TBL3 @ George’s California Modern (La Jolla, CA)

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TBL3 @ George’s California Modern
1250 Prospect St
La Jolla, CA 92039
(858) 454-4244
georgesatthecove.com/tbl3

Wow – let’s just say this post has been in OHT limbo for just about the entire year. I have been pessimistic to the point of not even knowing what to say anymore, because I didn’t think my words would do it any justice. Luckily, all that anyone needs to know is that my dinner at George’s in February, specifically the one at TBL3 (a spontaneous 12-to-14 course dinner prepared for one party seated at the best table in the house once a night – see details in link above), has withstood many, many wonderful meals that followed it to remain as my clear choice for favorite meal of 2014.

Chef Trey Foshee and his talented team are just firing on all cylinders when it comes to TBL3, whether it be the bright vegetarian dishes with the amazing product from Chino Farms, to the local shellfish prep with fennel butter than has become one of Chef Trey’s standbys, to the fun and creative desserts, down to a single fish taco which was my gateway drug  to this man and the restaurant – this is classical and technical perfection taken to the next level by local inspiration and sourcing. This is Michelin-star level execution in a warm atmosphere, all while the kitchen is essentially serving THREE different restaurants simultaneously. The serving was befitting of a classic fine-dining institution, yet had the calm and joy that resonated with the nearby sea. And don’t even get me started on what a value TBL3 is.

Conclusion: my favorite meal of 2014, and even better than my meals at 2-Star Michelin restaurants.

Funny story – so I dined solo here, where I had been chatting with the courteous FOH and briefly with Chef Trey. When I had gotten to the last savory dish, I felt EXTREMELY FULL all of a sudden. Those of you who know me know that I can eat a lot (I did eat 36 tacos at Tacolandia this year), and all I ate beforehand were 2 tacos + appetizer at Taco Maria for lunch. But for some reason it all just weighed down on me, as if I just went 8 rounds at a Vegas buffet. So the belt got unbuckled, the shirt untucked. I even started doing stairs inside the restaurant (it’s 3 floors) between the intermezzo and dessert courses. By the time Chef Trey was sending me off I had a feeling that most of the restaurant was laughing at me – with love of course.

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Northern Divine Caviar – white radish

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Celeryroot – smoked apple, Buddha’s hand, Dungeness crab

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Chino Farms Carrot – whey, chamomile, raisin, fresh cheese

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Fish Taco

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Local Spiny Lobster – fennel butter

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Wild Salad

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Black Truffle Omelet – sea urchin, hollandaise

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Braised Cabbage – smoked bone marrow, crispy rice, bacon-kombu broth

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Rabbit – Chino Farms asparagus, rhubarb, black trumpet mushrooms, tarragon

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Pink Trout – chrysanthemum, bonito butter

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Lamb – cauliflower, sage honey

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Apple Celery Consomme – fennel, confit, sheep’s milk frozen yogurt

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Sarsaparilla Rice Pudding – red kuri squash, madarin, curried pineapple, coconut ice milk

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Peach Blossom – chocolate, marzipan

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
American La Jolla $$$$ A+

George's At The Cove on Urbanspoon

Manresa (Los Gatos, CA)

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Manresa
320 Village Ln
Los Gatos, CA 95030
(408) 354-4330
www.manresarestaurant.com

Short summary: a great meal. However, with all the accolades and such, this dinner was more of a technically precise meal with impeccable ingredients used than a mind-blowing one that has me thinking about it for days. In the end, I respect Manresa more than I love it, but I sure do like it a lot. The restaurant is like one of those beautiful girls that are perfect both physically and mentally, but given a choice between her and your flawed true love, you still have to follow your heart. Manresa is the restaurant for those who follow their brains.

There are very good reasons why just about everyone in the world sings Manresa’s praises. Having one of the most talented chefs in the country heading the place, using only the best-quality ingredients available, classic fine-dining atmosphere and service – it’s only logical. But for me, the whole package can feel a little stiff for a culinary-uneducated individual like myself. The service issue has been debated before by others, and I understand that they’re striving for that 3rd Michelin star (French fine dining standards), but it’s too TTH for me personally. Still, the service is indeed extremely knowledgeable and attentive. Just not as…happy?

But don’t get me wrong – Manresa is an amazing restaurant. Next to my meals at Red Medicine, I’ve never appreciated the vegetable-centric dishes more at a restaurant. Every dish we had was indeed delicious and executed to near perfection from the technique and plating perspectives (except for the loin in the lamb dish – overcooked). The butterscotch dessert was one of the most inspired ones I’ve had this year, but I wouldn’t say that any of the savory dishes had a similarly lingering effect. It’s less of “man this dish was fucking awesome and I need to have it again now” and more of “oh okay that was a very good dish, but it’s supposed to be.”

These little imperfections at a “perfect” restaurant keep it from getting my “perfect” grade. Yeah, this post makes the restaurant sound somewhat indifferent, but that’s because an “A-” is disappointing for what is considered an “A” restaurant that has “A+” aspirations. Still, if you got the money, Manresa is still one of the flag-bearers of New American fine dining cuisine, and should be on every enthusiasts’ to-dine bucket list.

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Red bell pepper pate de fruit, black olive madeleine

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Gazpacho, 25 tomatoes

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Local milk panna cotta, Monterey Bay abalone, breakfast radishes

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Moroccan octopus, summer beans

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Fava bean risotto, porcini mushroom, sheep’s milk cheese

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“Into the Vegetable Garden”

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Black cod, tomatillo, cassava, roasted bone sauce

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Lightly smoked albacore

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Roasted duck, fennel, fig, milk, honey

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Napa Valley spring lamb, dates, olives

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Butterscotch, plum, buckwheat

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Raspberry, chocolate, tonka bean

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Strawberry pate de fruit, chocolate madeleine, cocoa & basil bonbon

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Chocolate brioche

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
American Los Gatos $$$$ A-

Manresa on Urbanspoon

Bachi Burger (Las Vegas, NV)

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Bachi Burger
470 E Windmill Ln, Ste 100
Las Vegas, NV 89123
(702) 242-2244
www.bachiburger.com

So, Bachi Burger…
Are you going to open?
LA is waiting.

If you didn’t pick up on it, that’s what we call a haiku – a haiku I am eloquently reciting to the Las Vegas-based burger joint, for their construction on a new location in LA has essentially been halted, despite the occasional reassurances from Eater LA that the project is still in the works. I’ve been jogging by the location on Sawtelle for months now (that Sawtelle – it’s so hot right now), and I swear this one bag of concrete mix or whatever has been sitting in that same spot all this time. So no, I don’t expect Bachi Burger to open anytime soon, certainly not in 2013. Maybe next year though…or maybe never.

Luckily, I had a chance to try Bachi on my last trip to Vegas, for my friend Will’s bachelor party. It had been at the top of my to-dine list for restaurants off-strip (I also tried to hit up Chada Thai, but they were unexpectedly closed for lunch, indefinitely). Mattatouille had told me that I should try to go as early as possible, because they get really busy. And that proved to be true – we were there around noon, and had to wait an extended amount of time. Waiting outside a restaurant in Las Vegas weather during daytime isn’t the most desirable of situations to be in, but Bachi proved to be worth the wait.

Bachi’s creations are technically on the fusion side, with regards to Japanese cuisine. Unlike at most places, the concept is well-executed here. Take their signature Ronin Burger, for instance. There’s an Asian slaw. There’s a tonkatsu-sauce glaze of sorts. There’s a yuzu aioli. And that sesame-miso sauce on the side. All very Japanese flavors. But the burger construction is all-American: a well-seasoned, juicy patty, cooked medium-rare, a fried egg, and a nicely-toasted brioche bun (although it had a touch of sweetness). Forget all the teriyaki burgers or whatnot that you’ve tried – this is what the concept is all about.

I’ve also read plenty of positive reports of their oxtail chili cheese fries, and it did sound very promising. It was a nice dish, but didn’t actually blow me away. The fries were already a little limp, but could’ve been affected by heft of the chili. The chili (w/ beans) was actually pretty straightforward, but replacing the ground beef with oxtail. However, the flavor was a bit too sweet for me (don’t know if it’s supposed to be). That sweet flavor, combined with the seasoning salt mixed with the fries, had a little too much going on in my opinion. But it’s still a good side.

Many people consider the burger at Bachi to be the best in Las Vegas, and I believe that to be true, despite my limited experience with burgers in Sin City. I do know, however, that it could possibly be my favorite burger in LA…if it ever opens here. If not, I just might vandalize the location with bachi sticks as if it was a taiko drum.

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Oxtail Chili Cheese Fries – garlic aioli, fried egg ($11.50)

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Ronin Burger – angus beef, caramelized onions, Japanese cole slaw, miso goma dressing, fried egg, katsu BBQ, yuzu citrus aioli ($11)

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Burgers Las Vegas/Southeast $$ B+

Bachi Burger on Urbanspoon

Orenchi Ramen (Santa Clara, CA)

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Orenchi Ramen
3540 Homestead Rd
Santa Clara, CA 95051
(408) 246-2955
www.orenchi-ramen.com

And I thought ramen was popular in LA…

Orenchi Ramen in Santa Clara has been dubbed the most popular ramen shop in America by multiple sources (along with ~2600 Yelp reviews). We had to get there over half an hour before they opened at 11:30am just to ensure a minimal wait upon their doors opening for lunch, as the restaurant is quite small (Will said that if we didn’t get there when we did, we would’ve had to wait over an hour). There were all sorts of people waiting – locals, nearby workers, and Asian tourists with cameras (probably where I fit in). But was it worth the wait, especially for someone who slurps noodles on a regular basis?

In a word: yes. By now you all know the drill with tonkotsu ramen – pork-bone-simmered for long periods of time, chewy noodles, slices of chashu, etc. Orenchi’s bowl also includes menma (fermented bamboo shoots), kikurage (wood ear mushrooms), scallions, nori, marinated soft-boiled egg, and a bit of black garlic oil and sesame seeds. First of all, the broth here is quite fascinating. It’s essentially what we would consider kotteri-style, with plenty of visible back fat particles floating on top. Yet, the base isn’t too overpowering with the heft and the saltiness – quite balanced and refined, actually.

The other components aren’t as memorable as the broth, but competent in their own rights. The noodles aren’t glorious, but they have enough chew and bounce to match the broth well. The toppings are all nice touches, and I actually liked that the black garlic oil wasn’t used liberally, as it’s beginning to get hot at ramen shops, and I feel that more than a little is somewhat of a overkill. But the chashu and egg are especially noteworthy, if for different reasons. The good news: that soft-boiled egg was cooked perfectly. Also nicely marinated. The bad news: there were maybe 2 paper-thin slices of overcooked, lean pork. We also split an order of chicken karaage – not bad.

This is definitely a bowl of ramen worth waiting for, but do go early, for the reasons I gave above, and the fact that they only serve 500 bowls a day (and apparently only 15 servings of their tsukemen). Service is efficient and friendly. The bowls are fairly-priced. Also, I read that they plan to open a second location in the Mission district of SF, and that they’re opening a robataya right next door to the current location (saw some construction while waiting). But they do need to step that chashu game up…

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Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Japanese Santa Clara $ B+

Orenchi Ramen on Urbanspoon

Monta

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Monta
5030 Spring Mountain Rd, Ste 6
Las Vegas, NV 89146
(702) 367-4600
http://www.montaramen.com/

With ramen currently on my mind, I’m reminded of my visit last summer to Las Vegas, when I dined at Monta, widely considered to have the best ramen in town. It’s a good bowl, with a cloudy white tonkotsu broth full of porkiness and salty flavor, thin curly noodles, two perfectly cut slices of chashu that had a very dark exterior (cut thin to the point where it felt like the slices were dissolving), a well-cooked soft-boiled egg, scallions, menma, and kikurage. If this is the best Vegas has to offer with regards to ramen, then good for the locals – they have themselves a solid choice, located next to the Japanese mecca that is Raku in Chinatown.

Put Monta in Los Angeles, however, where ramen is aplenty in both quantity of choices (both restaurants and varieties) and quality, and all of a sudden it’s like a poor man’s version of what you’d find at Santouka, right down to those curly noodles. And this is no knock on Monta, because they do put out a good product – it’s just that what they bring to the table does nothing to differentiate themselves in a crowded market in this town, neither in doing something different, nor doing what is familiar to elevate itself to the top of the class. The noodles are decent, but nothing to write home about. The chashu is solid, but too thin to appreciate. And that broth, porky but could’ve been more, salty but could’ve been more – kinda of what I mentioned in a previous post about being in a tonkotsu ramen limbo of sorts.

But in Sin City, this is the belle of the ball. And in a city where luxury and overindulgence is aplenty, a very affordable bowl of ramen off The Strip is a very welcome sight.

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Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Japanese Las Vegas/Chinatown $ B

Monta on Urbanspoon

Lotus of Siam

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Lotus of Siam
953 E Sahara Ave
Las Vegas, NV 89104
(702) 735-3033
http://www.saipinchutima.com/

What else can I say about Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas that hasn’t already been said by dozens of critics, hundreds of bloggers, and thousands of Yelpers? Not much, really. You know the drill: people behind Renu Nakorn in Norwalk moved to Las Vegas and took over the original Lotus of Siam, critical acclaim (J. Gold named it the best Thai restaurant in the U.S. a while back) and the crowds followed, and now it’s one of the most prominent restaurants in the city, and arguably the most influential Thai restaurant in the country.

During one of my trips to Las Vegas, we made it a goal to hit up off-Strip restaurants (which included Raku and Firefly), and of course Lotus was one of the restaurants on the hit list. They are still as busy as ever – I called ahead the day of for a reservation (highly recommended) and we still had to wait an additional 15 or so minutes. There was plenty of time to peruse the menu, but I did plenty of research beforehand. My advice would be to stick to the Specials/Northern Thai/Chef’s Choice, but definitely get the Nam Kao Tod from the appetizers section. The servers are also very knowledgeable about the dishes, and I’ve read that you can even have them send out dishes per chef’s choice.

As previously mentioned, Lotus specializes in Northern Thai/Isaan cuisine, which if I had to describe it to people, I would say that it’s less acidic and more…earthy? Just know that it’s not what most people are accustomed to, like pad thai and pad see ew, although Lotus does have all the standard dishes if you’re not feeling “adventurous” (but what’s the point of going if you’re not ordering what the restaurant specializes in?). In recent years, restaurants like Pok Pok are exposing the public to what Northern Thai food really is, as does Night+Market here in L.A. But people shouldn’t forget that Lotus (and Renu Nakorn before that – still around by the way) was the one who put the cuisine on the map.

So after all this hype, did the food at Lotus live up to expectations? It most definitely did. I have an unspoken allegiance of sorts to Night+Market, but Lotus is up there as one of my top-2 favorite Thai restaurants (I have yet to try Jitlada). Prices are very reasonable, but can be a bit pricey for the dishes in the Chef’s Choice section on the menu. Still, in a town that’s very expensive to dine in, especially on the Strip, you’re basically playing with house money paying for food of this caliber (and generous portions – for the most part, Thai restaurants are actually very stingy with portions in my opinion).

Below are photos of the dishes we ordered, all which I would order again, except maybe the garlic prawns, which were good, but not very Thai in execution (more of a pepper salt flavor) – I’d rather try another signature dish on my next visit. But it’s looking like a must-visit restaurant now, along with Raku, for my future Vegas trips. And for you wine aficionados, Lotus has a VERY extensive wine collection, notably Rieslings, which I’ve been told goes very well with the food there. The markup is apparently very low, and the collection is highly lauded.

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Nam Kao Tod ($7.95)

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Nam Prik Noom ($10.95)

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Garlic Prawns ($21.95)

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Sea Bass on Drunken Noodle ($29.95)

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Khao Soi ($9.95)

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Crispy Duck with Chili Mint Leaves ($20.95)
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Desserts

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Thai Las Vegas/Eastside $$ A-

Lotus of Siam on Urbanspoon

China Poblano

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China Poblano
The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas
3708 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(702) 698-7900
http://www.chinapoblano.com/

So China Poblano is the final product of what was supposed to be a Chinese restaurant The Cosmopolitan commissioned Chef Jose Andres to conceive? Sounds a little… preposterous. My theory: the hotel wanted to give Chef Andres two restaurants to appease him as the top dog in the building, but Chef didn’t know what type of restaurant to open (especially if planning for é was already in the works within Jaleo – since Spanish and “modernist” are what Chef’s known for). In the end, he probably conceived the idea of a Sino-Mexican fusion while drunk. But hey, Asian-Latin fusion? It’s been proven as a successful combination (see: Roy Choi restaurants).

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The menu concept of the restaurant is actually a little different than I expected (but the $0.88 pricing to some of the Chinese dishes is pretty hilarious) . For the most part, the two cuisines are kept separate in their own categories and individual dishes. But there are dishes where the fusion magic happens, and those are the most interesting-sounding dishes. I had already ate dinner at Holsteins next door that night last summer while I was in Vegas, but seeing that those takeout windows were actually working (I thought they were just for-show decor-wise at first), I decided to order a couple of the tacos for the walk back to our hotel room.

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I ordered the Silencio, which has duck tongue and lychee, and the Viva China, which has beef tendon, Kumamoto oysters, scallions, and a Sichuan peppercorn sauce. For $5.50 per taco, they were actually pretty fairly priced, factoring in the ingredients and location (although the other dishes are on the high side). The freshly-pressed tortillas (not sure if they were flour or corn, but could’ve been a combination) had a nice griddle to it, but were a little too soft and thin as vessels. The combination of ingredients were quite interesting, but didn’t necessarily work as a composed taco. Still, the menu as a whole looks fun and promising, and I’m hoping to try the restaurant as a whole in the future.

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Chinese/Mexican Las Vegas/The Cosmopolitan $$$ B-

China Poblano (Cosmopolitan) on Urbanspoon