Last week was Restaurant Week, during which participating restaurants around town put together special three-course meals that cost $35 per person, $7 of which is donated to two local charities. Â We seized the opportunity to try some new restaurants and visit a couple of old, special-occasion favorites and decided to make an entire week of it — going out to dinner Monday through Friday. Â It was a wonderfully decadent week, but also surprisingly exhausting. Â As glad as we are to have had the experience — sampling lots of amazing dishes, gathering inspiration to try in our own kitchen and discovering a new favorite eatery — we ultimately learned how much we really enjoy our lifestyle of planning our menus for the week and cooking and dining at home (except for the part where we have to clean up and do dishes.) Â Rather than exhaust all of you with every detail of every dish from the week, we’ll just hit the highlights. Â (But with a week’s worth of three (sometimes four) course meals, there are A LOT of highlights. Â You have been warned.)
We started the week at one of our all-time favorite restaurants, Mi Piaci. Â In our opinion, it’s one of the best Italian restaurants around town. Â The atmosphere is simple but elegant, with fresh leeks in vases as centerpieces, big white columns throughout the dining room and tall windows overlooking a little pond with a fountain. Â We’ve had some amazing meals there, from fresh pasta (the Tagliatelle alla Bolognese is fantastic) to authentic Italian main courses (Dan loves their Osso Buco alla Milanese.) Â We also like the fact that you can order smaller portions of their pastas, so that you can dine the way they do in Italy, with multiple courses. Â As much as we love Mi Piaci, it pains us to say that their Restaurant Week menu was not our favorite of the week. Â We have had so many delicious meals there, we were a little disappointed that some of the prix fixe offerings did not measure up to prior dishes.
For my first course, I had the Insalata Panzanella. Â It was good, with fresh veggies in a light vinaigrette, but I wished the croutons had played more of a starring role, as they did in this version. Â One takeaway from this course is to include celery leaves in a salad — they add another layer of flavor and different texture than the chopped celery on its own.
For his first course, Dan had the Zuppa Frutti di Mare en Saffron Brodo. Â He said it was very good — rich with mild seafood flavor and hints of sherry and saffron.
Mi Piaci is one of the restaurants that offered a fourth “specialty” course (Toasted House Made Gnocchi with Sambuca and Poached Baby Artichokes), which sadly, was the course we liked the least. Â The gnocchi itself had the right texture and was cooked well, but the sauce was way too sweet with an odd herb flavor we could not identify. Â Too bad, because Dan loves him some good gnocchi.
Luckily, he really enjoyed his main course — “Fonduta di Tortelloni con Granchino,” which means tortelloni filled with fontina cheese and tossed with king crab, mushrooms, tomatoes and asparagus in black truffle butter. Â The pasta was light and there was the perfect amount of rich flavor from the butter, crab and lobster. Â Asparagus and sliced shiitake mushrooms added texture.
For my main course, I had “Pollo alla Melegrana,” or oven roasted chicken breast with crispy cauliflower, kalamata olives and mint with pomegranate reduction. Â I liked the reduction and the chicken was tender and juicy, but the dish was otherwise unremarkable.
Our desserts were likewise good but not outstanding — tiramisu and dark chocolate flourless cake.
Although Mi Piaci’s Restaurant Week menu was not as good as we had hoped, their regular menu is wonderful and we’ll definitely go back. Â On to Tuesday and the next restaurant…
Our second night out found us at The Mercury. Â We had been there before, but only a couple of times, as we consider it a special-occasion type of place, with its romantic atmosphere, low lighting and contemporary decor. Â But what’s more special than Tuesday during Restaurant Week? Â We started our meal at The Mercury with the Pulled Pork Enchilada with Red Mole Sauce and Jicama Salad for me and the Braised and Pressed Oxtail with Poached Egg and Frisee Salad for Dan. Â Both were really good. Â I liked the homemade corn tortilla flavor and the rich and complex red sauce on the enchilada. Â Dan’s oxtail was meaty and paired well with the perfectly poached egg.
The Mercury offered two options for the special “fourth course” — I chose the Roasted Garlic Flan topped with Crabmeat Saute and Dan had the Tuna Tartare with Couscous and Chickpea Hummus. Â The flan had a nice pillow-y texture with barely-there garlic flavor and the crab was fresh and sweet. Â Dan enjoyed the combination of tuna, couscous, hummus and mint flavor in the sauce. Â It reminded him of the lamb tartare we had at our amazing dining experience at Fuego earlier this year.
For the main courses, Dan had the Grilled Tenderloin of Beef “Dynamite” with Braised Vegetables, and I had the Morel Stuffed “Boudin” of Chicken with Madeira Cream Sauce and Potato Tots. Â The chicken was a little dry, but the filling had a good mushroom-y flavor. Â The beef was slightly smoky, with a creamy seafood sauce. Â We enjoyed both dishes very much.
The highlight of our dinner at The Mercury was the Key Lime Pie with Cherry Sauce. Â Dan had the Apple Cobbler with Walnut Honey Sauce. Â It was also good, but after sampling each, we agreed that the pie was one of our favorite-ever desserts. Â The crust was perfectly light and flaky, and the key lime filling had a creamy lime flavor that was not at all sour. Â The “cherry sauce” tasted like caramel — maybe it was caramel — but who cares, it was delicious. Â I don’t often order dessert and when I do, I usually don’t finish it. Â Dan has never seen me eat so much of a dessert at one sitting. Â Clean Plate Club!
The night after our favorite dessert of the week, we found our favorite restaurant of the week (and possibly of the year.) Â Walking into Shinsei, we were struck by how cool the decor is, but it’s balanced nicely with tasteful Asian accents and a Zen sort of vibe that keeps it from being too pretentious. Â I was infatuated with the place before we even had our first bite of food.
We sat in the second-floor dining area at Shinsei, which was lovely. Â This gorgeous ceramic art installation wound its way up the wall from the first floor. Â And an inspiring quote was painted on the wall next to the art:
“by absence of grasping
one is made free.”
We started with our own bonus course — the Shinsei Sashimi, which was yellowtail, super white tuna and jalapeno in ponzu sauce. Â It was light and fresh with a nice spicy kick from the jalapenos. Â Dan decided to try a flight of sake with his meal. Â Our very knowledgeable waiter recommended the “30% 40% 50%” flight and explained that the numbers refer to the amount of rice layered off during the sake-making process. Â Except he explained it way better than I just did. Â The more that comes off, the higher the percentage and the more expensive and (arguably) complex-tasting the sake. Â Guess which one Dan liked the best?
My first course was Crispy Calamari Salad, with Fresh Heart of Palm, Mango and Banana. Â It was a genius combination of sweet and citrus from the fruit, salty from the breaded calamari, with a little bite and tang from the pickled onion. Â It inspired us to try mango in a salad at home sometime.
Dan’s first course was the Elvis’ Tuna Tartare, with sesame, cucumber and jalapeno. Â It was one of our favorite dishes of the week — really fresh with bright flavors and a nice combination of textures from the soft tuna and crisp veggies.
For our main courses at Shinsei, Dan had the Seared Snapper with Asian Risotto and Soy-Brown Butter, and I had the Grilled Beef Tenderloin with Tempura Short Rib, Toasted Hericot Vert and Roasted Tomato Ponzu. Â The snapper had a beautiful texture — a little crispy from the sear on the outside and perfectly flaky on the inside. Â It was also well-seasoned with a flavorful rub. Â The risotto was how was risotto should be — rich, yet somehow light at the same time. Â Although the beef was not my favorite, it had a good meaty flavor which paired well with the sweet and tangy sauce. Â The tempura short rib was unique and rich enough that it could have been the main part of the entree.
Our second favorite dessert (or maybe tied with the key lime pie for first favorite) of the week was the Ginger Snap Banana Parfait. Â This dessert brought out the best of the banana, with the ideal amount of sweetness and subtle vanilla custard flavor. Â If we could have figured out how to lick the remnants from the skinny serving glass, we would have. Â Dan’s dessert was also delicious — Lynae’s Famous Oatmeal Cookies. Â We don’t know who Lynae is, but she makes a damn fine cookie. Â Dan’s order came with three and we saved two to have for breakfast the next morning.
Next up (is anyone else tired of restaurants and food yet?) — Chamberlain’s Fish Market Grill. Â Chamberlain’s has the feel of an old-school steakhouse, with dark wood, low lighting and exposed brick (but not in a pizza joint kind of way.) Â We started with the bonus “fourth course,” the Shrimp and Crabmeat Tamale Tart. Â This may have been the most clever dish of the week — looks like a tart, but tastes like a light and cheesy seafood tamale. Â The tortilla strips and thinly sliced green onions added even more flavor and texture.
Next, I had the Goat Cheese Quesadilla with Salad of Baby Spinach, Strawberries and Almonds. Â Fresh and delicious with lots of creamy goat cheese. Â Dan had the Surf and Turf Dip with Spinach, Shrimp and Beef and Tomato Chips. Â He enjoyed it, but apparently not so much to compel me to write down any notes about it in my little notebook I was using to document our experience. Â Clearly, Restaurant Week was beginning to wear us down. Â Much like I suspect this post is wearing you down (if anyone is even still reading.)
I ordered the Cajun Style Pork Chops with a Sauce of Bay Shrimp, Crabmeat, Garlic and Herbs with Chili Mashed Potatoes. Â Holy Huge Portion, Batman. Â In case you missed it in the description (like I did), that’s “pork chopS,” plural. Â TWO good-sized, bone-in chops, deep fried and smothered in a shrimp and crab cajun sauce. Â The 1/4 of one chop I was able to get through was decadent to say the least, although it could have used a little more “BAM!” to be able to call itself a cajun dish. Â The potatoes were really good and inspired us to try blending other flavors in our ownÂ smashed potatoes.
Dan had the Wood Roasted Trout with Pecorino Cheese and Chive Potatoes and Crispy Spinach. Â The fish was delicious, with a panko breading and butter sauce that we’d love to attempt at home. Â Regarding the potatoes, our waiter explained that they do all kinds of different versions of mashed potatoes to complement the in-season fresh fish dishes. Â Well done.
For dessert, I had the Marinated Strawberries and Peach Short Cake with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream and Dan had the Triple Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie. Â Mine was fine, although the shortcake was a little dense and the peaches were overpowered by the marinade. Â Vanilla bean ice cream is one of my favorite things and Chamberlain’s did not disappoint. Â (FYI, for store-bought ice cream with homemade taste, try this.) Â Dan said his dessert was “so good, I feel like I’ve done something bad.” Â ‘Nuf said.
We had planned to close out Restaurant Week with some Friday night sushi, but we just couldn’t do it. Â Four nights in a row of restaurants and fancy three-course meals is apparently our limit. Â So we opted for popcorn (popped on the stove, old-school style) and a movie at home instead, and it was bliss. Â We managed to rally the next night and meet some dear friends forÂ French food as our final meal of Restaurant Week. Â Lucky for you, I focused on good conversation and friendship that night instead of food photos and notes, so nothing more to say here except that no matter the cuisine or venue, it doesn’t get much better than sharing a meal with people you love.