Wednesday, July 27, 2011

salt - st. louis, mo
4356 lindell boulevard
st. louis, mo 63108

housed in an old funeral home in the central west end, salt is the creation of chef/owner wes johnson. with stints at the shaved duck and eclipse in his rear view, chef johnson opened salt a few months back, and has experienced largely positive reviews thus far. like many other trendy restaurants popping up across the country, salt makes it clear that they use the freshest locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. without technique and innovation however, even the best ingredients can lead to disappointing meals. after browsing salt's menu online, i was excited by some of the seemingly unique flavor combinations, and have been looking forward to seeing how they come through in execution.

haing made reservations over the phone (salt is not on opentable) earlier that day, carrie and i arrived at the house right at 8pm. upon approaching the front door, a sign detoured us to a door on the left side of the building. for a wednesday night in st. louis, the place seemed to be fairly busy, although the room we dined in only had one other table present. inside and out, salt is simply a beautiful restaurant with a classic yet somehow still somewhat modern feel to it. carrie commented that she wanted to take home the red chandelier pictured above.

after chatting briefly with our server about the specials and menu style we put in our order for six small plates as well as a large plate to share. salt focuses on small plates, which is perfect for carrie and i who like to try as many different items as possible. there are also bigger entree sized plates available, as well as a nice selection of cheese and charcuterie.

cocktails for the evening were the ornery hound (made with gin, yellow chartreuse, ruby red grapefruit, grapefruit bitters, and agave nectar) and the modern cocktail #2 (sloe gin, scotch, new york orange bitters, absinthe, and grenadine). both drinks were excellent with the hound being expectantly astringent and the modern particularly boozy and complex.

unfortunately, no bread is served at salt, so we had a good ten minutes to sit and talk while enjoying just our cocktails. we polished them off just before our first wave of dishes arrived. to go with the food, we opted for a bottle of the 2008 steele pinot noir. while not exceptional, the wine was very drinkable with hints of strawberry on the nose and a finish with notes of vanilla and maybe tobacco.

served with pickled vegetables, the braised pork belly was the first dish i sampled. much praise has been given to salt's take on pork belly from reviewers on sites like yelp and urban spoon, and while it was indeed excellent, it certainly wasn't above and beyond other pork belly dishes i have recently consumed. hype aside, it is still a must order in my opinion.

a contender for dish of the night, the pear salad with fresh blueberries, mint, and smoked jowl bacon was fantastic. the combination of flavors present was incredible with the cool mint and savory bacon contrasting wonderfully against the tart berries and sweet pears.

the final dish in our first wave was a house made tomato pasta with needle onions. i do not remember all the details of this dish, but i can say that the pasta had a unique bite to it, and was very good.

wave two of the meal contained our seafood choices. pictured above is a single seared scallop in a mustard seed sauce with scallions and cedar smoke. the scallop was served in a sealed jar, presumably to hold in the cedar smoke. the dish was served to carrie, so by the time i got my bite or two of the scallop, i think the smoke affect had been lost as i did not really note and smokey cedar flavor. however, the scallop was well cooked and characteristically sweet.

the second of our two seafood dishes was the broiled mussels with house made chorizo, leeks, and grilled bread. although a few of the mussels were a bit gritty, this was a successful dish overall with the spicy chorizo really packing a punch.

our main course for the evening was the sorghum lacquered duck served with swiss chard. while the pic above may not look all that appetizing, the duck was excellent. cooked to a perfect medium rare, the duck was served in a sorghum lacquer, (essentially molasses) giving it a wonderfully sweet flavor.

paired alongside the bird was a heaping pile of duck fat frites. thin and crispy, the frites were terrific on there own or dipped in the house made ketchup or garlic aoili, both of which are condiments that i typically do not enjoy.

after a nice little break we used to finish our wine, the desserts began to arrive. starting with the best of the three, above we have the ligonberry bread pudding with a sweet bourbon sauce. interestingly served in a tall jar, the bread pudding was one of the best iterations of this age old dessert that i have ever had. a must order for sure!

moving along to what turned out to be my least favorite dessert, we have the chocolate cake with honey goat cheese. a decent offering, but the cake was a bit dry for my taste. the honey goat cheese did add a welcomed bit of tartness to the fray however.

finally we have an excellent peach tart with a delicious salted caramel ice cream. the warm tart was executed perfectly and paired nicely with the caramel ice cream.

to go with our desserts, carrie and i shared one last cocktail. called the salt smash, this drink featured bourbon, blood orange, chocolate mint, salty caramel syrup, and angostura bitters. this drink was a bit of a let down for me. while the mint aroma was nice, the flavor of the drink was rather bland with the flavor of the bourbon actually dominating the profile for me.

even with two slight misses coming near the end of the meal (cocktail and cake), i would say that salt exceeded my expectations. as mentioned earlier, the restaurant is absolutely beautiful and was simply a joy to dine in. but this would not matter in the least if the food did not hold up its end of the bargain, which it did on almost all accounts. i am assuming that the menu at salt will change often, and if it continues to operate at the level it did on this night, it has a chance to become one of our "go to" restaurants in st. louis.

Salt on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 22, 2011

half & half - st. louis, mo
8135 maryland avenue
st. louis, mo 63105

half & half is a recently opened breakfast/lunch/brunch concept from mike randolph of the good pie. located on maryland avenue in clayton, half & half has been on my must try list since i read about it back in may.

after a bit of trouble locating the place (no sign on the actual building), carrie and i walked into half & half at about 10:30am. we were told there would be just a short five minute wait while some tables were being cleared, and handed a pair of menus to browse while we waited. we were promptly seated as promised at a small two top in the middle of the dining area. half & half is a nice clean space with a blue and white theme going on, but could use a bit of art on the wall or some sort of decoration to help liven the restaurant up a bit.

for beverages, carrie simply opted for a glass of orange juice while i went for one of their specially coffees roasted by kaldi's. named quatemala san pedro and noted to have a flavor profile of carmel, cocoa, and berries, this was an interesting brew for sure. i tasted a fair amount of acidity up front which mellowed to a bit of chocolate in the finish.

with several excellent sounding menu items, including pork belly, salmon hash, fried chicken livers, and even a caviar offering, carrie and i had a difficult time narrowing down our choices.

arriving quickly and piping hot, our first bites were an order of doughnuts. dusted generously with powdered sugar, the doughnuts crispy exterior gave way to a perfectly doughy lemon hinted interior. these were gone in mere moments.

being that we drove about forty minutes solely to eat at half & half, we decided to really make it worth our while and ordered three entrees. this became a slight problem due to the small table we were seated at, but with a bit of rearranging we made it work. pictured above is the crispy balsamic braised pork belly with two sunny side up eggs, potatoes, and a peach compote. everything on the plate was very good, with the pork belly cooked properly and characteristically rich and fatty.

as good as the pork belly plate was, the cornbread and chorizo stole the show. served with the same two eggs and potatoes, the spicy chorizo was accented with cilantro and red onion, and was absolutely delicious on its own or mixed with the other items and a dash of tabasco. the cornbread was good, but as a whole, cornbread rarely does much for me, and this was no exception.

last but not least was a huge portion of brioche french toast with blackberries and mascarpone. this was another huge success with the rich brioche toast and mascarpone cheese working wonderfully with the tart blackberries.

noting again that all the food was excellent, i will say that the service was lacking a bit. i had to ask for water after waiting about five minutes after our orders were placed, and when our server returned with it he merely set a glass bottle on our table and walked off. not a huge deal, but i felt as though he could have at least poured our first glasses for us. another minor miscue was our french toast was originally delivered as a standard order sans blackberries and mascarpone. this was quickly rectified and also wasn't a major issue, but still worth mentioning in conjunction with the other errors. finally, my biggest problem was a dirty plate was left to sit on our tiny table for at least five minutes with several servers including our own walking by several times. given that there was barely enough space for our three plates on the table, things would have been much more comfortable had the finished plate have been cleared timely by one of the many servers walking by. i will say that everyone was talked to at half & half was very friendly and pleasant, and there were absolutely no problems at all in that regard.

with the small problems documented, i am truly glad to have half & half in st. louis. with lunch and brunch menus also offered as well as plans for tasting menus at dinner time, i am sure carrie and i will be back to half & half many times in the future.

Half & Half on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 7, 2011

l2o - chicago, il
2300 north lincoln park west
chicago, il 60614

in june of 2010, carrie and i celebrated our second wedding anniversary at l2o. it was our first time at a restaurant anywhere near its caliber, and our meal at l2o is what prompted me to start this blog. the food we tasted that night and the service we received were unlike anything we had ever experienced before. however, a few months later that i was looking back on the meal and realizing that i wished i remembered more about it. i had been an occasional reader of some of the better food blogs out there (ulterior epicure and kevineats) and decided why not start my own (poor man's) blog to preserve the memories of meals past.

we were originally planning to celebrate our third anniversary at avenues, but for the second time, were unable to secure a reservation the night we needed as the restaurant was closed for a renovation. we considered spiaggia, charlie trotter's, and everest, but ultimately decided to return to l2o so the experience could be properly documented.

l2o, which opened in 2008, is located in the belden stratford hotel situated in chicago's lincoln park neighborhood. the restaurant is part of rich melman's lettuce entertain you restaurant group, which notably contains both tru and everest. the name is a play on the original chef's name (laurent gras) and the chemical formula for water. l2o is a seafood focused restaurant with heavy french and japanese influences.

in the fall of 2010, chef laurent gras left l2o permanently after a six week hiatus, and the events that played our after would make for a great made for tv movie. chef gras and owner rich melman partook in a verbal spat via the media,  with each taking shots at the other. gras stated that melman wanted to take the restaurant in the wrong direction, while melman noted that gras mistreated the front of the house staff, was unwilling to compromise, and needed to become a better quality human being. to add to the controversy, l2o was awarded the michelin guides highest honor (three stars) just fifteen days after gras' departure.

not willing to walk away from his $5.5 million dollar investment, melman hired chef francis brennan to take the helm. brennan was laurent gras' chef de cuisine at l2o when the restaurant opened (although he left shortly after), and also worked under gras at the fifth floor in san francisco prior to l2o's opening. since gras' departure, critics reviews have varied. most notably, jeff ruby commented that brennan's l2o satisfied him in a way he never was before at the restaurant. on the flip side, critic julia kramer gave the new l20 3 out of 5 stars stating that things at l2o are precarious. unphased by all of this, i decided that i would let my (admittedly unrefined) palate make the decision for me.

l2o currently offers four options for dining, a four course prix fixe, an eight course seasonal tasting, a six course luxury ingredient tasting, or a private twelve course japanese kaiseki inspired menu in what is called the tatami room. being that it was in fact our anniversary and we had already dined in l2o's dining room once before, carrie and i booked the tatami room for our meal

upon arriving right on time for our 8:15 reservation, carrie and i were greeted by a friendly young woman dressed in a kimono. the woman, who turned out to be our server, led us through the amazing dining room, up a short flight of stairs, and had us sit down on two wooden blocks to remove our shoes before entering the tatami room.

 the tatami room is a small fully private room with two sliding doors (one for our server and one for us) and a low floor level table made of yellow cedar. diners sit on japanese tatami mats, but there is a great back support as well as a cutout for your feet, so it is extremely comfortable.
with our menu preselected by the chef, drinks were the only decision we needed to make. as usual, cocktails were our first order of business. my choice (pictured right) was the ginger mint julep, made with evan williams single barrel vintage bourbon, ginger beer, and fresh mint. being a lover of ginger beer and bourbon, this coctail was a hit for me. the only problem was the excess of ice, which dilute the flavor rather quickly. i would have preferred the drink to have been served "up". carrie's drink, the mediterranean breeze, featuring grey goose le citron, limoncello, and thyme. this was another successful offering, and i commented that i may have actually preferred hers. in addition to the cocktails, we also opted to split the available wine pairings. this was more than enough wine for both of us, and i (let alone carrie) would have had a hard time trying to keep up had we gone with the full pours.

salmon, cucumber

first up was a salmon and cucumber gelee dotted with roe. the smooth gelee was a light and refreshing opener.

after the gelee, our first round of bread was served. l2o takes its bread program very seriously, and i had been eagerly anticipating this moment since we booked the reservations weeks ago. baked twice per night to ensure perfect temperature and freshness, roughly six breads were available. pictured above is the demi-baguette, pain au lait, rosemary croissant, and an amazing pork belly bread. while the baguette was maybe a notch above average, the other three were incredible. i easily consumed 8-10 pieces total throughout the course of the meal.

hamachi, uni, ginger
jean vesselle, oeil de perdrix, brut rose bouzy, france, nv

basically a single bite, this was a bit of sea urchin wrapped in hamachi and served with a bit of ginger.

madai, ponzu
salmon belly, miso
ahi, grey shallots, ginger
nanbubijin, southern beauty, junmai gingo, iwate, japan

served with sake as opposed to wine, this was our sashimi course for the evening. while i have had sashimi several times before, never have i experienced raw fish of this quality before. each offering was incredible, with the fatty salmon belly being the winner for me. as for the sake, it is not a drink i have often, and i suppose i have not acquired a taste for it yet.

maryland blue crab en gelee, fennel cream, basil
muscat, bonny doon, ca' del solo estate, monterey california, 2008

beneath the gelee lay a nice portion of maryland blue grab. mixing the crab with the fennel and basil made for a nice sweet and savory interplay that was further enhanced texturally by the cream. superb!

hawaiian hearts of palm, white miso, mint, toasted seasame
nigl, gruner veltliner, freiheit, austria, 2007

served as an intermezzo of sorts, the next dish was a first for me. hearts of palm, which are a vegetable harvested from the soft core of a palm tree. possessing a slightly sweet and grassy flavor, the hearts were enhanced by the miso, mint, and sesame. a decent course, but probably the weakest of the night. the accompanying wine however, was an excellent austrian gruner veltliner that was light and crisp with notes of melon and citrus.

foie gras, hamachi, mojama
fino en rama, alvear, montilla-moriles, spain, 2006

next up was one of my favorite dishes of the meal. all three items on the plate were excellent eaten separately or paired together. the foie was delicate and decadent as expected, and the hamachi was rich and slightly smoky. the real surprise of the dish however was the mojama, which is salt cured tuna. the was reminiscent of ham actually, and had an absolutely huge flavor for such a thin strip of fish.

turbot, yuzu butter, black lime

well...this is embarrassing...i failed to photograph this dish until about halfway through, so this is the best i can do. the turbot was characteristically firm in texture and fairly mild in flavor, and was accented nicely by the citrus flavors of the yuzu and lime.

quinault harvested halibut, manila clams, morels, bonito fumet
chardonnay, belle cote, peter michael, knights valley, sonoma, 2009

following the turbot was halibut, another mild fish. the star of the dish for me were the large morels with their deliciously meaty flavor.

riesling, grand cru, schlossberg, martin schaetzel, alsace, france, 2004

a traditional japanese offering, shabu shabu is a hot pot in which the diner cooks their own meat/seafood. we were presented with a selection of sashimi to cook in a dashi broth.

dashi, noodles

after the sashimi was finished, our server returned with our leftover dashi broth in a bowl with some house made wheat noodles. excellent!

a11 wagyu, maine lobster, potato fondant
saint-julien, chateau branaire-ducru, bordeaux, france, 2004

our final and largest savory course of the evening was one of my most anticipated courses of the evening. here we have a11 wagyu beef in a black truffle emulsion served with maine lobster and potato fondant. simply put, this is the best beef that has ever graced my palate. butter soft and rich, the meat cut easily with a fork, and possessed a flavor unlike any other beef i have ever tasted. the lobster that came alongside the wagyu was really just a bonus for me, but it was excellent nevertheless. the wine for this course, our lone red of the night, was a lovely bordeaux blend (mostly cabernet) with notes of licorice, cranberry, and plum.

raspberry, golden yuzu, mascarpone

our first dessert was a left over from laurent gras, and was a dish we had eaten at our first visit to l2o. this was no problem, as i remembered absolutely loving the dish. visually beautiful, the sweet raspberries, smooth mascarpone, and tart yuzu blend wonderfully together to provide an extremely tasty and refreshing dessert.

manjari, coffee, malted vanilla snow
moscatel soleado, guttierez colosia, dulce, jerez, spain.

our final course of the evening definitely ended things on a positive note. here we have a hard manjari chocolate shell filled with salted caramel sitting atop a pile of frozen malted vanilla snow with a coffee flavored foam. an interesting combination of textures for sure, this final dessert was a hit on all levels.

our final bite at l2o came in the form of an incredible canele made in a beeswax mold. perfectly crisp on the outside and eggy and delicious within, this was an excellent finish to an outstanding meal.

as with most fine dining restaurants, we were presented with a copy of the menu we had eaten along with the corresponding wine pairings.

overall, our experience in l2o's tatami room was wonderful. having a room to ourselves really made the evening special, and all the food was amazing. our server was also very pleasant and down to earth, and we enjoyed conversing with her about the chicago dining scene as well as l2o's transition after gras' departure. this was a nice contrast from our from our first trip to l2o where our server was comically rigid and aloof, and did not make us feel very comfortable. while it is hard to fairly compare this meal to our first one since the dining style as well as menu approach was completely different, i can say that we enjoyed every aspect of this meal more than our first, and would love to come back some day and do it again.
L2O (Beldon-Stratford) on Urbanspoon