Saturday, July 24, 2010

T-REX BARBEQUE - Smoke gets in Your Eyes

Several weeks ago, we were dying for Barbeque, and in the mood for another food adventure. We also needed a place to watch the soccer semifinals. So, a restaurant with good food and limitless television screens was in order. After a little research, our soon to be out-on-his-own Partner in Food Crimes, had the solution. T-Rex Barbeque in Berkeley. We were off.

T-Rex is an intriguing space. Large, open and fairly “loft-like” the place is all about its use of negative space, and it’s well done. According to the website, the restaurant was designed by Kava Massih, constructed by Sassoon Construction with the help of Kathy Farley/ It is such a remarkable achievement in interior design. One enters into a expansive lower area that holds a spacious open bar, and is surrounded by swirling banquettes and tables surrounding the walled areas. The center of the room holds a staircase to the upper area, which surrounds the open stairway with tables lining the outer walls. There are televisions everywhere. This is a big sweeping, classy, man-cave of a place, yet completely suitable for wives and children. Neat.
Cocktails anyone?

Once seated, we decided on cocktails, because it was Friday, as well as a huge soccer match with everyone in the joint a-drinkin’ and a-screamin.’ Now that’s what I call good clean fun! I’m not entirely sure what I ordered cocktail wise, guess I was thirsty. I’m fairly sure it was called a Ginger Press. Looking at their drink menu on the web, that drink is a combination of Ketel One vodka, muddled lemon, ginger syrup, and ginger beer. I do think I remember the ginger beer, which I really like as a companion to an alcoholic drink.

I do remember it was delicious. The BH had this fun little two-step concoction that required he pour in a shot of soda. I think his was called a Billie Jean. Their menu says it is composed of Cazadores Reposado tequila, muddled blackberries, Chambord, lime juice and simple syrup topped off with soda. It has to be that, since he got this cute little mini shooter of bubbly meant to be poured into the concoction. Interesting, fizzy. Fanciful.

Now for the fun part. The food. Have you all figured out I love talking about food yet? Yeah, I know, right? Anyway, I ordered the Pulled Pork because when I’m in a barbeque joint it’s one of the markers for me. Can they do a good pork? Well, uh, yeah. T-Rex can throw down with the best, and I know, because I’ve had the best. The meat was tangy, smoky, buttery — every bit of it tender as possible and simply melting in the mouth. Each bite was heaven, after two bites I was weeping with joy. But I told everyone around me it was just the smoke in the air...
Pulled BBQ Pork!!!!

And then there was Macaroni & Cheese w/Bacon. They do their macaroni with oricchiete. Oricchiete with sharp cheddar and parmesan. Simple. Perfect. The white cheddar is baked into a nice crisp top layer that clings to the bacon. These ingredients all come together to result in a delectable combination of exquisitely baked pasta, held together with a blissfully gluey layer of oozing cheese, full of cubed chunks of bacon (one can get it without the bacon, but for me that would be blasphemy) — all of this is topped with a lacy layer of fricco— the bits of cheese that has melted, reformed and turned into delicate cheese-chip goodness. This is quite simply the best macaroni and cheese dish on the planet, and I can say that with authority. I’ve had at least a dozen varieties. The Mac & Cheese at T-Rex is just sheer, cheese-tastic ambrosia. I know this because we all looked at each other simultaneously and went “Oh, YEAH” at the same time. It was as transcendant as a food experience can be. If you don’t agree when you try it, yours is on me.

Another item we sampled was one they title Belma Bucket’s Cornbread, which is, as it's name might imply, cornbread. I liked the bread itself immensely. It was a very dense concoction, chewy and grainy in that good ground-meal way cornbread can be. But they serve it in a pile of honey, which I found distracting and too sweet. I far prefer a smidge of butter, or perhaps the honey butter they use to perfection at Brown Sugar Kitchen.  So bottom line, love the cornbread, will probably ask them next time to leave the honey on the side.

Macaroni & Cheese Ambrosia
The BH ordered the Bone-in Chicken Breast which was moist, smoked, perfection. The skin crisp and resistant, the meat buttery and soft beneath it, both thoroughly imbued with the flavors of the smoky pit. It doesn’t get better than this. Our PFC had a Pulled Pork Sandwich. It was chock full of the same fantastic meat I was enjoying, and he did love the accompanying sides. But seeing the mountain of delectable porky goodness I had been served up, he decided next time he’d skip the bread and get the bigger helping of the straight stuff. They served his sandwich with beautiful housemade BBQ chips. I will remark that housemade chips are never quite as brittle and light as store bought. They all tend to be a little chewy, but I believe that is a lack of preservatives and artificial processes that are better not consumed anyway. The flavors and spices of the home made are so much better, that the slightly less crispy result is preferred, at least by me. Lastly his coleslaw was bright on the palate. A nice tangy pile of cabbage to balance the smoke in the meat..

BBQ Pork Sandwich
w/House Made BBQ Chips
Loved their barbeque sauces as well. PFC and I are spice hounds, we both prefer the hot. Though we’ve been working on him for years, so that he can handle a bit of heat, my Better Half can only manage the mild BBQ sauce at T-Rex. But they’ve got a range of heat, just for that reason.

Out of curiousity we ordered a Firelit “Blue Bottle Coffee” liquer, with our dessert. Rather than being as exotic as it’s name, it was merely a small espresso cup of a cold coffee-flavored alcohol. Tasting a bit like a homemade kalua, but a lot less sweet. None of us enjoyed it much. Too bad, cause I hate when I encounter any wasted potential for success. Suppose it can’t be helped when every place is striving to set itself apart. At least they tried.

Strawberry Shortcake
w/ poppy seed cake
We finished off the meal by sharing a dessert of Strawberry Shortcake. Theirs was made with poppy seed bread, which were actually these tiny little scone-textured cakes slathered in whipped cream and generously topped with the freshest spring strawberries. I do love the simplicity of a good strawberry shortcake, and T-Rex doesn’t confuse that blend of sweet cake, fresh fruit and cream that is at the heart of this delightful country classic. Scrumptious.

So I guess you can tel by now that I would highly recommend a visit to T-Rex if one is fond of smoky-licious barbeque and/or macaroni and cheese done well. Great place to watch any sporting event, plenty of room and all the TV’s are easily visible.

Check it out, and Bon Appetit!

T-Rex Barbeque (& Sports Bar)
1300 10th Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 527-0099

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

LA NOTE RESTAURANT PROVENCAL - Voulez Vous Manger Avec Moi, Ce Soir?

Cafe Au Lait
La Note is a simple place. Laying just across the Oakland - Berkeley border, this lovely little French “Breakfast Bistro” is a quick trip to from my office of a workday. Arriving there, one feels instantly transported to the countryside outside Paris, say Giverny. Occasionally, I am desperately in the mood for a Croque Madame, and they serve a perfect one here. The BH adores breakfast of all kinds, so I am always able to drag him in for some tasty nibbles.

We were tired, so we had coffee when we got there. The BH ordered a CafĂ© Au Lait which arrived as a perfect, albeit large, bowl of creamy caffeine goodness, and it didn’t hurt a bit that it was served up by a lovely French- speaking waitress. I think much of the help here is imported, as there is always at least one or two people on site who clearly speak French as their native tongue.

On to the food. The Better Half ordered the Ham & Cheese Omelette or as they say in Giverny, an Omelette au Fromage et Jamon. Breakfast food is hard to screw up, and they do it very well here. The omelette arrived fluffy, airy, eggs well- blended, cheese spread about in all the right places. It’s also a good size, not too much, not too little of anything. The house potatoes are roasted and chock full of chunks of soft, creamy cloves of likewise roasted garlic. The bread is fresh baked and spectacular. It is thick, earthy stuff that one imagines slathering with butter and eating in the barn with the animals while doing chores on the farm. Hearty peasant food.

Whenever I’m here I almost always order a Croque Madame. One of my favorite treats, this sandwich of runny-yolked eggs over ham layered beautifully over two thick slices of freshly made bread. The eggs are cooked perfectly. Just enough to firm up the whites while leaving them soft enough to mix easily with the yolks when broken with a fork. The ritual of breaking the eggs in this dish is my favorite part. I savor it, letting the soft yolk of the eggs slowly melt into the sandwich, making its way across the cheese and ham, mingling into this nice sort of semi-liquid omelette over bread. It’s pretty much all about cooking the eggs correctly. When the broken-yolk egg train hits the softened but not yet melted cheese and then the bechamel sauce — ah it’s heaven.

So that’s all. Little bit of orange juice and the meal is complete. I’ve had dinner here once, and that was likewise heavenly. I believe I had a Rattatouille then, and it was all manner of well cooked vegetables and rustic flavors. This place is consistently good, turning out classic French countryside cooking just this side of Berkeley.

Check it out, and as always Bon Appetit! (Which in this case is extra appropriate!)

La Note Restaurant Provencal
2377 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704-1552
(510) 843-1535

Service: pleasant, not overly speedy.  Might want to make it a long lunch!
Dining time: see above
Noise: close, wooden tables, gets a bit loud - 2 bells
Cost: moderate

Monday, July 19, 2010

TYLER FLORENCE ~ The name. The brand. The man. The Experience.

So I am looking at celebrating my first anniversary as a blogger! It’s an exciting benchmark, and one I’m proud to have accomplished. To commemorate this occasion, I thought I’d take a short break from blogging about the wonders of the many restaurants I’ve been blessed to visit, and let you know about another way to spend time enveloping yourselves in all things pertaining to food and it’s miraculous restorative properties:  the live celebrity demonstration~

A short while back I was extended an invitation to attend a Tyler Florence Event at the Macy’s Stoneridge Mall in Pleasanton. The invitation was from the fabulous folks at the Macy’s Culinary Council featuring so many of your favorite celebrity chefs, among them Rick Bayless and Cat Cora. These events have always held an interest for me, but somehow I hadn’t yet managed to getting around to attending one. I wasn’t really sure quite what to expect.

I arrived promptly as instructed. My “press pass” allowed me to be escorted past the volumes of folks waiting for their time with Mr. Florence to a front row seat where I would be able to photograph with an unobstructed view and take my notes with room to write. Very classy. This particular demonstration and book-signing event was held in the cook wares department on the Third Floor of the Macy’s Home Section in the Pleasanton Store. Without an actual kitchen, the staff had pulled off a remarkable set. They had converted the large open area right there on the floor of housewares into an ample stage, complete with portable stoves, chopping surface and a nice elevated platform sufficient to allow the attendees a good view of the goings-on. This was all set up in front of seating that would accommodate over two hundred people. Pretty impressive. I have a good friend who used to set up similar events for a well-known and popular line of cookware, so I know what a large amount of energy and teamwork it takes to set one of these events up so professionally. This one went off pretty much without a hitch. Gotta tip my hat to the people at the Macy's Culinary Council.

Though I’d never attended an event like this before, I’d strolled by several similar events in progress at various times over the years. Once seated, I thought this event might be similar, but by the time the sous chef had prepped all of Tyler’s pre-show ingredients, and we had been served cucumber-flavored water --- with a hint of mint & lime --- by an army of staff clad in white shirts and black ties, I realized I was mistaken. This was going to be a high-class event for a Twenty-First Century Foodie. The water was a welcome delight as, at this point, having arrived so much earlier than the others, I was growing thirsty from the long wait. Nice touch, that.

A higher class presentation makes all the sense in the world, since today’s home chefs and food-goods consumers are a much more educated and knowledgeable group than the housewives who might have purchased an old-fashioned vegetable slicer and dicer from the carnival barkers of my childhood. Not that Donna Reed and my beloved mother didn't know their way around a kitchen, but I'd bet good money that neither of them had ever heard of a Meyer Lemon or Star Anise back in the day.

Shortly after completion of the prep, Tyler Florence arrived. After a very warm welcome for our host, we were off. I found him charming, and more importantly, completely authentic. I expected a lot of sales pitch, and that the presentation would feel a bit like a direct-marketing session. It would have been fair to utilize my time this way, since this was a book-signing and promotional event. But this delightful young man is a real performer, and he was there to give me a show. I think it's fair to say he gave more than he got. After putting the audience at ease, Tyler began to chat easily about himself and what he’s passionate about. No surprise that much of what he is passionate about is food. His niche market would seem to be homestyle cooking, and feeding a young family. That seems appropriate, as he is a father of several young children himself. (I saw him shopping for baby dresses for his little daughter before the presentation, and found it heartwarming to see a celebrity parent so genuinely and obviously involved with his kids).

Tyler promotes meals you can feed adults and kids alike. Simple. Flavorful. Easy prep, great food. He spoke about honing the palates of young children by exposing them to variety before the natural “fight or flight” instincts kick in at just about three years old.  If they haven’t learned a taste by then, he believes a child may run from experiencing that taste for years --- perhaps forever. He suggested that if we want our kids to follow in their foodie parents’ footsteps, we may wish to open their palates by ensuring that they eat from a wide selection of food-types while very young, before that window closes. For that reason, he began his own line of organic baby food, Tyler Florence's Sprout!

Throughout the presentation he was unflappable, warm, engaging, and completely winning. I have never seen anyone so natural at speaking, nor as well informed on his own topics. He began his cooking demo by filling us all in on what projects he’s currently got in the works, chatting easily through this delightful spiral of topics covering dozens of various enterprises.

Tyler Florence is literally a whirling dervish of production. He’s got a new show coming out on the Food Network, entitled "The Great Food-Truck Race. ” He’s opening a restaurant in his new home base of Mill Valley, in partnership with Sammy Hagar. He’s got a Napa Restaurant in the works that will serve something called “fast casual.” Tyler described it as, “on one side will be roast chicken, and on the other, wine splits.” He’s got a line of wine coming out, the result of a collaboration with renowned vintner Michael Mondavi. In response to an audience questioner as to the name of the line of wine, Tyler flashed his boyish smile and said, “Well, it’ll be called ‘Tyler Florence’.” Of course it will.

One of the last items he discussed as he verbally juggled the many balls he’s got in the air, metaphorically speaking, was his new iPhone app, “Tyler Florence’s ‘Fast!’ .” This application is a shop and browse recipe application. Ironically enough, I’d just checked it out the day before when looking for something handy to drag around with me to the market.  At the time I didn't purchase it.  The Fast! application allows a shopper in the grocery to select meals based on fresh ingredients spotted while shopping, and then to group those recipe choices with other recipe choices designed to compliment them.  Instant menu.  Smart!

It may actually be one of the best applications I’ve ever purchased.  Tyler Florence’s Fast! is slick to look at as well.  Every button is intuitive to the user. The application itself is attractive, its color scheme a clean masculine combination of wood, blue & copper. The layout is smooth and the flash presentations are sparingly used and all run smoothly without interfering in the apps' practical uses. No feature inhibits the function of the application itself, which is impressive.  That is, after all the goal.  I’m currently using it on my iPhone and very very happy with it. It’s got a higher price tag than most apps, but I can honestly say it is money well spent.

Tyler made us three recipes, and all were delicious. He whipped up a Filet of Petrale Sole Almondine, which I know children will like because I myself dined on it regularly as a small child. I’m pretty sure it was the first dish I ever ate when dining out at a restaurant with family. Tyler followed his sole dish by whipping up some stunningly tasty mashed potatoes. His special ‘trick’ is to boil them in milk rather than water, which allows the potatoes to retain all of the vitamins ordinarily lost when the water is drained away. Instead of tossing it, he mashes the potatoes right back into their cooking liquid. The result is a creamy and flavorful mixture that just about any member of the family will enjoy. His final dish of the presentation, was a simple baking sheet topped with green beans, which were roasted with a parmesan “frico,” (FREE-ko). A frico is that lovely, crunchy, crust of melted cheese formed when the cheese bakes soft and then cools and hardens into nice crunchy bites of crispy goodness. At the conclusion of the demonstration, we were all provided tasting plates of the foods prepared, along with printouts of Tyler’s recipes. Tyler fairly beamed as he let us know that this event was “sold out” the same day it was announced, with over 225 reservations. This was part of a believably heartfelt thank you. Again with the classy.

More impressive than Tyler’s talent, or his many projects, was his personality. My front row seat made it evident that he’s the real deal. He was unfailingly kind and respectful to the staff assisting him. The preparation was so thorough that the bumps were minor, but for the few curves he was thrown, Tyler handled them with aplomb, never losing his cool. Never at a loss for words, there was no lull he didn’t turn into a moment of control. Tyler Florence is one polished performer, his love for what he does constantly shining through. When Tyler says he cooks for the reward of the bliss on his diner’s faces, there’s no question that he’s being sincere. He really does want to see “your eyes roll back in your head” when you eat his food. Boyishly charming, extremely easy on the eyes, Tyler Florence is the definition of Panache!

I was hoping to check out Wayfare Tavern, the new restaurant of Tyler’s that was to open about a week after this presentation, on June 22, 2010. Wayfare Tavern is located in the Old Rubicon, right next to the Trans America Building in San Francisco. They serve what Tyler termed “American Traditional” featuring such treats as Fried Chicken and Burgers. I have been holding the review trying to snag a reservation for Wayfare so I could get in on the ground floor to sum it up for you, but to date I have been unable to do so. Since there was already so much to say about Tyler and his culinary exploits, I decided to break it up and write him up in two parts. Coming soon to a blog near you: Tyler Florence, Part Two — Wayfare Tavern.

It was evident from this up-close and personal time with the man, that Tyler Florence likes to impart simple, honest flavors in his cooking. He instructs with an easy, manageable style of preparation that makes every witness to it want to jump up and begin cooking. He begins each dish with the freshest ingredients and approaches his cuisine with the assuredness of a seasoned pro who understands food. I was struck as he handled the green beans, discussing their natural sugary goodness, going into depth about how that goodness could only be coaxed out by roasting them. How boiling them would drain them of vitamins and flavor. His passion for the food and his sincere relationship with preparing it well, was arresting. Here is a man who conveys with every gesture that he really, really likes what he does, and that he wants you to enjoy it, too.

What he does is cook for people and teach people how to cook well for themselves. He is someone who imparts a great amount of wisdom in a short amount of time. He is able to sell you on his latest project, and bring you in so close you want to buy what he’s selling, because you know if you do, you will have gotten your money’s worth. I have spent decades in the kitchen and even I learned quite a bit from this handsome young man with a spatula. Tyler Florence is the American Everyman, your neighbor, your brother, your friend. A charmer with a sales pitch, this young man is selling something authentic, something worth buying. I say: Get all you can while it’s still hot!