight away the servers welcomed us with enthusiasm, and gently laid a napkin in our laps.  The tables were set to impress, with lovely centerpieces, and more forks and spoons than you might ever imagine you'd need (and yes we did use each one and many many more).  The chefs came out to introduce themselves, and we were informed that as a special surprise, we would be able to watch the staff work throughout the night, via a live feed to the kitchen!
     Each course was lovingly placed in front of us with perfect precision among the waiters.  First up was an amuse bouche, which Executive Chef de Cuisine Richard Gras playfully described as a "red beet explosion."  A simple presentation meant to be downed in a single slurp, the liquid beet ravioli was placed precariously on top of a lemon, thyme pound cake, and it did burst with assertive flavor upon consumption.  Considering the size of the bite, it really packed a flavor punch!  
     We were also fortuante to be dining in the midst of the Miami Malt Bomb, one of Miami's hardcore beer enthusiasts.  Throughout the night he was kind enough to share several bottles from his private stash, a trickier feat than one would think since there is no pre-determined menu (meaning that he was forced to choose bottles without knowing how they would pair).  First up was a Triverius Brouwerij de Graal, an splendid wit beer with floral notes that paired pretty well with our earlier courses.
    Round two of the amuse bouches included nitrogen frozen foie gras pearls with concord grape sponge, vanilla gel, and chives to finish.  An interesting combination, it was reminiscent of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, only just a touch saltier.  Another score for molecular gastronomy!
     The third course was a play on melon and proscuitto, a "compressed melon salad."  Some kind of melon combination was combined with Iberico ham gelée, whipped fava beans, marcona almonds, and micro mache.  The saltiness and crunch from the almonds contrasted with the soft foam and smooth gelée, which had a subtle smokiness to it.  Furthermore, all of the elements complimented the refreshing watermelon quite well.
     Next came one of my favorite courses, a deconstructed guacamole.  It was described as an avocado soup, with salsa foam, popping corn, and micro cilanto.  What we received was an incredibly complex and bold bowl of chilled soup unlike any standard gazpacho.  The popping corn was actually like pop rocks that crackled and burst when on the tongue, and they were interspersed with bits of actual popcorn.  There was also a tanginess from the salsa which added some interesting zing to the smooth, silken avocado liquid, and the fresh cilantro added an undeniable surge of Mexican flavor and freshness.
     Course #5 brought a more subdued but no less impressive Hawaiian tuna carpaccio, with yuzu, ginger, mango, Guajillo chili oil, and sea vegetables.  The briny-ness from the sea vegetables was mollified by the sweetness from the mango and the sliver of delicate, fresh tuna, culminating in a resoundingly well-balanced dish.
This course also mandated a changing of the beer, so we moved on to Zomerhop, a Belgian IPA brewed in the Netherlands.  Unlike some overly hoppy American IPAs, there is far less of that bitter longering aftertaste, and what bitterness there was actually worked well with the veggies.
     The 6th course bore yet another masterpiece, a Maine lobster flan with pickled cucamelons, sea urchin roe, olive oil marmalade, and preserved lemon.  The chef comically announced that cucalmelons is just a fancy name for mini cucumbers, and  indeed they arrive just as described.  The combination of the preserved lemon packed some wallop along with the sea urchin roe.  There was also a huge piece of fresh lobster in the middle of the flan, so if you were a touch unsure what you were eating, it was undeniable.  With a huge leaf of fresh taragon, the entire dish was briny and funky in a really exceptional way (like a deliciously pungent bleu cheese).
     Afterwards, was a smoked homemade linguini pasta with Farmer Jones carrots, chanterelles, toasted pistachio, and chervil.  They wouldn't revel exactly how the pasta was smoked, but it was completely evident on the palate.  There was a strong umami flavor to the bowl, and the chanterelles proved meatier than your average mushroom.
     Upon completion of the beguilingly smoky pasta, came one of the most ingeneous and flavorful takes on a fried egg that I've ever experienced.  Sauteed baby squash, cabernet gastrique, and a crispy poached egg injected with basil, and topped with Florida sturgeon caviar greeted us next.  We were told to just "crack it open" and indeed this was the best course of action.  The crispness of teh squash, the crunchiness of the fried egg, combined with the subtle sweetness of the gastrique, and the basil being evident but not overpowering, the entire combination was absolutely magical.  
If pasta is considered primi piatti to the Italians, then I can only conclude the 9th course was our secondi piatti, or the main dish, even though we had already consumed a miniature feast by this point.  Despite the advancing plates, everything seemed surprsingly light, which worked to our advantage with the numerous courses ahead.  Back to the entrée, we started with a slow cooked swordfish, heirloom beans, and a indeterminate olive pasta (Is it olives, is it pasta?  The Chef wouldn't reveal their secret), Hammock Hollow tomatoes, and a cherry olive broth.  Swordfish was perfectly tender and worked well with the sweet cherry sauce and saltier olive pasta.
At some point in this process we also switched to Cigar City's Cucumber Saison, a refreshing and light beer ideal for fish.  We then made our way to the dark side with a Dogfish Head Immort Ale from 2008, better suited for meat dishes.
     For the last of the savory elements, Chef Gras brought his sous chef out to explain the final dish.
We were told it was a nose to tail kind of prepartion of pig, meaning that everything was used!  Although "buche" Bartolo style doesn't literally exist, the dish included chicarrones, carnitas belly, and braised Heritage pork cheek.  Additionally, the meat was served with celery root puree, and pineapple glazed pearl onions.  The pork was incredibly succulent, and the crisp was not at all oily, both were delectable and enhanced the softer celery puree.  Furthermore, the Immort Ale has a lot of maple syrup in the nose, but tastes of marzipan and vanilla (from the oak it was aged in), along with the obvious smoke factor.  Accordingly, the smokiness of the beer paired quite well with this plate.
Meanwhile, the kitchen starting whetting our appetite for the next couple rounds...
     Ready to bring on the dessert, Executive Pastry Chef Antonio Bachour began the dance with a palate cleansing version of berries and creme.  A basil creme strawberry gelée was served with crème fraîche mousse.  It was like eating a thick raspberry jelly flan, with red currant, raspberries, blackberries, and I suspect, dragonfruit.
We enjoyed this dessert alongside Odin's Tipple, a dark Norse ale by HaandBryggeriet, which tastes like raisins, chocolate, and a hint of juniper berries.
For the next course (course #12 if you're keeping track) was liquid nitrogen coconut with passionfruit custard and mango "caviar."  There was also some guava in the dish as well, along with more dragonfruit.  A tropical paradise in frozen dessert form.
We almost couldn't believe it but yes, more was coming...Mmm....
     Course #13 was definitely not as unlucky as the number is rumored to be, an artful lemon raspberry spiral with lemon and raspberry mouse, pistachio sponge cake, and raspberry sorbet.  The chef also utilized some freeze dried raspberries which added an interesting chewy factor, and some colorful edible flowers to tie the dish together.
    Next up was a sinfully decadent and refined version of chocolate covered bananas. Nutella ganache, banana sorbet, toasted hazelnuts, moist microwave milk-chocolate spongecake, caramelized white chocolate powder, and bitter orange, it was a pastry chef's fantasy-land!  Playful and sophisticated, it was exceptional.
     As we sadly realized our meal was coming to a close, we were warmly thanked by the chefs.
Finally out came the last offerings of the evening, a couple of fun snacks meant to share.  Chocolate lollipops filled with some kind of luscious piña colada creme, bacon macarons, mini key lime tarts, and guava marshmallows atop white chocolate krispies, it was a magnificent sendoff.
Like the cast of a Broadway show coming out to take a bow, the entire staff lined up to say a few words and to thank us for our participation.
     It was truly an exceptional evening, in which I was humbled by the chefs' talents, I was overwhelmed with the innovative combinations, and I left feeling utterly satisfied and blissful.  I am undoubtedly going to be returning to J&G Grill very soon, and I enthusiastically would suggest the same to others.  Also, if you're interested in Cobaya dinners, you can gather more information on their website at: