Friday, April 14, 2017


Adam, the Teddies, Jonathan, and I had an impromptu dinner at Mike Isabella's cavernous new restaurant in the Marriott Marquis downtown on Monday night.  (I too rarely blog about meals in DC, so I figured I'd snap some photos in anticipation of posting.)  There are a number of restaurants around town that I call my happy places -- 2 Amys, The Dabney, TUG, Himitsu, etc. -- where the food is often fantastic and is at minimum quite enjoyable, and we can sidle up to the bar for a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.  Arroz's vibe is about as opposite of that as you'll find without having something notably "wrong" with it.  The space itself is as nice as could be expected given its size and location, with pops of pretty cobalt.  Adam and I made the mistake of entering through the hotel; walking through that massive, sterile, vaguely chemical-smelling lobby is always a bit off-putting, and the feeling lingers in the mostly empty restaurant.  Our server, while competent and very nice, had the sort of overly familiar, intrusive style that I'd bet -- pardon the gross stereotyping -- middle aged ladies and tourists will enjoy, but I can't stand.  Think explaining "espuma" unprompted, asking whether we were "loving" every dish that was brought to the table (a formulation that doesn't admit the possibility of not loving something, which rankled more at a hit-or-miss meal), and describing every dessert on the menu in such excruciating detail (before handing over menus or asking whether we were interested in dessert) that we immediately asked for the check to avoid more engagement.  (Early in the meal and already annoyed, I realized we'd had him somewhere before.  When we asked where he'd previously worked, he said he'd served us at Zaytinya in the past.)  These complaints feel mean-spirited, and to his credit, he did all the technical serving well: cheerfully moving us to a booth when we asked, thoughtfully bringing extra flat bread so that everyone got his or her own piece, conscientiously accommodating requests for certain ingredients on the side in some dishes, etc.  He just utterly failed to read his audience's interest in his spiels.  But the net result is that I enjoyed the dinner less than I might have on the food's own merits.

So, the food and drink: overall, I was pleasantly surprised. The cocktails were all excellent.  A particular table favorite was my order of the classic from the sherry category, which a light, floral, not-too-boozy combination of manzanilla, dry vermouth, and yellow chartreuse.  The roasted carrot in the sour made the drink interesting without veering too sweet or savory.  The abogado was a very slightly peaty old fashioned.  The cobbler was a bit sweet for dinner, but would have done well on a hot summer day.  The somm steered us to a lovely, slightly oxidated garnatxa blanca/xarel-lo/macabeu blend (mas d’en compte, 2012) that was a bit cheaper than the white rioja that we'd asked about as a starting point for the conversation.
classic and sour

A tiny carrot coated in spiced butter was a very tasty little amuse.  (But rapturously calling it a gift from the chef was a bit much.)

The tuna crudo was light and very enjoyable, although I wished the tuna was a little firmer and the broth a little punchier.  (Perhaps a hit more salt?  This was something I wondered about in a number of dishes, which didn't taste particularly undersalted but just a bit shy of fully flavored.)
big eye tuna crudo -- green apple, cucumber, smoked serrano broth, wild herbs

A fantastic eggplant dip had a smokey depth of flavor punctuated with bright slices of pickled onion, chile, and eggplant.  The accompanying flat bread delightfully evoked Komi's pancakesque pita (although not quite as good in texture, with a bit more of a bisquick-y note).
burnt eggplant -- moroccan flat bread, za'atar, pine nut, black garlic

A pretty vegetable salad was as you'd expect, although the garlic streusel (basically just a powder) added nice bite; I'd have happily taken a more generous dusting.
spring vegetables -- carrot tahini, garlic streusel, charred baby beets, kalamansi vinaigrette

Even without the chorizo (which we got on the side), I enjoyed the charred asparagus, which had a bit more kick than the muted tuna dish.
smokey asparagus -- marinated chorizo, egg yolk, san simon, chile emulsion

Fried prawns were well seasoned and crispy, with the heads separated into a little dish of aioli, which had the complementary effects of flagging for the inexperienced diner that they were to be eaten but allowing the heads to be ignored by the squeamish.  (I'm actually not sure whether the body shells were intended to be eaten.  They were slit for easy peeling, but crispy enough to just eat whole.  Our table ran the gamut on how we dealt with them.  Adam peeled his.  I ate everything but the tail.  Jeffy left nothing behind.)  But at over $8/prawn, this dish wasn't exactly a great value.  (If you want whole fried shrimp, head to Himitsu for their superior and cheaper iteration.)
spanish red prawns -- seaweed salt & lemon

The most disappointing dish was the fideos.  The noodles were mushy-soft (which was particularly disappointing as I was expecting, perhaps unfairly, a slightly crisped noodle dish like the rossejat at Jaleo or the fideos at Casa Mono).  They were overwhelmed by a tasty but one-note creamy tomato sauce; urchin or other briny seafood flavors were muted.  (I again didn't eat the sausage, but the meat eaters seemed even less impressed by this dish than I was.  One technical service fail: after we ordered the sausage on the side, our server didn't think to mention that the dish came with duck fat breadcrumbs, although they did come segregated on a razor clam shell.)
saffron fideo noodles -- cockles, razor clams, linguica sausage, sea urchin espuma

The seafood in the soupy rice was very well cooked, the lobster itself nicely tender, which can be a feat in these sorts of seafood variety stews -- but the tomato broth itself was disappointingly flat.  The seaweed "montadillo" was a surprisingly light and delicious slice of dark bread adorned with lemony aioli, lobster, and urchin (enough pieces for us each to have one, which may have been another good service touch by our waiter).  But our waiter's suggestion to combine it with the soupy rice to make a sort of "lobster roll" just resulted in burying the best part of the dish with the lackluster flavor of the escabeche.  (At $62, this dish made me wish we'd ordered a more servings of the eggplant and pocketed the savings.)
lobster soupy rice -- mussels, sea urchin, black bass, tomato escabeche, seaweed montadillo

Better of the large plates was the crab bomba, which we ordered in a half-portion for $31 or $32 (the full order is $60, so a reasonable option).  The slightly crisped-on-the-bottom rice was very satisfying with the more acidic tomatoes (as compared to the other tomato dishes) and fatty aioli, but the soft shells were muted by too much batter.  (I don't think it's a coincidence that Adam, who didn't have any soft shell, liked this dish better than I did.)
maryland crab bomba - fried soft shells, baby squid, preserved tomato, crab fat aioli

We skipped dessert, but Arroz does end with an adequate shortbread bite.  (I don't love shortbread in general, and this is no P&P shortbread.)

At these prices, and with this atmosphere, I'm not rushing back.  Our meal was comparable in price to much better experiences at places like TUG, Little Serow, and Himitsu, and significantly more expensive than favorites like 2 Amys or Etto.  But if someone else wanted to go, I wouldn't mind (although I would avoid the large plates in favor of the small).  I'm guessing the size of the restaurant will make getting reservations relatively easy, and therefore Arroz would be a good option for large parties, especially of out-of-town family members who might get a thrill out of proximity to a Top Chef alum.  (Isabella was in the restaurant, although his casual attire -- sporting a t-shirt with his name on it -- suggested perhaps not in the kitchen.  We saw him chatting with Jeremiah Langhorne and his companions at a nearby table.)

Friday, October 14, 2016

Azurmendi (05/27/2016)

We only had four days in Spain and too many restaurants that we wanted to try, so I had to be methodical.  I made a prioritized list and drew up a calendar of lunch and dinner slots, which I filled in as I secured reservations -- a particularly frustrating process.  No one had an online booking engine (in contrast to Copenhagen).  At best, a restaurant had an online form to request a reservation, which would then be confirmed or denied within a few days via email.  At worst (Ibai), Adam called, was told that there was no availability ever, only to find out that our concierge was able to secure a reservation.  In the inverse of our Copenhagen meal slotting problems, many places either didn't serve dinner at all or only served it one or two weekend nights.  But in the end, everything came together remarkably well:  Mugaritz was the only restaurant on our list where we tried and failed to secure a reservation, and Azurmendi was able to fit us in for Friday dinner, our last night.  Unfortunately, thanks to the lingering effects of pintxos poisoning, I decided that it was better to skip Elkano -- the only meal that I (begrudgingly) canceled -- so that I felt as well/hungry as possible that night.

Eneko Atxa is possibly the nicest chef I've ever met -- certainly the highest ratio of niceness-to-culinary fame.  (And he's got a bit of a sexy rockstar look!)  He recognized us from our overlapping Thursday dinners at Alchemist, where we'd spotted him but hadn't said anything, while he was making the rounds at the Saturday OAD Masters lunch.  (I wish we'd gotten a chance to ask him what he thought of Alchemist, but alas, it didn't seem opportune with Rasmus a table over.)  He was so friendly and appreciative when we complimented his dishes, and he genuinely seemed pleased when we told him that we were looking forward to dinner at his restaurant on the following Friday.  (He even pulled out his phone, which has some sort of reservation tracking app, to figure out which reservation was ours.)  Whatever notation he'd made obviously got translated to his (very well trained) staff, as it was mentioned in passing by a few people at various points throughout the evening.  He was unfailing warm when he greeted us in the kitchen and stopped by our table, even saying something about how we could call the restaurant if we needed anything during our stay in the region.  Eneko is just a delight.

As we drove up the hill towards Azurmendi -- so called after Eneko's mother's family name -- the light through its floor-to-ceiling windows beckoned.  Our "first act: picnic in the garden" began almost immediately, when we were offered snacks and glasses of Txakoli (made by the chef's family) in a high-ceilinged internal garden, complete with trees and water feature.  (When I declined wine, I was brought a lovely grape juice.)  A tiny eel and fried brioche sandwich was tasty, a vaguely brunchy smoky seafood-and-bread combo.  The excellent tomato water gel was a simple but perfect distillation of tomato flavor -- a highlight of the meal.  The liquid-filled sphere tasted more of passion fruit than wine.
Local tomato gel, Eel sandwich, Txakoli punch

We were then led into the kitchen for more snacks (and a quick hello from Eneko).  Mushroom chips with parsley cream and carrot salt made for a very enjoyable salty snack, and hibiscus juice served as a very acidic palate cleanser.  (Our printed menu confusingly says "hazelnuts."  No idea what we didn't get.)
Second act: the kitchen
We were next whisked into a sort of show "greenhouse."
Third act: our greenhouse
A tasty, chilled corn soup was their play on a local corn porridge called morokil.  Nice corn flavor but otherwise unremarkable.

I remember liking this cheesy little biscuit but nothing specific stood out.  (It was so unmemorable that I didn't even make a note of it when we sat at the table and I jotted down our snack notes.)
Basil and Roquefort biscuit

The bright white cotton candy dusted with asparagus salt was another, very cool highlight of the meal.  It was probably the most playful use of asparagus that we saw all vacation; saltiness on otherwise sweet candy was totally new and surprisingly effective.
Asparagus Cotton

A simple mushroom chip (porcini?) was just okay, less good than the more interesting kitchen snack.
Mushroom leaf

From there, we entered our "Fourth act: the balcony," which meant we were seated at our table for the night.  The olive bonbons were surprisingly frozen -- fine but not standout -- but I thought the intensely olivey, unexpectedly sweet, crunchy sticks were really good.  And the vermouth that accompanied the olives was Little Serow-worthy!
Frozen olive

and vermouth

Lovely milk bread rolls were very light and moist, reminding Adam of Parker House rolls.

The egg that we'd loved at Geranium was still delicious, a classic pairing of unctuous yolk and earthy truffle made surprising with technique.  The egg is slightly cooked by a syringe injection of truffle broth, after a bit of the yolk is removed (also via syringe) from the sac to make room.  The result is a marbled but intact yolk served liquidy and warm.  So good.
Egg from our hens, cooked inside out and truffled
I avoided the raw oyster, but the fried anemone was nicely crunchy, and the oyster and shallot tartar was very tasty.  A hit of red sorrel added brightness.
Oysters, tartar and seaweed traces

Around this point in the meal, a server noticed that I wasn't cleaning my plate and asked if everything was okay.  I assured her that it was, just that I hasn't been feeling well that day and my stomach was still a bit sensitive.  (I actually was quite relieved to get an opportunity to explain this, because I hadn't wanted anyone in the kitchen to think that I wasn't enjoying the food.  Everyone was so friendly and the food was delicious.)  Shortly thereafter, I got up to go to the restroom, and a suited up front of house person (with a managerial aura) approached to direct me and -- in one of the more seamless, thoughtful service gestures I can remember -- ask whether I would like an herbal infusion for my stomach.  (I accepted, and it was deliciously soothing when I returned.)

Our next beautiful, crimson bowl had very nice urchin flavor, bright tobiko that was almost soyish in its saltiness, and crunchy from seaweed crackers and pine nuts (the latter addition which I particularly loved).
Sea urchin, emulsion, juice
Unfortunately, I only had a bit of the seaweed waffle-uni emulsion sandwich, which was a bit too briny for my stomach.
and waffle
Sweet baby peas were lovely, and the herring roe added nice saltiness.  
Peas and roe

Next up, lobster arrived in textures ranging from the expected (nicely charred meat) to one that I didn't even realize was possible: the tuile-like stick that tasted (as Adam noted) like crunchy lobster bisque.  (Some sort of rich sauce/stock dehydrated until it was rollable, I'm guessing?  Cool.)  I loved the intense, thick sauce, and the dabs of emulsion provided a lighter balance.
Roasted lobster out of the shell, its crunch and mayonnaise

In lieu of suckling pig, we received cauliflower in textures (including puree, pearls, and fried bits).  The kitchen certainly loves "textures" of ingredients, but luckily they're done very well.  I didn't really get truffle flavor off of the shavings (done tableside, of course), but the cauliflower sweetness was very nice, and the spherified pearls were fun.  (Obviously lots of good textural contrast.)

The cod tripe was easily the most surprising dish of the night, in large part because I didn't expect to find tripe so delicious.  I'd never had any sort of tripe before -- I'd never even heard of fish tripe -- but I was wary.  The pieces of tripe were cooked to the texture of gelatinous dumplings and served with fried pillows of aoili.  Very interesting and tasty!
Cod tripe, chickpeas and herb potatoes

Monkfish was beautiful cooked -- sous vide before searing? -- served with more textures, this time of artichokes (fried silvers, quartered hearts).  Lovely basil emulsion.  I couldn't bring myself to try the innards terrine; monkfish liver stands out as one of the most disgusting things I can remember eating (and I ate that while feeling 100%).  Not a stand-out dish, but as was the baseline for the meal, well executed.
Monkfish in Iberian crust, artichokes and basil

As a sub for the pigeon (which we didn't eat in Copenhagen, obviously), we again got the hake that we had previously loved.  In another excellent service touch by the manager-esque person who had previously offered me the infusion, he asked (noting that we had eaten this dish the week before) whether we would want to have it again or try another fish dish.  I wasn't disappointed to see it again!

A lovely pre-dessert of cardamom foam, pineapple sorbet, and celery (which added a nice vegetal note) was bright and light, perfect for how I was feeling at the time.  (I don't love what a theme my less-than-100% stomach is in this post, but it's impossible to separate from my impressions, sadly.)  
Pineapple, cardamom and celery
The highlight of the next dessert was the yogurt sticks, which were very tart and spiced.  Loved them.
Yogurt, honey and five spices
More flavors in various textures.  Interesting but not an ideal combination of flavors for my dessert preferences.  Weirdly, the puree pooled on the plate reminded me of queso.  No idea why.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but strange.
Chocolate, peanut and liquorice

Finally, a whimsical assortment of mignardises arrived to wrap up our meal.  A chocolate lapsang marshmallow (in the palm of the hand plate) was excellently smokey!  The fingers balanced a pop of white chocolate, yogurt, and basil, which I think Adam liked more than I did; I'm not a huge white chocolate fan.  A refreshing shot of apple-rosemary juice was chased with tiny cubes of apple that had been compressed and infused with rosemary.  The box held red wine and lemon bonbons, a mango jelly (with a hint of chili), and a matcha financier; the latter two were the highlights of the set.
Petit fours
I skipped the coffee passion fruit macaron (because I am, as I have been described, "broken" and do not like coffee), but Adam said that the odd-sounding combination worked.  

I think I enjoyed the meal more than Adam, whose expectations were not quite met.  I'm not entirely clear on what he was hoping for; it wasn't a Saison-level revelation, but it was an excellent meal with a number of outstanding courses (and it's not Eneko's fault that we were less blown away by the second appearance within a week of a few standouts).  Service was the perfect combination of warm, unobtrusive, and solicitous.  It's a testament to Azurmendi that I enjoyed it as much as I did, and I hope I get the opportunity to return someday in better health.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Grill all the things! (Etxebarri 5/25/2016)

Etxebarri was the meal to which we were most looking forward in Spain -- at least before we had Eneko's food at Geranium -- so there was no way I was going to let us miss it, food poisoning be damned.  Twelve hours after I first got sick, I was exhausted on only a few fitful hours of sleep but had kept down a banana and some dry toast.  Armed with a bottle of Windex-blue Powerade, I dragged myself into the passenger seat for the drive to the picturesque hamlet of Axpe.

Everything cooked at Etxebarri is grilled in some way -- even dessert -- a style for which we're a super enthusiastic audience.  As pescatarians, we're always eager for a hint of what we're missing, and grill smoke comes closest to filling the meat-shaped holes in our hearts (/stomachs).1

As a sub for chorizo, we got a plate of simply grilled and well-flaky salted padron peppers as good as any we've ever had.  (Certainly better than the dish we'd had pintxos bar-hopping the night before.)

I've talked a lot about butter in connection with this vacation.  If I were to make a list of the ten best butters I've ever eaten, I'm guessing Scandinavian restaurants would get at least half the spots.  But Extebarri's butter, my God.  Adam summed it up succinctly with the first bite: "This butter is unreal."  A distinctly goaty butter -- teetering on the edge of being a creamy cheese -- it was perfectly salty-smokey from the sprinkling of black volcanic salt.  So good that even while showing a bit of illness-induced restraint, I wouldn't let them clear the butter away until the very end of the meal so that I could pick at it for as long as my stomach would allow.  The buffalo milk fresh cheese was also delicious -- almost yogurty in its tangy richness.  Not the cheese's fault that it couldn't compare to its platemate.
Butter goat's milk; Buffalo fresh cheese fine herbs and hazelnut

We had eaten a lot of tasty anchovy-containing pintxos the night before, but this was my platonic ideal of a pintxo.  A perfect sliver of grilled pan con tomate, a bit of onion, a beautifully briny anchovy -- crunchy, grill-charred, oily, salty, just enough acidity to balance everything.
Salted anchovy toasted bread

Oh, white asparagus, you found us in Spain.  Here, it was grilled and topped with shaved raw mushrooms, baby favas (one guess on how they were cooked!), and an excellent fruity olive oil.  Very nicely springy.
Asparagus green leaves and St. George's mushrooms

When we'd initially looked at the menu, I'd asked for a substitution for the oyster because I wasn't sure a raw oyster was such a good idea.  It turns out it was cooked with spinach (but I still left it to Adam).  As a replacement, I got these oceany, oily, tasty clams.  (Recurring theme: very fresh seafood very simply but well done.)

Oyster and spinach

Pristine, sweet prawns.  So tasty.
Prawn of Palamos

Resulting in:

As a substitute for baby octopus, we got nicely charred sea cucumber and baby favas (a tad bitter).  Adam: "Very earthy in a light way."  

The oily, salty mushrooms were good, but the soft, smokey eggplant was excellent!  
King bolete and aubergine

This dish made me realize for the first time what would become a sad theme over the next few days: thanks to my recovering stomach, I was put off by the idea of anything overly fatty or fishy.  (I tried to separate my temporary aversions from dishes that just weren't my taste.  Adam's similar reactions to some, including this one, helped to distinguish.)  The mushrooms were a bit watery, and the eggs tasted like barely cooked yolks badly in need of salt.  Too rich for my current state, I barely ate more than a bite or two, but even Adam wasn't tempted to finish it.
Scrambled eggs of St. George's mushrooms

Lovely, sweet baby peas and broth, punctuated with a bit of salty fish jerky.  More springy deliciousness.
Peas with its juice

In lieu of  a beef chop, we got our first taste of a regional specialty: kokotxas al pil pil.  The almost heart-shaped hake jowls (for lack of a better description -- the cut comes from under the fish's jaw) are crowned by a gelatinous morsel (which you are apparently supposed to eat, given the waitress's reaction that we hadn't) and served in a sauce of garlic, oil, stock, and herbs, thickened with the fish's natural gelatin.  I wasn't a fan of the slightly dense, slightly stringy texture of the cut, but Adam liked it.  As with everything, the hake was nicely grilled, but I wanted salt in the sauce and found it too fishy for my vague queasiness.  (It turns out, I think that I just don't like kokotxas much.  I also didn't like them at Ibai, where I was feeling much better.  Gelatinousness isn't my thing.)

I felt terrible leaving behind most of these beautiful pieces of grilled toro, but I never love the really fatty tuna so prized at sushi restaurants, so I wasn't the target audience even if I'd been feeling 100%.  (And I was definitely lagging at this stage in the meal.)  It was well salted and nicely accompanied by a delicious red pepper sauce and a mayonnaisey sauce, which felt very Spanish.  Someone with slightly different preferences than I have would likely have loved it.  (I consoled myself by picking on more of the goat butter.)
Red tuna belly vizcaina sauce

For all that I whined a bit about the lack of non-frozen desserts on this trip (especially in Copenhagen), we had some great ice creams.  Extebarri's awesome milk ice cream was hands down the best.  (Adam thinks it's the best he's ever had, and I haven't been able to come up with a counter-suggestion.)  Gorgeously creamy, tantalizingly smokey, it was nicely offset by the beet juice but would have shone on its own.  Adam's attempt to engage in Spanish conversation about ingredients with our only slightly English speaking main waitress got little more than "milk" in response. (Adam is admirably very game to try his Spanish -- which is much better than the dregs of my high school French -- but he is definitely far from fluent.) Luckily, an English-fluent waiter (who also kindly escorted us to tour the kitchen and meet the chef at the end of our meal) was able to explain that the chef makes his own wood charcoal in two ovens; when they're not in use, milk is left in a still-warm oven to reduce, where it picks up the charcoal flavor.
Reduced milk ice cream beetroot juice

Delicious bon bons had a very distinct pumpkin flavor, which I loved.
Bon-bon pumpkin

The chef grills cocoa beans and then makes a fabulously complex hot chocolate with honey, which was paired with excellent, moist little almond muffins.
mignardise et eclats de cacao

A waiter led us out onto the beautiful terrace, down through the woodshed, and into the kitchen to see the ovens and grills.  It's amazing what the chef -- who was extremely friendly, with the help of the waiter's translation -- can do with a tiny space and minimal equipment.  (Apparently they do weekly Sunday night pintxos for a euro a piece; I can only imagine how awesome they must be.  The waiter told Adam that given the choice, his girlfriend asks to come to the restaurant for that.)  Unfortunately, we had to decline the chef's offer of a gin & tonic -- another regional staple -- before we headed back to the hotel; I could barely wait to drag myself back to the car, where I napped for almost the entire return drive.

I'm not sure that we'll be rushing back to the region in general, but I hope that some future travel itinerary will bring us close enough to return here.  Etxebarri is one of those rare restaurants that has a real sense of place.  Even given how semi-awful I felt, there was a lot to enjoy and admire over the course of our lunch (although I would be inclined to order a la carte next time), and I would love to experience it at full gustatory strength.

And I'm still thinking about that butter.

1. Bacon's still delicious, right? Oh, it's even better than I remember? Yeah, that's what I figured.
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