Sunday, November 30, 2014

Aqua by El Gaucho: Amazing Traditional American Seafood on the Beautiful Seattle Waterfront

Desperately looking for any means to get away from one of the obnoxious yearly holidays known as Thanksgiving where relatives place massive guilt on you if you don't show up for the awkward reunion, in addition of coercing you to take part in following their traditions or whatever the hell they want you to do which would otherwise lead to obnoxious drunken outbursts if not followed; I headed off to Seattle. Its cold weather and rainy skies were actually quite refreshing in contrast to the annoyingly never-ending sunny days that plague Southern California. Something to be noted when flying to Seattle: if you see people wearing a North Face jacket or vest, even more so if they're young college-aged women; they're most likely from Washington State.

Tangent aside, most of the restaurants that I wanted to try out were closed on the holiday; even more so as they were the trendy New American or European-influenced restaurants that SoCal lacks in comparison. As I wanted to have seafood as it deemed more appropriate of the colder, northwestern state; I ended up choosing Aqua by El Gaucho even though I had feared that the food might be too pedestrian for most dining enthusiasts (I really abhor the term "foodie" if taking a picture of the cereal you had poured yourself qualifies you as one) as it seemed like some of the people who dine there really just want to eat at the place solely for the gorgeous location on the Seattle Waterfront and don't mind paying for it without really caring about enjoying the food itself.

Definitely when I arrived there, the restaurant was certainly in a phenomenal location as it was right on the waterfront. The interior was certainly decadent as well with it being a place that serves old-school, traditional American seafood. The hostesses were very warm and kind in acknowledging my reservation while offering to take my coat. However in actuality, the vibe seemed quite accommodating not only due in part of the warm, highly-attentive staff and comforting interior; but it was filled with happy and kind families that chose to festively celebrate the holiday at this restaurant which contributed greatly to the momentum.

Newly seated, the gracious server who sacrificed spending time with his family immediately took my drink order while another server placed warm rolls of White, Wheat and Sesame bread. I ordered one of my favorite cocktails, a Manhattan made with Knob Creek Bourbon. Although standard in terms of appearance, I immediately noticed that it was prepared with the utmost care and precision as it tasted extremely balanced in terms of the measurements for each of the components. This certainly was the best Manhattan I've actually had ever! It certainly was so good that I immediately ordered another one after finishing it.

I ordered the Barents Sea Red King Crab Legs with Lemon Butter and Black Truffle Aioli. Boy was I glad to be enjoying this on Thanksgiving as it arrived quite beautifully! With the shells precut with sheers, it was not difficult opening it up which I greatly appreciated. The crab eaten by itself was extremely bold and lush in flavor. Be that as it may, the lemon butter was definitely the perfect complement for the crab. Although provided some nice acidity at times, I felt that the Black Truffle Aioli fought against the flavors of the crab. With that being said, I picked all of the meat within the crevices of the shells and devoured most of it using the Lemon Butter.

For my side dish came the half order of Sweet Roasted Yellow Corn with Chipotle Lime Butter. It was very richly flavored and satisfying. I could be wrong, but it definitely had a smoky flavor as it might have been cooked with bacon. Although the side was definitely delicious, I felt that it was a tad bit salty. Be that as it may, I would certainly order it again but also hope that the chefs would be more conscientious of adding the right amount of salt to the corn.

As I'm not much of an actual dessert person, I've ordered the Lagavilin 16 Year Single Malt Scotch from Islay (the "Ron Swanson" whisky) to end my meal. It came nice nosing glass in order to efficiently savor the whiskey aromatically.

My time at Aqua by El Gaucho was certainly amazing. Although I had earlier mentioned that I was worried about how the food might have come off as too simple, I was certainly impressed as its simplicity made the flavors of each high quality component stand out boldly. Although the food is quite delicious, the price I have to unfortunately admit was quite high for the value, especially at $89 for the crab legs. In most situations involving dining, I have no problem paying that price if it certainly is worth it. Would I pay for it again? I would but not often, for sure. However, what really left a sour taste in my mouth was paying $20 for a Knob Creek Manhattan. Even though I've just said that it was the best Knob Creek Manhattan I've ever tasted, I felt that it was quite unreasonably steep that I actually filled out a comment card complaining about it. I understand that the upkeep of maintaining a restaurant on a extremely valuable property is quite high, but I still don't feel that reason is adequate enough to justify its high price as even Michelin-starred restaurants don't even charge that high for the same thing.

Be that as it may, I acknowledge that it takes great skill to prepare deceptively simple yet extravagant seafood and craft amazing cocktails with accuracy and precision as they have to maintain high standards throughout the night. In addition to the food and drink, the skills and the attitude of the front of the house staff were certainly quite polished and attentive. The next time I come to Seattle with a companion, I would definitely like to bring that person here without much hesitation, except in regards for the price.
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Monday, November 24, 2014

ROC: Ikko (3rd Post) - The Most Authentic, Non-California Roll Serving Sushi Restaurant in Orange Country Triumphs Again

With being busy at work and the hideous commute preventing me from dining out, I've finally gotten a chance recently to do so. In addition to me being desperate of satisfying my authentic sushi craving, I figure what better place to settle my cravings at Orange County's best and most authentic sushi restaurant: Ikko.

On Yelp, people have been talking about how "rude" the chef is. I would like to respond by saying that Chef Ikko is actually quite warm and respectful but it takes time to see that side of him. Initially, he does seem quite reserved and doesn't talk as much as there are lots of past customers who don't want and aren't willing to try authentic preparations of sushi (hence the "No California Rolls" sign in front of the establishment). Be that as it may, I've developed a relationship with the restaurant the more and more I keep coming back. The staff saw that I can greatly respect and appreciate the quality and traditional preparation of their food as they understand that I would never dream or dare ordering a spicy tuna roll. The bottom line is for customers to show respect by not hesitating to try something out of their comfort zone and they shall be rewarded of not only receiving the respect of a talented chef but also experiencing culinary pleasure that greatly exceeds most dining experiences.

After ordering a large Tamanohikari, a Junmai Ginjo sake from Kyoto that has a silky smooth flavoring as described on their menu, while giving a glass to each of the sushi chefs, I've started out with the White Fish Carpaccio with Balsamic Vinaigrette and topped with Yuzu Kosho, Sea Salt & Basil. The three pieces on the left are Halibut (Hirame) and the right are Bullseye Fish. As mentioned in my past reviews, this amazing dish is not listed on their menu. The fish are not only delicate tasting along with the salt, balsamic vinaigrette and sea salt bringing out and complementing the fishes' flavors, but the unique touch of basil gave it quite the delicious variation as I'm tasting the carpaccio with this for the first time.

After a great starter, my nigirizushi course began with Akami (Lean Bluefin Tuna). As always, it is very delicious, especially with the flavors of the Tare (Seasoned and Simmered Soy Sauce) bringing out the complex flavors of the lean tuna.

The following piece is the Spear Squid (Yari Ika). This has a nice texture of it not being too firm at all where it would have came off as rubbery. The neta (sushi topping) has a nice bite to it along with it being quite delicate, not aggressively fishy as some might perceive squid to be.

The next fish as I have a fuzzy recollection at this point is what I assume was File Fish from Kyushu. Like all of the white fishes from Kyushu, it was quite delicate in flavor with the sea salt bringing out its flavor.

Although they usually blowtorch their Chutoro (medium fatty tuna) in order to have the fat melted so that it can spread throughout the fish, I actually prefer it to be unseared with only a brush of Tare applied to it. As expected with Chutoro, it was of course quite luscious as it's moderately marbled in fact versus Otoro (very fatty tuna) which they didn't have.

For the next three, and right near to the expected Uni that I would have soon savorly embraced with all of the receptors within my palate, the Katsuo (Bonito), Suzuki (Sea Bass) and Kurodai (Black Sea Bream) were the stars of that day's course. On the left, the Katsuo was deep, smoky and earthy in flavor while the Grated Ginger served as a nice contrast and the Tare served to carry out the rest of the fish's flavors in full throttle. In the middle, the touch of Sea Salt brought out the delicate yet quite deep flavors of the Suzuki. With the same touch of Sea Salt, the Kurodai had elegant flavors dancing around on my palate. 

To be honest as I wasn't sure if the chef had brushed it with Tare along with applying Sea Salt, but the Tai (Japanese Snapper) was certainly divine in flavor which makes it quite fitting as the fish itself is used in Shinto rituals. 

Next is the Premium Mackerel (Saba). Although it's brushed with the Tare where it would have masked the unpleasant fishiness associated with the fish, my taste buds ultimately assured me that this is of the highest quality where it wouldn't have had it in the first place.

This was definitely a real treat: Engawa (Halibut Fin). With the tare bringing another dimension of the delicate flavors of Engawa, the texture of this neta was quite tender as it contributes to the pleasantness of this particular sushi piece.

Following Engawa came Ikura (Salmon Roe) and Sanma (Pike Mackerel). As with the Saba before it, the Sanma was quite bold in flavor, even more so than the Saba, without it once again being aggressively fishy. As with my past visits, the freshly marinated Ikura was literally bursting with briny flavor as the roe popped in my mouth.

The grandeur moment of the course as I've preemptively ordered two pieces instead of one: Uni (Sea Urchin). Along with the Tare bringing out and complementing its complex and deep earthy flavors, the Santa Barbara uni is of extremely high grade that I can safely say that Ikko serves the best Uni in Southern California, let alone Orange County. Even though I've experienced it so many times, it was such a compelling religious experience that I definitely savored it as long as I could in my mouth. That's how divine the Uni is at Ikko.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of the Hotate (Scallop) and the Anago (Sea/Conger Eel) that followed the uni. The Hotate was touched with Sea Salt. Some might be hesitant of trying raw scallop without any sauce but I assure you that with only the touch of salt was more than adequate in bringing out the clean flavors of the scallop; not fishy at all. Although there was certainly no issue with fishiness as just mentioned, like with some of the other sushi restaurants, a touch of yuzu juice would have greatly complemented the Hotate. In regards to the Anago, it was freshly roasted as it was complemented with a much thicker Tare (some would call that version "eel sauce"). The meat of the Anago was quite moist and loaded with flavor as the result of it being freshly roasted. Unfortunately, the shari (sushi rice) under the Anago fragmented quite easily due to the heat. 

At the end of the Nigirizushi course, I was then presented with Hata (Grouper). Although quite clean and delicate in flavor and with it being so, I had wished this was presented initially in the course.

At the end, I ordered the Green Tea Mochiko Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream and Anglaise sauce. Usually, I like the desserts at Ikko as they're never overwhelming in sweet and richness. However, this was the biggest disappointment of the night as the cake was quite dry. If it were moist, I definitely would have enjoyed it instead of it being an afterthought.

Regardless, I had a wonderful meal at Ikko. It definitely satisfied the high-end sushi deficit my palate was surely suffering from. Although dessert was the low point, it did not weigh down my overall impression of my most recent visit. With fresh and high quality fish and Chef Ikko's innovative touches on dishes, such as applying basil for the first time, this is what makes Ikko the best Sushi restaurant in Orange County.