"All Four Cheeses!"

The Cheesecake Dilemma: Does Size Really Matter?

I’m not usually one for big-box style restaurants. They are crowded, cacophonous, and almost always contrived. I prefer the hole-in-the-wall taqueria–one window, no decor, but delicious food. However, I do believe there is a time and place when bigger truly can be BETTER.

Take The Cheesecake Factory, for instance. It’s the size of a shopping mall. Every tourist from Beijing to Iceland is in attendance. Their decor is a flat, bastardized amalgam of Italian eatery and pre-World War II lounge restaurant. And yet, I find myself coming back for more. Why?

It’s simple. My grandmother is Jewish…and amazing, which means there is never a shortage of seconds during breakfast, lunch, or dinner. To this day, my grandmother will serve me a pound of fresh lox when I wake up in the morning. This is not an exaggeration. There’s no stopping her. It probably goes without saying that I’ve had ample opportunity to refine my tastes, AND cultivate my penchant for over-eating.

If you are a big eater like me, who enjoys having a wide variety of selections when dining out, this is your place. The size of Cheesecake’s buildings are remarkable, but dwarfed by the size of their menu. They have everything from “Fish Tacos” to “Chicken Madeira,” and of course, a dessert list that goes on for miles–my personal favorite: the Oreo Cookie Cheesecake.

My girlfriend happens to be a server at the Beverly Hills location, so in addition to hearing some fantastic server nightmares about over-aged, bourgeois customers complaining about the dim lighting and loud noises (while not tipping!), I’ve had the chance to develop a fondness for The Cheesecake Factory’s emphasis on SIZE. A personal gigantor-dish favorite is the “Four Cheese Pasta with Blackened Chicken.”

Four Cheese Pasta!

Four Cheese Pasta!

If you are hungry, and I do mean HUNGRY, go enjoy the huge portions and tell us what you think! Beware, however, of low-lighting, poser decor, and nagging rich folk. Also, please feel free to tip your servers well, especially at the Beverly Hills location…

As always, Keep Calm and Engorge on!

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Fat-Bottomed Burgers

Several nights ago, Jessica and I ate at Fat Sal’s in Hollywood. For those who are unfamiliar, this chain of urban burger joints was co-founded by none other than Entourage star, Jerry Ferrara. If Turtle co-founds a restaurant, I’m there!  Now, I’ve been there at least 3 or 4 times, but I finally had the distinct pleasure of eating their “Western Burger.”

This burger is angelic. They start with a fresh patty, then add onion rings, pastrami, breaded chicken strips and…BACON! One bite, and it’s taste bud overload. Of course no western burger is complete without BBQ sauce. Whatever formula Fat Sal’s is using works. The sauce is tangy and just the right amount of sweet.

Animal lovers need not apply. This is a serious burger for serious burger connoisseurs. If you swing by the Fountain Ave. location, hit me up and I’ll join you. Who knows? Maybe I’ll consider taking on their “Big Fat Fatty” food challenge.

Keep Calm and Burger On.

cnp

Negotiating for a Negoçiant in Unexpected Places

If you’re really interested in great wine values, then, if you haven’t already, acquaint yourself with some trustworthy negoçiants.  In case you might not have seen the term before, negoçiants are, very broadly translated, something like  wine merchants.  In practice, however, their relationship to the wines they sell under their own names is much more of a hands-on enterprise than simply the selling of a product.  They canvass a particular viticultural area, buying up excess grapes, or the juice thereof, or even a stray wine here and there in various stages of completion.  Some of the juice or grapes may even come from some notable producers who wish to keep the amount of their own label under control by selling off some of their excess raw ingredient.  Negoçiants, then, proceed to complete whatever needs to be done to those ingredients to procure a finished wine to be sold under the name of the negoçiant.  Few serious fans of wines will not have heard of the likes of Louis Jadot for Burgundy, and Georges du Boeuf for Beaujolais.  But have you ever heard of Cameron Hughes, a California negoçiant who sells most of his admirable product to Costco?  No, you don’t have to be French to be a negoçiant, despite the cedilla under the “c.”  But Costco???  Well, as it happens, Costco may be the largest negoçiant in America, producing under its Kirkland label something like 15 different wines not only from the U.S., but from such areas as France, Italy, and New Zealand as well.  All of those Kirkland wines range from good to excellent, but the price value of those same wines is never less than remarkable.

One of Kirkland’s finest values of late has been their Chateauneuf-du-Pape, perhaps the southern Rhone’s most distinguished wine and, while rich in Grenache, comprises, still further, a judicious blend of any of eighteen different Rhone varietals.  The excellence of a CNP is hardly a secret, and it rarely sells for less then fifty bucks a bottle.  The Wine Spectator gave a recent Kirkland CNP a 92 rating, and, when Costco finally noted this in their stores, the wine vanished from the shelves with dispiriting speed.  O.K.  So here’s an advance notice: the 2012 Kirkland CNP has just appeared.  It has not yet been rated by any major wine publication, to my knowledge, but my own tasting revealed that it’s a first-class bottling, and, like its wonderful predecessor, sells for only $19.99 … a price that is beyond astonishing.  Go for it before word gets any further out than this notice.

backabbey

The Back Abbey

Should you find yourself in the heart of the Pomona Valley, you’ll quickly discover that you’re in a genuinely lackluster area for restaurants.  And yet, there are dining gems to be found for those willing to seek them out, and one of the most sparkling of these, somewhat hidden away in the western sector of Claremont, is The Back Abbey.  Even enthusiastic locals would be hard pressed to tell you the name of the street it’s on: 128 N. Oberlin Ave.  The Abbey is not very large; in fact, it’s a survivor from the old days (1920’s, I think) when it served as the Union Ice House for the local area.  Saved from demolition by an enterprising restauranteur, it’s altogether unremarkable architecturally, save for its western façade, which preserves a chapel-like arched entablature, reminiscent of a small Spanish church … a kind of abbey, if you will.

How to characterize its look?  Rough and ready? Rustic? Simple? Unpretentious?  I suppose it all of these and more, with several – not all that many – rough, almost unkempt looking tables inside and out, and a long bar fronting an endless array of beers.  It’s those beers – a surprisingly full array of Belgian brews on tap, plus a really long list of sometimes recherché bottled beers to fill in any gaps still left on the roster – that attract the crowds, but also the food.  Almost anything you order there will be more or less familiar, but there always seems to be a lovely surprise with each dish.  Yes, there are several excellent hamburgers, Niman Ranch beef all the way, and sizeable enough to cook to order.  But one of them will feature exemplary buns, scattered perhaps with some micro-greens or some grilled mushrooms or perhaps grilled poblanos.  The salads are remarkably original and even feature a genuine Salade Lyonnaise, though here they call it simply a Bistro Salad.  In France, it’s met regularly, but out the Abbey way, it’s a singular treasure.  Check out the Salade Lyonnaise blog in Food By The Glass for more details.

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A lovely sandwich!

And how about a prosciutto sandwich accompanied by arugula and a strikingly edgy mustard vinaigrette?  I never thought about the combination of proscuitto and arugula before, but what a match!  If you’re into Belgian beers, why not have one with its logical Belgian companion, steamed and sautéed mussels.  The potatoes have been fried in duck fat, so one is reluctant to dilute the delicate flavor of that heart-stopping extra touch, but it comes with an array of three great sauces: horseradish (unusually delicate and fitting), really intense catsup, and, wholly unexpected once again, an herbal remoulade.

Before I forget it, let me mention that, in addition to their wide beer array, the Abbey has a small but seriously selected list of wines with, again, that surprise factor.  Chenin Blanc, yes, but it’s a French Vouvray.  Cabernet Franc, yes, but it’s a Loire Valley Chinon.  The wines by the glass are by far the largest pours I’ve seen in years.

Note: The Back Abbey is open for lunch and dinner every day but Sunday, and does not take reservations.  Go and be surprised.

salad

Salade Lyonnaise

It was many years ago when my wife and I arrived in Paris in the early evening. We checked into our hotel, and, since it was too late to make formal reservations, we went out to find whatever convenient bistro we could discover … one of those casual places filled with locals and, in the French tradition, several of their dogs.  I can’t remember whether it was just I who ordered the first Salade Lyonnaise I had ever seen on a table or a menu, or the both of us.  Whatever, it turned out to be both attractive, more than delicious, and, for its time, really distinctive.  Since those days, however, one encounters it in French bistros all over the world, so frequently, in fact, that it is often listed simply as a “Bistro Salad.”  Its contents are seemingly simple, perhaps deceptively so for a couple of them: the inner shoots of young and tender frisée, fried lardons of bacon, a vinaigrette of one’s choosing, and two poached eggs.

The reason that I call some of these ingredients “deceptively simple,” is that  you won’t easily find that young frisée, and those lardoons will require your obtaining an uncut slab of bacon.  When I mention something like “young” or “baby” frisée to the grocers in the Pomona valley, they not only don’t carry it, they haven’t even heard of it.  Yes, it can be found in a Whole Foods produce section, and sometimes at Bristol Farms in a plastic box, but that involves some travel time.  For me, the salad is good enough to merit the trip.  Note that the relatively rarity of young frisée is doubtless why some recipes will tell you that you can substitute any other bitter greens of your choice.  I would prefer not to.Frise

So … try the following for two persons:

Separate the leaves, and wash and dry the frisée, using mostly, but not exclusively, the yellow/white interior of the head.

Trim and cut some slab bacon into lardoons, about ½ inch square and fry them until the outsides are browned and crisp.  Drain the lardons and set them aside on a paper towel.  You will want something like eight lardons per serving.

Make a vinaigrette of salt, crushed garlic, sherry wine vinegar, a dash of Worcestershire Sauce, and olive oil, extra-virgin or pure.  I’ll say something further about vinaigrettes in a future blog.

In a small salad bowl, toss the frisée with the vinaigrette and bacon, and a generous handful of chopped chives, and arrange on two salad plates.

Now, poach four eggs until just lightly done (because you will want the yolks rich but runny(, and place two of them atop each of the frisée servings.  A light grind or two of fresh pepper and you’re done.

Each diner can now break the eggs so that those yolks run over the dressed frisée, both tempering and enriching the acidity of the vinaigrette.  Ah, bacon and eggs never tasted this good.

 

Mernet

You Never Know What You’ll Find Inside a Bottle of Wine

I suppose that what follows is something of a follow-up to a short blog I previously submitted on the difficulties attending decisions to keep a bottle of wine for an extended period of time.  Therein I noted that whatever you think you know about wine, there is no hard data available about aging any particular kind or bottle of wine; informed guesswork is your best and inescapable solution.  What follows here is an illustration.Enchiladas

When my wife and I were up in Sunnyvale visiting one of our sons and his family, we decided to have dinner at his home on a Saturday evening, and his wife had prepared some lovely enchiladas, full of properly assertive flavors but blessedly uninvaded by jalapeños, serranos, and their spicy ilk, which only beer can  properly mollify.  A rich and flavorful red wine was called for, it seemed to me, and, fortunately, my son had a few on hand.  Now understand: he enjoys wine but neither craves nor studies it.  In a cupboard on the back porch just above the clothes drier was a shelf with half-a-dozen or so wines, uncritically assembled or gifted from which I was invited to choose.  I found among them a bottle of Keenan 2004 “Mernet” (half Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon … get it?).  Now Keenan has always been a winery of consequence since its origins in the Napa Valley some time in the mid-1970’s.  Still, I had never tasted the Keenan Mernet, and its uncertain history, age, and storage conditions all suggested a perilous outcome. I guess I could have remembered (but I didn’t) that 2004 was a great year for wine in the Napa Valley, particularly conducive to long-lived reds.  Anyway, we opened the Keenan and it was nothing short of spectacular!  One of the best Bordeaux-style blends I have tasted in many years.  The cost of the Keenan Mernet – yes, that blend is still made – will probably keep me from trying much more of it, but I’ll never forget its pleasures and my astonishment.

 

phils

Fish like you won’t believe!…Phil’s Fish Market, Moss Landing, CA

My wife and I were visiting our older son and his family in Sunnyvale last weekend, and, on Friday they took us to Moss Landing, a wetlands/wharf/inlet mélange on the coast highway about fifteen miles north of Monterey,  It’s home to several marine research centers, a hotel or two, several hundred fishing vessels, and a few restaurants.  It began its modern life as a whaling port sometime in the 19th century, and its general look is somewhere between funky and unkempt depending, I suppose, on the generation of the viewer.   I wish we’d had more time to explore its many curiosities, but our destination was Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery, an altogether remarkable restaurant and fish market.

Oh the Oysters!

Oh the Oysters!

The road to it is not very well marked, parking is sparse at best, its look is as funky and unkempt as that of Moss Landing itself, and lines of customers can be long … but … the menu offerings go on and on and every one of them features fish and seafood so fresh they can only have come from those Moss Landing fishing boats within the last couple of hours or so.   You grab a menu from a stack of them that awaits you as you enter, decide what you want to eat as you stand in line reading that menu or one of the many blackboards offering still more daily specials, give your order to the person at the cash register, pay up, and take your table number to wherever you’re going to sit and await the arrival of whatever you ordered.  For starters I ordered a special the of four large Pacific oysters gently poached in a Champagne and cream sauce.  It was little short of glorious, as were my fresh halibut tacos to follow.  What is truly dispiriting is that there are so many other dishes on that menu you just have to try but cannot  … portion sizes are beyond generous and you have only one stomach. Oh,  Phil’s is famous for its Cioppino and, if you call ahead by a hour or so, you can bring your own pot and have them fill it to take home.  I believe that Phil’s Cioppino bested Bobby Flay’s in his one-season TV show “Bobby Flay’s Throwdown.” 

Halibut Tacos!

Halibut Tacos!

 

There’s a bar there for beer and wine with your meal or anything else you have in mind, and the adjacent fish market is but another adventure in freshness.  Yes, this place is out of the way, but, if any eatery ever deserved to be known as a “destination” restaurant, this is it.

A local trick: when you get to Phil’s, have one of your party decide what to eat while still in line, and then nail down a table while the rest of you make your way toward the cash register.  However long the wait … just wait.

chips

Chips Ahoy! Homemade Corn Tortilla Chips

Summer is upon us, and, as the first decent tomatoes ripen, and, as the first proper avocados become rich with the first full flavor of the year, visions of pico de gallo and kindred salsas beckon, along with bowls of genuinely full-bodied guacamole.  Ah … but what about the corn chips to accompany them?  Have you ever considered making your own rather than buying them pre-fab, as it were?  After all, a corn chip is simply a piece of fried corn tortilla; all a chip needs to be something special is a truly distinguished corn tortilla in the first place.  Fortunately, Trader Joe’s, of all places, has just what you’re looking for … a genuine antidote to all of those thin and insipid supermarket versions.  In the bread section of your local T.J’s, look for the 12 oz. package that reads “Trader Joe’s Corn Tortillas, made from freshly ground corn.”  You won’t believe the depth of the corn flavor these hefty beauties provide.  tortillas

Each package holds 12 tortillas, and all you need to do is cut them into quarters.  In a 12-inch non-stick frying pan, heat about an inch of Canola oil to ca. 350° and you’re ready to go.  The pan will hold about 10 tortilla quarters, so slip them in gently, and, about thirty seconds or so later, they’ll be ready to turn, using a long set of tongs.  By the time you’ve turned them all, those you turned first will be ready to remove from the pan to a double sheet of paper towels.  If you intend to salt the chips, then do so immediately while the chips are still hot; that way the salt will permanently adhere to the chips instead of just rolling off onto the paper towels.frying

Try Kosher salt; the flakes seem to stick better than salt grains.  Put some more chips into the pan, put the previously salted portion of chips into a larger container (try a wide basket lined with more paper towels), replace the original paper towels on which you drained the first set of chips.  By this time, the new chips in the pan will be ready to turn and you’re off and running once again.  You’ll soon get an assembly-line rhythm going, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll finish the job.  When you’ve completed making and salting the chips, let them cool fully and then put them into Zip-Lock bags.  The bagged chips will last about a month stored in a cupboard or pantry shelf.  The downside of all this?  It’s really hard to resist eating them.

An additional note or two:  just how dark you want your chips is, obviously, up to you.  I like mine on the darker side, but I make sure I make some lighter ones for guests who might prefer them of a more orthodox hue.  Adjust the heat and frying times to your own tastes as you go.

Oh, and if you don’t have one of those fancy frying temperature thermometers, here’s an interesting ploy: stick anything that is plain unpainted wood, e.g. the end of a wooden cooking spoon or a wooden barbecue skewer, and, if the oil bubbles up immediately around the wood, the oil has reached 350°.  Sounds weird, I know, but it works.

 

 

greekwine

Greek Wines – Try Something COMPLETELY Different

When, in 1959, I was a budding young archaeologist bustling around Greece for the first time, I quickly became aware of Greece’s wines and of the strange (to me at least) grapes peculiar to the country.  Ever heard of, say, Xynomavro, or Assyrtiko, or Moschophilero?  Neither had I, and the wines I tasted made from those and others like them were somewhere between undistinguished and unpleasant.  And yet … every now and then, I stumbled across something that was not only good, but nearly sensational … say a well-aged Xynomavro from the Boutari label.  It didn’t happen often, but, when it did, it suggested that the problem with Greek wines of those days didn’t lie with the grapes themselves, which were obviously capable of great things, but with the winemakers.  It took about 25 or 30 more years before those winemakers either passed or retired and their places were taken by their descendants, most of whom had studied oenology, perhaps in Bordeaux or in California or any of the many others there and elsewhere that were born at that time.  As a result, the potential of earlier years became fully realized  – something true of southern Mediterranean wines in general – and you can now buy, at knowledgeable wine stores, some very nice stuff.  So … I was at Bev Mo the other day, looking around for bargains, and my wife, who had been roaming the wine aisles on her own, came up to me brandishing a bottle of Boutari Moschophilero (the label spells it phonetically: Moschofilero), which was on clearance sale for about six bucks.  Note that the word “Moschophilero” literally means “fly-loving,” and there was that time decades ago when flies were just about the only forms of life that could abide the wine.  That’s no longer true, I’m delighted to report, and this “Moschofilero “ is now a lovely, well-balanced and gently fragrant white, just awaiting your summer afternoons on the patio.  Give it a try and perhaps you’ll be emboldened to try many of those other grapes that are out there that you’ve never sampled or even heard of before.greekwine2

Please note that the Greek grapes to which I have referred above have nothing to do with the famous/infamous Retsinas or resinated wines of Greece.  Those sui generis beverages constitute another story altogether.

fourkegs

Four Kegs – Las Vegas, Nevada

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is still the #1 show on Food Network.  As one of the original ‘restaurant visitation’ shows, it has its place in the pantheon of ‘food TV’.  Some like Guy Fieri, some don’t – but the show continues to thrive.  AND, many of the restaurants featured on the show tend to show large increases in their business…some find it even life-changing.

For one of those spots, it even has the distinct honor of being a former employer of the young Fieri when he was a student at UNLV.  However, I really don’t think much has changed over the years there.  As Guy would say…”This is Four Kegs.”

Four Kegs is a dive sports bar in the seedier part of Northwest vegas, off of Jones at the 95 as you head towards the greener pastures of Summerlin.  If you want to smoke, drink, watch sports and eat bar food, it’s your place!  And for those of you that know me, other than the smoking part, that works!

The house specialty is the Stromboli – sort of a NY version of Calzone but with a sports bar feel.  Get the ‘Original’ and always order the ‘small’ one – it’s big enough!  Get a side of marinara sauce for a buck extra and use it to dip every yummy bite.  Get a salad on the side or some Mac and Cheese bites and you’ll be paying the price the rest of the evening – in a good way of course.  They have just about every cool bar appetizer known to man – and some you’ve never heard of.  Some day I’ll work my way through the entire app list…stromboli

Since it’s Vegas, the place is open all hours, so go any time.  If you’re there after midnight, you have to go in through the bar so be prepared for smoke – it’s actually glassed in to prevent smoke in the other parts of the restaurant during the day which is a cool idea.

Football, NASCAR – whatever sport you’re in to, forget a fancy sports book on the strip and go to Four Kegs and hang out with the locals and have a Stromboli.  Maybe I’ll see you there!