Aura at Nita Lake Lodge in Whistler

Whistler is like a second home for me, I grew up flying down its slopes and was raised on the what little great food was available there in 1989. Not to sound too much like an old-timer, but when people ask me for a restaurant recommendation in Whistler, both the places I suggest have been open since the mid-80s, Sushi Village and the Rimrock. Now I have a third suggestion. Though I’ve been there a tiny fraction (okay, the once) of the times I’ve been to the others, I’m inspired and hopeful about the ambitious, innovative and yet totally fitting menu that Aura, at the new and already under new management restaurant at the Nita Lake Lodge.

Like so many restaurants, Aura had an off-season prix-fixe menu that was a great value. We ended up there because my father had been previously for cocktails and snacks on the porch and was impressed, meanwhile the Rimrock was closed for a private party and the Bearfoot Bistro (another place I’d heard good things about and is not affordable in-season) couldn’t be bothered to answer their phone. I mentioned on Twitter that we would be checking out Aura, and the restaurant wrote back, excited. I mention this only because some of the treatment we got is (most likely) not normal. After talking with the manager I learned that he and the chef had previously worked together at the famed Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino. It made sense that the adventurous yet locally focused food had a history in Tofino, as between the Wick Inn and Sooke Harbour House, that’s what the town is building a name around.

You can see for yourself that the menu is ambitious and creative. While I was sad that they didn’t have the chicken oysters in savory oatmeal while I was there, I enjoyed my appetizer which was the a duck confit agnolotti afloat in a mushroom broth so rich that  Robin Hood would have been eying it. The pasta on the agnolotti was rolled thicker than ideal, but it held up to the broth because of this, and once opened, the soup was further enhanced by the meat. My dad had a seafood ceviche trio that was fresh and bright, accompanied by angostura bitters foam (mandatory eye roll for foam), compressed watermelon (hitting food trend nail on head) and my favorite part, the granulated local honey. The sweet of the honey and fruit matched up well with the seafood, but it was the texture of the granulated honey that I thought made the dish, that little bit of crunchy sweetness with the soft seafood.

After our appetizers and our ridiculously cheaply priced and good cocktails, the chef came out to say hello. He mentioned that he was doing all his charcuterie in house. I know that my face lit up. I love cured meat like a fat kid loves…well, cured meat. He very kindly brought us a charcuterie sampler which was accompanied by a lovely fruit beer (not my usual style, but it paired perfectly). My favorite from the platter was the veal cheek pastrami, though the pickled tongue was also delicious.

As part of the off-season, prix-fixe, $41, 3 course menu (in season, the chef told us, there would be more options, but it would be more expensive), we got the previously mentioned appetizers, as well as mains and a dessert. The amuse bouche was a nice touch, though not overly memorable. For our mains, my dad’s tongue twister of a dish was charred arctic char with swiss chard (hardy har har). A perfectly cooked piece of fish with lovely accompaniments but my braised veal with buttermilk spaetzle was unbelievably good. My dad refused to believe that such flavor came from simply grilled and braised meat could be so good and was asking for what spices were used. I just continued to fork off pieces of meat. Did I mention the amount of meat on this dish could have fed a family of four? We finished up with dessert–or in my case a cheese plate of local varieties, which was nice, as I had never tried any of them before.

Overall, the meal was an incredible deal and while I will definitely be back for the prix-fixe menu for as long as it remains such a good value (three courses including an entree big enough for leftovers for $41). Most of all, though, the $7-10 cocktails and the charcuterie plate really stood out for me, which means I think I know where I’m going drinking next time I’m up in Whistler. As is often the case with ambitious chefs, I worry that the crowd willing to put down the cash for the food will be too stodgy for the creativity it offers and that by the time I return in the next off-season for a second helping, the chef will have been stifled. All I can do for now is keep my fingers crossed and plan my next meal.

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10 Reasons I loved the Molly Dooker Wine Dinner

With a background in marketing and a love for great wine, I have but one take away from the Molly Dooker wine dinner I went to at the Tulalip Casino. They are sooooo cool. Yup, that’s my technical term for it. The guys from Molly Dooker wine have branding, selling, marketing and wine-making completely nailed down and I was lucky enough to witness it in person. But even with that one take away, I’m going to break down for you just why they’re so cool.

I was invited to the dinner as a guest of Tulalip’s public relations firm, so I went in a little apprehensive. I expected the hard sell and to get my ear talked off about how great everything was (yeah, darling readers, you don’t get to hear about those dinners. You can thank me later). Instead I got to sit back, drink lots of wine and laugh my ass off at the Molly Dooker guys. By the end of dinner (and as you can see from this post) I’d drank the Molly Dooker kool-aid. Delicious, shiraz-style kool-aid.

To learn more about Molly Dooker

To learn more about Tulalip Wine Dinners

10) Molly Dooker means left-handed so they set our places backwards (forks on the left, knives on the right). As a left handed person, this actually meant my fork was for once on the wrong side. They also shook hands with their left hand, which was really more confusing than anything.

9) Wine dinners in general are an awesome way to eat a lot of food and learn a ton about wine–seriously, there were scientific charts and everything at this one. But I’ve already gone over that over here, so read it.

8) The Molly Dooker Velvet Glove Shiraz that we got to try goes for about $200/bottle (it was that good), and each menu had an actual glove shaped velvet piece on it. Three glasses in and people were petting it like a puppy. It was very soft.

7) They gave away like a jillion bottles of wine to people in the audience and as a gift to all the waitstaff. Love seeing the waitstaff so appreciated!

6) When you finish the delicious wine and everyone filed out of the banquet hall, instead of standing on the street, disoriented and squinting into the darkness to find your car, you’re in a Casino! Awesome.

5) The Molly Dooker dude’s name is Sparky. And he brought his mom along too.

4) Once they decided it would be cool to have all their bottle caps screw off left handed too, but it was going to cost $100,000. Instead, they took that money and used it to support a school in Cambodia.

3) I don’t even normally like shiraz. And while I might have liked their lower end cab, the Gigglepot, the best, the rest of the wines changed my mind a little bit toward shiraz.

2) They have a pull off tab on all their labels so when you get too drunk to remember the bottle you drank with dinner at a restaurant, you can pull it off and stick it to your date. Er, put it in your purse.

1) As good as the wine was and generous the pours, I still managed to drink enough water and eat enough food that I could safely drive the 45 minutes home. Though I did appreciate my mom’s best motherly impression “Just call if you can’t drive!” Nice, but I’m pretty sure I’d have heard about it till I was 65 if I’d taken her up on that one.

A Free Dinner at the Herbfarm

How do you get all this free stuff? I’m always asked, and for once I had an answer that didn’t exclude the general public. I answered a Twitter Tweet. Yup, a tweet out in the public domain, nothing having anything to do with me being a blogger. Simply it had to do with me being the first one to call in and say “hey, I’d love the free dinner that you just offered on Twitter!” You might say it would be hard to consider a free dinner in a review, but since my only dinner at another restaurant of this caliber in Seattle (Rovers) was also free, I feel prepared to make the comparison. And this? It blew Rover’s right outta the ever-lovin’  lake water that separates the two!

And so on a beautiful Friday afternoon, we slogged through traffic to get to the other side of that water, then up to Woodinville for our dinner. I actually thought the kitchen garden tour was one of my favorite parts, sampling various edible herbs straight from the plant, learning how to eat tulips and basking in the sun. Did I mention it was like 70 degrees and sunny? Perfect.

After a glass of punch and a wander through the wine cellar we were sat in the rather cluttered dining room, the table packed with various shapes and sizes of wine glasses.
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We start with the scallop tartare in the lower left hand corner, topped with caviar and carrot-lovage foam (they called it a sauce. I appreciated the attempt to be less pretentious). It was good, it introduced me to new flavors, which I like and always makes me think more highly of a place. The second part of this array of apps was the spot prawn chawan mushi. I adore chawan mushi, and this was a good version of it, but my favorite part of it was the garnish on top, the sake cured salmon roe. The least good part of the appetizer tray (but by no means a bad bite) was the dungeness crab and mangalitsa pig sausage spring roll. It just muddled the flavors a little too much. With this we were served champagne cocktails–our choice of tamarack or spruce. Following the first course, the chef and sommelier said their pieces, describing the various food and wine we’d be eating in our “Spring Forager’s Dinner.” This might have been my favorite part, as it was like live action food porn hearing the descriptions. I was especially impressed with the sommelier’s enthusiasm about each wine–it helped that she chose some of my favorite kinds though.

IMGP4341A little close up of the sake cured salmon roe, for all of you food porn voyeurs out there. I don’t normally take pictures at restaurants, but with the loads of light in the room and the beautiful food, I knew I could do it unobtrusively and have them turn out beautifully. Besides, I was way classier than the group taking flash photos of themselves or the man sticking his giant SLR in everyone’s faces and meals.

IMGP4345Next up was a pizzeta, topped with two different preparations of tuna with caviar. This was very tasty, though B’s was slightly less well executed than mine. The soft boiled egg in the center and the wasabi sauce underneath did serve to remind us of the little touches that a fancy dinner like this employs to make things special, but over all, we still felt a little like we were eating pizza. Pretty pizza, but still pizza. I normally love albarinos, which was the white wine we were served with this, but I had to admit it was not my favorite.

IMGP4350This was a rabbit pave with rabbit saddle on top and a potato smear thing and some kind of sauce? Sorry, I’m trying to do this by memory because I stupidly cleaned over the weekend, by which I mean stacked all the loose pieces of papers flying around my room, assorted menus included and haven’t dug through them yet, because that would make it no longer clean. This was B’s favorite dish, I believe, and it was good. The texture of the pave was fabulous and the hint of sweetness to the sauce went well with the slight gaminess of the rabbit. I was dismayed to find some bone pieces in my pave, which was otherwise a smooth paste texture, but upon notifying the sommelier (who was serving us) things were handled with the utmost professionalism. Really, lets be honest, everyone makes execution errors, but when things are dealt with so well, it’s hard to hold it against them especially when they apologize with a tasting of muscats (the three muscat tiers, har har har) at your cheese course and by saying “this is because of the bunny bones”. Those little bits of slight lightheartedness was what kept the ambiance from being stuffy with formality (a problem, I felt, at Rover’s).

IMGP4351That squab, right there in the middle? Easily my favorite bite of the night. So rare, so savory, perfect texture, amazing flavor. Going clockwise, you get to the ‘faux gras’ which was basically a squab liver mousse. I loved it. I might have loved it more if it hadn’t been called something so close to foie gras. Then I wanted foie gras (but Gastrognome, you say, you always want foie gras! And you are right). At the top are that amazing spring combo of morel mushrooms and asparagus (tips only, ooh lala!), though I didn’t think the honey smear added much.

IMGP4358Um, lamb detritus? Yeah, forgot to take the picture before I started eating this one. In the bowl was a lamb and mushroom gratin, which, while quite delicious seemed a little out of season for the day. That said, had this been one of the much rainier days this week, I think it would have been perfect. As was the fabulous lamb in the front, with the herb pesto on it.

IMGP4359While the squab may have been my favorite bite of the meal, I believe this was my favorite course. The simplicity of it, combined with the matching of the flavors meant that it was more than just the sum of its parts. The River’s Edge Full Moon goat cheese there may well also be my new favorite cheese, stinky and rich, soft but with just enough structure. The ‘samosa’ on the other side was nice, lightly spice and full of potatos and vegetables. This was followed by a buttermilk panna cotta that was a tasty little intermezzo, then we moved on to dessert.

IMGP4366The thing on the right was a hazelnut and chocolate thing that, as I recall, was described as being like a kit kat bar.Next to it was this lovely little cake that just melted in your mouth. It was unbelievably good, not too sweet, perfectly soft, almost a custard, but with enough bite to slice. It went amazingly with the crunch of the apples underneath. Then there was another dessert plate of little bites. They also handed us chocolate as we walked out the door. I was overloaded. But while I was full, I wasn’t so full that I was in pain, as I sometimes am after a dinner this long, which was nice. The dinner had been well portioned and well paced, so I felt good.

In the end, I felt like not only would I return on my own volition, paying with my own dollars, that I would want to look for an occasion to do so, which is saying a lot, when you’re looking at spending $220/person to do so.

The Herbfarm on Superpages.com

Four Courses of Foie Gras

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There are certain advantages and disadvantages to dating a food blogger. Waiting while your meal gets cold for the ten thousandth picture to be taken can’t be fun, nor is listening while your dining companion dissects every little minutiae of an otherwise perfectly fine meal. On the other hand, if you happen to have a 30th birthday while dating a food blogger and you, maybe, say happen to think foie gras is better than manna from heaven, well, guys, that is when it pays to date a food blogger.

My gift to B was an entire lobe of foie gras. Argue if you will, but I’ll stop you with two things: 1) No, not as expensive as you might think and 2) Yes, it felt good to support the exact opposite of what those awful protesters outside Lark stand for. It was like my own little way of fighting back. Without having to pay for a meal at Lark. Come to think of it, I liked my meal better than either of my two meals at Lark too. And I even made extra so he didn’t have to wait while I took pictures.

What’s in a four course foie gras meal? Well, we started with an amuse bouche of a shrimp, foie gras and cilantro dumpling, served in a sauce of shallots and birds eye peppers. I had been searching for how to serve the foie gras in a spicy preparation ( he loves spicy food) and this was my only answer. Next we had foie gras en croute (well, in phyllo dough, really) over a salad of arugula, strawberries and fennel dressed with aged real balsamic vinegar and foie gras drippings. This was both the dish I was most worried about turning out and the one that turned out best. The main course was seared foie gras on toasted challah bread (that’s what happens when you go bread shopping Friday afternoon for something that will go well with foie gras). The sauce on it is a port wine and date pan sauce. Lastly, I invented a heart attack in a ball, the richest little bite of delicious foie gras peanut butter ball all wrapped up in butterscotch chips.

The meal was incredible. Click past the jump for further Foie Food Porn and recipes. Continue reading

A Hard Day for a Food Blogger

I checked out Frank’s Oyster Bar and Champagne Parlor the other day. It had opened to raves a few weeks prior and I was excited–I had enjoyed to food and wine at their previous restaurant, Pair, and oysters and champagne are two of my favorite things. But now, a few days later I’m having trouble mustering up the energy to tell you about the food.

It’s a hard day for a food blogger when they are too sick for food. Not just too sick to eat, but too sick to think about food. That’s where I am today. I’ve tried all the usual cures to try to ramp up that hunger–A little bit of soup, some truffles on toast, lentils, hell, I even tried to eat a bite of fried chicken, just in case that was what my illness needed to cure it. A lot of things can be cured with fried chicken, in case you weren’t aware. But I’m overcoming this food-phobia to bring you this review of Frank’s. And no, I was not sick when I went there, so it is not a biased review.

And yet I have no excitement. Not that the food at Frank’s is ringing away in my brain with past energy either. The food, as was the service, was resoundingly underwhelming. I’m sure that my current mood toward food is impeding my ability to write eloquently, but quite frankly, we left Frank’s wanting more.

We asked our waiter to course out our meals and our first course was actually quite lovely. Albacore tuna carpaccio, if not original, was simple and well presented with a small salad with watercress on the side, providing an excellent textural balance to the fish. We ordered a trio of oysters each, one of each of the three kinds they had along with the three mignonettes. The Olympia oysters and the Champagne mignonette blew away the competition and we happily awaited our next course.

Ah, but our second course was a disaster. Dishes came at us from every direction, hot dishes, cold dishes, side dishes, dishes that were clearly part of another dish, but with so many plates we couldn’t tell which one.

Our waiter dropped the plates and promptly abandoned us to sort out what went with what dish. “Would it be rude of me to ask them to take some of these back to the kitchen for a bit?” B asked. “Probably.” I answered, secretly wiching for him to ask anyways. It wouldn’t have mattered, our waiter was long gone at that point. We dug in to our pile of plates. By far the best of these was the side dish of creamed kale, which was my first bite. Unfortuantely, by the time I tasted other dishes and got back to it, it was frigid and no longer delightful. Once we figured out that the random plate of butter lettuce leaves was one half of our Dungeness Crab Louie wraps and paired it up with its mate, it was quite good, though after the first bite I eliminated the chopped olives, as they overwhelmed the rest of the flavors.

The Cheddar biscuits with Kurabota ham were bland at best, and though slathering them in the calvados apple butter went along way to saving them, they were certainly not worth ordering again. Most astonishingly, my heart of romaine salad was terrible. The presentation, with a giant parmesan cracker on top, was very nice, however that parmesan was in fact the only detectable flavor–no sign of the supposed lemon and anchovy dressing. I tried to add salt to perk it up, but unfortunately the salt came with this tiny spoon that short of then putting it in my hands and spreading it about, would simply dump salt into piles all over the lettuce.

I had saved the beef tartare for last, in the hopes that it would redeem the meal. That beautiful, silky texture, the strong flavor of raw beef, there it was. Unfortunately it was paired with a strongly chared piece of bread, making for an overwhelmed bit of meat. Another dish gone awry.

Even after all of this, I was tempted into dessert, as it was a Kir Royale Float and I love me some Kir Royales. Alas, it was another case of odd pairings, as the dish was okay if you got certain elements in just the right amounts, but terrible if not.

Overall, remembering it from a day where I was in a lovely mood, it was an okay meal, but not worth the money. Writing about it on a day when I’m less happy, I would declare it pretty bad. A disappointing start for a promising restaurant. I hope for Frank’s sake, it can fix this up and make a go of it.

Frank's Oyster House & Champagne Parlor on Urbanspoon

Barrio: Great Minds DO Think Alike

I was getting ready to write up this summary of my dinner at Barrio, when this flashed up in my reader. Seriously, this basically outlines my major feeling on the restaurant. Exactly. I suppose that it just means they are very consistent, but now I feel lame posting such a similar report. But ahh, well, I will anyways.

Barrio fills a void that exists in the Seattle restaurant scene. I think what they are doing is unique. A high-endish, Latin inspired menu sets it apart from the myriad of Tapas places that serve the currently trendy Spanish version of small plates. These lean more towards antojitos, little Mexi-style nibbles, and taco truck sized baby tacos. The quality of the food was quite high and tastes were strong, bright and clearly made by a chef with fine-dining experience. The menu impressed me, running the gamut of the various regions of Mexico in search of the best flavor combinations. I don’t normally rush out to be the first to review a place–this was their third night open to the public–but when a restaurant opens on my street…well, I felt I had to go. And was glad I did.

The door to Barrio is imposing, huge and wooden, without the easiest to find of handles. Once inside, the room is designed to intimidate as well. Luckily there is nothing so comforting as an abuelita, a little grandmother, hard at work, visible through the open kitchen. Service, from entering until the minute we left was shaky at best, but only in the way that a restaurant in its first week is. I will not say more about the service, as I have every confidence that it will be fixed with the end of the first week jitters.

We began with a duo of salsas. We could pick from a number of options and I went with the Roasted tomato and habanero because of the spice level and the Smoky ancho chile because my waitress recommended it. They came with plantain chips, yucca chips and corn chips. I found that different chips worked better and worse with the different salsas and I wonder if they wouldn’t do better to pair them. That said the smoky ancho chile was just terrific with the corn chips, though it was overwhelming with the lighter plantain and yucca chips. Those went better with the Roasted tomato and habanero, which I have to mention had some of the most impressive, beautiful, bold and harmonic flavors I’d had in a long time. I was extremely impressed with that salsa.

Next came my personal favorite dish of the night, Beef tartare tostaditas (example of first week jitters? Our food runner couldn’t recall what these were when he delivered them). Basically thick cut beef tartare on tortilla chips, but in reality so much more. The beef was rich and creamy, the chunks were like large corn kernel sized, as oppose to ground beef style. This turned out to be a most pleasing texture in the mouth, and the crunch of the tostaditas (round tortilla chips, as far as I could tell) was an excellent foil for the beef. The radish shaved on top also matched perfectly and, in fact, my only complaint about the dish was that it was far too salty–I think someone tasted the beef on its own and didn’t think about how the salt from the chip would add to the salinity of the dish. Not too big of a problem, as we almost ordered a second order of these, they were so good!

The Shredded Pork taquitos and the duck confit tamal were next up. The taquitos were excellent, though nothing groundbreakingly new or amazing as were the tartare and the salsa. The tamal on the other hand was actually a bit disappointing, not because it was not delicious (it was), but because it lacked the crispiness of a seared confit or the rich gamey flavor. I think the steaming of it, inside the masa and banana leaf, leached out some of the best flavors. So great tamal, but it could have been anything inside there, so it confit seems like an odd choice given the extra labor and expense of using it.

Lastly, we finished up with a single taco. At $4 a pop and smaller than a taco truck taco, it was hard for us to justify ordering more–some of the other dishes seemed to have higher value perception, especially the beef. The taco, though, was incrdibly good. Queso fresco and sauteed wild mushrooms flavored with epazote. I still have a hard time justifying the price tage, but it was quite tasty.

The total, for 5 dishes, 2 beers and one (ridiculously good ’07 Jigsaw Pinot Noir from Oregon) glass of wine was $72 with tax and tip and was just about the perfect amount for a dinner for two reasonably hungry people. We worked hard to order the best value and cheaper dishes, so I’m sure you could run up a higher bill, but this was a pretty good value to me.

Overall it was an extremely pleasant dining experience, the kind that reminds me why it is so much fun to try a new place, to get excited about a type of food that you don’t get all the time around here. I’m fairly confident that with a few tweaks, this is a restaurant that will soon be hard get a seat in.

Barrio on Superpages.com

Spur or Spurn?

One of the most important things I have to say about Spur is that it is greater than the sum of its part, something which every restaurant strives for. It also means that as I pick it apart, I already know it will sound more negative than I mean it to. Because really, I very much enjoyed my time there. If I had the means I would go back often. If I can ever again get someone to expense 2/3rds of my meal, I’ll be back in a heartbeat.

The ambience definitely gets an A+. The tables are cool, windy and wood. We sat at a high communal table. Leslie Kelly decried communal tables in this mornings paper, but I don’t mind them, even when, like today, two girls are planning their sorority party at the other end. I started with the Broken Spur a cocktail of bourbon, cointreau, lemon and amaretto, while K started with a Sad Flower of bombay sapphire, violet, elderflower and chartreuse. Both were delicious. W later ordered the Boulevard with rye, raspberry, orange and bitters, and they both ordered a second drink of the Macvin Collins. All of them were amazing cocktails. Good strong flavors, well balanced. I would definitely suggest it as a place to pop in for a drink.

When we got into the food we located to downfalls to the Spur scene. We ordered for dishes. The first to arrive was the meltingly bold smoked salmon crostini. Literally, the salmon seemed to disappear on the tongue into the mascarpone. We had high hopes for the next dish. My first hint of trouble came as the food runner dropped the beef carpaccio. “This dish would rather have you eat it quickly” She said. Really? My food has feelings???? I had no idea. She also pronounced arugula AH-roogyu-la. The dish came with fried bernaise sauce, and really the dish was not disappointing because it didn’t taste good–it tasted fine–but because I expect so much flavor from raw beef AND from bernaise, especially when fried, that this seemed extraordinarily bland for such ingredients. Luckily we quickly moved on to the tagliatelli with chanterelles and duck egg. That is a sous vide duck egg. And parmesan foam. And it was all on a dish that appeared to be shaped like a mesa with rounded edges. Meaning that the minute we moved anything on the dish, something spilled off the edges. The foam seemed awfully pretentious and I’m not sure the sous vide egg did anything a well poached or lightly fried one would have. The dish had strong flavors and was overall tasty, though.

Lastly, we finished off with an order of pork belly sliders. Upon first glance, the bread looked overwhelming, but it turned out to be a perfect balanced, between fluffy bun, crispy pork belly, hint of spice in the mustard and sweetness in the sherry gastrique. It was extremely good.

So overall great drinks, hit or miss food ranging from average to brilliant and a good atmosphere–the price would really be my only deterrent. For small (SMALL!) plates, they range from $9 up and all the drinks start there too. Again, I’d return…but on someone else’s dime.

Spur on Superpages.com