Sunday, July 31, 2016

Alexander's Steakhouse: A Best dineLA Deal and Fine Dining Experience in Pasadena

It's been a while since there has been a dineLA menu that has really been surprising to me, that is both an exceptional deal and with exciting dishes.  Alexander's Steakhouse did that and more, and is now one of my favorite restaurants in the city, both for and beyond dineLA.

But let's start with the dineLA dinner - as this is the last day of the Summer rotation of dineLA, and you still have a chance to experience Alexander's fantastic six-course prix fixe! (It was so epic that I've already repeated a visit within two weeks.)


The fine dining experience kicks in right from the start with an amuse bouche of uni dashi panna cotta topped with negi (a Welsh onion).


Course 1: the first of two options is their signature Hamachi Shots with smooth clean slices of sashimi in shot glasses, with dashi gelee, avocado, thinly chopped radish for light crunch and ponzu. A refreshing and tasty start, especially on a hot summer night.

Option two is the Passmore Ranch Sturgeon terrine, with dash buttermilk, and dollop of caviar.  Decadent, but the terrine is a bit firm.  I definitely preferred the hamachi shots.

Course 2: option one was the incredible Tartare of Beef with marrow cream, smoked carrot and bleu cheese. If this wasn't a fine dining establishment I would have picked up my plate and licked it: every element was the definition of luxury: from the rich, flavorful beef to the luscious cream made with bone marrow for maximum umami.


Option two was Dry-Aged Beef Tataki with barley miso, argan oil and horseradish.  Though I loved the beef tartare, the tataki held its own as another starter option as well.




Then came the bread bowl.  I've always thought that what a restaurant puts into their bread bowl speaks to the core of their passion for their work.  If they don't treat this as a token, obligatory thing - if they put care and heart into even this detail, then you can expect them to put heart and care into every other aspect of your experience as well, from food to service.  And Alexander's bread bowl is one of the finest I've had in LA - so much so that if they opened a bakery tomorrow, I would readily commit to frequent visits even just for their bread (and #foodgasm worthy trio of butters).

In this bowl: hokkaido brioche, squid ink bread, caramelized onion and garlic cheese rolls.  The hokkaido brioche was a warm fluffy cloud of deliciousness that brings me back to my childhood fav (Hong Kong natives may get the reference to Panash's hokkaido bread).  The rolls had just the right amount of cheese, at just the right balance of chewy and crisp.

Then there were the butters, in order of our unanimous favorites: Italian beef fat whipped butter with pieces of dried beef mixed in; honey butter served in a bone segment; Straus butter with sea salt. I wish they would sell the whipped beef butter to us by the tub because I would just spoon it all day.

Then came the dish, course three, that really distinguishes Alexander's from all other steakhouses: many would just focus on the quality, cuts, and cooking of their steak, and push out the standard sides with a few other appetizers on their menu.  Alexander's positions themselves as a fine dining steakouse with Japanese influence, and their pursuit of perfection shines through not only in the decidedly far from standard dishes on offer beyond steak, but their creativity in taking even those dishes to the next level.  Course three was between corn soup and chawanmushi topped with sea urchin - so we pretty much all chose chawanmushi.  Not only was it one of the smoothest, lightest steamed egg custards in recent memory, I loved the combination of corn puree in the egg itself, as well as kernels on top for bursts of juicy crunch and sweetness; the bright orange tongue of uni adding mouthwatering brininess; and sorrel gel for hint of herbaceousness.

Course four was the salad course, and we chose between Heirloom Tomato and Little Gem & Romaine.  Even with the salad courses Alexander's chooses not to slack, but to innovate:  The tomato salad came with melon, goat milk, makhani sauce and toasted bread.  The Little Gem was made with anchovy miso dressing, furikake and fennel for umami and fresh crunch.

then came the star attraction: course five was a choice between quantity and quality: Dry-Aged Greater Omaha Prime T-bone at 18oz, or Kagoshima A5 Wagyu at 3oz?

For me, it was wagyu or nothing.  With all the preceding courses and dessert still to come, I didn't need to go for quantity as steak doesn't taste good the next day anyway - and the last time I had been to Alexander's, their Miyazaki A5 was the best steak I had ever tasted in my life.

Plus, the same size of Kagoshima on the regular menu runs for $98 - so getting this same dish for dineLA ($115 for 6 courses total including the steak) is an incredible deal.  This was perfectly marbled, exquisitely flavorful steak and one no foodie should miss especially during dineLA.


 Our server let us know that the steak is purposely underseasoned, to allow us to custom salt it to our individual tastes.  They dropped off a lovely wooden square containing 6 artisanal salts.  Of these, Kala Namak was the most intriguing, as it somehow evokes flavors of steak and boiled eggs (triggered by sulphur???)

As palate cleanser: compressed watermelon with mint and cantaloupe granita.  Super refreshing and one I could picture being a massive hit at any summer/ bbq party.  If only they sold this to us too!!


Course six was dessert: Sweet Corn Brulee with blueberries, cornflake crunch and creme fraiche ice cream.  While I appreciated the unusual combination of corn with a classic french dessert, the execution was lacking for me.  Overall it felt a bit more heavy than I wanted - it would have been more on point if the creme were slightly less dense, the torched sugar crust a bit more delicate, perhaps the whole portion size scaled down - but tasty nonetheless.


Just when we were rubbing our bellies and loosening belt buckles with satisfaction, more tasty treats arrived to close out the meal: the first was a playful tower of cotton candy. 













Then a tray of mignardises including macarons, truffles and pastry puffs rolled in rice puffs.  








Aside from the main menu, some optional add-ons that I would recommend (if your stomach capacity allows, for you will be full just on the dineLA menu alone): Alexander's creative take on the classic Mac 'n Cheese, using udon noodles, four kinds of cheeses in a decadent Mornay (manchego, cheddar, camembert and parmesan), and truffled panko crumbs.

Or go for the Truffled Potatoes for your carbs.



Also, I should mention that Alexander's is one of few steakhouses in LA that has an incredible craft cocktail program, headed by Erik Lund at the attached Bull and Barrel bar. Celery is my favorite so far, made with tequila, celery, lime, serrano, with a salt rim: a refreshing savory / spicy drink that exemplifies the creativity that runs through every plate but through every glass.  Arrive early for dinner, and hang out at the bar if you are into whisky - Erik will likely have a bottle or three of hard to find whiskeys for you to taste.  As in, he actually goes to invite only whisky barrel auctions to score spirits you may have never even heard of.

All in all, an amazing experience and deal, and I would definitely return again soon, for dineLA or any other special occasion!



On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6.5 bites  
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (4 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 


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Alexander's Steakhouse

111N Los Robles Ave, Pasadena, CA 91101
Ph: 626.486.1111


Website: alexanderssteakhouse.com/pasadena  
Parking: valet $8, or park in public structure at Union & Euclid across from City Hall: $4-$5 flat rate depending on day and time of visit

Look for reservations, and points, at OpenTable
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Alexander's Steakhouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, July 24, 2016

1MB Travels: Cancun, Mexico: Day 3: Tulum Cenotes, Mayan Ruins and Casa Jaguar Jungle Dining

Our excitement rose with the sun on the third day:  we were heading to Tulum for many firsts: first time diving in cenotes, first time visiting Tulum's Mayan ruins, and first time dining 'in the jungle'.

We started our hour and a half drive south from Cancun at 6:30am to make our morning dive call time.

Where Cancun is a mass of commercialism, mostly packed with tourists, day drinking, nightly debauchery, and sensory overload, Tulum (at least the parts we saw) was all beauty, authenticity and calm.

Aside from ancient ruins, gorgeous beaches and jungles, there are also thousands of cenotes (sinkholes created by collapsed limestone over ground water) that form a large and fascinating underground cave system in Tulum and Mayan Riviera.  We had chosen two that sounded amazing but would also suit our level of experience.

Despite a hiccup with our guide at Calypso Dive Center waking up with clogged sinuses (making it dangerous for him to dive), when he heard how far we traveled, he called in a favor from a dive master friend to lead us.

After a gear fitting and quick debriefing, Julio drove us north through the jungle to arrive at our first stop, which initially was difficult to tell was a destination at all.



What only looked like a small clearing from the road turned out to be a gorgeous shimmering pond of clear turquoise, framed by lush greenery: and the 'gateway' to Casa Cenote.

The entrance was actually underwater, so we slipped our gear on while sitting at the pond's rocky edges, then dove below gorgeous root forests to get to the start of the passages.

The inner sanctum of Casa Cenote was nothing short of transcendent. The way rays / panels of light shone down through the crystal clear water, through natural chambers and passages between towering limestone walls, with nothing but the sound of our breath and fins rhythmically fluttering, brought a sense of indescribable spiritual calm and peacefulness. I felt like we were in an hallowed place, an underwater cathedral.


Click below to watch a video of our dive, captured with GoPro Hero Silver 4:

 

If you're wondering why the colors change dramatically midway through the video: it's because Casa Cenote is part fresh water and part salt water: where the two meet is the halocline.  Experiencing it in person is nothing short of breathtaking.  It was one of the most life changing dives I'd done so far - and I was grateful to have been able to experience this one as our first cenote dive - Casa CEnote was going to be extremely hard to top!

 Our second cenote was the better known Dos Ojos - the visitor center is also located there.

This was a more physically demanding dive, even before we hit water.

From the parking area, all visitors must haul their own gear (~50-60 pounds? for us including tanks) down flights of stairs to reach the dark lip of the cavernous entrance to the cenote.



We pulled our gear on, then scampered down a few underwater steps to the passage entrance.

Where Casa Cenote was mostly lofty turquoise and azure beauty and light, Dos Ojos was a lot more intimidating to a rookie diver - most of the dive was in the dark, flashlight required, and through narrow passages filled with stalactites and stalagmites, where you could not surface immediately if something were to go wrong.

Yellow rope threaded throughout the system helps guide tourists to stick to the known, safest route.  After completing this dive I would recommend other rookies work to master buoyancy before attempting it - otherwise, like me, you will struggle trying to stay in the middle of the passage and not get poked by the rock formations above or below.  When trying to control my buoyancy, I kept ping-ponging up and down wildly.  It was by sheer luck (and the watchful eye of our guide) that I think I got through that dive without incident or injury.

Another note about Dos Ojos: since it is a more frequented site, they've got more set up to support common tourist needs, like a camera with flash near the end of the dive like at an amusement park - and you can buy a print of the photo at the info center after; there are t-shirts and other souvenirs for sale at the center - but it is cash only so be sure to prepare accordingly (no ATMs there), USD is accepted as well as pesos.

As always starving post dive, we headed to El Camello Jr.  Seeing a long line wrapping around the block, and that we had to get to the Mayan ruins before the park closes for the day, we got food to go and scarfed everything down on a bench at the park entrance.

Here is the seafood ceviche.



Fish tacos.

And shrimp tacos.





It was a beautiful hike up to the Tulum ruins from there.

The only Mayan city built along the coast, and one of the few with a wall ("tulum" translates literally to "wall" and was designed to be a seaport), gorgeous architecture dating back to the 13th century overlooks sheer limestone bluffs and the impossibly blue Caribbean.





It was incredible to see these historical relics that stood the test of time.



For dinner, we ventured back into the jungle - a very unexpectedly chic stretch of it, minutes from the ruins.

We originally intended to check out Hartwood, a World's 50 Best Restaurant, but as they do not accept reservations and were already full for the night, we skipped down the road to Casa Jaguar.  The kitchen was al fresco, with rustic touches like a wood burning oven and reclaimed wood everything.

We dined and toasted with craft cocktails to the sounds of birds in the jungle - such an incredible experience.  (But as a reminder, when in nature you have to be prepared for the bad with the good - be sure to bring an arsenal of mosquito repellent or you will become the thing that the buggers feast on!)



The food was fine dining quality, but not mind blowing like we imagined Hartwood would be.  It was upscale Latin American with influences from the chef's travels to Asia and Europe, using local ingredients, from grilled shrimp with garlic butter, guajillo chiles and mezcal, to plantains.

Tulum was an amazing day trip down from Cancun, but since we all loved the diving, food and whole laid back, small town vibe of Tulum - next time we visit we will definitely look to find a place to stay there.

It would be very difficult to pick a favorite day out of our incredible Cancun/Tulum trip - special thanks to @jennybawel for all the hard work researching and booking the dives and handling transpo logistics! - but if I had to choose, Day 3 might be it.

Check out my recaps of Day 1 and Day 2. Stay tuned for my recap of Days 4 and 5 coming soon! In the meantime, for more photos from this trip, please visit my Instagram @onemorebiteblog


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Tulum, Mexico

Ontime Car Rental
Blvd. Kukulcan, Km 11.5 Loc. 101-B
Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico 77500
Ph: +52 998 883 0160
Website: ontimecarrental.com

La Calypso Dive Center
Tulum Quintana Roo Mexico 
Email: lacalypsodivecenter@gmail.com
Ph: +52 (1) 984 106 80 02
+52 (1) 984 100 73 85
Website: lacalypsodivecenter.com

Casa Cenotes 
Tulum 77780, Mexico


Cenotes: Dos Ojos
17km north of Tulum
Website: cenotedosojos.com


El Camello Jr
Carretera Chetumal-Cancun Locales 1 y 2 Lte 3 Mza 40, Centro, 77600 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Ph: +52 984 871 2036

Mayan Ruins Tulum
Website: tulumruins.net

Casa Jaguar 
Carretera Tulum Bocapaila km 7.5, Tulum, Quintana Roo
Website: casajaguar-tulum.com

Westin Resort & Spa Cancun
Boulevard Kukulcan KM 20, Cancun, Quintana Roo 77500, Mexico 
Ph: +52 (998) 848-7400
Website: starwoodhotels.com


Day 3 costs breakdown:

  • Car Rental: $40 USD per day = $10 per person per day including mandatory liability insurance
    • Gas: 200 pesos per day = 50 pesos per person per day (~$3 USD)
  • Cenotes Dives: $130pp includes dive gear rental, entrance fees, transportation from dive center to dive spots, guide and water
    • Dive tips: $20 per person
  • Lunch at El Camello Jr ~400 pesos total, 100 pesos per person (~$5 USD)
  • Tulum ruins: admission: 40 pesos per person (~$2 USD)
  • Casa Jaguar 
    • Dinner: 350 pesos entree + 150 pesos cocktail (~$27 USD)
    • Parking: 50 pesos (~$3 USD)
  • Hotel: 8,500 Starwood points
  • Total: ~$200 USD per person

(See my recaps for Day 1 here, Day 2 here, and stay tuned for Days 4 and 5.  To see more photos from this trip, check out my Instagram @onemorebiteblog)

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Sunday, June 26, 2016

1MB Travels: Cancun, Mexico: Day 2: Scuba Adventures: Underwater Sculpture Gardens and My First Night Dive!

Our second day in Cancun fell on July 4th!  We celebrated freedom and independence remotely, by spending most of the day (and night) immersed in underwater adventure.

Though I am not a morning person at all, waking up to this gorgeous white sand and clear blue ocean at The Westin could easily make me a convert.
And the service was also fantastic - even though we were there on a 'rewards' stay using Starwood points, the hotel still gave us complimentary breakfast buffet for two in their lovely sunlit beachfront restaurant.

With a planned morning dive, we couldn't completely indulge in the AYCE breakfast, but I loved the fresh fruit offerings including whole granadilla (first time I've seen / tried this fruit), guava, mango, as well as the made to order omelettes.


Our first dive of the day would be at the Museo Subacuatico de Arte ( MUSA), an underwater museum with over 1300 artificial habitats, an innovative project designed to counteract effects of climate change on oceans and reef systems by diverting tourism away from the national marine park, and creating new places for reef and marine life to colonize and thrive. 

It was a choppy 40 mins-long boat ride from Cancun to reach MUSA, just off the coast of Isla Mujeres (don't forget the dramamine, people!) - but once we were underwater, it was utter calm.

There were several galleries in the MUSA collection, at varying depths to allow those who are more into snorkeling or free diving to enjoy viewings as well.

Our tour brought us first to a reef teeming with smaller fish.  These locals were super friendly and curious, and one little guy even seemed to follow me around through several clusters of coral.



Then it was on to an actual MUSA site, Salon Manchones, about 8 feet deep and recommended more to scuba divers.

The installations consisted of various objects sunk to create habitats for marine life, from a Volkswagen beetle with a statue in fetal position on its windshield, to groups of statues like 'The Bankers', bodies only in prone position next to briefcases.
But the most haunting installation for me was a group of 400+ life-size standing figures in The Silent Evolution galleries, by renowned British sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor: some faces uplifted with pleading expressions - as if souls abandoned to the sea, looking for salvation that never comes.

As we are relatively new to scuba diving and sought diversity of experiences to add to our PADI log book, this was an interesting one - but personally I find that I prefer dives designed around larger marine life (or cenotes, which was scheduled for Day 3 of this trip!).

In any case, apparently diving is a good form of exercise - we emerged from the sea starving, so very uncharacteristically opted for the closest seafood shack to the dive shop. This happened to be on the lively Disco Beach.  First things first at Paradise Restaurante, a tamarindo margarita with chips and salsa. 
Of course, what beach vacation would be complete without a pina colada or three?  And when served in a pineapple?  All the better.  Though, I wasn't into the crazy Gremlin inspired face they made with fruit.  But the cocktail was refreshing on a scorching day at the beach.
When seaside, we try to of course dine accordingly - focusing on seafood.  Even though Paradise Restaurante was chosen based on expedience, and clearly catered to tourist tastes, we tried to go with the fresher sounding seafood items on the menu.  And, we were amused by the banner over the kitchen's pass - I'd love to be on a #seafooddiet for sure.
I ended up with fried whole fish, while others at the table ordered seafood tacos.

We also shared a plate of crabs, which were tasty but on the smaller side, with not that much meat for the price.


We had such fun with Cancun Scuba Center during the day that we decided to return that evening for our first night dive.  This departs from a different dock, next to the Holiday Inn in hotel zone.  It's easy enough to get around in the hotel zone using public transportation - the buses that go up and down the strip are only $1 per trip!  But since we had Tulum on the itinerary for the next day, our travel planner / agent extraordinaire @jennybawel had planned ahead and secured a rental car - so while we did our night dive Jenny took care of the car rental.

To be perfectly honest, the night dive was nerve-wracking for me, especially as a newish diver and not a very strong swimmer - the first few minutes were every bit as disorienting as I thought it would be.  We were supplied with flashlights, and outside of the immediate foot or so that the light is able to reach, it was pitch black underwater.  I was glad for the light, but it was one more thing to need to worry about among the many necessary steps you had to take to descend underwater safely - I heard myself breathing faster and deeper breaths in my nervousness.

Only two things helped me not drain all the air out of my tank before I even reach sea bed - our guide, who reassuringly let me hang onto his arm the whole time, and a giant sea turtle, who showed up a few minutes into our dive, curious to see what these bubble-making monsters were that was invading  his territory.  He swam right up to us and alongside us for what seemed like 5 minutes, and was joined by another turtle friend for a bit.  It was thoroughly magical.  I was too nervous to bring my GoPro down for the night dive, so no videos unfortunately - but it was kind of refreshing too, to just be in the moment, or as yoga teachers like to say, to be "present" - instead of engaging from behind a lens.  And it was a beautiful one, that I will never forget.

After the dive, Jenny picked us up and we grabbed quick food - restaurant selection again based on convenience post dive - at Mextreme, where tourist-friendly chefs prepared guacamole for us tableside.  Thus wrapped a fun Day 2 in Cancun.

See my recap for Day 1 here, and Day 3 here.  Look out for recaps of Days 4 and 5 coming soon.  In the meantime, check out more photos from this trip on my Instagram 

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Cancun, Mexico
Westin Cancun
Boulevard Kukulcan KM 20, Cancun, Quintana Roo 77500, Mexico 
Ph: +52 (998) 848-7400
Website: starwoodhotels.com

MUSA
Salon Manchones
Website: musamexico.org

Cancun Scuba Center

Website: cancunscubacenter.com

Paradise Restaurante at Disco Beach
Blvd. Kukulcan Km. 6.5 Local 8, Playa Tortugas, Zona Hotelera, 77500 CancĂșn

Night Dive
Cancun Scuba Center
Website: cancunscubacenter.com

Mextreme Cancun
Zona Hotelera Km 9 | (Frente Al Centro de Convenciones), Cancun 77500


Day 2 costs breakdown:
  • Breakfast buffet: $0 cost, complimentary with hotel stay; $10 USD tip
  • MUSA + Reef dive $83pp + $20 tip 
  • Lunch: $30
  • Rental car: $120 for 3 days = $40 per day split 4 ways = $10 per person per day
  • Gas for rental car: 600 pesos for 3 days = 200 pesos per day split 4 ways = 50 pesos per person per day (~$2.64 USD pp / day)
  • Bus to night dive: $1pp
  • Night dive: + $20 tip
  • Dinner: $45
  • Westin Resort & Spa Cancun: 8,500 Starwood points
  •  Total: ~$221.64 USD per person 

(See my recap for Day 1 here, and Day 3 here.  Look out for recaps of Days 4 and 5 coming soon.  In the meantime, check out more photos from this trip on my Instagram @onemorebiteblog)
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