Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mastro's Steakhouse (Costa Mesa, CA)

Mastro's Steakhouse
633 Anton Blvd, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Wed 12/19/2007, 09:05p-11:35p

Mastro's. For me, its very name had been subject to scorn ever since a disappointing experience at Mastro's Ocean Club in Newport Coast a couple years back. Though perhaps I was a bit at fault, given that I'd ordered steak at an "Ocean Club." And I'll admit that my experience there was tainted by the clientele, which I'll describe kindly as your stereotypical Newport bunch. So after hearing many words of praise for the "real" Mastro's, I decided it was time to give her another chance.

Mastro's is nestled among the group of buildings located across from South Coast Plaza. In fact, it shares a parking lot with Savannah Supper Club (formerly known as Chat Noir, of the Culinary Adventures empire). Parking is valet only; and naturally, the lot was filled with Mercedes and BMWs of all types, with a Bentley Continental GTC occupying the primo parking spot. Once you make your way through the throngs of well-dressed and well-heeled diners to the door, a rather groovy hallway separates you and the hostess stand.

On the way to our table, we were led by one of the most impressive displays of wine I've ever encountered. The second photo shows the view from the second floor, near the private dining room and restrooms.

The restaurant is large, and is sectioned off into several smaller rooms. Don't be fooled by the yellowish light, Mastro's may be the darkest restaurant I've ever been to (even more so than Tagine!). In fact, this was the first time I've been forced to use flash throughout a meal, which I generally disdain.

The menu is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a restaurant like this: nothing cutting edge here, just steakhouse classics, hopefully well prepared. Note the signature of the sous chef (the executive chef wasn't in). Similarly, the dessert menu is fairly formulaic as well, though the warm butter cake is Mastro's signature dessert. The wine list contains a fair number of reasonably priced selections, although there is a "reserve" list with the big-ticket bottles (e.g. $5,000+ for the 2004 DRC Romanee-Conti). Click for larger versions.

I started with a Mastro's Mojito (on the strong side, could've used more lime and mint), while my dining companion had a Stoli Elit Martini (super smooth, but pricey at $20.50) after being denied a cucumber martini due to lack of proper ingredients.

Five types of bread were presented: crouton, pretzel, baguette, dinner roll, and brioche (my favorite was the pretzel). Overall, this was very nice breadbasket with good variety.

Oysters on the Half Shell
The half dozen oysters were evenly split between Bluepoint (left, from the East Coast) and Chefs Creek (right, from British Columbia) varieties. I preferred the smaller Bluepoints, as I felt they had a sharper, cleaner taste to them. My dining companion, however, liked the Chefs Creeks better. Worthy of note is the horseradish provided with the oysters. Our server warned us about its potency, and calling his bluff, I immediately scooped up some with the tines of my fork. Big mistake. The sauce near instantaneously caused an intense burning in my mouth and nose, making me gag. In the words of the eminently quotable Ralph Wiggum: It tastes like burning!

Steak Sashimi
Mashed potatoes, scallions, ginger, wasabi. Although this really wasn't "sashimi," given that it was seared, I still enjoyed it nevertheless. This bit of cooking lent the steak a very pleasing contrast between the cool, creamy center and the slightly tougher, but flavorful exterior. I was a bit surprised at the use of the mashed potatoes as an accompaniment, but felt it worked well enough. The ginger and wasabi were not touched.

Ahi Tuna Tartare
Scallions, avocado, tortilla chip crumbles. I rarely meet a tuna tartare I don't like, and this was no exception. Even though the fish itself wasn't "sashimi quality," it was still tender and flavorful enough for tartare duty. The pairing of avocado is something I've encountered many a time, but the combination still holds a certain appeal to me. What I hadn't had before though, was the addition of tortilla chips; this provided a nice mix up of texture compared to the rest of the dish.

Bone-In Filet, 18oz
According to our server, the bone-in filet is Mastro's signature steak. It came out sizzling on a ridiculously hot plate, which caused intense burning sensations even at the slightest brush. It was one of the better steaks I've had in a while, tender yet firm, with a decent amount of beefy flavor. I still maintain that I prefer Ruth's Chris' filet (perhaps because it has more butter?), but I'd say that the quality of the meat was comparable to that of Ruth's, Fleming's or Morton's (CUT still reigns supreme, though). Naturally, we needed a stout wine to stand up to the steak. The contender was a 2004 Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. The wine was fairly intense, dry, with more pronounced alcoholic notes than I would like; overall a drinkable, though unexceptional wine.

Black Truffle Gnocchi
Crabmeat, Parmesan, breadcrumbs, white truffle oil. I'm not normally one to go for sides at a steakhouse, but the gnocchi (a special, along with lobster mashed potatoes, which we had at the Ocean Club) proved to be too tempting. The texture of the gnocchi themselves was not particularly inspiring, but the intense, earthy truffle essence that pervaded the dish more than made up for it. The crab was a nice addition, though unnecessary I felt.

Warm Butter Cake
Strawberry, grapefruit, vanilla bean ice cream. The dessert menu is fairly pedestrian, except for this cake, which just happens to be Mastro's signature dessert item. The cake itself was quite rich and flavorful, though not overtly sweet. I quite liked it, especially when taken with the vanilla ice cream sitting on top. To go along with dessert, we decided to try grappa for the first time, specifically the Castello Banfi Grappa di Montalcino. Fans of Italian wine will recognize Banfi as a producer well-known for Brunello wines. Grappa is actually an Italian brandy distilled from the pomace (seeds and skin) of grapes used in winemaking. The Banfi was intense and fiery, with the alcohol covering up most clues of the grappa's grape base.

I must say, Mastro's exceeded my expectations (though the bar was set pretty low). The food is not exactly inventive or creative, and the prices are a tad steep, but when it comes down to it, the drinks are stiff, the food is solid, and the steak is done right. Thus, as a steakhouse, Mastro's passes with flying colors.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Houston's (Irvine, CA)

2991 Michelson Dr, Irvine CA 92612
Thu 12/13/2007, 08:10p-10:10p

I like crab cakes, and the best I've had come from Gulfstream, a restaurant located in a corner of Fashion Island in Newport Beach (and I've had them in Maryland!). Only available on Saturdays, the cakes are so scrumptious that they're pretty much the only main course I ever get. Now Houston's is Gulstream's sibling restaurant, one that I had shunned for really no good reason. I actually ended up at Houston's on a bit of a whim. It was final exams week at school, and a few of my classmates wanted to have a nice dinner to celebrate the end of finals. Now, I still had an exam the following Tuesday so I couldn't really celebrate yet, but then again, I am generally loath to turn down an opportunity to try out a new eatery.

The layout of the restaurant is actually very similar to that of Gulfstream, with a large dining room separated into four sections, anchored on one side by the kitchen. The patrons, on the other hand, seemed a bit more diverse (not the typical Newport crowd, a good thing in my book).

While we waited for a table to open up, we popped a bottle of 2004 Schramsberg Brut Blanc de Blancs North Coast. Everyone seemed to enjoy this sparkler, which demonstrated a heady nose of citrus, followed by more citrus as well as toasted bread on the palate, leading the way to a rich, satisfying finish.

To stand up to the heavy meat dishes we were having, we went with a 2004 Shafer Merlot Napa Valley. The wine exhibited typical Merlot traits of lush dark fruit, with a medium weight and excellent balance; the finish was more of the same, along with a hint of smokiness at the end. We all enjoyed the wine, even one of my dining companions who doesn't normally enjoy red wine.

Rotisserie Chicken
Half a roasted chicken with crushed herbs, served with Louisiana-style dirty rice. For some reason, I'm very wary of ordering chicken at a restaurant, even though I'll often get other fowl such as duck, squab, and quail. Preparations such as this, however, surely go a long way in assuaging my fears. The bird was nicely spiced, cooked to a nice firmness, adequately juicy, and encased in a very flavorful skin (at least the small piece I had was).

Hawaiian Rib Eye
Marinated then grilled over hardwood, served with French fries. I'm not sure what exactly was "Hawaiian" about this steak, but whatever it was, it worked pretty well. The rib eye seemed to have a crust of flavor baked on, which penetrated to some extent the bulk of the meat. This was probably my favorite entrée of the night, though I did enjoy all four main courses. Also, I must note that this was not as fatty as I expected from a rib eye, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The requested temperature was medium-rare; however it looked more like medium to me. The French fries were a nice and fitting accoutrement.

Roasted Prime Rib
Aged prime rib roasted on the bone, served with French fries. I've always shied away from ordering prime rib, being more of a "steak" guy. However, one of my dining companions was determined on showing me the error of my ways. I did have a few bites, and I'll admit, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a totally different, but as enjoyable, experience from steak, both in terms of flavor and texture. With that in mind, it is amazing that this prime rib and the rib eye above are actually the same cut of beef (a prime rib, if sliced when uncooked, yields the rib eye steak). One of these days I need to revisit Lawry's in Beverly Hills and try their famed interpretation of the roast.

Center-Cut Filet
Center cut beef tenderloin grilled over hardwood, served with seasonal vegetable. This was actually the main course I ordered, medium-rare of course. This was a solid filet, both in terms of flavor and body, but not as good as what one could order at Ruth's Chris or Morton's, let alone CUT (to be fair, the price is correspondingly lower). Texture-wise, the steak was tender, though it didn't possess the grain that the best filets have; similarly, the flavor was also not as intense or "beefy" as it could've been.

Key Lime Pie
At the end of the meal, we ordered two desserts for the table to share. I first asked if they had the fantastic tres leches cake from Gulfstream, but alas, they did not. I'm not a huge fan of key lime pie, as I find it a bit too tart generally, which was the case here. I also would've liked the filling to a bit firmer and more structured. The crumbs were a very nice addition however.

Warm Five Nut Brownie
We did like this dessert better, though it is pretty difficult to mess up a brownie. I especially enjoyed the interplay between the warm cake and the cool vanilla ice cream. Not exactly a creative preparation, but it works.

I didn't have high hopes for Houston's coming in, so I suppose it doesn't mean much that the place exceeded my expectations. Sure, it's not really fine dining, and the preparations aren't exactly cutting edge, but Houston's is a place where one can enjoy a good, hearty meal in a comfortable setting. Service is friendly, and prices are pretty reasonable to boot (especially the wine list, the Shafer was only $10 over release price, no corkage either!). So for what it aims to achieve, Houston's does indeed succeed.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Danube (New York, NY)

30 Hudson St, New York, NY 10013
Fri 12/07/2007, 05:00p-06:05p

This was my last day in New York, which meant I had to catch a flight out of JFK at 9:00. Since I was going via subway, I had to leave around 6:30; thus, I had to find a restaurant that opened at 5:00. Danube was one of the most appealing choices, and just happened to be located only a few blocks from Greenwich Street. It is also interesting to note that this was my first foray with a restaurant that describes itself as Austrian.

Danube's decor is lush and impressive, befitting of an Austrian castle I'd say. In fact, the restaurant's web site proudly claims it holds the number one spot for decor on the Zagat survey. Not quite, it's a 27, while there are five establishments rated 28 (Asiate, Daniel, La Grenouille, Per Se, and River Cafe if you're wondering). But in any case, I had no complaints. One enters through a lounge/bar area, before heading to the main dining room, which seats about 70.

Under normal circumstances, I would've gone for the Tasting Menu (or more likely, the Seasonal Chef's Degustation Menu). But since I was strapped for time, I decide to go à la carte, building my own tasting menu out of appetizers. The menu is divided into an Austrian section and a lighter, more modern eclectic one. Click for larger versions.

Danube offers an interesting selection of desserts paired with a small collection of dessert wines. Click for larger versions.

Four types of bread were offered: cheese, salted (both shown), poppy seed, and one more that I can't recall. All were quite tasty.

Amuse Bouche: Hokkaido Pumpkin
With Pumpkin Seed Foam. This was my first experience with this particular type of pumpkin. I'm not normally a fan, but this worked for me. The taste was more complex than your garden-variety pumpkin, with a subtle, rather than in-your-face sweetness to it. I had the dish with the restaurant's signature Danube cocktail: Austrian sparkling wine paired with elderflower syrup. I originally asked for a mojito, but was told they didn't have any mint. I then asked for a bellini, and my server recommended this instead.

Carinthia "Schlutzkrapfen" High Altitude Austrian Cheese Ravioli
With Smoked Mushrooms and Harvest Corn Sauce. Very rich, dense, and hearty. I loved the mushrooms and spinach, though the ravioli wrapper itself was a bit insubstantial. This reminded me of the Open Faced Duck Confit Ravioli I had at Walter's Bistro in Colorado Springs. I paired a Grüner Veltliner, Buchegger-Gebling, Austria, 2006 with the course. Grüners are generally considered very food-friendly wines, and this was no exception. The wine had a strong mineral core, flanked by citrus and stone-fruit flavors.

Beef Tartare in a Beef Consommé Gelée
With Wasabi Mousse and Marinated Red Beets. The beef itself was encased in a gelée, which I felt didn't add much to the dish, except an interesting presentation element. I also thought that the beets were totally unnecessary. However, the tartare itself was fantastic, one of the best I've had actually. The beef was very finely minced with a selection of accoutrements that blended utterly harmoniously, while the wasabi mousse was a nice touch. Staying with the Austria theme, the wine here was a Zweigelt, Anton Bauer, Austria, 2006. If Grüner is Austria's signature white varietal, surley Zweigelt is the red equivalent. This example was medium in body, with red-fruit flavors laced with minerals.

Sashimi Quality Bluefin Tuna and Hamachi Tuna
With Key Lime Pickled Onion, Pumpkin Seed Oil, and Sesame Mustard Dressing. This was my favorite course of the night. Even though the concept may not be the most original, execution was flawless. Fish quality was indeed "sashimi quality," and the sesame and mustard were natural complements. I also loved how they tiled the slices of fish together so seamlessly.

Pre-Dessert: Fresh Blood Oranges and Kumquats
With Elderflower Gelée and Elderflower Sorbet. This was a pleasant surprise, as pre-desserts usually come only with fixed menus; in fact, this was actually the same intermezzo that was in the Tasting Menu. As a palate cleanser, the dish worked very well, with sharp, cold, tangy flavors and textures that did surprise and tantalize the palate.

Danube Chocolate Waltz
With Brownie Sacher Cake, Chocolate Parfait and Fig Chutney, Bitter Sweet Chocolate Brûlée, and Viennese Mélange Ice Cream. My favorite was the brûlée, followed by the ice cream, though all were quite delicious. To complement this quartet, I needed something that would stand up to the rich chocolaty tones of the dessert. It was going to be TBA, no question, specifically, the Trockenbeerenauslese, Leo Hillinger Hill 3, Austria, 2001. This nectar was thick, viscous, with a dominant note of stone fruit and honey, a very representative TBA.

One of the best presentations of mignardises I've seen in a while. We have chocolate walnut cake in the back, tuiles, cookies, truffles, macarons, and macaroons (yes, they're different!).

I was pleasantly surprised by Danube. The service was top-notch (they did all they could to accommodate my time limitations), and I cannot fault the food. The blending of traditional Austrian-style dishes with contemporary fare works, in my opinion. And even though I ordered off the menu, I truly had a tasting menu experience. But next time I'm back, I'm definitely going to slow down and take it all in.