Saturday, December 26, 2009

It's a bit late, but here's my report on my second dinner at Sage, last Friday, December 18. I freely admit my bias, but I'm not the only one who had a great dinner there that night. Here's another review from a more objective source.

Sage, and ARIA, were a little busier on Friday. I had a little more trouble finding a parking space, although it might not have been quite so hard if only alternative fuel vehicles had been parked in the alternative fuel vehicle parking. So it goes.

I arrived early for my reservation, so I took some time to explore the casino a little more thoroughly. I went upstairs to look at the buffet and the shops. The buffet looked okay, but I didn't get a chance to check out the prices or menu. They were accessible via a touch-screen, and somebody else was playing with it. I also found some sort of upscale clothing store upstairs, an ice-cream parlor, and the arcade.

Overall, I thought the upper level was kind of dull compared to the downstairs. The color scheme was more whites, beige, and creams, and reminded me of a shopping mall. The arcade was particularly brightly lit, and the machines were evenly spaced out along the wall. It looked more like a video game museum than an arcade.

On my way to the restaurant, I stopped to look at the menu for Cafe Centro, which appears to be the hotel cafe. The prices looked pretty high for what appears to be standard coffee shop food. $15 for a burger? Entrees starting at $25? If I'm going to pay that amount of money, I might as well just pay a little more and go to Sage.

Which I did. This evening, I started with the Beef Tartare, based on yet another recommendation from Lura. It tasted very nice, with the chocolate stout enhancing it nicely. What I really liked was the slow poached egg. I had never had anything quite like it before. It looked like an egg yolk over easy or medium, but it was thick and creamy, not runny at all. I realize that I must sound like the complete rube describing it like that, but I really wasn't expecting it to be quite so, well, spreadable.

This evening, instead of selecting my own wine, I put myself in the hands of a sommelier. And he recommended I accompany the beef tartare with the same Syrah I had enjoyed the previous evening. So maybe I'm learning something about this stuff after all.

For my entree, I had the Roasted Day Boat Scallops. Like the veal cheeks the night before, they were so tender, it was almost like eating scallop-flavored butter or jello or something. Some of the scallops had some grit, but since we experienced the same thing at Chez Panisse, I'm thinking that's just what happens with scallops.

The braised oxtail and wild mushrooms served with the scallops were very rich and flavorful, and helped keep the dish from tasting too fishy. Obviously, with a seafood dish, you expect it's going to taste like fish. However, this dish avoided the blandness of the scallops we had in Berkeley, while not going down the easy path of just adding spices. Nor did the flavors of the oxtail and mushrooms overwhelm the scallops. It was a great balance, and I really enjoyed it.

The sommelier recommended a Joseph Drouhin Mersault to go with the scallops. I'm not a particularly big fan of white wines. Too often, they either taste too dry or too fruity for my taste. This one--I say, at risk of sounding like Goldilocks--tasted just right.

Then came the most important part: dessert. This time around, I opted for the Roasted Winter Pear Tarte Tatin and the Warm Sugared Beignets. (The menu calls them Warm "Sugared" Beignets, but they really are sugared, so I'm not sure why the quotes. Trying to court favor with the illiterate, perhaps?)

The pear tarte was something I had sampled in its development phase at home. We had also had a similar dish at Chez Panisse. Lura's was better than Chez Panisse: more pears, and a stronger flavor. To be honest, I think I preferred the one she made at home to the one in the restaurant. The earlier version had a softer crust, which I actually like a little better. I'm kind of a spaz, and if I'm trying to cut through a harder crust with my fork, I end up knocking all the fruit and stuff off. But that's me. It was still great.

The tarte is served with blue cheese ice cream, which sounded kind of gross at first. Actually having it in the restaurant, with the dessert it was intended to be served with, was a revelation. The two together matched perfectly.

The beignets resulted in a bit of confusion. They were served in a warm apple sauce, and came accompanied with a small cup of jasmine tea cider. I had forgotten that, and my server just described the jasmine tea as a sauce for the beignets. So they were already sitting in the one sauce, and I thought I was supposed to dip them in this other sauce. Too confusing, but not my fault, and not Lura's either.

Of course, they tasted great. However, because they were all piled up in a bowl on top of the apple sauce, the ones on the bottom ended up pretty soaked and soggy. In a perfect world, I would have liked the beignets to be served separate from the sauce (or sauces, as far as I knew). That way, I could mix them or dip them or whatever as evenly as I wanted.

Still, how many James Beard awards have I won? What do I know?

This evening, the restaurant was kind enough to pay for my wine. Unexpected, and very much appreciated.

It'll probably be a month or so before I go back to Sage. I just can't afford to eat like that all the time. But I will definitely be going back, and not just because Lura works there. It's good, straightforward food that I can understand and appreciate, with enough twists to keep things interesting.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy holidays!

Last year has been interesting. At the end of 2008, the Green Valley Library--where I had been Children's Services Department Head--closed, and the entire staff transfered up to the new Centennial Hills Library. This is a brand-new building--the district's first completely green building--and it took us maybe three weeks to move in. I was a little nervous going into that process, feeling very uncertain about what to do, and worried that I'd end up screwing things up by not being prepared or knowing what I was doing. It turned out that nobody really knew what they were doing, that nobody in the district had made this kind of move before, and everybody was winging it. Well, winging it or no, we got it done, and were ready to open (just!) on January 16, 2009.

The building is kind of interesting, beyond the eco-friendly thing. It's very wide-open, so there isn't as clear a division between Adult Services and Children Services, not like we see in our other branches. That's forced us all to become more well-rounded, helping whoever comes to our desks, regardless of what they're looking for or how old they are. I think that's a great thing. Also, more than 50% of the floor space is devoted to the children's collection, so that's cool.

Almost a year later, things are still going okay. We're still trying to see who our real audience is, separating that from the big crowds we had coming in when we were the hot new thing. We've undergone some staff changes in my department lately, including some cutbacks. But nobody has been laid off or had their pay cut, so we can be thankful for that. So while we've been there for a year, we still haven't quite settled down yet.

At home, the big news is that the household has two new members, and that I've gotten engaged. The two new family members are Lura, my fiancee, and Zhanti, her parakeet. Details of how we met and stuff can be found at my wedding blog, so I won't repeat them here.

Lura moved in in late January, after I moved out just enough of my junk to (barely) make room for her stuff. She is gradually transforming this house, which used to just be a big box to hold my stuff, into a real home. We have furniture, decorations, kitchen appliances, and everything.

I don't want to be all, "She has made my life so much better," but having her in it really has improved things. We have furniture, we eat better, we hike, we exercise. I cook for us. My life wasn't particularly awful before Lura entered it, but it wasn't exactly heading uphill, either. With her, I feel safe to try to be the person I want to be, because I've got her to watch my back.

Lura just started a new job at Sage, a restaurant in ARIA in the new City Center, which just opened on December 16. She's the pastry chef, which is a big step up for her, but something she has totally earned. I am so proud of her. Plus, it gives me an excuse to go to the restaurant every month or so, which is fine, because the food is really good.

Penelope, the cat, is still pretty much the same. She has kind of adjusted to having Lura in the house, but is a little grouchy about it. I'm still her favorite. Zhanti, she pretty much ignores. (Which is funny, because she is mesmerized by a DVD we have of birds. Actual bird in the house? Completely off her radar.) She's had some health issues this year, but seems to be doing okay now. She'll probably outlive us all.

So that's about it for this year. Next year, the big goal is to get ready for the wedding, on October 10. (10/10/10, so I will remember the anniversary.) You can read about how those preparations are going on the aforementioned wedding planning blog.

You can also keep up with my hijinks by following this blog, by following me on Twitter (Penelopecat is my user name), or finding me on Facebook (using my real name).

Happy holidays from all of us!

Monday, December 21, 2009

So last week saw the opening (finally) of Sage, the restaurant in new hotel/casino, ARIA where the lovely fiancee is the pastry chef. I had dinner there on Thursday and Friday, and had a great time.

I arrived with a big bunch of roses for my love, so it was no secret who I was or why I was there. Everyone was very nice to me, and those who had gotten to know her had all kinds of nice things to say about Lura as well. From what I could overhear at other tables, the staff were just as friendly and polite to the other customers.

My server was very personable and down-to-earth, talking to me about items on the menu without being pretentious or snobby, which I appreciated. I'm not really a foodie, but I'm not a complete idiot, either. If I go to a nice restaurant, I want to feel like I'm welcomed and appreciated. I don't want to feel intimidated by a confusing, pretentious menu and unhelpful staff who can't offer advice or guidance.

The physical restaurant was nicely laid out and decorated. It feels very warm and friendly, in shades of brown, gold, and purple, with these big, illuminated murals that look like turn-of-the-century pen & ink drawings. The lighting is comfortably dim, by which I mean it creates an air of privacy and intimacy without it being too dark for me to read my book. (I bring a book when I go out to eat alone.)

I'm a little ashamed to admit that Thursday's meal was a tribute to cruelty to animals. I ordered the foie gras custard brulee and the braised veal cheeks. Both came highly recommended by the fiancee (who also felt bad), and both were excellent.

This was my first experience with foie gras, but Lura tells me that this isn't a normal preparation method. As the name suggests, it really is like a smooth custard with a caramelized coating. It was creamy and light, and served with a salted brioche that was fantastic.

Because of my "VIP" status, the kitchen sent me their escargot & pork belly agnolotti starter. Totally caught me by surprise, and I thought they might have accidentally brought me somebody else's order. (I am a moron, sometimes.) It was also very nicely done; I particularly appreciated the hints of citrus in the bacon.

I felt guilty for ordering the veal cheeks, and even guiltier saying that they were fantastic. So tender that they almost fell apart when I just pointed my fork in their direction. They came served over a "piperade" (I'm getting the spelling from the menu here) which nicely accented the flavor of the beef.

Of course, I had to save room for dessert; in fact, I had two. I had been told I should order the chocolate dome, because it tasted great and was easy to plate. Besides, I was curious to actually see and taste it, after hearing about it for so long.

I also decided to try the warm almond financier cake. Lura had struggled with this recipe, after her boss said told her that while her initial attempt wasn't too dry, he wanted it to be a "different kind of moist." After much experimentation, it turned out that the solution was to make a different kind of cake altogether, and surround it in a financier cake shell. So I call them "faux-nanciers." Whatever; still tasted great. (What did you think I was going to say?)

I had a couple of glasses of wine: two glasses of a Syrah-like red, which I didn't make a note of the name, and a sparkling dessert wine called Bigario Elio Perrone. The latter came at the recommendation of my server, and I enjoyed it so much, I ordered it again the next night.

Coming soon: Friday's dinner.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Suffering from a cold, so this will probably be short.

I saw Avatar yesterday, and really enjoyed it. The IMAX 3D version was spectacular; unlike other 3D movies I've seen in the past year or so, the process of watching through the glasses didn't result in a darker image.

The film is a phenomenal technical achievement, managing to so thoroughly and believably create an alien world that I quickly stopped wondering how they did it. I just found myself completely caught up in the story.

That story, it must be said, is pretty straightforward and black and white. Not only were there no real surprises, I think I actually predicted everything after seeing the trailer. But, you know, that doesn't matter to me. Because it's a story about big guys trying to oppress little guys using strength and force, and as regular readers of this blog should know, that's been something that's been on my mind lately. So this is totally the movie I needed to see.

Okay, I have to go sneeze a lot right now.