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2005
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Aubergine, Anaheim, California, tasted on May 4, 2004  A trip to Southern California with the kids does not afford many opportunities for higher end dining. That doesn't mean that you can't get high quality low end food, just that you're usually restricted to that end of the spectrum. On this night however we got babysitters. The fact that we were willing to leave our children with a babysitter who we'd never met and was recommended by the hotel sitting service indicates one of two things. Either our cavalier attitude towards the welfare of our children, or our singular focus on getting as many high quality dining experiences as possible. And of course, it's possible it indicated both. Aubergine, located in Anaheim not too far from where we were staying, came highly recommended and that's where we went.

 I really do hate to be late for a reservation. I feel that it's rude. While I've never worked at a restaurant it's clear to me after many years of observing them that trying to keep people moving through the dining room at a leisurely pace while making sure all the seats are filled as often as possible is an incredibly difficult task. It's made all the more difficult when customers are not too concerned about when they arrive (or even if they show up at all). It's even worse when you're the last reservation of the night as you ended up being the long pole for everyone working in the restaurant. Every minute you're late is another minute they have to stay that night. And sure enough we arrived at Aubergine five minutes late. Believe me, even though it was only five minutes I felt bad. We'd been driving around the area trying to find the restaurant and had trouble locating it. And when we walked in the first thing I did was apologize.

Normally I really don't mention service much when I write. And the truth is because I'm willing to put up with almost any level of service if the food is really really good. It's when the food is bad that all of a sudden I start to notice things like service, price, decor, etc. But quality of food is really 95% of what I care about. And yet, the reaction of the hostess to our arrival does bear mention. She listens to my apology and then gives us a super long super snotty look while she looks at her watch and then looks back at us. We even got a couple of lecturing words on being late.

I have to take a moment to ask, what was the point of this? I understand if they wanted to be hardcore and say that we'd missed our opportunity. I might think it an extreme reaction to being five minutes late, but I would understand they were following their rules. But in fact, the seated us and served us. So what was the point of the lecture and shitty look? I think it was just to try and make us feel bad, which as you know is really the way you want to start off a meal. It's not like we weren't contrite about being late. I understand them either serving us or not serving us, but having the hostess trying to make us feel bad seemed unnecessary. And frankly, given how nice everyone else was to us the rest of the evening, I'm going to assume she was an anomaly. A mean-spirited, small-minded anomaly. And to be fair, maybe she was just having a super crappy day. Still, it made an impression. OK. Enough of that. Now on to more important things, like the food.

Things started off with an amuse of Blood Orange and Foie Gras Terrine with Aged Balsamic. This was a fantastic start to the meal. The gelee had a deep caramel focused dark blood orange flavor spiked with three gorgeous stripes of nutty, rich, deeply flavored foie gras. The balsamic had a deep flavor as well but was almost light compared to the blood orange and foie gras flavors. Very nice acids in this dish. I barely even noticed the distracting frisee cause everything else was so good. (Though, while we're on the topic, why does anyone who can make a terrine as wonderful as this one feel the need to "adorn" it with a blob of frisee? I blame customers who think that if they see food that looks spare and simple they think they're getting ripped off.)

A small dish of Crab Salad followed. It was super light with some tones of fresh citrus. Everything was super clean tasting and enjoyable. A nice contrast from the terrine. The other crab we had was also delicious. A perfectly fried Crab Cake which was not the least bit heavy and had a tiny kick on the finish. Our alternative Foie Gras (this time sauteed) was also very enjoyable and well prepared.

After our crab and foie gras courses we moved on to a silky smooth Corn Soup. The lovely sweet flavor of the corn was accented by smoky bacon. Essentially perfect. It helped that there was a small pile of niblets and other additional goodness.

I thought I knew where we were, but then came the Seafood Stew. I often don't view chefs who flit from one culinary tradition to another as adventurous... typically their food comes off as random. However when the seafood stew with its Thai and Southern Indian flavors came out I was surprised but pleased. The spice, cilantro, and coconut flavors were delicate and super present and generally very enjoyable. So who cares that we shifted gears... the dish was excellent.

Steve and Kira aren't big fans of sweet breads. I think it's sort of a traditional aversion to non-traditional meats. And it's not like I'm the offal master so I'm not in a huge position to judge. That said, for whatever reason, I do love well-prepared sweet breads and these were goregeous. Resting on some lovely lima beans, there was a fine grain seasoning on the surface of the sweet breads. The dish was super savory with a super juicy inside as well. Even Kira enjoyed it.

The Rabbit (with its little bones sticking out) was great. It had a smokey flavor permeating the juicy and delicate meat. The foie gras pastilla added extra smoke flavor. The crunchy shell of the pastilla was also enjoyable texture-wise.

The Pork was fine but not super interesting. That said the polenta had a nice cheesy flavor and the bacony cubes were great. It's difficult to find a dish with a nice cheesy starch and cubes of bacon that I'm not going to find a way to enjoy. The Lobster however, was excellent. It had a peppery flavor and was cooked well. Not chewy like some lobster can be. The crunchy vegetables were a nice complement. We were stuffed, but managed to pound our way through some yummy desserts as well.

All in all (weird watch incident aside) we had a pretty great meal at Aubergine. There are a lot of restaurants doing this style of food in the U.S. right now. Haute cuisine with the regional American touch. And frankly, it can be hard to stand out. But Aubergine wormed its way into our hearts in its own quiet way. They didn't have to use any crazy ingredients, or pull any tricks, they just focused on making each dish super high quality with deep flavor. And that's really all anyone can ask for.

It turns out that this is a bit too late (an unfortunate side effect of the delay we've had in posting reviews). Aubergine is being sold, but the owners are opening a new restaurant. Perhaps the owners will bring what we found enjoyable about Aubergine to their new venture.

 

     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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