San Ramon: Some Tasting Notes (Primarily Blackhawk Grill)
Thanks to the ‘hounds who responded to my request for San Ramon reccos last week. Unlike our recent little foray to San Diego (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... ) there was less time and inclination to sniff out the local chow. It was sort of a conflicted road trip, given that I have recently had issues with the commitment to the long-term diet program, and it turned out to be sort of a feast or famine long weekend.
No booze was packed in the luggage for this trip, and the only snacks for yours truly were some bags of dried fruit, and diabetic nutrition bars. (I don’t know if it was my advancing age, hunger, or both, but you have no idea how good prunes taste when you are desperate.) We got a bit of a late start (which is normal when we provide our own mode of transportation), so after a “healthy” (in a quantity sense) carb/protein/fat laden lunch at our favorite local Italian joint, we finally hit the interstate in the mid-afternoon.
We checked in to the Marriott in San Ramon at about 8:30, and the first thing the Mrs. did, was leave me and go shopping, of course, after first checking the room service hours out, making sure that she would return to the room before the kitchen closed for the evening. I can report that the room service club sandwich at the Marriott in San Ramon was far better than the poor excuse of a club sandwich served by the Hyatt Islandia, San Diego, and room service operation. Why I was even able to extract a sufficient amount of mayo from the little tiny condiment jar with the cutlery supplied by the Marriott, and, they were kind enough to send up two of the little jars of mayo. So, the Marriott wins this round of room service competition.
We did stop by for our first visit to a branch of Peet’s on Friday morning. The Mrs. enjoyed a cup of regular coffee and an apple muffin and I enjoyed a mocha latte, and we were entertained by the interaction between a customer in the establishment who thought he qualified for table service, and a tattoo-ed, bearded (and I mean a Ted Kaczynski bearded) barista. The erstwhile customer eventually skulked out. It was pretty good coffee, and I was almost tempted to purchase some beans, but then I remembered I can get some really nice beans, that make really nice coffee from my local roaster for about half the price.
The Mrs. attended a business dinner Friday night. The deal was she would duck out as soon as she could and then we would high tail it to one of the local restaurants I was considering. So there I sat, not downstairs in the bar sipping libations watching the action on a big LCD screen, not downstairs in the Marriott’s sushi bar enjoying some nice fresh fish and cold libations, but up in the room, with the cable TV with my two gallons of Arrowhead water and a bunch of dried fruit, just hanging tough until the Mrs. returned. And I sat, and sat and sat. Finally the Mrs. returned and related to me that she had some pretty tasty Mexican food, and no, she wasn’t hungry. So rather than drag myself out, and drag her along to watch, I opted for room service again. Score another win for the Marriott’s room service over the Hyatt, I had a half pound burger, charred on the outside and medium rare on the inside, as requested, and the fries weren’t that bad either, nor were the two Kirin beers to wash it all down.
Saturday evening we finally did make it out of the hotel. I had narrowed our dining choices down to Little Home in Pleasanton, Norm’s Place in Danville and Blackhawk Grill in Danville. When I ran the list down for the Mrs. her first response was “I don’t want Indian”, to which I explained, “Little Home is Thai dear.” Hoping that she would remember her first and only Thai experience at Renu Nakorn in our neck of the woods. It did not work. The response was “I don’t care, I don’t want Thai.” Alas she is still in her Thai indoctrination phase. I could tell where this conversation was going, so I opted for the safest choice and informed her that we would therefore be dining at the Blackhawk Grill. Since the Blackhawk Grill was recommended in terms of my quest for good burgers, I had visions of burgers and beer. A nice relaxed evening of burgers, maybe some of the usual fried accompaniments and a bunch of brewskis. Oh how wrong I was.
Blackhawk Grill is kind of upscale, or at least it aspires to be. It had not occurred to me that maybe burgers would not be on the dinner menu, until we walked in to the place and saw all of the white tablecloths. OK, I said to myself, I’m a ‘hound, I’m adaptable, I can find something good to eat anywhere, and I did, at a price.
So we perused the menu and the wine list and started our evening with the least expensive bottle of wine, a $45 bottle of domestic sparkling wine, I figured that some brut bubbly would be enjoyed by us wine hicks, since 80 bucks for a bottle of my preferred choice, German Riesling was not going to happen. It wasn’t bad stuff, produced in the Napa or Sonoma area, and we nursed it all evening. (The next time I go to one of these high falutin’ joints I am going to first buy a set of those “walkie-talkie” like cell phones, you know the kind, where you don’t have to dial, you just push a button and the phones sort of twerp and you are in instant communication with your buddy. I will buy a set of those and have one of them delivered to a certain esteemed ‘hound who is a habitué of the S.F. board, and when I open one of those wine lists with the $500 dollar and down wines listed, cry out for help and guidance through the jungle telegraph.)
Early on, while sipping our wine we were offered a complementary amuse. The server did not exactly say what this little taste tickler was, and of course the Mrs. took a look at it and passed on it. So I, ever game, dug in. Only the digging in was a little complicated. The amuse was some little, tiny morsel, that appeared to be a tube shaped pastry with something stuffed in it. By tiny, I mean about half the size of my baby finger’s fingernail, but artfully sliced on the bias. There was something pinkish and tasteless inside, and it came swimming in kind of a ivory colored sauce of some sort with little tiny, almost microscopic specs of black. The sauce was warm to the tongue, kind of tasted well, but neither the taste of the sauce or the pastry stuffed morsel could be discerned. As I said the digging in was complicated, complicated by the fact that no spoon was provided, just a salad fork. So imagine trying to pick up this little pastry contraption without it’s slipping between the tines of your fork, and forget about getting any “gravy” with it. I was able to sort of wipe the tiny dish of all of its sauce with some focaccia bread, I was reduced to dipping my bread because the amount of butter that was served with the bread plate was about enough to coat the back of a large postage stamp. The bread was good, and the mysterious sauce made it even better. We later learned that the amuse was a little salmon “roll”, I guess as in egg roll or pot sticker, and the sauce was a caviar sauce. Tiniest grained caviar I had ever seen, about the size of poppy seeds.
The Mrs. thinking salad, ordered an heirloom tomato salad as her starter, and I, true chow-everyman with blue-collar chow tastes and experiences, ordered my first ever seared foie gras. I knew what to expect out of the Mrs. “salad”, I had an idea of what to expect out of the goose delicacy, so I was not surprised at all when the Mrs. “salad” arrived, and there was not any leafy material present, but mostly some funny looking red and green/white tomatoes on a plate with some balsamic based “dressing” pooled in the bottom of the plate, some finger-nail sized (in perimeter dimensions, and thickness) cucumber slices, some even smaller onion slivers, and some little thin “sticks” that might have been a rice product, tied together with (I must correct myself) the only piece of anything remotely resembling green, leafy, organic matter. The Mrs. gamely dug in to the tomatoes, but her heart just was not in it, so I ended up scoring her salad. I quite enjoyed the heirloom tomatoes, as unlike the “engineered” tomatoes that we find in our local supermarkets, these actually had some heft, body and density to them, and tasted like real food. Quite nice. But of course, careful as I was, in this high end establishment, I could not avoid staining the table cloth in front of myself, as I futilely chased minuscule slivers of cucumber and onion across my plate with my fork, and barley managed to snag any of them and get them to my mouth. I really hate “pretty-fied” food.
I was a bit taken aback at the postage stamp sized slice of seared foie gras. I kid you not, this piece of liver was about and inch long by about an inch wide, and about 3/8 of an inch thick. As small and insignificant as it was though, it actually had grill marks on it, multiple grill marks, in a consistent pattern. No wonder it cost $16, someone must have been very carefully searing this thing with tweezers on a miniaturized grill, under a microscope! It came with some of Blackhawk Grill’s (famous) fingernail sized slivers of peach (I believe it was peach) and some sweet tasting juice of some sort. What did it taste like, like a little piece of cooked liver, very tender, kind of a liver taste, and the fruit and “sauce” complimented it. Was this a dish that I would swoon over, nope, was this a dish that I would go out of my way for, un unh, was this a dish that I ever need to eat again, no way. I suppose my tastes are just too plebeian, but in my opinion, foie gras is not worth the trouble, to the person eating it, to the person preparing it, and most importantly to the creature supplying it.
For her entrée the Mrs. opted for some roasted pork tenderloin. Some orzo and asparagus spears accompanied it. The Mrs. enjoyed the pork, the pasta was kind of tasteless, and the asparagus spears were OK, just OK. Now I believe the pork only set us back about $26.00, so no surprise that on that very large plate, nestled upon the pasta were three, count them, three “coins” of pork loin, about the diameter of a half dollar, cut about 1⁄4 of an inch thick. The Mrs. enjoyed it, but come on, about three ounces of meat?
I ordered the house specialty, a mushroom and horseradish encrusted prime rib chop. This was a truly monumental piece of meat. It was cooked medium rare, and charred well on the outside. It arrived in a veritable swimming hole of juices, and also had a good seasoning of salt and pepper on the exterior. This little puppy came on the bone and was just about two inches thick. This was a carnivore’s dream, one of those sexy dreams. This is what this place does well. I enjoyed every bite, every blissful drop of juice. The icing on the cake was not the sautéed spinach that was buried under this massive hunk of meat, but the au gratin potatoes next to it on the plate. Tender, perfectly cooked, perfectly creamy-cheese-y potatoes. Anyone who has a hankering for meat, for a taste of beef, this is a place worth visiting.
To end our meal the Mrs. ordered a trio of “short cakes” and berries and a cup of coffee, I had a cappuccino. While waiting for her dessert we were served some demitasse-sized cups of a chocolate concoction, some sort of cold chocolate cocoa. Not too sweet, not too cold, chocolate tasting, and in my opinion, just another affectation. The Mrs. ate most of her “short cakes” but in her considered opinion these were not short cakes. One seemed to be a miniature scone with poppy seeds in it, one seemed to be a miniature “cream puff” made from choux pastry and one seemed to be a miniature half muffin, half chocolate brownie. Each had a few small berries, like blue berries, or Blackhawk Grill's signature, finger-nail sized slivers of strawberries, and a little dollop, maybe a teaspoon, if that much, of whipped cream. All very precious, but ultimately, not very satisfying. Total tab for this dining interlude was $175.00. Oh, and this is the first restaurant I have ever dined in where a hunk of beef was listed at "Market Price" on the menu (market price turned out to be $55.)
My recommendation, if you want a nice piece of beef, this is the place in that neighborhood. If you want to impress someone who is unsophisticated in terms of fancy dining, this is the place in that neighborhood, but don’t be surprised if you see me walk in wearing my shorts, polo shirt and sock less deck shoes, or the guy with his date at an adjacent table, in his shorts, athletic shoes, T-shirt and ball cap (on his head for the entire meal).
Oh, and I think all that nano-technology that I have been reading about recently, well it appears that the scientists in Silicon Valley have figured out a practical use for it, at the Blackhawk Grill.
Sunday morning we got out of town, pleasant memories of beefy burgers and prime rib fading away, replaced by a health breakfast at the Denny’s in Santa Nella. (Hey, their breakfasts aren’t bad, and, heh, heh, heh, they donate 20% of our tab to the Urban League.)
I have noted, for future reference, the tips for Kinder’s (I have visions of beefy sandwiches) and the Sunol Café for breakfast (if I can hoodwink the Mrs. in to trying this non-chain outpost).
Thanks again to the helpful locals for their kind input.
Sorry if BH Grille didn't work for you. The burger is on the lunch menu. At dinner hour, Norm's would have been more the place to score the burger.
Next time the Mrs. wants a nice but not hi-falutin dinner out while up there, you might go to Piatti in Danville. On warm nights, the patio is great, the flatiron steak is great, and there are usually some decent fish and chicken options in addition to the full array of pasta etc.
Thanks for the only detailed and amusing report on Blackhawk Grill on Chowhound ... and pretty much anywhere on the web.
It reinforce my theory that when in the suburbs, never eat at the fanciest restaurant in town, they just never get it like the big city.
Here's a link to their website with one of those annoying 'clever' websites where you need to figure out to click on the menu on the table to view the menu. Compound that with the fact the menu is in pdf format with no warning. The winter menu is still on the site.
Interesting chef and pastry chef profiles.
I cannot believe this is coming from my fingers given my strong stance about fois-gras ... but ... you didn't have good fois gras. If you did, it would have been a revelation. When a restuarant knows how to prepare this it is wonderful.
So even though I don't want to be a booster for fois-gras, keep reading the boards and take note of places that do great jobs and try one of those places ... once. This is one of those situations where ignorance is bliss. I was so knocked out by my first taste of fois gras that I Googgled to find out more about it ... oh well. I have it every now and then when a restaurant I frequent forgets it is not something I eat and sends some out some complementary fois gras ... at that point, what can you do. It ain't going to save THAT goose. I'm not a fanatic about the issue.
I dunno, there might be something else afoot at Blackhawk Grille. When I spoke to the folks at Happy Quail last fall trying to coax a couple bags of end-of-season pimentos de padron out of them, they let slip that Blackhawk Grille was their largest restaurant customer for these and the various peppers they sell.
Joan's post on Happy Quail's pimentos de padron -