Elements

Still trying to catch up on these posts!

Over Spring Break, my parents took me to one of the best restaurants within a 2-mile radius from our home, Elements. It’s located in a small nearby plaza close to my old middle school (cue the nostalgia) that is home to my favorite part of town, the biweekly farmers’ market. Always nice to be able to get fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables so close to home, even in a somewhat out-of-the-way place like Almaden.

Anyways, we’ve been to Elements a couple of times in the past and they’ve always given us a good impression with the presentation and taste of their food. It might not look like much from the outside, but we’ve found them to be consistent in their quality and execution of their food and their service. Of course, they’re a bit on the pricy side (though nowhere near as expensive as some of the NYC eats I’ve gone to), but at about $20 for a main dish it’s okay to eat at once in a long while.

The restaurant has pretty dim lighting, and the interior design isn’t quite as meticulous as some of the restaurants here in the city, but it’s still pretty classy and comfortable. The service was smooth enough; no complaints here. They sat us down pretty quickly and brought us bread within minutes. They get an honorable mention for their pretzel buns, which were sinfully buttery and silky and sweet.

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Again, apologies for the iPhone photography

We didn’t do a full-out three-course meal, but we still had plenty of variety since we each ordered a different dish. Mom stuck with the shrimp and scallops with risotto: The risotto was slightly mushy but not soggy, with just the slightest bit of stickiness to it. The individual grains of rice weren’t really discrete, but were rather somewhat mashed together and soft; it wasn’t like the rice I’m used to that’s cooked to an al dente, but it was still delicious. There were green peas mixed into the rice, which provided a fun change in texture with their bursts of juiciness and sweet grassiness. The lightly fried shredded carrots on top were airy and crispy and added a slight rough texture to contrast with the rice and peas. The shrimp and scallops were both sweet and tender and went perfectly with the green sauce, which was slightly thick and milky with suggestions of green beans and maybe even peas blended in. There was a good amount of sauce so that it provided enough flavor without making overwhelming everything else. Zucchini is always one of my favorite vegetables, and these were sweet and juicy with a nice firmness to them.

I ordered the tea-smoked duck in a cranberry reduction sauce with taro au gratin and apple slices on the side:

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The combination of sweet fruity notes and poultry is always good, and this was no exception. The duck was quite tender, though not melt-in-your-mouth tender (which is incredibly difficult to achieve with duck, I’m aware), and the sweet sauce provided a gentle lightness to the dish that was pretty refreshing; it was balanced out by the slight bitterness of the tea flavor so that it didn’t cling to the mouth for too long. The bed of spinach was juicy soft but not over-cooked to the point of sogginess, and I guess I would say that the vegetables met my ridiculously high standards of freshness since they had their characteristic bittersweet stringiness. The taro au gratin was mushy but still slightly firm with the usual extremely subtle ashy texture of taro. It had a bit of cinnamon to it, which brought out the sweet milkiness of the root, and made it taste almost like a dessert. Eating it with the crispy shredded carrots gave the taro a slight savoriness that was interesting.

Dad ordered one of the specials of the day, the seafood paella:

IMG_3995-1Just saying that this was NOT your Ferris Booth paella; not nearly as greasy or artificial-tasting. The seafood was fresh and not too bitter or limp, and I could taste the bright tomato flavor. I appreciated the wide range of textures in the dish from the soft grainy rice and the chewy clams, scallops, calamari and mussels.

Elements is definitely a hidden gem in a small part of San Jose. Definitely recommend if you’re in the area.

Rating: 4.5/5 spoons

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Restaurant Week Series: Nougatine at Jean-Georges

Here’s my final Restaurant Week post! Cue the sentimental nonsense.

What: French-style restaurant, casual sister to the famous Jean-Georges restaurant owned by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. It still has a dress code though. Great location a couple of blocks away from the 1 train stop at 59th and Broadway.

Ambiance: Stylish minimalist décor with lots of glass and beige. Waiters were very professional, almost intimidatingly so (when was the last time a waiter pulled out your chair for you?). Classy but cool vibe.

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Appetizer: Grilled rock shrimp with a butternut squash sauce topped with toasted pumpkin seeds. Presentation, as you can see, was absolutely flawless; The shrimp were arranged in a perfect diagonal line, and the orange from the sauce and the green from the seeds provided a cheerful pop of color to contrast with the slate-colored plate. As for the taste, the shrimp were perfectly sweet and fresh with just the perfect amount of smoky bitterness from the charring. And the toasted pumpkin seeds were truly an ingenious touch, providing a subtle delicate crunch and round nuttiness to enhance the flavor of the shrimp. I tasted the butternut squash sauce, expecting it to be sweet, creamy and rich, but instead I got a surprising citrus-like sourness to it. Thankfully it didn’t detract from the beauty of the shrimp, but it didn’t add anything either. I felt like there was no reason for the sourness to be there; it was somewhat incongruous with the other flavors.

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Main: Chicken in an onion, garlic and green bean broth. The meat, again, was fantastically juicy and tender, with the edges just slightly crispy and smoky. The vegetables were slightly soggy, but not overly so. However, once again, there was that odd sourness to the dish. The sourness didn’t hurt the flavor of the chicken, but I did feel like it detracted from the freshness of the vegetables; vegetables are, after all, supposed to be sweet, and you just can’t mask that sweetness with some random sourness and call it a dish of cooked vegetables. In fact, I’m going to be honest and say that the taste of the vegetables almost upset my stomach after eating all of them.

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Dessert: Green tea pavlova with passionfruit sorbet and tropical fruit salad. Yet again, sour. The meringue was the only saving grace, with its interesting combination of airy and crispy shell and slightly sticky interior; everything else made my mouth pucker up with its intense sourness. In fact, it was so sour that I couldn’t even distinguish the different flavors of the fruits. They managed to make the banana and the green tea ice cream taste sour. Well, at least it left a refreshing aftertaste.

Overall: The first couple bites of each dish were fantastic, but the sourness became overwhelming. Seriously, why the sour fetish, Mr. Vongerichten? Not the worst food I’ve tasted, but, for a restaurant so fancy, I expected much better.

Rating: 4/5 spoons

Restaurant Week Series: Nobu Next Door

I know, I know, I’m incredibly behind on these posts. In my defense, I’ve been plowing through papers upon papers and midterms upon midterms since Restaurant Week ended. Even Spring Break wasn’t much of a break, since I had even more papers to write. Buuuuuut food is always an excellent diversion and stress reliever, so here we are!

What: Japanese restaurant pretty far downtown, extension of the internationally famous Nobu restaurants of Nobu Matsuhisa. Basically serves up the same stuff as the original.

Ambiance: Dark lighting, comfortable seating, good for a date with a significant other or, in my case, for a girls’ night out (Shoutout to Shalva and Jennifer! You guys are the best <3). Very friendly waiters and quick and efficient service.

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Sashimi salad! Once again, apologies for the horrendous iPhone quality image. Can’t call myself a proper food blogger if I keep on forgetting to bring my camera along with me!
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Rock shrimp

Appetizer: Rock shrimp with creamy spicy sauce. Extremely tender shrimp had a slightly crispy and fragrant lightly-fried outer layer, and the sauce was milky and smooth; richly sweet but with a slight lemony sourness and a chili-like spiciness to give it a kick and prevent it from being too cloying. The little chunks of mushrooms provided fun bursts of sweet juice. Some bites did feel a bit too sour at first, but after getting used to it I found that I quite liked it, since it highlighted the shrimp’s sweetness. Stole some of Shalva’s sashimi salad, which had slices of ahi tuna on top of lettuce with some of Chef Matsuhisa’s special dressing; absolutely phenomenal. The ahi tuna was perfectly soft, and the sweet fragrant sesame-based sauce with the briefest hint of vinegar sourness brought out the smokiness of the fish. Jennifer had a black cod miso on limestone lettuce, and again this was cooked to perfection; such juicy and tender fish and smoky sweetness! Subtle salty fragrant crisp on the outside elevated the experience.

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Best. Sushi. EVER.

 

Main: Sushi platter! Yup, went the traditional route with a whole array of fresh sushi including Spanish mackerel, salmon, toro, yellowtail tuna, crab, and tuna rolls. Honestly, nothing much to say besides mind blown. I’ve had some pretty fantastic sashimi/sushi before, with perfectly fresh fish and perfectly cooked rice, but what set this sushi apart was the quality of the wasabi. Unlike the more smoky and slightly bitter tasting wasabi I usually have, this wasabi was sweet and truly brought out the freshness of the fish; it made the fish taste a lot lighter, like it was waltzing across my tongue. The melt-in-your-mouth tenderness also contributed to that lightness. There was that characteristic strong right-up-your-nose spiciness that made my eyes water, but some of those tears may have been due to the sheer beauty of the taste. Can’t go back to eating regular wasabi anymore… 😦 Both Shalva and Jennifer ordered the beef with anticucho sauce (FYI, anticucho is a type of South American spice), cooked to a decently tender medium rare. Although the beef was less juicy and fatty than I would have liked, the anticucho was a novel experience, since its sweet and sour spiciness gave the dish a bright piquancy.

Sweet potato crème brûlée: what dreams are made of
Sweet potato crème brûlée: what dreams are made of
Strawberry baba. Mindblowingly delicious.
Strawberry baba. Mindblowingly delicious.

Dessert: Sweet potato crème brûlée, combining two of my favorite things in the world! I had thought that the sweet potato, while delicious, might make this dessert a bit too heavy, but that wasn’t the case at all. The cream was, as usual, sinfully rich and smooth with an aromatic vanilla flavor, and the sugar on top was perfectly caramelized. Seriously, I didn’t know that it was possible to achieve such an evenly browned layer of constant thickness in a crème brûlée. There was just enough of that caramelized sugar topping to provide an ideal balance of crisp and crunch without overwhelming the cream with its smokiness. I will say though that I couldn’t really taste the sweet potato flavor, which was slightly disappointing. Both Shalva and Jennifer got the other dessert option, the strawberry baba, which is comprised of a shortcake with strawberries and a syrupy sauce topped with meringue served in an adorable little mug. Presentation gets an A+! The cake part was incredibly tender and moist, and the syrup enhanced the natural sweetness of the strawberries. The slightly sticky meringue provided an extra rich creaminess to give the whole thing a deeper and rounder texture.

Honorable mention: Matcha tea! Oh my heavens, was green tea ever so pure as this??? I thought I knew grassy tea before, but this tea took it to a whole new level.

Overall: It’s easy to see why Nobu has the reputation that it does! I was literally thinking or saying “day-yummm” (I’m so punny) with every sip or bite I took. It was a pricy meal, but 1000000% worth it!

Rating: 5.5/5 spoons!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Korchma Taras Bulba

I interrupt the regular Restaurant Week programming to bring you this message.

So I went a little crazy with eating this past week. Tavern on the Green on Wednesday, Ganso on Thursday (all the way in Brooklyn!), Koi Soho on Friday… I can definitely feel it in my waistline and in my wallet. In case you’re wondering, I did write about Ganso and Koi for Spec, so I’ll post links to my articles once they’re published.

And on Saturday I had the opportunity to visit Korchma Taras Bulba, a Ukrainian restaurant in Soho, for the second time to celebrate a Ukrainian friend’s birthday (shoutout to Margaryta for inviting me! Happy birthday and hope you enjoyed it!). The addition of a New York location to the ones in Moscow and Kiev allows New Yorkers to enjoy a taste of authentic Ukrainian food.

It’s a cute little place with a homey and cozy feel, and the Ukrainian pop music playing in the background really gives it an Eastern European flair. Even the waiters and waitresses are dressed in traditional Ukrainian outfits. There were some Soviet-era cartoons playing on the television screen, and one interesting thing I learned was that apparently all Russian cartoons are from the Soviet era because the last ones were made during the 1950s.  Though I had been to this restaurant before, I definitely felt like I learned a lot more about Eastern European culture this time since I went with Eastern European people.

Shamefully I was the last person to arrive, nearly an hour later than I was supposed to, but thankfully the party didn’t postpone their orders while waiting for me. The waiters were extremely friendly and attentive and willing to offer advice on what to order. I ended up going the more traditional route with meat dumplings, or vareniki, and a bowl of borscht with meat.

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The vareniki, while smaller than the Chinese dumplings I grew up eating, had a skin of a similar translucence and soft texture, but they had a greater skin-to-filling ratio. Instead of soy sauce or vinegar for additional flavoring, the dumplings came with sour cream, small bacon cubes, and bits of cilantro. I really enjoyed the smoky and fragrant bitterness of the bacon; it provided an airy crisp to contrast with the tender near-mushiness of the dumplings. The sour cream gave a thick and pleasant tang and made the dish a subtle milky cheesiness. One thing I noticed was that the cream, as well as the greater skin-to-filling ratio, made it difficult to detect the flavor of the filling; I could only feel the squishy texture. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the other flavors were still delicious.

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The borscht was a beet-based soup filled to the brim with goodies like tomatoes, onions, beets, cabbage, beef cubes, and potatoes. It came with a little pot of sour cream, which you’re supposed to put in the soup, but I tried it without the cream first just to have a basis for comparison. The soup was pretty thin and had a slight sourness from the beets and tomatoes, and the vegetables were soft without being mushy. The beef cubes were nice and tender and provided a tougher texture to contrast with the vegetables and the liquid. I then added the cream, which enhanced the sourness of the dish and gave a richer and rounder but not necessarily denser feel to the liquid; the soup was still pretty thin.

By the time I was done with these two dishes, I was already stuffed. But it turned out that Taras Bulba had a few tricks up their sleeves; they brought us a smetanik (sour cream cake), the sneaky little devils! And I must say that this was absolutely heavenly. I mean, just look at it:

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The cake layers were ridiculously moist, tender and fluffy, and the slightly thick and sticky cream in between had just the slightest bit of sourness to enhance the overall sweetness. The bittersweet dark chocolate on top really brought out the milky vanilla undertones of the cream and provided a nice brittleness. It’s the existence of desserts like these that give me such a sweet tooth.

Korchma Taras Bulba serves up hearty dishes while staying true to its Ukrainian roots. I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to have such a wonderful culinary and cultural experience.

Rating: 5/5 spoons 😀