Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Highlight #122: Breakfasts in Monterey/Carmel

After a few very exhausting weeks at work, J and I decided that it would be a nice change of pace to spend some time in the bay area. For him, that meant first spending three days racing formula type cars at 100 plus miles at Leguna Seca. My circulation does quite need that intense a wake up call. Instead, I opted for exploring the beautiful central valley vineyards and warm up my blood with fermented grape juice.

To set up my stomach for the wines to come, I started each morning with a hearty breakfast. That meant Katy's Place on the first day in Carmel, where it consistently takes the honor for best breakfast.

Situated in a stylish cottage in the middle of town, Katy's exemplifies the charm of Carmel. Neat, quaint, and comfortable in an upscale sort of way, the cozy place drew lots of patrons at eight on a weekend morning.

Of course people didn't come just for the cheerful space, the breakfasts were as awesome as advertised. I was in the mood for something salty and couldn't resist the corned beef hash, a dish I haven't really eaten since my college days in Pittsburgh. Katy's hash was nothing like the mushy ground pink/brown stuff I had at Eat n' Park ten years ago. The serving ware sized dish held what looked like pounds of chunky beef neatly diced into quarter inch cubes and hashified with mushrooms, little bits of soft potatoes, and, dare I say it, glistening bacon nibs. With two perfectly runny over easy eggs on top, this was the epitome of breakfast comfort. My fruit cup on the side was piled high with plump and firm blue berries, black berries, and raspberries. This was diner experience at its most elegant. After this huge meal, I was set for a whole day of wine tasting without any problem.

The next day found me going to another fan favorite in the nearby Monterey, a much less chi-chi neighborhood compared to Carmel. The Old Monterey Cafe's decor spoke of its down to earth character. On every table, there was a dish of salsa, foretelling a menu heavy on south of the border favorites.

But I was not in the mood for salty this day, instead took the hostess's recommendation and got the buckwheat pancakes. Even my short stack filled the entire dinner style plate. Despite the hefty size, the pancakes were fluffy yet pleasantly resilient. A fork loaded with a bit of pancake, a
chunk of sausage, and quickly dipped in syrup was the definition of a perfect bite.

Stay tuned for much more food to come.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Highlight #121: Birthday at Craft

Girlfriend J had a big birthday this year and, with all her advanced planning, she had forgotten to set something in motion on the day of her actual birthday! So to make things right, I promised to meet her for dinner with husband in tow straight from the airport after a two day work trip. Being in love with the head judge of Top chef, girlfriend J settled on the new Craft for her big day.

Walking in, the intimacy of the interior immediately warmed me up from the drizzly weather outside. Husband J and I had one of our first pre-date meals at Craft New York, so this brought back fond memories.

I have no idea why some of my photos are missing from this evening, but we actually started the night with a good platter of oysters and enjoyed slurping the cool and briny flesh out of the shell. It's so wonderful to have these things that taste like the ocean in a mouthful in the cold winter months. The lovely 1998 Pol Roger Brut Chardonnay supplied some vigorously refreshing bubbles to send the oysters down in style.

What you see above are girlfriend J's delicate scallops. Uncomplicated and well seasoned, the scallop satisfied and comforted. Although I am still not sure about paying almost ten dollars for a single scallop. I guess four years away from New York has made me more resistant to such price scale.

I almost always order sweetbread when it's on the menu. Craft's version is less disguised with breading than most other places. The creamy whiteness of this protein foretold a soft and supple center. This was a large appetizer portion at less than half of the price of the scallop, which considering its richness, was quite economical. :)

The husband was in the mood for duck and it came out beautifully arranged in the largest shinny copper coated pan. Cooked quite precisely from medium to medium rare, its decadence was further enhanced by the ample duck confit underneath. In my book, anything with duck confit is good. Others seemed to agree.

The mixed mushrooms side was, in many ways, the best dish of the night. Embodying the simplicity that unifies the menu, the array of mushroom varieties were pan fried in plenty of sizzling butter and came to the table still sizzling. Salty and fragrant, my favorite was the meaty hen of the woods.

Girlfriend J smiled big with her chocolate thing. Like me, she really enjoys every birthday. Turning a year older just does seem bad at all when one is having a good time in life.

We also asked for the apple pie, because, well, I can't live without some ice cream. The ice cream didn't disappoint and had a wonderful mouth feel. The apple pie looked adorable in its own shinny pan and tasted just like butter, of which it is saturated in a good way. :)

Just before our bill came the cookies, which is always a nice touch in my book. After all, we all need something to ease the shock, especial when one realizes that the restaurant practice of doubling retail wine prices also applies to the bottle of champagne husband picked out (not so shocking when the wine is supermarket price, but much more so when it's a few rungs up...) Then again having a great birthday is really priceless. :)

The Masion on Peachtree

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Highlight 120: Group eating - Restaurant: Ray's on the River

J threw a holiday party for the company at Ray's On the River this year. Normally, I am not a big fan of dinner party food as it's almost always overcooked and often look old from early preparation. But Ray's proved me wrong on this point. Maybe it's because the choices were rather simple, roasted chicken, which can wait, prime rib, which was held at a perfect tenderness, and salmon fillets that took the longest, but were baked to order. All were preceded by a salad that was satisfyingly large and very fresh.

I asked for the prime rib and was startled by the humongous portion. I had so much leftover, I took only the meat home and it still weighed a pound!

I followed the heavy main with the lighter mousse cake (the other option being the cheesecake). I can't say that it blew my socks off, but it was fluffy and pleasant, which was exactly what I needed.

During dessert, the employees took part in a white elephant gift exchange that saw a nice bottle of bourbon make the rounds across the room. J used the money that would have gone into a corporate gift for him for a good and large bottle of champagne to open when the economy comes back. It may take quite a long time, but a wonderful thought nonetheless. It was nice to see people enjoy themselves again this time of the year.

Ray's on the River
6700 Powers Ferry Rd.
Sandy Springs, GA 30339

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Highlight 119: Not the original but definitely "the taco" of the month - Restaurant: The Original El Taco

Once I got over the awkward name that says the original "the taco," I loved everything about the place. The cheerful and laid back atmosphere was exactly what we needed to counter the depressing state of the economy. Cannot resist the calling of the pork belly on the menu I was delighted receive such a big gorgeously charred piece in my soft tortilla. Caramelized and sticky, it was perfection in such a simply way. The fried chicken taco benefited tremendously from the mayo and lime flavored Mexican corn. I had always loved this stuff from the former Sala and was not disappointed to see the tradition continued in the same space. In fact, I even got a nice side of it for extra effect. At three dollars and change for a taco, this was more expensive than Buford highway, but for the proximity and jolly surroundings, I was happy to surrender to the single digit price inflation.

The Original El Taco
1186 N. Highland Avenue NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30306

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Highlight #118: This pasta makes music - Restaurant: La Pietra Cucina

It might not have been wise to follow the yearly turkey coma with a big pasta meal, but I never did promise to be wise. :) The day after big bird feast, Gene of Eat Drink Man, his lovely bride-to-be, and a few other great friends came over to our place for holiday drinks and more turkey-centric snacks (I made a turkey frittata and a mushroom turkey spread). After a few hours of friendly chats, we headed out for more substantial eats at the fairly new La Pietra Cucina.

As many had already commented, the space is pretty weird because guests have to walk through an entirely empty dining room to get to the private dining space in the back. Perhaps having a hostess at the big dinning room door would have helped, but no one was there to direct traffic.

We forgot about that very quickly when the food started to hit the table. Gene asked for the octopus to start and it was fantastic. Not at all chewy, the tender pieces blended superbly with the simple but bright tomato broth that also drenched some very plump couscous.

When our server recited "wild boar ragu" as a special on a pasta, I was sold. Then he said that the pasta was cut from a pasta guitar, and I got super excited. Check out the thickness of that ragu! So loaded with cooked down wild boar, the ragu was the most fitting wintry night comfort food. And the uniquely cut pasta lived up to my very high expectations in its perfect al dente state and lingered on the palate with a slight sweetness. (I don't know if others notice this, but really good doughy things give off a very slight sweetness as an aftertaste because of the heavy starch content). I loved this dish!

Ever since those incredible beignets from Shaun's a couple of years ago, I have been hooked on these things. LPC's version was more cakey and less fried doughy than Shaun's. In that respect, it wasn't quite my favorite. But the very thin slivers of candied orange peels certainly upped the interest quotient.

I forgot what this was called, but it was essentially hot chocolate batter cooked until it was slightly underdone and still very moist. It's hard not to like something like that, but it's a little more simplistic than what I would have liked.

If you haven't given this place a try, you really should. In the pasta area, it's almost like eating at Babbo without the painful reservation (where I believe the Chef had once cooked). Now that's something. :)

La Pietra Cucina
1545 Peachtree St. Ste 101
Atlanta, Ga 30309

Monday, December 01, 2008

Highlight #117: Sometimes less change is the way to go - Restaurant: Woodfire Grill

And that certainly holds true for Woodfire Grill, where chef Gillespie is carrying on the farm to table legacy of chef Tuohy without missing a beat. The dinning room has changed a little. New table clothes covered up the tables and the walls seemed a little brighter. But overall the feel of the place is still the same. It's cozy and full of warmth, which seemed to radiate from the wood fired grill smack in the center of the room.

Since I am no critic, I have no problem letting you know that this meal was kindly served to us free of charge. But at $38 for a tasting that included three courses (four if you count the extra middle course) of pristine ingredients, a romantic dinner here isn't really out of reach.

We began with a piece of pan fried Georgia mountain trout. The skin sizzled ever so slightly at the table and was my favorite part, boasting plenty of crispiness. My friend J loved the greens that cut through the natural oils of the trout with its tempered bitterness.

Before our main, the chef sent out a few fried oysters for us to try. And they were fantastic. Hot and crunchy, the seasoned batter gave way to juicy innards of natural brininess. They confirmed my new found love for this preparation of oysters that have taken roots in my heart since those earlier bites at Legal Seafood (a few posts back).

My main came out revealing pretty deep pink slices of medium rare duck on a puree of butternut squash. The duck breast was obviously treated with respect in expert hands as none were the least bit tough. The only thing shy of perfection was the level of salt. A heavier hand would have really set it off against the sweetness of the puree.

My friend J receive the fillet. Just like the duck, it was cooked to the right temperature, but was just short of enough salt. Maybe we were both in the mood for something jazzed up with the white stuff. :)

For dessert, I was presented with some sculpted carrot cake that, despite the modern shape, was comfortingly old school. I also got plenty of homemade ice cream with enough butterfat to keep me scooping.

J received a sort of warm pineapple cake with the most adorable mushroom like toasted marshmallow sitting on top a piece of candied sweet potato. For a cold night the warm cake was nice and soothing, but I enjoyed the cream cheese icing of the carrot cake more and three scoops of ice cream is better than one any day. :)

All in all, while the chef may have change at Woodfire Grill, the fresh and clean flavored food stayed in the warm and toasty space.

Woodfire Grill
1782 Cheshire Bridge Road
Atlanta, GA 30324