Archive for the ‘Ultimate Mac ‘n’ Cheese Quest’ Category

I don’t ever have very high expectations when ordering “gourmet” mac and cheese at bars. This proved to be a good approach when ordering Q’s macaroni and cheese, because had I ordered it expecting an exceptional dish, I would have been gravely disappointed. The waitress told us it was good, but I sensed a bit of hesitancy or doubt in her voice – either because she’d never had it herself or because she didn’t think it was very good but didn’t want to deter us from ordering. I mean, it’s kinda against what she represents as a waitress to talk customers out of ordering food or to speak badly about her employer’s dishes.

The mac and cheese came out looking tasty, in an iron dish, creamy white cheese and topped with bread crumbs. The large elbow noodles were on the soft side, just the way I like them. Unfortunately, the goodness stopped there. The sauce was runny and lacked flavor. No creaminess, no gooeyness. I have no idea what kind of cheese was used because no flavors stood out. I’m guessing a lot of cream…?

I wouldn’t say the dish was gross by any means, but let’s just say we couldn’t finish it between the two of us and I wouldn’t order it again. For those reasons, this mac and cheese review ends here.

The place: Q’s Billiard Club
The dish: Mac & Cheese, $8
The ingredients: Large elbow noodles, cream sauce, bread crumbs, cheese (no idea what kind)
The verdict: This dish should be called Mac & Cream because I don’t actually know that cheese is an ingredient.

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photoI’m going to start this mac ‘n’ cheese review with a disclaimer that Slocums Grill & Bar’s Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese is definitely not for anyone with even the slightest lactose intolerance. And for different reasons than Bar | Kitchen’s dish, this is not for the faint of heart. It is probably the cheesiest mac I’ve ever had, with both creamy and gooey cheeses. Do I dare go as far as to say it was too cheesy even for me? . . . Nah.

Needless to say, it was one of the better macaroni and cheese dishes I’ve had on my quest. The fact that it is touted as “the ultimate mac ‘n’ cheese” in the menu says it was meant for me and my quest. Even before reading the description, I was sold on “smoked gouda” in the name. Smoked gouda is not for everyone, but I definitely like it. Surprisingly its distinct flavor didn’t stand out in the dish as much as I was expecting, though, I could pick out both the gouda and parmesan flavors. It had a rich, tasty flavor in every bite.

I think the combination of the two cheeses really helped achieve superior creaminess and gooeyness. It’s difficult to achieve both to a high level; the emphasis is either on creaminess, like Panera’s mac ‘n’ cheese, or on gooeyness like The Misfit’s baked mac ‘n’ cheese. Chef Slocums is clearly not your average mac-and-cheese maker.

Also adding to the flavor were the diced green onions and the smokehouse bacon (the latter can be added for $2 extra). From a texture standpoint, I think the bacon could have been cooked a little longer and chopped up smaller. I came across numerous pieces that were pretty rubbery (maybe I just got all the super fatty pieces). The spinach didn’t add much to the dish minus a little texture and color. Maybe it’s included to help people get their portion of vegetables for the day or help them feel better about ordering something that is probably pretty bad unhealthy…? But honestly, when you order macaroni and cheese, you just have to accept that you’re not in it for the nutritional value – just own your decision and enjoy it. The spinach was pretty sparse throughout already, so if the chef decided to start leaving it out, I don’t think anyone would miss it.

The very large portion comes out piping hot. Although I think it’s meant to be a main pasta entrée, I think it’s best shared. My friend and I shared it along with the salmon entrée, and we were still able to get our fill of macaroni and share it with people at the table. I would not recommend tackling it yourself because not only would you probably be eating 3,000 calories, but the cheesiness might also be a bit much by the last bite – even for a cheese head like me.

The place: Slocums Grill & Bar, Mammoth Lakes
The dish: Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese, $15
The ingredients: Large elbow noodles, cream sauce blend of smoked gouda and parmesan, spinach, green onions, garlic toasted breadcrumbs, smokehouse bacon
The verdict: A most delightful bowl of extremely cheesy goodness that’s likely bad for nondairy-ers and my derriere.

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This mac and cheese is not for the faint of heart. I dipped my spoon in for the first bite, but stopped short when I realized I hadn’t taken a picture yet (nerd alert!). I quickly licked the spoon off before I set it aside and immediately found my mouth burning from the roasted jalapeños, which were minced in the cheese sauce. From that point, I knew I was in for a hot one – and not because I happened to be sitting at the table by the fireplace. I made sure to have plenty of water on hand; red wine wasn’t going to do the trick.

The cheesy goodness came out piping hot – in temperature, in addition to spiciest – in an iron skillet. A “bacon herb crust” that consisted of bread crumbs, herbs (obvi) and crunchy bacon covered the top. More so than a little extra flavor, the topping added a great texture to the baked dish.

The cheese sauce was an aged white cheddar, so it had a delicious, rich flavor. Although cheddar often doesn’t get quite as gooey or creamy as I would like, this sauce’s consistency was pretty good. It had great coverage, coating all the elbow noodles. As I mentioned, the small jalapeño bits were blended in, so every bite was assured to be spicy. Even if I managed to get a bite that didn’t have pieces in it, the kick lived in the sauce. My guess is that the roasted jalapeños were blended and simmered with the cheese (I’m sure there’s a culinary term for that). Regardless of the proper term, they were exactly how roasted or cooked peppers should be: tender and permeating with flavor – far from the jalapeños in the last mac ‘n’ cheese I had, at Ore House in Vail.

Because I also ordered a burger (which came with tater tots), there was no way I was finishing the entire skillet. I ate half the pasta, half my burger and all the tots. Had I only gotten the macaroni and cheese, the portion would definitely have been sufficient for a meal. It’s also a good size if a group wanted to order it with a couple other small plates as appetizers or sides to their main dishes. It is listed under the “small plates” portion of the menu after all.

The place: Bar | Kitchen, Downtown LA
The dish: Mac & Cheese, $9
The ingredients: Large elbow noodles, white cheddar, cream sauce, minced jalapeños, bread crumbs, crumbled bacon, herbs
The verdict: Thumbs up for sure, but make sure you have plenty or water.

Jalapeño Bacon Mac & Cheese

A black sign with “Jalapeño Bacon Mac & Cheese” written in chalk drew my friend and me into The Ore House in Vail Village on a Sunday night. It was pretty late, so we were surprised to find a place serving food, let alone food that seemed far from standard bar fare. What’s more, the menu described it simply as “Need we say more?”  If the bar-restaurant had enough confidence to say that, I was willing to put my faith in that cheesy macaroni.

After getting our food, I realized that allowing my gut to decide my faith was a bad idea. To me, “Jalapeño Bacon Mac & Cheese” screams tasty, but it was actually quite bland and lackluster. The cheese sauce wasn’t creamy or gooey – a good mac and cheese is at least one of those, an amazing mac and cheese is both. I’m not sure what types of cheeses were used, but I bet a sharp cheddar and gruyere would have created a good consistency and strong flavor. (OK, so don’t put too much weight on that suggestion. I do know a good cheese, but I’m not yet an expert in pairing them for a cheese sauce.)

You would think the jalapeño would add some flavor, but it was as if the chef added it as an afterthought and so the pepper didn’t have a chance to permeate the sauce and pasta. If you’ve ever cooked vegetables (who hasn’t?!), you would have probably come to the same conclusion because the jalapeños were bright green and crispy. The jalapeños or chilies in any casserole-type dish I’ve eaten were always softened as a result of baking or simply cooking. I don’t know if the cook simply forgot to add them till the last minute in our dish or if that’s the way all of them are prepared, but it definitely wasn’t right.

The bacon was present but didn’t add much either. I guess if it wasn’t in there, though, the mac and cheese would have been even more boring. All the ingredients sounded so right, but unfortunately the end result wasn’t.

The place: The Ore House, Vail
The dish: Jalapeño Bacon Mac & Cheese, $8
The ingredients: Large elbow noodles, cheese sauce (TBD), minced bacon, diced jalapeños, bread crumbs
The verdict: Not worth ordering. Need I say more?

I can’t emphasize enough how important the actual dish is to a good macaroni and cheese. Some restaurants, like West 4th and Jane and a few others I’ve reviewed, take this into consideration and do the nostalgic, now-gourmet dish right. The Spaetzle Mac and Cheese is listed under the “Share Plates” section of the gastro pub’s menu, but the dish honestly isn’t big enough to accommodate more than two people (one if eaten as a main dish). Fortunately I wasn’t that hungry, because it was so good I could easily eat it all myself.

Served in a little porcelain pot, it comes out piping hot and topped with fried onion straws (or crispy shallots, as described in the menu). Spaetzle noodles are homemade noodles or dumplings with no unique shape; they hail from Germany and are popular in Kaesespaetzle, which is essentially a sophisticated macaroni and cheese. The noodles were soft – which I guess means overcooked according to one of my Mac ‘n’ Cheese Quest readers – just the way I like them.

The white cheese sauce was thick and creamy with gruyere cheese, one of my favorite melted cheeses. It was very tasty with a hint of what I think is truffle oil. A friend sharing the dish with me tasted garlic. Garlic maybe, but it wasn’t as overwhelming as she described. Still, there was something else that I couldn’t place my taste buds on. The onion straws didn’t add much in terms of flavor, but they were a nice crispy addition.

Although I normally refrain from reading other reviews before I write mine, I happened to jump on Yelp in the middle of writing this. I get the impression that back in 2011, West 4th and Jane had a BBQ Mac & Cheese. It sounds interesting, and I’m guessing that’s all it amounted to across the board, because it’s not on the menu now. A lot of people mentioned ordering it but said it would have been better without the BBQ. There was also a burger topped with macaroni and cheese at that time. I wonder if it was as good as the Grilled Cheese Truck’s Cheesy Mac and Rib Sandwich

The place: West 4th and Jane, Santa Monica
The dish: Spaetzle Mac and Cheese, $8
The ingredients: Spaetzle noodles, gruyere, crispy shallots
The verdict: Just the right amount of cheesy, creamy and crispy packed into a little pot of mac ‘n’ cheese goodness.

When we ended up at Tantalum in Long Beach, it wasn’t with plans to eat at the “exotic dining” waterfront restaurant. And even more so, it wasn’t with intentions of eating macaroni and cheese. When I visited the marina-side restaurant’s website earlier in the day, it was in search of a venue with music and dancing for a girls’ night out that would be happening several hours later.

All the food on the menu sounded delicious, and Yelpers raved about the dishes, particularly the calamari. But I didn’t give it too much thought and actually figured dining in would have to wait since we were just going for drinks and to hopefully dance when the DJ started spinning at 9:30.

All my assumptions and plans went out the window when the other girls wanted food upon arriving at Tantalum. Though not as hungry, I caved in and ordered an appetizer too: a superb fried brie with raspberry chipotle drizzle. Although everything we ordered (and shared) was VERY good – even the calamari, and I am not a seafood person – this review is dedicated to the Truffle Mac n’ Cheez, an item under the “Tantalizers” section of the menu.

The orange-yellow goodness came out piping hot in a mini cast-iron skillet. The pasta wasn’t swimming in grease like other skillet-served mac and cheeses I’ve had, so I was already happy before it hit the table. The top layer was a golden brown, either from baking or flash heating under the broiler. My friend recalled it as “a burnt crisp” – for her, that’s a good thing. For me, it was a a great toasted crunch. And for the cook, it was a perfect “asiago gratin,” a brown crust of grated asiago cheese.

This particular macaroni and cheese used gamelli pasta, a spiral tube noodle about two inches in length, which isn’t very common for mac and cheese. I will admit that because gamelli is a longer noodle, it made getting my mouth around a few spiked on a fork a little awkward. Aside from that, it was a pleasantly unique choice for the dish.

The cheese sauce was more creamy than it was stringy (i.e. not like mozzarella pizza cheese), I’m guessing due in part to the truffle oil and types of cheeses used. The consistency was pretty good: less on the saturating, thick side, but runny would be too harsh of an adjective. Unfortunately, the sauce didn’t have a lot of flavor, bordering on bland. As I write this, I’m struggling to remember the taste – so obviously nothing stood out. It didn’t have any particular spice that gave it a bite or sharp cheddar kick.

Shared among six girls, the Truffle Mac n’ Cheez didn’t last long. But my friend and I both commented afterward that had there not been help, we might not have eaten the entire dish – something that normally wouldn’t be a problem for our mac-and-cheese-loving selves.

The place: Tantalum, Long Beach
The dish: Truffle Mac n’ Cheez, $11
The ingredients: Gamelli noodles, cream, truffle oil, asiago gratin
The verdict: Tasty, but not enough to lick the plate clean, or even finish the dish. I’d suggest going for the calamari instead.

The idea for this blog came about from the trend toward comfort foods, just with a gourmet twist. So most of the mac ‘n’ cheese dishes I reviewed were either gourmet plates or the main offering of a pasta-focused restaurant (like at Mac & Cheeza). But the Macaroni & Cheese I’ve heard so much about served at The Penthouse, which is the top-floor restaurant at The Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica, is simply listed under sides – no description, no additions, no spotlight.

I was lucky enough to dine at the pricey Penthouse for my first time on the dime of my employer, so I planned to take advantage of the opportunity to review the popular dish. I explained my column and the cheesy journey it chronicles, and then convinced them to embark with me on this next adventure. So by the time the mini cauldron – yes, as in a black steel pot – came out, filled to the brim with large elbow noodles and oozing cheese, we were all very excited.

Despite the odd dish choice, the presentation was very neat. Our waiter warned that the “side” wouldn’t be enough for all eight of us, but the small cauldron ended up being deceptive because each of us had a couple scoops. The top of the macaroni and cheese was crisp, shiny and golden brown in spots. These characteristics are due to the dish’s last few steps before serving: it’s put in a salamander (a special broiler used in restaurants and by professional chefs) for flash cooking of the surface. Underneath, the cheese wasn’t rubbery at all and was especially creamy the further you go to the bottom.

Just based on looks, I think the cheese is what sold me (aside from the cute little cauldron). I could imagine how tasty and gooey it was going to be. But in the first bite, each of us were let down. The cheese is actually quite bland; though, creamy with a good consistency, it doesn’t have much flavor. We all agreed it needed more of a kick, whether from a different type of cheese, say, sharp cheddar, or another ingredient, such as a potent spice or green chilis.

Also, the macaroni noodles were cooked al dente (slightly tougher). I prefer mine fully cooked, so it was another downfall for me, but  a couple people in the group liked the al dente noodles.

The place: The Penthouse at The Huntley, Santa Monica
The dish: Macaroni & Cheese, $10
The ingredients: Large elbow noodles, Vermont aged white cheddar, cream, garlic
The verdict: I expected more from a place called The Penthouse and “known for its macaroni and cheese” so I’d suggest trying one of the other tasty items on the menu, or checking out the venue when it’s popping on a Saturday night.