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Archive for July, 2013

Plat du Jour Tuesday July 30, 2013: Restaurant Websites

It’s usually the first part of the dining out experience. Well, most likely the review from a newspaper or magazine critic, or perhaps the recommendation from a trusted friend might be the absolute first step (please, please don’t say browsing Yelp).

When it’s crunch time though to start planning where to dine tomorrow night, where to go on that important second date next Thursday, or you’re just hungry and bored at the office dreaming of that Spain vacation down the road, you google for a restaurant’s website.

The restaurant website is critical for restaurants today. It’s no lie that the first impression of a restaurant is the website. The chef might be a genius. The atmosphere can be magical. But that website has the most annoying music possible with too many quotes praising the chef. O.k., skip it, on to the next one.

Unfortunately, an excellent chef or an excellent restaurateur doesn’t always translate into an excellent web site designer. There are two fundamental problems with restaurant websites that draw the ire of frequent visitors (yours truly certainly included): annoying graphics/ site design (definitely including music and video) and lack of information (don’t you love outdated menus or searching for hours of operation for…hours?).


Generally I can look past a poor website if I’ve heard excellent reports from a restaurant. I’ll still give the restaurant a chance. Let’s be honest though, the restaurant website is very important from an impression standpoint and a decision making one as well. I’m happy to report that the art of the dining scene worldwide is in far better health these days than the art of the restaurant website. With how vital the website is now to the dining out process and the endless resources today in 2013 web design (don’t we all wish we graduated from college with a CS degree?), let’s hope that more restaurants see the (silver) light. (more…)

Restaurants: Blackbird, Chicago

Aged meat and dishes merging surf and turf are two of the most challenging concepts for a kitchen to pull off without a hitch. Something almost always seems to go off the deep end for both.

That precious half year aged chateaubriand might taste more of provocative black garlic than sensuous, relentless meat. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a lobster and filet mignon dish where the filet is grilled as long as the lobster is steamed, and you end up wishing you just ordered twice as much lobster? Or that pork belly and scallop concoction where the poor subtle scallop is dominated by overwhelming smoky bacon notes because that’s what pork belly does to everything?

IMG_1958For those who are weary about aged meat, surf and turf, and the state of 21st century fine dining in general, now is an ideal time to head over to Chicago’s red hot West Loop neighborhood for a visit with what must be considered one of the definitive restaurants of this generation, Blackbird.

Did I mention that Blackbird opened in December of 1997 and is just as engaging now as it was on that (probably very cold being Chicago) night back in the Clinton years. Back when Michael Jordan was in the midst of his final Bulls championship season and back when the Cubs had recently won a World Series. O.k., that last remark obviously isn’t so true, but come on, you can’t write a Chicago article without mentioning the Billy Goat curse. Hey, Sammy Sosa’s record home run year with Mark McGwire still hadn’t happened yet.

There is no Billy Goat or usual restaurant curse for Blackbird, extraordinarily defying the odds for restaurants to survive beyond a decade without becoming stale and irrelevant. Nor is there any goat on the menu currently at Blackbird, like at a certain nearby, just as popular, but much younger neighbor on West Randolph.

However, there is aged duck breast currently being served. It is majestic. There is also a handsome dry-aged striploin with the common pairing of chanterelle mushrooms, and the not- so common, seaweed pesto. (more…)

Tasting Notes from Ballast Point Brewing Co., San Diego

Having visited Stone Brewing’s out of the way location at an industrial park north of San Diego in Escondido, Green Flash and nearby Alesmith’s obscure industrial park locations in Mira Mesa, well south of Escondido and just north of the Miramar Naval Air Station, it was only fitting to visit the other major nationally known heavyweight of San Diego County’s 50 plus craft breweries: Ballast Point Brewing Co.

And where might you find the brewery and tap room for Ballast Point? No, not on the coast at some scenic spot with a lighthouse called Ballast Point. The brewery can be found of course in yet a different industrial park near Scripps Ranch, just east of the 15 Freeway. Apparently, the FAA has a major operation nearby.

Ballast Point Brewing Co.

Ballast Point Brewing Co.

It seems these days that the best cocktails to be found are at dimly lit, sign-less, below ground speakeasies. For terrific craft beers, at least in San Diego’s case, it’s all about the non- descript industrial parks. Pete Coors would always claim that it’s the pure Rocky Mountain streams that make Colorado beers so special. For San Diego, perhaps it’s the purity of the industrial parks.

Like with its fellow neighbors and rivals around San Diego, Ballast Point is best known for its IPA. There are some exceptional other traditional varietals and some eye-opening experimental brews to be found for the better, and for the habañero driven fiery worse.

Cutting to the chase, did the Sculpin IPA, Ballast Point’s regal flagship, live up to its exalted reputation on draught at the brewery’s tap room as one of the country’s premier beers period according to numerous beer sources? This is the beer after all that won the World Beer Cup’s gold medal for IPAs just three years ago. (more…)

Cocktail of the Week: The “Saladito,” The Varnish, Los Angeles

The Varnish doesn’t have a signature cocktail.

You don’t need to when you’re arguably the most important cocktail bar of the decade or so old speakeasy- craft cocktail movement. It seems as if this hidden, but very well known Downtown Los Angeles and its chief mixologist Eric Alperin are to cocktail “best of” lists and awards what Meryl Streep is to the Oscars: they are always nominated and almost always win.

Things are no different again this year. The Varnish is one of four finalists for this week’s Tales of the Cocktail Awards in New Orleans (nobody ever drinks in that city…), in many ways the Oscars or James Beard Awards for the cocktail world. While the entire bar is up for World’s Best Cocktail Bar, Alperin is also one of four finalists for the premier American bartender.

"Saladito" on the right

“Saladito” on the right

With these expectations, wouldn’t you expect nothing short of drinking magnificence when you’re standing at The Varnish’s sparkling glass bottle backed bar or sitting snugly in one of the wood paneled vintage booths in the dark as night speakeasy room? You won’t be disappointed. The hype is fulfilled. At the same time, if you’re looking for the “wow factor” so in vogue these days (think The Bazaar, The Aviary, Booker & Dax…), this isn’t your place. Sip your high quality beverage and don’t be too loud. There aren’t any sideshow frills coming your way. Only the perfect Gin & Tonic, maybe with a slight evolution.

The background history and the quirks of The Varnish are very well documented. There might even be a Hollywood screenplay in the works about the rise of cocktails in America and the rise of Skid Row’s Sixth Street because of The Varnish (I’m only guessing about this).


Wine of the Week: 2011 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Vogelzang Vineyard, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, CA

The Santa Barbara area is known best for its pinot noir (thanks “Sideways”) and Dragonette Cellars is no exception. The formerly Lompoc based winery with one of the more handsome Los Olivos tasting rooms you’ll find frequently hits the headlines for its pinot noir.

Dragonette’s 2011 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir was indeed a stellar representation of the differences between Central Coast pinot noir compared to Oregon and the Sonoma Coast. Down south, you’ll find much more in the way of dramatic and sharp tannins, stone fruits, spice, and dried herbs, compared to the plush structure and berry mixed with earth palate elements of the Pacific Northwest.


Even better is the unique 2011 “Black Label” Pinot Noir from a quartet of Santa Rita Hills vineyards. The very cool growing season for this vintage yielded a much lighter, almost blush colored wine that not surprisingly had many more of the berry notes and tenderness of an Oregon version.

Except driving through the rolling golden hills of California, you know you’re not in the Willamette Valley. (more…)

Tuesday’s Project: Beef Brisket? Which Way?

About a year ago I made the pilgrimage to Lockhart, Texas for some barbeque grazing in the heart of the brisket belt. The trip really was themed around baseball in Dallas and Houston, with sightseeing and dining in Austin and San Antonio to break up the sausages and beer at ballparks (well, so I ate at Fearing’s, Feast, RDG…not exactly ballpark fare). With a drive scheduled from Austin to San Antonio around lunchtime, it was a natural to visit the “capital” of Texas barbeque, Lockhart. Even though I visited Austin, I passed on the opportunity to wait three hours in the Texas summer sun for barbeque at Franklin’s, even though the Texas Monthly named it the state’s premier barbeque spot a few months later. In Lockhart, you can visit multiple spots…without the wait. And, there’s a cool “Back to the Future”- like courthouse on the town square.IMG_6794

Now I’m not here to tackle the debate of who makes the best barbeque in the Lone Star State, nor am I any sort of expert on the best spices for a brisket spice rub or the best wood chips to use when slow grilling the meat. That’s literally what the Texas Monthly hired Daniel Vaughn to do earlier this year as their barbeque editor. Yes, a barbeque editor. I don’t know if I’d even want that post. Every article probably incites more debate than New York Yankees managerial decisions. (more…)