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Hatchi with Walter Manzke

August 24, 2010
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One of my regrets at Church & State was that, on the two occasions I dined there during Chef Walter Manzke’s tenure, he wasn’t in the kitchen.

And on the second visit, I felt that it showed in the food.

Now I’ve eaten at many restaurants with absentee chefs (e.g. John Besh’s August, Tom Colicchio’s Craft, Hubert Keller’s Fleur de Lys, Gordon Ramsay at the London, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Michael Mina’s Nobhill Tavern, Jose Andre’s The Bazaar, etc) and had no problem with it because I knew the name on the door wasn’t the man behind the stove. But Church & State under Walter Manzke was never intended to be that.

So when Walter Manzke surfaced at Hatchi after he left Church & State, I jumped at the chance knowing he would definitely be in the kitchen.

In a departure from his French bistro fare at Church & State, Chef Manzke decided instead to take diners around the world in eight dishes.

Given that we were at Breadbar, dinner began with the now familiar epi bread but this time with foie gras butter. Relatively subtle, the foie gras imparted a gentle livery-ness, punctuated by the honey gelée on top, which was flecked with gold leaf. I guess if you’re going to do foie gras butter, you might as well make it luxurious.

The first cocktail of the night was barman Michel Dozois’s Untamed Cherries, made with freshly squeezed lemon juice, cherries, yellow chili peppers and organic rum. Sweet to begin, this cocktail soon became about the heat of the chili peppers. Perhaps too much heat. Capsaicin tends to overpower most dishes you pair with it.

To whet our appetites for our around the world trip, the amuse bouche was a deconstructed shrimp cocktail. Essentially a skewered grilled shrimp atop a shot of ceviche sauce, which provided the acid.

Our journey began in Mexico, with a Yellowtail Ceviche with Jalapeno and Tomatillo Sorbet. One of my favorite dishes of the night, the yellowtail was fresh and plump but what made this dish sing was the jalapeno sorbet, which added both heat and a refreshing cold bite.

Leaving Latin America, we travelled next to Thailand with a White Corn Curry Soup with Mussels and Coconut Tapioca. The mussels were well cooked but the soup was exceptional, with the sweetness of corn playing nicely off the subtle curry and the tapioca balls adding an interesting textural counterpoint. Again, another great dish.

Next up was Spain with a Santa Barbara Spot Prawn with Garlic and Sherry. I love Santa Barbara spot prawns, which is lucky given their appearance on menus all over town, but mine unfortunately came out overdone. I also found the tapenade on top slightly heavy handed.

Moving on to Vietnam, we were presented with “Banh Mi” Pig’s Feet Sliders. I can’t say that these reminded me of banh mi except for the picked vegetables, but what’s not to like about panko breaded pig’s trotter patties? The homemade siracha sauce definitely added the requisite Asian kick.

Back to Europe, this time to Italy via an English Pea Ravioli with Soft Egg and Parmesan. Whilst I’m usually a sucker for a perfectly poached egg, this dish underwhelmed me. The English pea ravioli seemed bland, especially after the big flavors of the banh mi pig’s feet sliders. Perhaps if I’d started with this dish, I may have enjoyed it more.

Next to France, Chef Manzke’s usual stomping ground, with an old favorite from Church & State, the Tarte Flambe with Caramelized Onion, Bacon and Gruyere. Essentially a flatbread pizza, perfectly crispy, sweet with caramelized onions, salty with bacon and rich with gruyere. Perhaps a safe choice for Manzke, he’s had plenty of time to perfect this dish and it showed. My favorite dish of the night, which perhaps says to me that he’s best when working within his French roots.

The second cocktail of the night was the Hidden Secret, a concoction of freshly squeezed lemon juice, grape tomatoes, maraschino cordial and True organic gin. Less overwhelming than my first cocktail, definitely more fruity and sweet.

Onto dessert, we move to the Philippines with a Pandan Leche Flan with Coconut Sorbet. I love a good flan and this one did not disappoint. Rich and eggy, this flan brought me back to my childhood with the floral taste of pandan, and nicely balanced with the sweetness of the coconut sorbet and foam. This, to me, was Chef Manzke’s most successful Asian inspired dish and a dessert I would return for over and over again. Whatever his next restaurant ends up being, I hope he finds a place for this dessert on his menu.

The journey ended in Japan with a Chocolate Fondant with Bing Cherries, Black Sesame Ice Cream and Green Tea. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to enjoy this dessert. This was the only course I failed to finish and I HATE to leave food on my plate, so that speaks volumes. But one bad destination on a whirlwind around the world trip ain’t bad.

Like any around the world trip, I came home with some great memories and experiences, a few missed steps and lots of photos. Chef Manzke definitely showed his range with this menu and proved he’s happy to venture outside his French roots at Church & State and Bastide before that.

Is this a sign that his own highly anticipated restaurant will feature an international menu? Probably not. I think this was more about mixing it up and flexing his chef muscles.

But, whatever his next dining concept may be, I’ll be there, hopefully on opening night, to support one of the most talented chef’s currently working in LA.

And, before that, I’ll hopefully have a chance to try his next pop-up menu at Test Kitchen.

A menu I’ve been promised will again be a departure from this Hatchi tasting.

Hatchi at Breadbar with Walter Manzke
10250 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 277-3770

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Not just meat and potatoes at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse

August 10, 2010
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I’m the antithesis of a meat and potatoes guy.

Which explains why I haven’t set foot in a steakhouse for as long as I can remember.

So it wasn’t until I received an invitation to Fleming’s to try the new additions to their menu that I ended my self-imposed exile.

Now, I’ve always considered Fleming’s the epitome of the steakhouse. But in May of this year they tweaked their menu to offer smaller portion sizes of two “New Classics” (a porcini rubbed filet mignon and a peppercorn steak), two new seafood offerings (a Tillamook Bay petrale sole and a salmon nicoise salad), two new apps (roasted mushroom ravioli and lump crab lettuce wraps), and two new sides.

An attempt to provide more variety, healthier choices and smaller portions, the new menu targets the demographics the steakhouse has lost ground in – women, business people with shrinking expense accounts, and the “not meat and potatoes” crowd.

Which would be me.

Roasted Mushroom Ravioli: portobello and shiitake mushrooms, porcini butter sauce. Simple, earthy and satisfying. Umami + fat + carbs = happiness.

Lump Crab Louis Lettuce Wraps: butter lettuce, avocado, bacon, egg, tomato, chives. It’s a lettuce wrap, I’m a carnivore. Maybe I’d order this “for the lady”.

Tillamook Bay Petrale Sole with crab beignets and lemon butter sauce. When I saw crab beignets, I was understandably excited. They were unfortunately not the best part of the dish.

Salmon Nicoise Salad. A filet of Scottish salmon, truffled deviled eggs and individually prepared vegetables, topped with a kalamata olive aioli on a rosemary crostini. Pretty much a deconstructed nicoise salad.

Peppercorn Steak. Prime New York strip, cracked black and white peppercorns, served with a shotglass of Fleming’s “F17” steak sauce. Served here with sauteed French green beans, shiitake mushrooms and porcini essence. Classic steakhouse fare kicked up with a great, spicy steak sauce. Big, bold flavors. We’ve left salad and seafood territory far behind here.

Roasted baby carrots tossed with golden raisins and California mission almonds.

Chocolate Lava Cake served with vanilla ice cream and chopped pistachios. Kinda 2005 but, to be fair, this wasn’t part of Fleming’s new menu but one of their long standing favorites. Incredibly rich, if you’re a chocoholic, you’ll love it. I’m not. But I do love a good creme brulée.

Tahitian vanilla bean creme brulée topped with fresh, seasonal berries. What’s not to love?

The highlight of the new menu for me was the roasted mushroom ravioli. Its simplicity allowed the umami of the roasted portobello and shiitake mushrooms to shine through, complemented by a porcini butter sauce and just the right amount of sharpness from the cheese.

The peppercorn steak was another standout. A classic prime New York steak au poivre, it was well executed. But what made it shine was the “F17” sauce served in a tall shot glass with it, so named because it’s a secret blend of 17 ingredients, which gave the steak a real kick. It’s no secret that one of the main ingredients is a healthy dose of chipotle peppers!

As for the seafood dishes, sure, I enjoyed them but I’m probably not coming to Fleming’s for seafood. And as for dessert, well, I’m not one to pass up a good creme brulee.

With so many new restaurants in Downtown LA, Fleming’s may not be my first call. It’s not really a “destination” restaurant. But, having said that, it’s good to know they are evolving with their diner’s tastes.

And if I was looking to eat at LA Live, I’d definitely return.

For the meat and, err, ravioli.

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
800 W Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90015
(213) 745-9911

Fleming's Steakhouse in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

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Sage Sings Loudest at Aria

August 5, 2010
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Most people come to Vegas to gamble, to party and to sin.

Truth be told, I don’t gamble and I can party much harder and sin far worse in my hometown of Los Angeles than I can in Vegas.

My sin in Vegas is gluttony. Add to that worshipping at the temple of Michelin, whose bright stars cast a long shadow over Vegas, and idolizing the three French gods of cuisine who have set up outposts here (Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire), I’d say I have my fair share of penance to pay.

So it’s surprising, then, that the best meal of my recent trip was neither Michelin starred nor devised in France.

It was at Sage, Shawn McClain’s contemporary American ode to the farm-to-table/artisanal/sustainable/seasonal ethos.

Now, let me be clear, those terms hold no particular draw for me. I’m just as happy for my produce to be exotic, my fish to be endangered, and my truffles to be out of season. And, come on, this is Vegas, a neon outpost in the desert, a place where money trumps ideology and possibly the least sustainable city in America. After Rick Moonen’s recent droning on about sustainable seafood in Vegas on Top Chef Masters, I was just about ready to slap him and his ilk across the face with a Chilean sea bass.

No, what brought me to Sage was that, after the buzz had quietened and the dust had settled on the new CityCenter’s more talked about restaurants — Gagnaire’s first US outpost Twist and Bar Masa/Shaboo’s $500 hot pot — Sage emerged as the most interesting new restaurant in Vegas.

Not that Shawn McClain doesn’t come with accolades. Esquire magazine’s “Chef of the Year”, James Beard winner for “Best Chef Midwest” but it’s safe to say he’s not a household name outside of Chicago.

Yet.

The restaurant space itself is everything you’d expect in Vegas from the newest Dubai-funded casino on the Strip. Opulent, expansive, classy and swathed in plum and gold. This is not a restaurant you wander into from the casino floor.

This is a destination.

And the service there was impeccable. Probably the best I’ve received in ANY restaurant. Ever. Friendly without being intrusive, knowledgeable without being pretentious, and generous. Complementary champagne when we sat down, complementary sauternes with our foie gras custard brulée because our server insisted it would complement it perfectly (which it did), a complementary appetizer because one item we ordered was not available, and complementary hot chocolate espressos with our dessert. Sure we told them one of our guests was celebrating a birthday, sure the DSLR gave me away as a blogger, sure I know the hot chocolate is standard, but the service was still above and beyond.

Unlike many other Vegas fine dining restaurants, Sage does not offer a tasting menu. So we built our own from the appetizer menu.

Amuse Bouche | Cured Salmon / Radish / Puree

Vancouver Island Kusshi Oysters | Piquillo Pepper and Tobasco Sorbet / Aged-Tequila Mignonette
I love kusshis by themselves but the piquillo pepper and tobasco sorbet was stunning. A perfect cold and hot complement to the briny oyster. With a nod to Mexico, the mignonette sauce was made with aged tequila rather than vinegar.

Heirloom Beet Salad | Duck Prosciutto / Point Reyes Blue Cheese / Roasted Walnuts / Celery Vinaigrette
Here’s where I eat my words for saying I don’t care about salads in general and farm-to-table, seasonal vegetables more specifically. Because this was one of my favorite dishes of the night. Simple in its preparation, the beets were soft and flavorful, the vinaigrette perfectly balanced, the blue cheese creamy, and all sitting atop slivers of duck prosciutto.

Foie Gras Custard Brulée | Bing Cherries / Toasted Cocoa Nibs / Salted Brioche
If the beet salad was one of my favorite dishes of the night, then this was without doubt my favorite and one of the best mouthfuls of food I’ve enjoyed in ’10. I love foie gras, I love creme brulée, and I can honestly think of nothing better than combining the two. Except perhaps shaving a torchon of foie gras onto it and serving it with a sweet and salty salted brioche. Absolutely craveable and made all the better by the complementary glasses of sauternes that our server insisted we pair it with.

Crescenza Cheese Mezzaluna | Grilled Mushrooms / Braised Black Kale / Parsley Emulsion
Essentially a creamy cheese filled pasta shaped like a half moon (hence the name), this dish was sent to our table by the kitchen to apologize for one of the dishes we’d ordered no longer being available. Of the two pasta dishes we tried, this was the stronger although nothing extraordinary. Still, the pasta was pillowy and well made, the mushrooms adding a nice, meaty texture to the dish.

Roasted Sweetbreads | Glazed Bacon / Creamy White Polenta / Marinated Chanterelles
I’m a big fan of sweetbreads. It’s one of those dishes that, if it’s on the menu, I’ll almost always order it. The breading on the sweetbreads here was less crispy than I would have liked although the polenta it sat on was very good, having soaked up all the juices of the sweetbreads and bacon. Bacon is one of those things I’m really getting over although, thick cut like this and glazed, it was a welcome addition to the dish.

Maine Lobster Ravioli | Lemon-Olive Oil Puree / Baby Spring Peas / Mascarpone / Fresh Mint
This dish was a disappointment. The sauce overpowered the taste of the delicate lobster to the point that I wouldn’t have known I was eating lobster if I hadn’t read it on the menu. Overall, oversalted and rather leaden.

Smores
Although we were full from dinner, I had asked the restaurant to add a “Happy Birthday” to the dessert plating for one of our guests so we ordered a dessert to share, Sage’s modern take on s’mores. Disappointingly the dessert came out without the requested birthday wish but it was still remarkably beautiful and satisfying at the same time. Did it remind me of childhood s’mores? I don’t know. I didn’t grow up here. But the bruléed marshmallow was suitably sweet and sticky and the gingerbread crisp a great savory counterpoint.

To finish the meal, the kitchen sent out cups of hot chocolate infused with citrus. A fun and whimsical way to end the meal and the citrus finish was a nice touch to the chocolate.

So there you have it. Yes, there were a couple of missed steps but whether it was the gorgeous space, the opulent and classy ambiance, the wonderful service or the company of great friends, this meal transcended its faults and was definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Possibly the meal of the year so far and definitely the dish of the year for the foie gras custard brulée.

For me, Sage is the best bet at CityCenter.

And, as I said, I don’t like to gamble.

Sage
Aria Resort and Casino
3730 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(877) 230-2742

Sage in Las Vegas on Fooddigger

Sage (Aria) on Urbanspoon

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