Category Archives: Out of Town Destinations

London/Dublin

London Update (2014) — 

Harwood Arms — probably our favorite restaurant of the trip; owned by the same folks as The Ledbury; upscale gastropub in comfortable, casual setting; amazing beef and fish, scotch egg; reservations are a must, well in advance.

Berners Tavern — trendy upscale steakhouse vibe to this very popular, close to the theater district area restaurant; velvet rope entrance with doorman; delicious beef tenderloin for two, sided by short rib mac ‘n cheese

Green Man & French Horn — another favorite that we had read about in the NYT before our trip; located in the theater district, we dined after a performance; contemporary take on traditional French dishes; think rillettes, veal tongue, rabbit terrine, duck egg & anchovy on toast; small plates, great for sharing.

Gordon Ramsey — our splurge dinner was worth the money; great, unpretentious service; multi-course prix fix menu; nothing disappointed; pleased to see a female head chef; a little hard to access from public transportation but the walk was a welcome addition.

Roux at Parliament Square —  Michel Roux’s second location; lovely, formal setting; we enjoyed the multi-course, prix fix lunch

Rules — theater area restaurant, claims to be the oldest restaurant in London; somewhat dated around the edges; traditional British fare; lovely setting, average food

Here are some of the highlights from our 2012 trip to London

Kitchen W8 — this small, unpretentious one Michelin-starred restaurant in the High Street Kensington area turned out to be one of our favorites; the chef is a master with fish and the understanding of combination of ingredients–smoked anchovy starter followed by pan seared sea trout and roasted cod, beautifully cooked, sauced and presented;  not as pricey as the other high-end restaurants where we dined

Claridge’s — a lovely old-line hotel (restaurant run by Gordon Ramsey) where we enjoyed Sunday lunch; immaculate but friendly service; couldn’t resist the traditional Sunday Roast entree; experience only marred by $24 charge for a gin & tonic (half the cost of the multi-course fixed price lunch); jeans are allowed but seemed out of place  [2014 Update:  new chef, getting great reviews, we haven’t tried it]

The Ledbury — one of the most highly rated restaurants in London (two Michelin stars); high-end French, 3-course tasting menu; polished but not pretentious service; unfortunately, we just weren’t wowed by the food we tried one evening; nothing disappointed (although dover sole entree was slightly overcooked), but we didn’t leave raving about the experience

Petrus — another very popular French restaurant (also run by Gordon Ramsey) where we participated in a lunchtime master chef cooking class and dined at the chef’s table in the kitchen; food was delicious (although limited by the basic items (seared scallops, roast chicken) that we actually cooked ourselves, with the chefs’ guidance, in the kitchen)

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal — also very highly rated celebrity chef’s new eponymous restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (one Michelin star, compared to three at Blumenthal’s Fat Duck); dishes are based on traditional British recipes dating back to the 16th century, making the menu a fun read; food was delicious and unique (chicken liver pate shaped like a mandarin orange (one of the signature dishes), chicken oyster “salamagundy”, pork chop and roast turbot); only real miss was the “quaking pudding” dessert that was graciously deleted from the bill; also enjoyed unique cocktails in the adjoining hotel bar which is quite the social and business scene

The Goring — located right next to Buckingham Palace, we had a lovely champagne High Tea in the lobby bar at this traditional hotel where the service was immaculate and the food delicious and abundant (a savory amuse bouche (crab and crawfish gelee said to be the Queen Mother’s favorite), together with all you can eat finger sandwiches, scones and clotted cream, and pastries, finishing with a mini trifle)

The Delaunay — very popular new theater area restaurant owned by the same folks who have the long-time Ivy; dined after seeing War Horse (highly recommended); menu has an emphasis on British and German standards, so we enjoyed smoked sausage soup, liverwurst, grilled sausages with sauerkraut and potato salad, and Buck Rarebit (welsh rarebit topped with a fried egg)

Tate Modern Restaurant — nice view of London from the 7th floor of the museum; food was well below average and overpriced; just get a sandwich at the cafe next door and don’t bother with the sit-down service

Borough Market  — touted as London’s lunchtime foodie market, located near the Tate Modern and London Bridge; good choices for take-home, but we weren’t particularly impressed with the options for on-site food, and there’s little seating

Ping Pong —  looking for a quick bite one rainy evening before the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London (highly recommended), we wandered into this casual, local chain dim sum restaurant; service was prompt and the dim sum was freshly prepared and quite good

And from our 2012 stop in Dublin —

Bang —  popular restaurant serving modern Irish cuisine in a casual, contemporary setting; a great choice, particularly in light of the high-end dining we’d just experienced in London; started with a generous crock of rabbit and ham hock rillettes and the deep fried hen’s egg with blood sausage, followed by entrees of Irish beef ribeye and pan-fried local cod

Eden —  also emphasizing modern Irish cuisine in a casual, contemporary setting; another great choice, we enjoyed Eden Smokies (smoked haddock topped decadently with melted cheese), confit duck breast salad, pork shoulder cassoulet (otherwise great but marred by undercooked beans), and very nicely prepared rack of lamb

Bull & Castle  — somewhat a tourist pub directly across from Christ Church Cathedral, but the food was very good; great fish ‘n chips and steamed mussels.

 

San Francisco/Napa Valley

San Francisco/Berkeley (September 2013):

Chez Panisse finally made it to this Bay Area institution; went for both lunch and dinner, preferring lunch; lovely, comfortable setting, with an old house feel; we found the prices to be on the high side, even for the area; excellent wood oven roasted mussels and nicely done pizza at lunch; the 4-course prix fixe ($100 on weekends) dinner (different every night and posted a week in advance on the restaurant’s website) was true to the place’s reputation — simple, with very fresh ingredients, well-executed:  salmon crudo, fried squash blossom salad, wood oven roasted squab, and some type of berry/cake dessert; we may be in the minority and perhaps it was the particular night’s menu, but we probably wouldn’t make the trek across the Bay if we found ourselves in the area.

Flour + Water — highly lauded Mission-area pizza and pasta place; casual, contemporary setting; very tough reservation, with long waits if you don’t have one; we went for the tasting menu, with multiple courses, including many pasta dishes, although we didn’t try the pizza; every course was very good; service was a little scattered.

SPQR — lovely spot for Sunday lunch in the Fillmore Street area; reservations are a must unless there’s space at the bar; wonderful biscuits, suckling pork confitura, chicken liver mousse, and pasta with blood sausage ragu.

Napa Valley (April 2013):

Auberge du Soleil — we re-visited the site of our wedding 5 years ago to the day; lunched on the patio, and the weather, service and food were fabulous; this is upscale dining in St. Helena, with reservations required at lunch, particularly to sit outside; beautifully executed dishes (asparagus soup, lobster salad, seared halibut) with creative, interesting flavors and innovative touches, warranting the Michelin one star. 

The Restaurant at Meadowood — this was our special evening dining experience;  Michelin three-starred, with chef who very recently won the James Beard award for the California area; georgous serene, contemporary dining room, amidst the wooded hotel property; wonderful, friendly service; personalized, handwritten welcome notes for each table; 8 course ($225) or 15 course ($500) tasting menu; very pricey wine list, with the wine pairings the same price as the meal; we were more than happy with the 8 course menu, which ended up being quite a few more courses; with a focus on creativity and innovation, varying with cold and hot dishes, highlights included whipped yogurt with black sesame, abalone liver, hot beef consomme served over frozen shaved beef fat, clams and caviar with lettuce and asparagus, sturgeon cooked in onion fat, and on and on; like French Laundry, this is a place foodies should try at least once 

Solbar — we didn’t see any celebrities at this trendy, busy venue near Calistoga (reservations strongly advised), but we very much enjoyed lunch on the lovely patio; petrale sole soft tacos and an ahi tuna burger were delicious; also Michelin one-starred 

Bottega —  Michael Chiarello’s spot is as popular as ever in Yountville, just as good as our first experience; possibly the best pasta ragu we’ve ever eaten; comfortable, fun atmosphere; a great place for a group; tables book quickly

Farmstead — our only disappointment after really enjoying this St. Helena restaurant on our last visit to the area; food was good but it didn’t wow us; the burger was overcooked and the brick chicken didn’t rival some of the better versions we’ve had of that dish

Redd Wood  — very popular, new’ish, casual venue down the street from the same chef as the much lauded Redd in Yountville; incredible fried calamari and great wood oven pizzas; very good pasta ragu (but not as good as Bottega); make reservations

Hog Island Oyster Company — in Oxbow Market in the town of Napa; very casual, sit at the counter or outside; good (and pricey) grilled oysters; decadent dungeness crab mac ‘n cheese; go for lunch or a snack

San Francisco (May 2012):
 
Frances — very popular Castro-area bistro; tough reservation to get; menu is focused on seasonal ingredients with many items designed to share — we tried baked clams and smoked bacon beignets; entrees were nicely done grilled quail, linguini with clams, and a side of spring onion and farro gratin; friendly, very accommodating service; small space, tables close together, bar area is first come first served for dining

Scoma’s — we couldn’t resist returning to this Fisherman’s Wharf spot; the oysters rockefeller and raw oysters were delicious, as was the whole roasted dungeness crab (once again) with garlic and olive oil; great service from seasoned waiters
 
Fleur de Lys — a major disappointment; tasting menu (3, 4, or 5 courses) from nationally recognized French chef, Hubert Keller; overworked dishes, with too many disparate components, some items overcooked (petrale sole starter), some good flavors but nothing particularly impressive; restaurant obviously caters to special occasions, and we were seated in what appeared to be the two-top celebration area in a side dining room that lacked the lush beauty of the formal main dining area; polished but unfriendly service; multiple desserts (with the mignardises being one of the better executed items of the evening) appeared to be designed to give a good final impression when the rest of the meal didn’t wow

Slanted Door — one of the most popular restaurants in San Francisco per Zagat; billed as modern Vietnamese cuisine; lunched outside at the ferry building location overlooking the Bay Bridge; enjoyed the spring rolls, lemon grass pork shoulder vermicelli noodles, and chicken claypot; very good food, fresh flavors

Delfina — another very popular Castro-area restaurant; also a tough reservation; crowded, close quarters but reservations were honored on time; very much enjoyed the warm olives, grilled calamari, roast chicken (a house specialty and deservedly so), and boar ragu pasta; next door was an affiliated pizzeria (no reservations) where the pizza looked quite delicious (and was judging by the mass of people waiting outside); skipped dessert for the fabulous ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery (a San Francisco institution) just down the street


Napa Valley (December 2010):

Bouchon — Thomas Keller’s French bistro in Yountville; lively, warm atmosphere, traditional French menu; well executed dishes, but nothing super special; not as impressed as we’d hoped to be

Bottega —  Michael Chiarello’s very popular Italian eatery in Yountville; large restaurant, with every table filled; reservations are a must although light plates are served in the bar area; great food (particularly the dungeness crab special)

Farmstead — St. Helena restaurant focusing on locally sourced items; one of our new favorite spots in the area; everything we tried at lunch was delicious  (cheeseburger, pulled pork sandwich, mac ‘n cheese, french fries)

Auberge du Soleil — went for Sunday brunch at this lovely, somewhat formal setting up the hill overlooking the valley; three course meal, with a variety of choices for each course; elegant service; everything was beautifully done; special occasion place (particularly for us since we were married there)


San Francisco (July 2006):

Gary Danko — Zagat rated #1 in both most popular and food categories in San Francisco; very tough to get a reservation; you pick whether you want 3, 4, or 5 courses, and then select among a number of options in various categories; seafood items were particularly outst
anding (notably, the poached oysters topped with a generous amount of caviar); we weren’t as impressed with the meat and poultry dishes (lamb was particularly disappointing); the cheese tray was amazing; from start to finish, the service was some of the best we’ve ever experienced.

Scoma’s — lunched at this Fisherman’s Wharf institution that is somewhat touristy, but has very good seafood; the whole baked dungeness crab in olive oil and garlic was particularly delicious, as was the pan fried petrale sole; we could have skipped the calamari.

Farallon — upscale seafood restaurant in the Union Square area; also highly rated in Zagat; beautiful interior, complete with chandeliers shaped like jellyfish; enjoyed the seafood bisque and soft shell crabs; one of us even forewent seafood for duck which was great.

Napa Valley —

Redd — one of the newer, trendy places to dine; it’s a difficult reservation, so call well in advance; chef/owner was formerly chef at Auberge du Soleil; food was very good although not exceptional; fish entrée was overcooked.

Taylor’s Refresher — very popular walk-up burger joint; looks like a Dairy Queen, but even serves wine; great late afternoon snack spot for well prepared greasy food (try the Patty Melt, it will heal all that ails you) after a day of wine tasting.

Bistro Don Giovanni — bustling Italian restaurant with a very pretty outdoor terrace; recommend reservations even at lunch; tried the risotto and pizza; food was fine but sitting outside was the best part.

Bistro Jeanty — cozy French bistro; call well in advance for reservations; classic French fare, including such dishes as pigs feet and frog legs (neither of which we tried); interesting duck confit and goat cheese pate; cassoulet and coq au vin were  very good versions of these traditional dishes.  (If, like us, you didn’t call exactly 60 days in advance at the appointed hour to snag one of the much coveted reservations at Thomas Keller’s foodie temple, The French Laundry, you might also try Keller’s bistro style restaurant, Bouchon.)

Vail and Beaver Creek


UPDATED REVIEW:  SEPTEMBER 2012:

Splendidolocated in the Chateau Hotel in Beaver Creek, right next to Grouse Mountain Grill; one of the Vail area’s most highly rated restaurants on Zagat; lovely patio overlooking the mountains where we enjoyed drinks and could have eaten what looked to be a great bar menu cheeseburger, dinner menu is also served outside; equally lovely interior with live music; started with steak tartare and moved on to roasted rabbit (served three ways — ribs, loin, and sausage), sided with mac and cheese, and buffalo steak diane; a wonderful experience that we’d highly recommend, on par with Grouse Mountain Grill (service perhaps a notch better there)

La Tour — good as ever and popular as ever; reservations required for weekends; this was our third visit for dinner; same well-priced 3-course dinner as on our prior trips; dover sole was fabulous again, as were the roasted oysters cleverly served on a mini hibachi

Up the Creek — a lovely, tranquil setting right on Goose Creek in Vail Village; we’ve lunched there on a couple visits; our ‘go to’ place when we arrive just off the plane from Houston, drinks in hand, sitting outside as we soak in the mountain air; well executed food and good service

Bonus Review — Boulder, Colorado — The Kitchen — had a great dinner at this extremely popular, community-focused restaurant; casual in vibe and innovative in food; enjoyed crispy pig’s ears,  a charcuterie plate (select your own from a variety of meats, pates, and cheeses; we picked duck rillettes, chicken liver pate, and country terrine ), and pasta bolognese


FIRST REVIEWED — SEPTEMBER 2008:

To escape the heat, we headed to the Vail area one recent weekend —

La Tour — to celebrate its 10 year anniversary, this French restaurant featured a great 3-course dinner for $39; we loved the contemporary yet warm vibe of this place and thoroughly enjoyed our meal; for starters we had beautifully done crispy sweetbreads and beef carpaccio (improved with an extra touch of olive oil); we continued with the duo of lamb chop (nicely cooked medium rare) and braised leg of lamb (yum) and the sautéed dover sole (both of which required a fee supplement but well worth it); we finished with a strawberry rhubarb feuillette, which was decent but a disappointment compared to the rest of the meal, and a selection of ice creams on chocolate foam

Kelly Liken — we had high hopes for this namesake restaurant of a chef recently named as a rising star by Bon Appetit magazine; this is a tough reservation, call well in advance; we were put off initially when we asked for a different table, were told none were available, and then 5 minutes later had a couple seated banquette style at a table right next to ours; this was one of those places where, although the service was not snooty, you felt they played favorites with the clientèle; we started with an overpriced, average tasting, and small portioned duo of a pulled pork tostada and pork belly; our entrées were rack of lamb and the chef’s signature potato crusted trout, both of which were very good; one of the best parts of the meal were the sides — morel potato hash and parmesan grits; we didn’t have any dessert; on leaving, we got two blueberry muffins, a nice touch but with only about one blueberry per muffin; we much preferred La Tour and Grouse Mountain Grill; also, be prepared to spend well over $100 a bottle for wine, as they had a very small number (no more than you can count on one hand) of red wines below $100

Grouse Mountain Grill — our one trip over to Beaver Creek proved a wonderful experience; we loved everything about this restaurant, from the gracious manager to the down to earth and very knowledgeable sommelier to our friendly and accommodating waitress; located in The Pines Lodge, the restaurant has a warm, comfortable atmosphere; this was everything we expected from Kelly Liken but did not receive there; we initially enjoyed a drink in the bar while they graciously put together a lovely table by the window; the food was great; we started with the ritz (cracker) crusted walleye (a unique dish that’s a diner favorite) and continued with the pretzel crusted pork chops (a delicious combination) and venison loin, both of which were perfectly cooked with generous sides; there was a lot of food, and we were too full for dessert, which did look very tempting and which we look forward to on our next visit; if you have one restaurant that you can pick on your vacation in the Vail area, this is it

Alpenrose — popular, longstanding classic German restaurant; other than the friendly service and pleasant outdoor patio, we weren’t excited about the food; the weinerschnitzel was a marginal version of the Vienna classic; the reuben sandwich was good but nothing special that you couldn’t find at an average deli

Bully Ranch — very overpriced and average (located in the Sonnenalp Resort where we stayed — get the B&B package as the breakfast buffet is great, you won’t need lunch); the cheeseburger was overcooked and the fries were wimpy; the roasted chicken was dry and only a quarter of a small chicken (perhaps they used a guinea hen, still trying to figure out where they got a baby chicken), not the usual half chicken serving yet costing more then you would typically pay for a larger serving

Buffalo Restaurant and  Bar — on the drive west on I-70 over to Vail, just about half an hour outside Denver, is Idaho Springs; although touristy, we’ve twice enjoyed lunch at this restaurant (located on Main Street about 5 minutes off the interstate); as the name suggests, this casual spot features numerous items with (and without) buffalo; particularly tasty is the buffalo reuben; we weren’t impressed with the overpriced onion rings; the Main Street shops aren’t much, but it’s nice to walk a little after the big meal before you get back in the car

Washington/Oregon

Cucina Spinasse (Seattle) — the best dinner of our trip; chef was Food & Wine up & comer for 2010; sat at chef’s counter table overlooking the open kitchen and  and were served numerous courses by the chef; emphasis is on Piedmont style of cooking; highlights included four (amazing) homemade pastas, salt roasted local prawns, lamb tartare, seared salmon, and rabbit pouches; we’d highly recommend you check out this restaurant

Serious Pie  (Seattle) very popular stop on all Seattle food tours; anticipate long waits; small restaurant, open kitchen with brick oven, community seating; enjoyed an amazing fresh porcini salad and a wild mushroom and truffled cheese pizza (featured by Tyler Florence on the FN’s Best Thing You Ever Ate)

Crush  (Seattle) — chef won this year’s James Beard award for the Northwest; located in a house in a changing neighborhood east of downtown; enjoyed grilled baby octopus as a starter, and roasted halibut and seared scallop entrees;  above average artisanal cocktails; friendly attentive service; probably didn’t fully appreciate this restaurant as we were still reeling from our previous night’s chef’s table experience

Luc  (Seattle) — very popular French bistro (same owner as neighbor, Rover, a more upscale, highly rated restaurant); casual (i.e., slightly inattentive) service; we were disappointed they had run out of the salt baked whole chicken that is the Monday night feature; our group of four enjoyed smoked trout appetizer, potato mushroom soup, grilled halibut, and a (we’ve had better) cheeseburger

Restaurant Zoe (Seattle) — a popular contemporary downtown restaurant; enjoyed a unique version of sweetbreads with apricots and an even more unique entree “hog croustillant” (braised, shredded pork formed in a log and pan fried) with a side of nicely done herb risotto

Saffron Mediterranean (Walla Walla, Washington) — chef was a James Beard nominee this year; enjoyed an appetizer of steamed clams with ham hocks and sausage, and an entree of roasted pheasant on Israeli couscous; were surprised that the chef declined our request for a half order of pasta

Brasserie Four (Walla Walla, Washington) — managed to find a French bistro in southwestern Washington; started with a  good country pate;  branched out with a very fresh, whole sauteed trout served meuniere style; also enjoyed a perfectly cooked hanger steak with yummy brandy sauce and frites

Celilo (Hood River, Oregon) — after walking around this charming town, we landed on one of the more upscale places in an otherwise laid back place; enjoyed salmon rillettes as a starter and and entrees of lamb three ways (chop, braised and overly spiced chorizo) and roasted cod

Beast (Portland) — second best meal of the trip; Food & Wine up and comer for 2009; two seatings, served at two long communal tables; multi-course menu (no choices, “substitutions politely declined,” vegetarians need not apply); went with the wisely picked wine pairings; highlights included the amuse bouche plate (including pork rillettes, steak tartare, foie gras bon-bon) and the beautifully cooked duck breast

Charleston, South Carolina


A long weekend took us to this town of significant historical significance and alot of great food —

McCrady’s Tavernour favorite restaurant, the chef, Sean Beck, just won the James Beard award for the southeast; beautiful room in a restored tavern dating back to the 1700’s; tried a couple great appetizers (soft shell crab with pea shoots and buttermilk fried sweetbreads with peas and lardo vinaigrette); really enjoyed the very unique lamb duo entree (a roulade of lamb saddle and loin and a lamb crepinette (braised meat formed into a cake) with peas, almond polenta and green onion puree); finished with a tasty lemon curd dessert that was essentially a deconstructed lemon meringue pie; very lively bar scene with interesting bar bites.

Tristan  fabulous Sunday brunch, contemporary setting, elegant service, not touristy, innovative food; started with chive cheddar popovers and she crab soup, Bergammo breakfast (polenta topped with two varieties of melted Italian cheese, and two fried eggs, finished with truffle butter) and Pate Eggs Benedict (poached eggs, topping country style pate, on toasted brioche with whole grain mustard hollandaise; not our favorite but beautifully executed and not too heavy); would definitely go back for dinner.

Slightly North of Broadlunched at this very popular spot; the homemade charcuterie platter was generous, very reasonably priced and delicious (duck liver mousse, duck rillettes, country pate, head cheese, freshly toasted baguette slices, with the usual accompaniments); nicely done (again generously portioned) fried chicken livers topped grits with an overabundance of caramelized onion sauce.

High Cotton —  very popular, somewhat touristy; started out well with the appetizers (“bacon and eggs” was an absolutely delicious chunk of pork belly topped with a crunchy coated poached egg, and a nicely executed crab cake with a bit too many sauces and toppings on the plate); things went down hill with the entrees (iodine tasting shrimp in a gloppy sauce on grits and deep fried soft shell crab in a heavy, tasteless breading that totally masked the crab).

Magnolia’s also very popular and touristy; the signature eggroll appetizer with chicken and collard greens served with various pepper and mustard sauces bore a strong resemblance to Chili’s Southwestern egg rolls; the seafood on grits with lobster sauce was another gloppy mess with no discernible lobster or lobster taste; the parmesan crusted flounder was the only good dish, very fresh and nicely cooked, served on seafood rice, topped with crab salsa.

Washington, DC // Baltimore

UPDATED NOVEMBER 2009:

We were back in this area recently and tried some new restaurants —

Washington, D.C.

    Blue Duck Tavern — located in the Park Hyatt hotel, this highly regarded restaurant was our favorite in DC; warm contemporary setting, although not particularly tavern-like; there’s an open kitchen, wood burning oven turning out various grilled and roasted meats and fish, with an emphasis on family style dining; we enjoyed a starter of smoked sturgeon rilettes; moved on to the salt roasted whole pheasant (presented tableside in the salt dome, then carved in the kitchen, wonderfully moist for a lean bird) and the beef short ribs; tried the much lauded apple pie, which we found unremarkable and not warm enough; the ice cream (we tried pistachio caramel) is cleverly served in a very cold glass bucket with a big wooden spoon

    JG Steakhouse — Jean-Georges Vongeritchen’s
new restaurant in the W Hotel (formerly the Washington Hotel), a block from the White House; quite the popular place, with a d-jay spinning tunes in the lobby for those waiting in line for the elevator to the new, ultra trendy rooftop bar; had to get pass a velvet rope wielding bouncer just to get in the hotel; lovely contemporary dining room with banquette seating, tables are well spaced, not noisy; specialty cocktails were good; service was friendly and accommodating but needed some polishing; menu is more expansive than the typical steakhouse; started with nicely done calamari with a tasty, creamy yuzu dip ; moved on to rack of lamb (particularly good), grilled beef fillet, roasted tile fish, and seared halibut; tried a few sides — roasted mushrooms, creamed spinach, and grilled asparagus; everything was appropriately cooked and well sauced; there’s a decidedly Asian twist to many of the menu items

    Scion — a new entry to the casual dining scene in the Dupont Circle area; friendly, knowledgeable service; started with fried pickles with ranch dressing (very tasty as judged by how quickly they disappeared in our group of four) and moved on to generous portions of steak frites (garlic rosemary fries) and crab cakes

Baltimore

    Woodberry Kitchen —  this is a must try for foodies; car required (even then, you’ll get lost) as it’s unlikely a taxi could find it in a art-focused, developing warehouse area in North Baltimore; warm, casual, lively, open kitchen, wood burning oven vibe; handcrafted cocktails; friendly, attentive service; focus is on fresh, farm to kitchen local ingredients; wonderfully varied menu, with many specials;  enjoyed buffalo style fried soft shell crab, roasted oysters and clams, and suckling pig (topped with a fabulous piece of crispy skin); finished with a lush, chocolaty dessert.

    Charleston — Zagat top-rated restaurant; contemporary setting, somewhat formal but jacket not required; tasting menu style, with a twist, as you select from three to six of any of the menu choices (priced based on number of dishes, not dishes selected), with dessert included; you could have three soups or three meat dishes; all servings are sized the same, regardless of how many dishes you order; our table particularly enjoyed the lobster bisque (with large chunks of lobster), seared foie gras, crab cakes (minus the bland black bean sauce), and lamb chops


FIRST REVIEWED, NOVEMBER 2006

We are remiss in reporting on our trip to the East Coast in late September  —

Washington, D.C.

   Old Ebbitt Grill — had brunch and a snack at this venerable DC eating spot, only a block from the White House;  we didn’t see any of the political types who allegedly dine there regularly; the food was o’kay but not great, although the location couldn’t be beat

   Kinkead’s — tried this very popular, upscale seafood restaurant; food was very good (cod with crab imperial and halibut) although not outofthisworldly; avoid the side room upstairs as it has limited atmosphere

   Bistrot LePic — upper Georgetown area French bistro; very good food (cassoulet, altho we still vote for Cafe Rabelais’ version); small, quiet dining area; friendly, casual service   

   
Baltimore

   Phillip’s Harborplace — touristy seafood restaurant on the Inner Harbor; historically, food has been very good; famous crab cakes continued to shine but everything else was quite marginal, including the service; significant price increases over the years

   Five Guys Burgers  — regional fast food chain with fabulous hamburgers; not as cheap as McDonald’s or BK but a whole lot tastier and greasier; worth a visit

   Aldo’s  — Zagat top-rated Little Italy restaurant; very good food (veal chop and tournedos rossini) but somewhat stuffy atmosphere (yes, it was romantic, as billed, but quite formal) and very high prices suggests other places in the area might be a better choice (try Da Mimmos).

Santa Barbara, California


Labor Day Weekend found us on the West Coast in this charming city up the coast north of LA —

bouchon  — our favorite by far; great atmosphere, including patio dining; we enjoyed a wonderful heirloom tomato stack (with various varietals, fried green tomatos, and goat cheese), crab cakes, and better than average seared foie gras; the only disappointment was a veal shank that was little but fat and that was quickly removed by the waitstaff; friendly, efficient service

Downey’stop-rated in Zagat but not our favorite; simply decorated, somewhat formal dining room; uncharacteristically, we had trouble finding something to order on this menu; started with marinated mussels that needed more seasoning (after commenting to the server of this fact, the service noticeably deteriorated); duck and fish entrees were nicely prepared but nothing special; did not like the wine recommended by the server

La Super-Rica Taqueria  very hyped, very casual, inexpensive Mexican spot, supposedly a favorite of Julia Child; large variety of a la carte tacos and other small dishes; everything was freshly prepared from a tiny kitchen;  we enjoyed chiles con queso, chorizo con queso, beef and pork tacos; very good homemade salsas; we understand there can be long lines

Opalfound ourselves on State Street (the main drag in town) and dined at this busy, popular restaurant; lively atmosphere; food was slightly above average; had a pesto bay scallop salad and pizza

Sonoma County, California


Cyrus —  in Healdsburg, this is the Sonoma area’s answer to the French Laundry but less formal and less expensive than its Napa rival; only a  tasting menu is available, 5 or 7 course (with a couple choices in a number of the categories), and a vegetarian option; we opted for the 7-course carnivore menu, including the wine pairings;  we recommend splurging for the additional cost of the champagne (1/2 glasses available) and caviar cart; we tried the American paddlefish, which was delicious, served with both potato cakes and grit cakes (a little too heavy taking away from the taste of the caviar), with the other usual caviar accompaniments;  we were disappointed in the wine, primarily because we didn’t like many of the wines the restaurant paired with the food; unfortunately, not a cab to be had; that being said, there wasn’t a food course that we didn’t enjoy, even the foam that sneaked on the plate on a few occasions was o’kay; the foie gras torchon was delicious and generously served; the gnocchi with morels were light and fluffy; the seared scallop with chorizo and clams was perfectly cooked; Wagyu beef with burdock and shiso was excellent (how can one go wrong with Wagyu?);  the cheese cart was amazing (we found a cheese even too stinky and strong for us); desert wasn’t to the taste of at least one of us (the two choices that evening emphasized carrot and coffee); thankfully, the mingnardises cart sated our chocolate craving, as did the cute boxed brownies that arrived as a take-home, together with our custom-printed menu;  our request to see the kitchen was graciously honored, and we met the chef; this is a special occasion place and almost every table was celebrating something (in our case, a first anniversary); celebrants received an egg cream shooter and a warm chocolate cookie, dramatically served from a glass domed plate that swirled chocolate flakes over the cookie; reservations are essential and available starting two months in advance; if you are a last minute planner, there’s a great looking bar with a bar menu.

Dry Creek Kitchen —  Charlie Palmer’s wine country location in Healdsburg was quite the hopping place; we started with a good (but small) version of foie gras torchon, appropriately served with lavender salt, although it was so spare and fine we couldn’t use it; the spinach lover amongst us tried the spinach salad with a wine poached egg, tasty with the exception of the bacon powder (pointless and tasteless – this molecular approach to cooking has got to go); we moved on to  the pork duo (pork shoulder and tenderloin, served with farro), and shrimp with pappardelle in a buerre blanc; we understand some have complained of the service, but we were seated promptly and had very good service; reservations strongly advisable.

the Girl and the Fig — just off the charming town square in the city of Sonoma, this casual (same menu throughout the day) bar and restaurant was a nice spot to hit for lunch in southern Sonoma County, as we headed from the airport toward our base in Healdsburg; the cheeseburger is hugely popular; it seems at least half the people ordered it so we had that; we also tried the wild boar ragu on pasta, which was o’kay but didn’t wow us.

Willi’s Seafood — casual, comfortable Healdsburg spot with a decidedly Asian emphasis in its tapas style approach; we tried fried calamari, tuna tartare (with ginger and too few of the billed jalapenos), beet and blue cheese salad (probably the best thing we tried), and riblets, with a few actual ribs and some indistinguishable pieces of bone and meat.  The style of every dish was too sweet and not sufficiently spiced for our tastes; overall, average at best.

Diavola — located on the main drag in the small town of Geyserville in northern Sonoma County, this rustic style bar and restaurant turns out delicious thin crust, brick oven pizza; we added sausage to the four-cheese pizza; homemade sausage and other charcuterie are available for takeout; sharing a pizza was a great mid-afternoon choice for a late lunch after wine tasting.

Jimtown — located northwest of Healdsburg (down the road from Jordan winery), this place looks like a hole in the wall country grocery store in a former gas station, but it turns out some great soups and sandwiches; we enjoyed the split pea soup and the grilled prosciutto and brie sandwich; counter-served, the menu offers many wonderful sandwich combinations, as well as breakfast items; the diverse clientèle resulted in Harleys and limos in the parking lot; another great mid-afternoon spot during wine tasting.

Napa Valley Revisited


French Laundry — we made it to this foodie temple, although not without a herculean effort, which included calling with three phones exactly 60 days in advance at exactly 10 am PST per the official Greenwich Mean Time website; for such an over the top dining experience, the atmosphere and service were not overly stuffy or pretentious, although jackets are required and many men had on suits and ties; from start to finish, the service was great; this is not a value destination, expect to spend, including wine, at least $400/person for 9 to11 courses, depending on whether you count the amuse bouche (Thomas Keller’s signature smoked salmon tartare ice cream cone) and mignardises (i.e., post-dinner candies); one positive is that service is included in the price so no angsting over high tips; highlights of the evening included Keller’s famous oyster and pearls (pearl tapioca with poached oysters topped generously with caviar), sweet butter poached lobster tail, rabbit shoulder stuffed with sweetbreads (which looked like a lollipop), and the Snake River Farms beef tenderloin (a combination of Japanese Wagyu and American black angus, which was the best beef we’ve ever tasted); for $30 extra you get the foie gras torchon, which was very good but no better than the one we had recently at Au Petit Paris; our friendly captain (who is marrying a girl studying at University of Houston) showed us the kitchen (small, calm, quiet, almost clinical) and arranged for Thomas Keller to sign our menu (which you receive at the end of the meal) with our names.

So, for the big question — was it the best meal we’ve ever had?  Some of the dishes were as good as any we’ve tasted, but, all things considered, we can’t say this was our best meal ever.  Would we return?  Sure, in a heartbeat, if someone else went through the effort to get the reservation and picked up the tab.

Auberge du Soleil we stayed at this hotel, which offers one of the loveliest settings in the area for dining, with indoor and outdoor seating on a deck overlooking the valley; although somewhat formal in style, dressing up is not required; dinner is a multi-course tasting menu (about $95/person); everything we tried was delicious — asparagus soup, risotto, seared foie gras, and beef tenderloin; the bar area also has outdoor seating and the bar menu has a number of options, from appetizers to burgers to steak frites; we also enjoyed breakfast here; service was top notch throughout the hotel.

Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen  —  located in an old house, on a side street by the railroad tracks in St. Helena, this popular restaurant (particularly liked by the locals) is owned by the same woman who has Mustards, the longtime and still very popular restaurant on the valley’s main drag; although the setting is informal, reservations are a must; service was friendly but not particularly attentive; we enjoyed the calamari, pulled pork sandwich, and crispy wood smoked duck; this was a nice change of pace from our fancier dining experiences the prior two nights, and we would return.

Gillwood’s Cafe popular, very casual restaurant on Highway 29 in downtown St. Helena; very good for breakfast; delicious corned beef hash.



Killens


Some may not consider Pearland an Out of Town Destination, but we do.  It’s outside the Beltway, and in an area not yet annexed by the City of Houston.  Accompanied by four friends on a recent Saturday evening, we road tripped to check out this new steakhouse that received a rave review from the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook.  The chef/owner, Ronnie Killen, is Cordon Bleu trained.

Reportedly an icehouse in its previous incarnation, Killen’s decor is more Bonanza than Flemings, although there are white tablecloths and some artwork that we don’t recall including farm animals.  Low ceilings and small windowless rooms lend to a somewhat cramped and noisy setting.  But the place was packed.  Reservations are definitely required.  No need to dress up, although shorts wouldn’t be advisable.

Service was good even though we were probably asked a few too many times whether we were ready to order, and it took a while to get the cocktails.  Although the restaurant appears to have a full bar (no seating), it’s not designed for turning out drinks quickly.  No problem, we also ordered wine.  The list was fairly extensive, not too heavy on the really high end stuff, and oddly missing vintages for all but a few of the listings.   But we enjoyed a reasonably priced 2001 Rutherford Hill.  Prices seemed to be about twice retail.

The restaurant likes to use lump crab meat, so we tried the crab cakes and fried asparagus starters.  The crab cakes were excellent, not much breading and topped with even more crab and a large grilled shrimp.  The asparagus, sauced with the same stuff as the crab cakes, were fine but not as good as Piatto’s version.  We tried three classic steakhouse salads — caesar, wedge, and sliced tomatos with blue cheese.  All were more than acceptable, although the caesar stood out (nice and garlicky/anchovy’y) but for being overdressed.  The wedge’s creamy blue cheese was too sweet for our taste. 

We all ordered steak except one person who tried the chicken fried sirloin steak.  The steaks were just fine, comparable to Houston’s other steakhouses.  The overdone t-bone was promptly replaced. There wasn’t much chicken fried steak left on the plate.  The onion rings (crispy and grease free) stood out from the other two sides of creamed spinach and potatoes au gratin.  Although probably healthier, the potatoes lacked the gooey decadence of other steakhouse versions.  We finished with the creme brulee bread pudding.  We aren’t big bread pudding fans, but Alison Cook steered us well when she raved over this version.

If you live in Pearland or the surrounding area, this is a must try restaurant.  It’s likely one of your best options for great food.  Would we drive from Houston again?  Probably not, but one never knows.  

2804 Main Street, Pearland, Texas
281/485-0844
http://www.killenssteakhouse.com/