On Monday April 4, KQED's Bay Area Bites bloggers went out on the town (well, out to the Marina) -- drinks at Nectar Wine Lounge, then dinner at Bistro AIX. Each of us wrote our own account of the evening, which follows...
It was a treat to meet & eat with the BAB bloggers. There was a constant hum of food-related banter, critiques, stories and six degrees of separation.
We had a mellow 3 flight wine tasting at Nectar prior to dining a few doors down at Bistro AIX. The wine descriptions are designed as foreplay for the date & mate crowd. And, of course, we had to read them out loud to each other prior to embarking on each flight. My fave from the "Bubbles Flight" was the Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs. If you haven't visited Schramsberg, tasted their bubbly, and toured their wine caves you must go -- but be sure to make reservations. On the "Bad-Assed Red Flight" I enjoyed the 2002 X Winery and on the "Anything but Chard" flight the 2003 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio was light and fruity.
Bistro AIX was especially tasty since I was dining with three foodies and we all shared. In general, the food was all very fresh, prepared simply yet elegantly, and delicious. The highlights for me were the Tempura Fried Calamari with Red Curry Aioli, Asian Cabbage Salad & Cilantro appetizer, the Grilled Top Sirloin with Maitre'd Butter, French Fries and Watercress, and the Tahitian Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee. The calamari was cooked just right, light, plump, and with tangy seasoning. The steak was perfectly medium-rare and juicy and the fries were light, crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. The creme brulee had a crisp carmelized top with a flavorful smooth creme filling. Even the little cookie accessory that came with the brulee was tasty. The waiter steered us in the right direction with the wine selection and we had two excellent bottles, a Chinon and a Vacqueryas. The service was great, the atmosphere was relaxed and unpretentious -- we sat outside on the enclosed patio which was comfortably heated. I would definitely go back to Bistro AIX.
BABs About Town
Stephanie, Wendy and I had 9 wine glasses in front of us when Amy strolled in to Nectar. I'm sure we were a sight with our 3 flights of wine (one bubbly, one white, and one red), but she jumped right in as we took turns reading the rather sultry wine descriptions aloud dramatically and then relentlessly gave our wine critiques.
Shortly before we were due to arrive next door at Bistro AIX for our reservation we decided that we needed to get some food before all that wine made us too loopy to remember that we had a reservation. The restaurant was fairly empty but a glance toward the back revealed where everyone was hiding. The enclosed back patio was warmed from the glow of heat lamps. Stephanie and I gleefully ordered a Chinon (taking me back to a summer evening in Paris) after the waiter agreed it was an excellent choice. Light and refreshing it was a perfect complement to the array of salads, the perfectly fried herb-spiked calamari, and the rich broth-based bean soup that we ordered. As with the flights of wine, and the rest of the meal, we shared everything. Yet another highlight to the evening. (As Amy mentioned in her review, and like most foodies I know, I like to try as many dishes as possible when I go to a restaurant so I'm always into sharing. I'm happy with just taking a bite or two of a dish and then moving on to the next.)
For the main event we moved on to a more full-bodied Vacqueryas (suggested by our wine-savvy waiter), and ordered exclusively from the specials menu: hearty potato gnocchi with black trumpet mushrooms and asparagus, tender lamb shank, fresh seared halibut, and a perfectly medium-rare steak frites. My favorites dishes were the lamb, rubbed with fresh herbs and served atop creamy polenta, and the steak. I'm a big fan of gnocchi, but it is rare when I think it is done incredibly well. The best gnocchi I've ever had were made by friends (albeit, one was a chef and the other an Italian who was food-obsessed and an excellent cook). Anyway, the gnocchi was okay, but didn't hold a candle to the meat and the fish dishes we tried.
Finally, with as much wine as we could drink and remain standing (or actually, sitting, since we had not left yet), we moved on to the desserts, which frankly Amy did a fantastic job of describing. We did order all 4 desserts on their menu, and they were all delicious, but my favorites were the strawberry-filled crepe and the creme brulee. In fact, I think the brulee rivaled the best I've ever had.
All in all, we got a lot out of the evening. We found a great new wine bar, a fantastic French restaurant that I will certainly frequent, and we had a great time together. I can't wait until our next BAB culinary adventure!
Aix Marks the Spot
My memory is a little fuzzy from the most excellent Chinon and the Vacqueryras we had with dinner, but I believe I can recall the night's revelries pretty well. After sharing three flights of wine at Nectar Wine Lounge -- with every flight we giggled more at the thoroughly lascivious, but thoroughly delightful wine descriptions -- we BABers staggered next door for dinner at Bistro AIX on Chestnut and Steiner. Out on the patio, we were kept warm by an overhead tarp and heat lamps that got downright toasty as the night and wine flowed on.
I'm sitting here thinking about our starters and I can't decide which I liked the best. They all seemed to fill a mood for me. Wendy's salad was a simple, perfect plate of butter lettuce and herb vinaigrette. Kim's baked goat cheese salad with mesclun greens (or maybe it was spring mix) was pretty much what I've had at Chez Panisse but still quite nice. If I had been in the soup mood, Amy's clear broth soup with butter beans and kale would have really hit the spot. In fact, it's actually something I'd really hanker for when my stomach is out of sorts, but the truth of it is, I've been feeling beety these days and my beet salad was just what I needed. It struck that perfect balance between all the important elements: tangy, creamy chevre, deep earthy beets, tender spinach, and just a zing of orange zest to brighten everything up. The calamari was a tangle of spicy daikon radish greens and shredded cabbage drizzled with a piquant, peppery aioli. It wasn't overly battered or greasy, and the squid itself was tender and chewable -- not so rubbery that your jaw snaps back when you try to bite into it.
On to the mains. Kim's gnocchi dish was quite delicious with delicate trumpet mushrooms and lightly sauteed greens but the gnocchi themselves were a little heavy for me. As summer comes on, I'm not a big fan of dense pasta dishes -- I want my gnocchi light and ethereal. Yes, that gnocchi can be found, I found it at Quince last October and I dream of it to this day. Amy's main was lamb shank. Now, I'm a lamb lover but I've never actually had lamb shank. I probably won't again, either. It's not that the lamb shank was bad, mind you, I'm just not a fan of stew meat. It's why I usually steer clear of Boeuf Bourguignonne as well as short rib dishes. Braised is not the way I like my red meat. I like it bloody. On that note, Wendy's steak was tops. Perfectly seasoned and perfectly medium-rare without a hint of grey on the edges. That's how I like to judge a good restaurant -- forget the tired foams, gelees, and nicotine cocktails -- if I ask for medium-rare beef and I actually get medium-rare beef, I'm coming back. My halibut with butter beans and baby artichokes was light, full-flavored, and deeply satisfying. I had been craving halibut ever since halibut season started and this was a wonderful way to satisfy my yen.
Of all the desserts, I believe a few of us (chocoholics not included) felt very "meh" about it. For me, it was just like every other flourless chocolate cake on every other menu -- nothing more, nothing less. The sliced strawberries folded into blessedly thin crepes was a delicious reminder of my mother's perfect crepes and I really enjoyed the apple tart as well. However, what really got to me was the creme brulee. I am usually not a fan of either creme brulee or creme caramel. I sort of think the creme jiggles and wiggles too much like snot. I also have serious mental trauma associated with caramel. However, this creme brulee proved to me that there are creme brulees out there that I could grow to love, adore, and quite possibly cherish. The wonderfully hard sugar crust cracked appealingly to reveal velvety vanilla depths and I really had to restrain myself in the presence of the other BAB-ers not to run into a corner with the little ramekin and start licking.
Basically, it was good food, good conversation, and good people -- I don't ask for much more than that on a night out.
My Dinner with BAB
by Amy Sherman
So when it comes to dessert there are several different kinds of people. The chocolate people and the not-so-chocolate people. The pastry people and the give-me-creme-brulee-or-give-me-death people and the "please call it crehp, not crayp" people. We had all those people represented at our first BAB blogger dinner. Fortunately the one thing we all had in common is something I have begun to hypothesize all foodies may have in common--a desire to share.
Foodies share opinions and share meals, they even share the very food off their plate. What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine. The only foodie I know who refuses to share dessert is my husband who had a terrible incident where his chocolate mousse got passed around the table and the poor boy never got a bite. As a result of this trauma he became a dessert protectionist. He's also only a foodie by association, so perhaps he doesn't really qualify anyway.
The desserts were as follows: vanilla creme brulee, flourless chocolate "cloud" cake with raspberry sauce, a free-form apple pie with vanilla ice cream and crepes with strawberries and cream. I was most happy with chocolate cake, it was light and fluffy and chocolatey, just what I look for in a chocolate cake. Have I given myself away as the chocolate person? The creme brulee was so good it convinced a non-brulee eater of its merits. The crepes were delicate and filled with fresh, succulent berries. The apple pie was more of a tart really and while not the best ever, certainly respectable.
Like good little children there were empty plates all around and no fighting. Ultimately the story had a happy ending and everyone found something to love.