Monday, February 3, 2014

Chimayo

Chimayo is one of the anchors of Main Street Park City.  I love the way Park City, UT brings dollars into our economy.  I love the way Park City keeps skiers away from the good skiing, leaving locals to fight it out for the goods up Little Cottonwood.  I enjoy the presence of a town whose air is breathable year round.


I cannot, however, understand why anyone would spend their dining dollars in Park City, Utah.  Chimayo is a perfect case study in why I feel this way.  We had a gift certificate to the Bill White Restaurant Group and decided to try out Chimayo as a result.  I started off with a house margarita made with Herradura Silver.  It was a sugar bomb - not terrible but definitely not what I would expect to get from a decent mixologist.


The appetizer we ordered was the highlight of the meal for me - a poblano pepper stuffed with goat cheese and mozzarella and served with pumpkin seed pesto.  Presentation was A+ and the lightly battered poblano was crisp and complemented the filling well.


After the appetizer we moved to salad and soup courses.  I went for the tortilla soup and this is where things began to crumble for us.  The tortilla soup at Chimayo does not compare favorably to the Campbell's variety - it is sweet to the point of being offensive and totally lacking in complexity.  I ate a couple of spoonfuls and my wife also tried it.  It went uneaten.


The baby spinach and pear salad was topped with Cabrales blue cheese, candied walnuts, bacon bits, and warm ancho chili vinaigrette (plus pears... and baby spinach... of course).  This wasn't bad, but it was forgettable.


My entree was the nadir of the experience.  I ordered the halibut “Sea of Cortez Style”, which is
coconut and corn encrusted halibut with wild mushrooms, asparagus, cippolini onions
and spaghetti squash.  Fresh citrus and serrano chile sauce top the entree.  The fish was room temperature when it arrived and the breading was a soft, flavorless crumble that reminded me of Gordon's frozen fish sticks.  The fish was sauced in a heavy cream sauce reminiscent of the powdered cheese sauce that my mom put on broccoli in 1985 to get vegetables into children.  Overall this dish should not have left the kitchen - it was that bad.


My wife, secretly delighted to have won the ordering battle, received a rack of ribs that was over her head in height.  Served rolled and stacked on end, the rib dish is filled with mashed potatoes and is really nicely cooked.  The entree is also enough for three lumberjacks to have their fill, so if you're headed to Chimayo, save yourself some disappointment (and dollars) and split the ribs.

In sum, we had a couple great items and a couple utter failures.  That isn't normally a bad batting average when ordering off an unfamiliar menu, but this is where Park City comes back into the equation.  This meal was expensive.   Our entrees were in the $50 range.

I'd love to be schooled on the economics of running a restaurant on Main Street, but regardless of the rent, I believe that when you take $250 from two people for a meal, you owe some excellence in return.  While our ribs were good, Pat's or Sugarhouse Barbecue could certainly approximate the experience for 1/5th of the price.  The problem with Park City is that nobody is providing value, and tourists would behoove themselves to start making the 20 minute drive into the valley if they are looking for some of the more interesting dining options in mountain west.

The Verdict?  Don't waste your money.  Main Street today is for beer, tex-mex, pizza and pub food.  If you're looking for a dining experience, you're going to have to descend into the inversion.  I'm hopeful that a few of the new entries that I have not tried will change my opinion here, but in any case I strongly recommend avoiding Chimayo.
Chimayo on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Alamexo

I finally had a chance to stop into Matthew Lake's new restaurant Alamexo after many weeks of drooling over some of the shots Chef Lake had been putting on Facebook.  I was particularly interested in Alamexo for a few reasons.  First, there has been some mixed reviews from the Salt Lake food blogger world.  Second, I love Mexican cuisine at every level.  And third, I was a rather unabashed fanboy of Zy, the restaurant that Chef Lake previously operated out of the same location.


We started out with the tableside Guacamole.  This was a cool experience, and the Guacamole was good.  We ordered "spicy" and the scale must be adjusted for Utahns because it was not very spicy, but no complaints and the portion was plentiful.  Alamexo also brings out chips and salsa, and while the Guacamole was the star of the show, the warm salsa was one of the best I've had in a long time and would have been a great way to start the meal even without the avocados.


Next we had queso fundido, which is baked queso Chihuahua with rajas, house made chorizo,
cilantro & white onion served with warm corn tortillas.  I really enjoyed this dish and feel like it exemplifies what I liked so much about our meal that night.  The first dip of this dish is instantly familiar to anyone who enjoys warm queso and fresh tortillas, but underneath the familiar there is a complexity that you won't often find in the Mexican cuisine that is offered in Salt Lake (or anywhere else, commonly).


Chef Lake visited our table and talked about a few of the menu items - and we ordered all of them. So, I feel like we got a great cross section of the offerings at Alamexo.

The highlight of the evening for me was a pulled pork enchilada seasoned with avocado leaf, baked in traditional mole poblano, topped with queso fresco, esquites, white onion & toasted sesame seeds.  This was my personal favorite.  I'm usually not a fan of mole poblano, but this one really had two layers of flavor that won me over.  Initially you'll notice the chocolate, anchos and chipotle that are common notes in the dish.  After that, I started picking up new flavors that are decidedly not on the list of ingredients (maybe I've been doing too much whiskey tasting lately...) like coffee and fig.  Regardless of the over analysis, I highly recommend this dish.


We also tried the Pescado Veracruzana - Mahi mahi, shrimp and scallops cooked in salsa Veracruzana made with roasted tomatoes, sweet peppers, olives & capers, topped with crispy plantains.  This was good and would hit the spot if you're in the mood for a mix of seafood, but it was the flamme rouge on the entree list for the night.  Perhaps a bit spicier would have increased my interest?


The Cochinita PiBil tacos were composed of Achiote & bitter orange marinated pork shoulder, cooked in banana leaf, served with habanero pickled escabeche & sweet plantains.  The pork shoulder in these tacos was about as close to perfect as I've tasted.  Chef Lake cooks these over a full day and the result is remarkable.  Don't be afraid of the fact that they are "tacos", this plate compares favorably to the most complex items on the menu.


We tried the Ceviche del Dia - which was shrimp based with a chipotle sauce, pickled onions and mango.


This, paired with an Ensalada con Frutas (Chopped salad of mixed lettuces with roasted fruits, pepitas, queso fresco & bitter orange vinaigrette) made a great meal for someone looking for a lighter option on the menu.


We also drank some drinks with this meal.  For me, a long time Ilegal Mezcal fan, the clear favorite was the Mescal Spicel (Ilegal mescal reposado, preserved orange, citrus & cannella).  Within our group we also sampled the house margarita, Yucatan Smash (Familia Camarena tequila, mezcal, pineapple & cucumber), and the Boca Mojada (Espolón blanco tequila, agave nectar, mango puree).  I visited a bit later and tried a few more margaritas and the Ginger Fizz.  Everything so far has been delicious and repeatable.


Alamexo stocks a decent tequila list for those who like to sip their spirits straight.  My favorites are missing (I'm a Herradura guy), but I appreciate the inclusion of a really good cross section of styles and flavor profiles in the Tequilas that were chosen.  The only blaring redundancy was Vida and Patron in Silver and Anejo.  All of the margaritas are also available virgin for $3, which is a great option for those who want something complementary to the meal but are not partaking in booze.


For dessert we tried the Cálidas plátanos dulces-warm sweet plantains with cajeta & Oaxaca chocolate sauces, sweet & salty peanuts.  I'm sure it wasn't true, but some part of me felt that I was being responsible by having bananas for dessert, especially since I had already enjoyed the complimentary churros that are brought out to finish every meal at Alamexo.


I also got to taste the Tamale de Chocolate and the Tres leches cake.  The tamale was one of the best things I've ever tried for dessert at a Mexican restaurant.  While the tres leches was good, it trends a bit more towards the familiar (albeit a great execution on a familiar dessert).  If you're on the fence for a final course, go for the chocolate.


The only real critique I've heard of Alamexo is the price - prices on the dinner menu range from $18 to $23 for entrees with a single item at $28 (the strip steak).  There was also a fair amount of chatter about Zy being pricey when it occupied this space.  In defense of both restaurants, they compare VERY favorably both in absolute terms and relative value to what is being offered in Salt Lake by some of the other favorite restaurants of the food critic community.  I would love to hear from those who think Alamexo is overpriced in the comments, because I think you're probably indulging the voice in your head that says Mexican food can't cost more than $14 for an entree.  In my forthcoming Chimayo review we will have a long look at what overpriced looks and tastes like, but Alamexo is a bargain.

To delve a bit deeper with one example, Chef Lake spends 8 hours slow roasting the pork in the conchita pibil, which can be had for $19.  If you feel like $2.38 an hour is an exorbitant rate, I lump you into the same category as those friends of mine who think $80 for an 18 year old Scotch is crazy (where else can you buy 18 years of work for less than a hundred bucks people?!).  The only way Alamexo comes up expensive is if you're comparing it to far inferior options.  When held up against its SLC peers Alamexo is one of the best deals in town.  For an appetizer, four cocktails, and two entrees, we spent $102.  Feels like a steal to me.

The Verdict?  Alamexo is a great addition to Salt Lake's food scene and brings the skill of Matthew Lake to a category that previously had no local entrants.  The time that is invested in some of the dishes shows up in the flavors and complexity of the food.  Also, be sure to ask the Chef about the inspiration for whatever you select if he stops by your table - we got some great stories!

Alamexo on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 27, 2014

Taqueria 27 Brunch

I reviewed Taqueria 27 a while back and have always been a fan, but only recently did I get a chance to stop in for Sunday brunch.  Overall, the staple items remain on the brunch menu, with a few additions that are breakfast-specific.

We started out with the roasted guacamole (blackened sweet and spicy chiles, caramelized garlic, balsamic and herbs).  This is a good guacamole, although I desperately hope that Taqueria 27 will add the bacon and black bean option to their list of daily choices instead of just featuring it as an occasional guacamole of the day.


We enjoyed a few drinks with brunch, most of which were of the beer persuasion, but one cocktail took me by surprise.  The Spicy Jalapeño-Melon Rita (fresh jalapeño and watermelon with agave and lime shaken with Hornitos Plata and melon liqueur) is not something I would normally order due to the melon and the liquor, but combined with the fresh muddled jalapeño this ends up being a very balanced and not overly sweet cocktail.


For our meal, we mostly enjoyed a selection of tacos, including the grilled pears and roasted beets taco that I had not tried before.  These were really nice and a great option if carnitas and chorizo sounds too heavy for you in the morning.  


However, if carnitas in the morning sounds like exactly the right choice, T27 has that avenue covered as well.  The carnitas and pickled onion together make this taco a must-try staple at the restaurant.


Those who have read other reviews on this blog know how much I love Chilaquiles - a traditional Mexican breakfast item consisting of salsa poured over tortilla chips and topped with eggs or meat, queso fresco and crema.  The version at Taqueria 27 uses a red salsa and cooks the tortilla chips until they become soft.  The plate is then topped with an egg any style and dressed with crema and cheese.  For me, this was a miss.  I prefer my chilaquiles to be made in a way that maintains the chips crispiness, but it is not uncommon to cook the mixture until the chips become soft.  When prepared this way, Chilaquiles need a much more generous portion of salsa in my opinion.


The verdict?  I would absolutely go back for brunch at Taqueria 27 as it is casual and offers solid choices in the breakfast or lunch genres, as well as great drink options.  While they missed on my favorite dish, staying within their wheelhouse (tacos) did not produce any disappointments.

Taqueria 27 on Urbanspoon

Caputo's Intro to Scotch Class

My wife surprised me with an evening at Caputo's Market and Deli for their inagural 15th and 15th introduction to scotch whisky class, and it was a great time.  The class is taught by Evan Ross, who has actually helped me out in the downtown Caputo's cheese cave more than once and is a master at pairings.  The format is to walk through a general overview of whisky, what makes Scotch unique and how to evaluate a dram.  Then, we tasted four whiskies - three scotches and a bourbon.


The thing that comes out most clearly in Evan's presentation of whisky is his passion for the subject.  Although he hasn't been in the game too long, I got a strong sense that he would be a lot of fun to dissect my favorite whiskies alongside.  I also appreciated the east coast demeanor that I don't get to experience too often in my new home of Salt Lake City.


We started out the tasting portion of the class with Basil Hayden's Bourbon.  I actually don't like this bourbon very much, but, as an extremely light and floral bourbon, it provides a nice segue into scotch if you're used to the harsher American whiskies.  The genius piece of this taste was the pairing to Frody Volgger's house made pastrami - which is the best deli meat I've ever tasted.  Do yourself a favor and stop by either location for a pound next time you feel like a sandwich.


Moving on, the first scotch on the list was a Bowmore Legend.  This one falls firmly into the bargain dram section of my cabinet, but it makes an excellent daily driver if you like a peated Islay malt and you're on a budget.  Probably the biggest critique I would offer of this class is evident in the above shot - it is near impossible for beginners to properly nose and experience whiskies out of an Ikea tumbler.  I would recommend that Caputo's invest in a proper set of Glencairn glasses, which would aid beginners in their journey much more than one might expect.  The Bowmore was paired with Caputo's own Taleggio and the match worked quite well.


The next whisky on the list was one of Evan's (and my) favorites.  If I had to pick one Scotch to drink for the next year, it would be Talisker's 10 year expression (assuming I was paying for my own supply).  To me, this dram has the perfect amount of peat and salinity to match the sweet notes, black pepper and lightly sherried finish.  Evan paired it with a blue Spanish cheese (Valderon) and the result was a totally enjoyable fistfight between two huge flavors.

We finished the night with the 12 year old expression from The Macallan.  The Macallan is the Rolls Royce of single malts, according to whisky godfather Michael Jackson, and the 12 year is perhaps the most representative expression of their malt.  Evan again worked some magic in pairing this sherry bomb with Fiore Sardo and a single origin honey.  Interestingly, I went home with a block of the Fiore Sardo and the miracle pairing really fell apart without the honey - which made me appreciate the nuance in Evan's pairings even more.


Overall I've had a few amazing experiences with Caputo's education classes and look forward to doing more.  Because there is not a whisky scene AT ALL in Salt Lake, I hope that this particular series introduces more people to the joys of whisky.  If that happens, I would also like to see some more advanced education opportunities - perhaps nudging participants to be a bit more participatory in sharing their tasting notes and opinions throughout the class.  As I said before, I would love to sit around and talk whisky with Evan as his passion for the subject is evident.  I would also love to see Caputo's bring in more experts who can take non-novices a bit deeper into discussion.

The verdict?  The whisky series at Caputo's is an excellent opportunity for beginners to familiarize with the various expressions of whiskey.  It is not aimed primarily at those who spend their evenings reading whiskey blogs and writing tasting notes, but that does not mean a more seasoned sipper would not have a perfectly enjoyable evening at one of these events.

Caputo's Market and Deli on 15th and 15th on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Cranberry Bitters Project

I decided this year that I wanted to create a holiday gift for some folks, and that it should involve booze. Little did I know when I launched into the Cranberry Bitters Project 2013 that it would take months of toil, but since it is done I figured that it was worth documentation here.

This was a double batch.  Step 1 - lightly dehydrate 64 ounces of fresh cranberries and orange peel (leaving the pith off) in the oven by spreading the fruit onto a baking sheet and cooking at ~200 degrees for a few hours.  The recipe I was following said to cook for 30 minutes, at which point the fruit should begin to burst, and that is when you remove the pans.  For me, the fruit didn't get there for almost three hours, so keep an eye on your berries.


Step 2 - portion out the berries and orange peel into mason jars and fill about half way with a 1:1 mixture of everclear (grain alcohol) and high proof vodka.  Once you have the fruit and liquid in there, you will want to try and mash everything down enough to submerge the fruit in liquid.  It isn't super important to get every bit of the fruit under booze, because eventually those cranberries are going to soak up the liquid.  At this point, leave the jars in a cool dark place for two weeks and shake them once daily.  I also suggest flipping them when you shake them so they spend every other day on their lids to be sure all your cranberries are getting a chance to drink up.


After two weeks you're going to add the stuff that makes your bitters bitter.  Gentian root powder, quassia bark chips, some star anise and a half cinnamon stick.  The amount shown below is enough for one large mason jar.  


Wrap all those goodies up in a double layer of cheese cloth, tie if off with a string, and dunk it into your mason jars.  Now repeat another two weeks of the shake and rotate cycle.


Waiting is a big part of the bitters creation game.


Now you are ready for the fun part, and here is where it gets messy (thus, no more pictures).  You are going to take all of the fruit from your jars and sqeeze all of the juice out of it and set that aside.  You'll do this by getting a set of rubber gloves (lest you be red-handed for several weeks post maceration) and a long roll of cheese cloth.  I found that you want to place a baseball-sized lump of fruit into the cheese cloth and squeeze until all the liquid is drained.  More fruit than that and you'll never get all the juice out. 

At the end of this you will have a pile of fruit and a jar or so of liquid.  Take that liquid and seal it, and put it aside for a few more weeks.  Then take your pile of macerated fruit and orange peel and throw it into a stock pot with two cups of pure cranberry juice (nothing with any sugar added).  Simmer the mixture on medium heat for about 15 minutes.  Then take what you get from that pot, put it back into the mason jars and wait two more weeks (shaking and rotating all the while).

Last step is to go through the cheese cloth process once again with your fruit and squeeze everything out of the jars.  You'll want to marry the two batches of liquid that you have now in a large pitcher and add a cup of sugar, which you should stir into the liquid until dissolved.  Portion that potion out into whatever receptacle you prefer and gift away.


Cranberry bitters can be substituted for other bitters options in just about any cocktail, but for the uncreative here is how to make the above cocktail.

Black Manhattan:
2 ounces Bourbon Whiskey
1/2 ounce Nocino Walnut Liquor
1/2 ounce Sweet Vermouth
5 dashes Cranberry Bitters

Del Mar al Lago

Del Mar al Lago might be the best bang for the buck in Salt Lake City, assuming you are a "Cebiche yes" kind of person.  Given the buzz, I expected the food to be good.  What shocked me was the killer presentation and the best Pisco Sour I've had outside of Lima.  I'm going back soon to check out some of the non-seafood items on the menu so look for an update here.

We started out with pisco sours and, while the other drinks we tried were also worthwhile, we should have probably just camped out here.  Bitters dot the foamy egg white on top as you can see - these guys do it right.


We ordered two main entrees that would have been enough for 4 or 5 people, but we did our best to knock them out as a twosome.  First, the Jalea Mixta, which was a gorgeous plate of deep fried fish, seafood, plantains, yucca and salsa criolla.  This dish does an excellent job of giving you fried goodness to enjoy without overshadowing the quality of the ingredients hiding beneath.  I also didn't feel like I had been eating the Long John Silver's bucket special when I was done, so I'd highly recommend this dish even if you hesitate at the thought of a pile of fried seafood.


We also ordered the especialidad de la casa: Ceviche tres continentes.  This is a presentation of the three main ceviche options at Del Mar al Lago.  All would have satisfied on their own, but the plate includes the Ghandi, Chifa and Brasa ceviches.  Ghadi (top left in the photo) is the a fish, squid, shrimp, scallops and octopus cevice in a curried mango and cilantro marinade.  Chifa was shrimp, scallop, fish, squid and octopus in a classic citrus marinade with onions, yam, carrots, canchita and cucumbers.  The Chifa was our favorite (bottom right in the photo).  Finally the Brasa is a chipotle take on the base ceviche that added a smoke quality to everything - this one was perhaps the most interesting flavor but we ate the least of of it as I can only do so much chipotle.


My wife opted for a pisco take on the mojito (really good) while I felt like a Cerveza Cristal (not pictured). 


We wrapped things up with the chocolate lava-style cake that is spiced with chiles and added an interesting kick to a well executed classic item.  I wouldn't come here for the dessert, but if you're here, get the dessert and you won't be disappointed.


The verdict?  Del Mar al Lago is going to be on my top 5 list for the foreseeable future.  They are creating better, more beautiful dishes than so many others in SLC who are charging 2-3x as much.  Whether you want to do it up and spend all night or stop in for a quick bite, Del Mar al Lago is a good choice.
Del Mar al Lago on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 4, 2013

Freebirds World Burrito


I don't review chains as a rule but Freebirds get a pass on that.  As a long time lover of this restaurant, I want to alert you with a brief admonition to drive out to Taylorsville and get yourself a taste of College Station, Texas.


Before Chipotle, Qdoba or Barbacoa, there was Freebirds.  Stop in and get a burrito done right.  They still have some kinks to work out as you can see in the picture (my burrito was about 3x larger than my friend's, but they were ordered as the exact same thing).  This can be fixed by finding a skilled roller (may I suggest Alan?).


Freebirds differentiates with more selection than just about anyone else - of tortilla, additions and meats.  There is also the plentiful foil sculpture (Utah isn't there yet but give it a couple of months).


The Verdict?  If you care about food rolled in tortillas, you owe it to yourself to stop by Freebirds.  Rumor is there will be more locations before long in the Salt Lake valley, so if you can't make it to the desolate stripmalled wasteland that is Taylorsville, be patient.

Freebirds World Burrito on Urbanspoon