Monday, February 22, 2010

Les Madeleines

 'Les Madeleines makes the best macaroons.'

When I was a kid growing up my aunt Rose used to always make macaroons for Christmas. She made hundreds of tiny little macaroons - crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside. I always ate tons but for whatever reason grew an aversion to them over the years. I think I just overdosed on macaroons every Christmas or perhaps just longed for something new and different. It's interesting how times change and something that revolted you as a child excites you as an adult. Fast forward to current day where I find myself drooling over any glass bakery case which prominently displays delectable macaroons. I'm not sure what my problem was but now I love macaroons. I LOVE them.

Simply put - Les Madeleines makes the best macaroons. They're light and fluffy like cake with a texture and flavor that only dried coconut exudes. The macaroons are uniquely scented with orange and one end is delicately coated in chocolate giving a sophisticated feel to this little morsel. Les Madeleines also makes classic French macarons. You've probably seen these colorful cookies that look like little sandwiches. Also quite good. On the day you hit Les Madeleines the content of their glass bakery case may vary. They have also been known to run out of things and not replenish. So be forewarned. When you see something you want, get it. Also be on the lookout for their classic black and white (or half moon) cookies (just like in New York!). I can only describe these as more of a cake or shortbread that is shaped like a big cookie and iced with half vanilla icing and dark chocolate icing. It's more or less like a cookie-brownie-cupcake type thing, but is absolutely delicious.

If you're not up to eating sweets (blasphemy?) try to drop into Les Madeleines for lunch. They have a small assortment of lunch items. My favorite is the sesame chicken salad wrap. House made chicken salad is wrapped up tightly in a lettuce cup and again tightly wrapped in a rice-paper-cellophane wrapper. Alone the sandwich is a little dull, but dipping it into the sesame/miso vinaigrette really evokes a wonderful flavor, elevating the sandwich a couple of notches on the taste meter. Edamame is served on the side, a really healthful and fun alternative to potato chips. I also normally get a fresh limeade to wash it all down with. Les Madeleines is a favorite lunch stop of mine where I can pick something up quickly and then head back to work so I can work through lunch in my office. It's a sad life I know but that sweet treat for dessert (a macaroon or black and white perhaps?) helps me to finish off lunch with a smile and energizes me to tackle the rest of my day.

I just love pastry shops and bakeries. Although I myself am not much of a baker, I really appreciate the artistry involved in such an endeavor. My aunt Rose would stay up long nights to finish her macaroons for the Christmas holidays. If you've ever made macaroons, you know they can be a sticky mess. So I know a lot of skill and a lot of love go into making these little things. I for one was always grateful for my aunt's industriousness...and I for one am grateful that I can find a little bit of my aunt in the macaroons at Les Madeleines.

Les Madeleines ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
216 East 500 South
Chef Romina Rasmussen

Les Madeleines Patisserie on Urbanspoon

Wild Grape

'Hit or miss.'

Hit or miss. It's not the best way to describe a restaurant's performance. Inconsistency is a restaurant killer. I mean really, who wants to go to a restaurant and at the end of the evening get hit with the reality that they just wasted their good, hard earned cash on a crappy meal or on sub-par service? Not me anyway. So - I've been to the Wild Grape at least a dozen or so times these past two years to try to figure them out...and unfortunately 'hit or miss' is the way I'd have to describe their food (and service). Sometimes it's good and sometimes not so good. In fact a big reason it's taken me so long to write this review is because I've got mixed feelings about the place. There are times when the stars align and I just love it and then other times I wonder why the heck I ever went back. Below I recount some highs and lows from a few experiences to exemplify what I'm talking about.

Low - flat iron steak with truffled mac n' cheese, topped with lightly dressed arugula. The steak was perfectly cooked medium rare but unfortunately both the steak and the mac n' cheese underneath were stone cold...not even room temp, but stone cold. Did the cook think that he could plate the dish up 30 minutes before the other dishes for the table were ready? And how did the cold food pass the chef/expeditor? In any case, amateurish performance at best. MISS.

High - Sunday prime rib dinner: perfectly cooked medium rare prime rib with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. The meat was tender and juicy, made even more succulent served in its savory jus. I'm picky when it comes to prime rib because I think my dad's prime rib is the best ever - and biting into this meat made me think of my dad's food. Taste memory: it's a powerful thing and it's what every dish should strive to evoke in some way, shape or form. And this prime rib had a dramatic effect on me. Hard to believe that this dish came out of the same kitchen on the same night as the flat iron steak above.  HIT.

Low - Sunday brunch. Bad service, dirty tables, dry potatoes, and the absolute worst beignets and huevos rancheros I've ever had. Dry seemed to be a pervasive theme as both the beignets and huevos seemed to lack any moisture. Seriously - not good at all. Everyone knows that brunch is a time when a restaurant basically puts up their "B team" line up of cooks (since the really good cooks are needed for dinner). But on this particular Sunday it seemed like they staffed the Wild Grape kitchen with rejects from the reality TV show "Worst Cooks in America". How can a restaurant serve elegant, eclectic food for dinner and then crap for breakfast? Either inconsistency is a goal for this place or someone's just not paying attention. In any case - MISS.

High - seared salmon over gnocchi with spinach puree. On a recent trip back to the Wild Grape I decided to give the salmon a try, mostly to see if the Wild Grape could redeem itself. On a past trip, I hadn't been too enthused about the fish dish I ordered. So yeah, of course on this night - the salmon was EXCELLENT. It was cooked a perfect medium. Whoever cooked that piece of fish definitely knew what he was doing because the sear on that sucker was amazing. The fish was served crispy skin side up over caramelized gnocchi with a lovely bright green spinach sauce. The salmon was topped off with orange and lime rinds giving it a nice brightness of flavor and the spinach rendered a freshness to the dish. The gnocchi had a crisp texture but were light and fluffy - absolutely lovely. Definite HIT.

The menu changes seasonally, which means you may never see some of the above menu items on your own visit, but this gives you an idea of the style of food they serve. Other mentionables? Butternut squash soup - not my favorite. Wild Grape house salad - really nice. Lamb burger - just okay. Chocolate Smores Tort - great. where does this leave us? I'm not exactly sure but you see what I mean? Sometimes the Wild Grape is on their "A game". Other times it's like they're not even in the building let alone the game. But don't you just sometimes really want to like a place? Even if it's not the best?

I have mixed feelings about the Wild Grape. They do some great things, have a great wine list, and nice atmosphere. But then I've also gotten some really bad dishes, rotten service, and have just wanted to get the hell out of there after a meal. Ugh. So do I like the Wild Grape? Would I recommend it? It's hard for me to say...and I guess it  just shouldn't be so hard to decide if they're good or not. You shouldn't have to wonder if you're going to go to a restaurant and get a good meal or if the service for that matter is going to stink. And when I go to the Wild Grape, I guess I just always wonder.

Wild Grape ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
481 E. South Temple
Chef: Phelix Gardner
**** (on a good day)
** (on a bad day)

Wild Grape Bistro on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 12, 2010

Chow truck

' can't miss it - that is if you're looking for it...and believe me...YOU SHOULD BE LOOKING FOR IT.'

I love street food. Yeah - you heard me - street food. You know...street vendors. Hot dog carts, taco carts, pretzel stands - that sort of thing. I don't think we celebrate street food enough in the U.S., let alone here in SLC, UT. Personally I feel like food always tastes better when you're outside in the fresh air anyway...and there's something communal and almost intimate about the food cart experience - whether its standing huddled around in line with strangers waiting to place your order or parking it on a nearby bench or sidewalk to eat with friends. So I was really excited to see the Chow truck in SLC, a new venture where moving taco truck meets gourmet Asian cuisine.

The Chow truck is a food truck reminiscent of most taco trucks found on the street or lunch trucks found on construction sites. This truck however is bright yellow, so you can't miss it - that is if you're looking for it...and believe me...YOU SHOULD BE LOOKING FOR IT. At first glance you could be at any other lunch truck in the state, with an ice bar up front holding a variety of drinks and other candy bars and such to grab, but as you glance through the menu you see that you are indeed in for a unique dining experience. You won't see any boxed up turkey sandwiches here as the menu represents casual street food with a gourmet twist; instead, think Asian tacos. You order through a small plastic window where owner of the Chow truck, SuAn Chow, takes your order. On this day, we tried the spicy beef tacos, the pineapple-ginger pork tacos, the fried root chips, and the special of the day which was a pulled pork quesadilla with a mole sauce. As we ordered we could see Chef Rosanne Ruiz (formerly of Vinto) in the truck's tiny little kitchen putting our orders together...and the food came out in a flash.

To put it bluntly - the spicy beef tacos were amazing. Often times for me, tacos are all about texture rather than taste, but not this time - the flavor in this taco was very pronounced. The beef was tender and savory with a hint of heat. This blended well with the cool slaw and the crunchy topping of fried wonton strips. The cilantro pesto really tied the whole thing together nicely offering a blast of brightness. It was like eating a Southeast Asian taco which was somehow oddly American. It was absolutely delicious...all packed into one little taco. The pork tacos were also quite good with flavors a little less pronounced - more hints than distinct flavors of ginger for example, with some sweetness from the pineapple bits on top. However, the flavors weren't too subtle that you couldn't taste anything, but present enough so that you didn't feel like you were just eating something ambiguously crunchy.

Speaking of crunchy, the root chips provided a really nice alternative to plain potato or tortilla chips. The chips consisted of a mixture of fried yukon golds, purple potatoes, carrots, yams, beets, and lotus root. Each chip had a distinct flavor, some sweeter than others, some more savory but each with a distinctive crispness as well. We rounded our meal off with the special of the day - a pork quesadilla served with a mole sauce, cucumber salsa, and cilantro pesto. The pulled pork in mole provided a deep, rich, meaty flavor in contrast to the bright flavors in the tacos. The mole did tend to overpower the other subtle flavors of the dish but such is the case with mole.

The Chow truck menu is small and focused with variations of their 5 main tacos in slider or salad versions. It being a truck and all, the Chow truck moves from location to location but you can track where it will be via their website or by twitter. Or you can JUST LOOK FOR IT as you're driving and drop by for an impromptu lunch or dinner. Street food is a widely celebrated tradition in most parts of the world from Latin America to Europe to Japan or India...with vendors selling food specific to their respective lands. But as unique as the food in every place is, the locals share one common feature - they will always know which carts serve the best food. And I think I've just found the best damn taco truck in SLC.

Chow truck ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
Currently hosted at these locations: Trolley Square, Twilight Lounge, Eggs in the City, Key Bank, and REI
Owner: SuAn Chow
Chef: Rosanne Ruiz

Chow Truck on Urbanspoon