Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sam's Chowder House (Half Moon Bay)

February 2013

4210 North Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay, California, USA
Tel: +1 650 712 0245

One of the tourist highlights of the San Francisco Bay Area is the scenic drive along the Pacific Coast on the famous Highway One. But what was memorable for us on that drive south from San Francisco was not the views of the ocean (which was admittedly breathtaking though), but our discovery of a local favourite, Sam's Chowder House. Thirty minutes drive North from the Ritz Half Moon Bay where we stayed, it was recommended by the concierge of our hotel as a must-visit. Sam's Chowder House is a diner which sits on the beach, and on a nice day, a table outside overlooking the Pacific Ocean is much desired.

When we were there, it was still rather nippy outside so we opted for a seat inside (but at the window so we still managed to enjoy the views). Set up as a traditional diner and sports bar, it was very relaxed with enthusiastic and friendly service.

Sam's Chowder House's specialty dish is naturally the clam chowder. The one we had was very good, as it was rich without being too starchy. The portion we ordered was the half-bowl (which we shared), as the full bowl was ridiculously large even for two.

What Sam's Chowder House is famous for is its lobster roll. We have had lobster rolls elsewhere, and in Singapore we are used to our lobster rolls stuffed with small bits of canned lobster meat and drowned with mayonnaise, so imagine our delirium when the lobster roll here was a ridiculously generous lump of fresh maine lobster claws. The picture below speaks for itself. This lobster roll is so popular that they sell it for takeaway at the counter outside the restaurant.

No less delicious was the dungeness crab sandwich. The bread was so sweet and soft and the thick layer of crab meat was heavenly.

Impressions: We liked this so much the first time that we came back the next day for lunch. This is certainly a place we will specially visit the next time we find ourselves in the Bay Area.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Manresa (Los Gatos)

February 2013

320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, California, USA
Tel: +1 408 354 4330

Update: Manresa won its third Michelin star in the 2016 Guide.

It was day 15 of our maiden visit to the West Coast, during which time we had more than a dozen meals, most of them very memorable. Our last meal was reserved for a restaurant about which we have heard and read for some time: David Kinch's two Michelin starred Manresa. Unlike all the other restaurants we ate at during this trip, which were located either in the heart of San Francisco City or in the very touristy Napa Valley area, Manresa is in an affluent suburb of Los Gatos in the Silicon Valley. We drove an hour from where we were staying at Half Moon Bay, and found that Los Gatos lived up to its reputation: there was a quiet yet self-satisfied feel about the place, with its well-dressed townfolk and unusually disproportionate number of expensive high-performance vehicles on its streets. We had a very early dinner seating, and as we got to the town while the sun was still up, we were able to spend some time walking around and doing some shopping.

Manresa can be found at the corner of a street of shops. It has heavily tinted windows (almost like one-way mirrors), which afford diners (and the kitchen staff) a very clear view of the street, yet the pedestrians outside have no way of looking in. This I discovered to my chagrin; we were early so I was moseying around outside the restaurant, and it was only when I was inside the restaurant did I realise that whatever strange things I was doing outside could be seen perfectly by the diners and staff inside!

We were welcomed with almost exceptional graciousness by the staff and seated at the back wing of the restaurant, which was quite cosy and comfortable. Despite the tables getting filled quite quickly (it was a Saturday dinner and hence a full-house), throughout the evening ambience remained discreet and romantic.

When our amuse bouche was served, we were quite surprised and thought that they had got our food orders wrong. We certainly did not expect what looked like petit four at the beginning. However, these turned out to be savoury black olive madeleines and red pepper jelly sweets, which were quite delicious.

This was followed by a small chinese teacup of Romanesque Royale, of chicken veloute and pistachio. It was good, if a bit tiny portion-wise.

The Japanese-inspired chawanmushi was next, and was presented in a beautiful laquer bowl more commonly associated with miso soup. This was introduced to us as coconut milk panna cotta with abalone and morning radish. It was quite exquisite.

The seared bay scallops with sour orange and macadamia nuts was interesting. There was a good balance of flavours and a nice crunch brought about by the nuts.

The dungeness crab with fennel and dashi jelly was fully of umami flavours and was excellent.

"Walk into the vegetable garden" was Chef Kinch's own take on the now rather trendy 'foraging' theme. This was pretty good and distinct in its liberal use of flower petals. This was quite a difficult dish to pull off; there is always the tendency to cook some of the vegetables, season or otherwise add flavours by adding sauces, oils or other liquids, but this version was notable for the absence of all that and brought the focus away from flavour and onto the texture of the different leaves and flowers instead.

The black cod with anchovies sauce, brasilia and brussels sprouts was unique in the use of the rather strong and pungent flavours of the crispy brussels sprouts to complement the cod.

Another Bay area favourite that time of year was the seasonal Bay Area abalone, with artichoke, seaweed and faro. We are not a big fan of abalone generally but this was quite good.

The slow roasted duck breast and beets was another very well-executed dish, though once again we were left wanting more of it (given the rather small size of the serving).

The last of the entrees was the thinly sliced Wagyu with white cabbage and shank and marrow sauce. This was very delicious and special, and was done in a way which to us was reminiscent of the Chinese style, with the use of a beef broth rather than the usual deglaze sauce.

The green apple sorbet was an appropriate palate-cleanser before dessert.

And finally, the dessert was the chestnut crepe, caramel ice cream and raspberry sauce, which was really good.

There was an element of symmetry with the petit four looking identical to the amuse bouche, except that this time these were really sugared jelly sweets, chocolate madeleines and chocolates walnuts.

Impressions: Despite Chef David Kinch's absence, we had quite a fantastic dinner at Manresa that night. It was our last meal at the end of a 2 week Californian dining holiday and Manresa reiterated everything good about the cuisine in the West Coast of the US; the almost religious adherence to seasonal and regional produce, the light touch in terms of cooking technique, the heavy Asian influence  and the warm and relaxed yet professional service. Though in hindsight, the portions for the tasting menu were in fact rather small, in this instance we were actually quite grateful for that after a fortnight of heavy eating.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Auberge du Soleil (St Helena)

February 2013

180 Rutherford Hill, Rutherford, Napa Valley, USA
Tel: +1 707 963 1211

The best views of Napa Valley from a restaurant are probably at Auberge du Soleil. Perched on the hillside of Rutherford, the outdoor deck-seating of the one Michelin star restaurant overlooks the lush valleys of the area. We had lunch there on a cool and sunny day, which was perfect for enjoying the spectacular scenery. The restaurant is part of a luxury resort of the same name, and from the moment we dropped off our car with the very professional valet at the entrance of the resort, and then throughout our meal there, it was clear to us that this was a top-notch establishment with service levels appropriate for the well-heeled.

We were there for lunch so we had a relatively short lunch menu to select our meal from. In addition, we chose to have the local Chardonnay by the glass.

Potato gnocchi, wild mushroom, pea shoots and parmesan nave: This was a wonderful winter dish for lunch.

Poached hopper shrimp, butter lettuce, avocado and navel orange: The shrimps were fresh and sweet, but I felt that the citrus flavour of the orange overpowered the rest of the dish somewhat.

Veal and lobster sandwich, brioche, prosciutto and pickled vegetables: This was a great sandwich, full of juicy lobster packed between sweet brioche bread.

Panfried snapper: I enjoyed the snapper as well, especially the way the skin was fried to a crisp yet the flesh remained quite tender and moist.

Coconut angelfood cake, sweet coconut cream, mandarin sorbet and lime: To end off a rather relaxing and light lunch, the coconut angelfood cake was the perfect dessert.

Impressions: The food was good but this was overshadowed by the great views from the veranda. This was a wonderful place for a slow lunch; to kick back one's heels, enjoy the fresh air, and have a glass of wine.