Five Courses in Cupertino.

Talk about serendipity.
It was way too hot in San Jose today and we don’t feel like cooking anything, so we decide to eat dinner on the way home from work. Our first thought is the Benihana’s at Vallco Fashion Park in Cupertino -- we’ve never been there, and think it might be fun just for the cheese factor -- so we head on over. Parking is terrible, there’s a wait for seating, and we can hear several screaming kids in the restaurant, even from outside. After a very short discussion, we say thanks but no thanks and leave.
Lucie suggests the little place that opened where the El Torito used to be – some joint called Alexander’s Steakhouse. We’ve never been there before either, the parking lot isn’t full at all, and it looks like it might be a decent place to eat, so we go there instead.
We walk in the doors and are greeted by a glass wall, behind which sits row upon row of Flintstones-sized racks of beef, dry aging to tender perfection… oh yeah. I like this place already.
It’s still early enough that we’re seated immediately; only two or three other tables are occupied. We peruse the menu and something catches our eye – a little box in the lower left corner that says “Iron Chef Tastings.” Say… we like Iron Chef. And, we like tasting things! Let’s find out more!
Our server Scott explains that the executive chef and co-owner, Jeffrey Stout (who is NOT the same Jeffrey Stout who is an ethicist and teaches religion at Princeton, it turns out) is an adventurous sort, who is willing to create a menu from scratch based on the customers’ wants and desires, and cook everything himself. The dinners range from five to eight courses, depending on how many we want (and how much we want to spend.)
Call it a crazy temporary lapse of sanity, call it one heck of an impulse buy, but that sounds great! We opt for a somewhat low-end price based upon what the server says is charged (some people spend upwards of $600 per person for an eight-course meal centered around foie gras and caviar!), give our food preferences (no dairy, no olives, no duck), and say have at.
Scott goes back to the kitchen, and after a quick consult with the chef comes out for some clarification (light dairy [e.g., butter and touches of cream] would be okay, just no massive cream sauces or soft cheeses) and a very nice surprise – the chef says he can keep our meal under our target price, and still give us real, honest to goodness Kobe beef as the main course. Would that be acceptable?
Would that be acceptable?! Are bears Catholic? Darn straight that’s acceptable!
After one more quick trip to the kitchen, Scott comes back with the finalized menu scribbled on butcher paper (on which we had to sign off, for security purposes or lawsuit assurance or something.) We end up with five courses, plus three appetizers (or “amuses”, as Chef Stout calls them); plus, the chef has decided to throw in an extra course in just for the heck of it. Awesome.
While the chef starts on the meal, Scott brings out a dish of flash-fried shishito peppers, Japanese peppers that have a mild, slightly sweet bell pepper-like taste, to the table as a pre-appetizer appetizer. Lightly salted, the peppers work very well to cleanse the palate between the courses to come. I also order a Tanqueray and tonic for the same purpose.
First appetizer: popcorn crab with wasabi mayonnaise and sriracha -- jumbo lump blue crab, battered and deep fried, served with a light wasabi mayo and a dot of sriracha hot sauce. We feel a little guilty for liking the blue crab more than California’s native Dungeness, but our taste buds tell us to stop whining and keep eating.

Second appetizer: roasted corn blini with smoked salmon, sour cream, and trout roe, paired on the plate with a "green gazpacho" aperitif (vodka and cucumber with some basil and mint muddled in.) The green gazpacho is a little strong on the vodka for Lucie (and I can only finish ¾ of it myself), but the blini is amazing… the blini itself is soft, the smoked salmon is mild and flaky, and the caviar offers tiny little bursts of salty goodness that compliment the fish and contrast with the creaminess of the sour cream.

Third appetizer: gratin of lobster and eggplant -- the topping is actually egg whites and a few other ingredients instead of cheese; a quick run under the salamander browns it and gives it a cheese-like consistency without all the lactose side effects. Nestled on top of the gratin are a small pile of crispy eggplant chips for texture.

Course 1: seared tuna with caviar and uni butter -- also served with shiitake mushroom and some fresh wasabi (real wasabi, not that fake horseradish stuff you get with cheap sushi.) This is the first time I've had seared tuna at a restaurant that wasn't overcooked all the way through; this was perfectly crispy on the bottom and raw on the top half, just like it should be. Paired with this is a small glass of Gewürztraminer grape juice that is sweet without being overpowering, and beats the heck out of anything in a Welch’s bottle. Other than the main course, this is my favorite dish.

Course 1.5: a baby greens salad mixed with crispy prosciutto and champagne vinaigrette, topped with tiger prawns wrapped in phyllo and fried; small dollops of garlic aioli on the phyllo prawns remind me why the words “garlic” and “aioli” make such a wonderful couple. This is Lucie's favorite dish (also not counting the main course.)

Course 2: puff pastry with poached egg and hollandaise sauce, placed over a tempura batter crouton. Chef Stout comes out and shaves some summer truffles over the dish as part of the preparation. Lucie confesses that she thought about stealing some of the truffle to bring home, but ate it all instead. The next time we’re in Umbria, I’ll need to remind myself to buy some truffles for her.

Course 3: arctic char (a type of fish, sort of between salmon and trout) with popcorn (yes, popcorn) and rosemary, topped with creme fraiche and a reduced port wine and truffle sauce. Scott is as bemused as we are about the addition of popcorn to the dish, but works out well, adding some saltiness to the sweetness of the reduction sauce.

"Intermezzo": what they call a "strawberry snow cone" to cleanse the palate -- strawberry sorbet made in-house and topped with crushed ice. Simple, fresh, and oh so very sweet.

And then, our main course. Scott brings out our servings of New York steak, cooked to the perfect medium rare – this is real Wagyu Kobe beef, not the hybrid Kobe-Angus stock they raise here and market as "American Kobe." It’s paired with a morel mushroom and lobster ragout and a crispy artichoke wedge on the side. Moments later, Scott also brings out a complimentary tasting of Bordeaux wine to go with the steak. Our first experience with Kobe beef is amazing… the pieces of meat almost literally melt in our mouths, the richness of flavor is amazing, and there’s not a tough morsel to be found.
I fight the urge to lick my plate clean.
I fight the urge to lick Lucie’s plate clean.
I get the feeling that if I tried to lick her plate, she’d stab me with her steak knife because that’s HER steak juice, damnit.

Dessert is a simple plate of raspberry sorbet with fresh fruit (watermelon, blueberries, and raspberries) over a relish made with diced cucumbers and strawberries mixed with mint. I order a cappuccino to go with it… maybe I’m crazy, but I could swear that the cappuccino is made with Kona coffee.

As with all Alexander's Steakhouse clients, we also receive the whimsical freebie dessert of cotton candy as well -- two flavors, banana and grape. I’ve never had cotton candy that didn't taste like, well, cotton candy before; score one for the gourmet cotton candy machine in the kitchen!

Scott brings us the check (just sign; don’t look… just sign; don’t look…) and offers to take us on a guided tour of the restaurant and the kitchens. We accept, and he gives us a little bit of history of the place (what there is of it, since it only opened in 2005) along with some good commentary on the dry aged beef they serve in addition to the Wagyu as he leads us through the kitchens, through various private dining rooms (unoccupied tonight, since it’s the middle of the week), past four huge wine closets holding over 2,500 bottles of wine, past a humidor where customers can order cigars to smoke on the patio with dessert on summer nights, and past the locked case holding such liquors as the Hennessy Ellipse (only 1000 bottles made, only a dozen or so in the U.S., and costing $500 per shot.)
We think briefly about ordering some Wagyu Kobe steaks from their meat counter and having them vacuum-packed to bring home, but decide not to. Just the fact that we could walk in and order Kobe or dry-aged steaks is amazing enough.
We even get to keep the butcher paper with the scribbled menu on it, as a souvenir of the most expensive – and the tastiest – meal we’ve ever had.


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