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

Before I knew The Misfit served gourmet macaroni and cheese, I really wanted to go there because it was “the new” restaurant-bar in Santa Monica and everyone only had good things to say about it. When my friend told me we were going there to start of her bachelorette party, I was stoked, and scoured the menu to see what I might order. My eyes immediately darted to the entrée that would my next stop on the Ultimate Mac ‘n’ Cheese Quest.

Most of the items on the menu were designed to share, but the macaroni and cheese, which you could order with Spanish chorizo or pancetta (for a couple bucks more), was enough to be a meal for one—and I definitely wasn’t planning on sharing. Although I didn’t order any of the add-ins, the original version actually comes with diced green chilies. It seemed a strange ingredient (so much that one girl asked for hers without them), but I was eager to see what it brought to the flavor.

The square, shallow dish came out sizzling, literally; the cheese and oil around the edges was still bubbling. While normally a good thing for me because I like hot foods served hot, it was actually a not-so-obvious indication that the gooey pasta is served best at that temperature. Because once it cooled down, the oil started separating out and the cheese became rubbery. When that happens, it means that the cheese is real instead of Velveeta, which now must be labeled “cheese-flavored product.” But the draw back of real cheese (as well as cream-based sauces) is that it doesn’t stay in its creamy state long, and you definitely can’t reheat it. So unfortunately, I ended up with some noodles and noncreamy cheese swimming in oil. Honestly, there was so much oil, I had to drain it out on the saucer underneath. My apologies to the dishwasher, but I just couldn’t stomach it.

Ok, enough about the consistency; let me get to the taste. I must say, the chilies really did it. The main cheeses—Gruyere and Tillamook cheddar, which is by far my favorite—already had a sharp bite. But the diced chilies kicked it up a notch. Not where it was too spicy, though; just enough to make my nose start running. Although not listed on the menu, other ingredients included whole grain mustard and nutmeg, both of which added to the flavor even more.

Another aspect I liked was the pasta itself, which is actually a brown rice noodle for the gluten-free folk. Ironically, my friend recently “diagnosed” me with a gluten allergy, something that has yet to be confirmed. Either way, I couldn’t even tell!

As a complete package, the dish was good. The taste was spectacular, but my overall opinion was brought down significantly by the consistency. I wouldn’t order it again or recommend it, but I’d definitely go back to the joint to try something else off the unique menu. Oh, and I did end up sharing.

The place: The Misfit, Santa Monica
The dish: Baked Mac + Cheese, $10.50
The ingredients: Brown rice noodle, heavy cream, whole grain mustard, Tillamook cheddar, Gruyere cheese, parmesan reggiano and nutmeg
The verdict: The bite from the cheeses, spices and chilies was delicious, but the fact that I actually shared my mac ‘n’ cheese says a lot.

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Unlike all the other restaurants I’ve reviewed, Mac & Cheeza, which has a location in downtown Los Angeles and Bakersfield, doesn’t have a fancy name for its signature dish. Maybe it’s because the owner didn’t want to fall into the trend of leading customers on with snazzy “gourmet” names. Maybe it’s because a single name is too limiting for the eatery’s do-it-yourself nature that starts patrons off with basic precooked noodles and allows endless customization from there. Or, maybe it’s simply because Mac & Cheeza really only serves one thing: macaroni and cheese.

Instead, the dishes are labeled by size; not just the boring small, medium and large, but instead baby mac, momma mac, daddy mac and mac daddy ($5, $10, $20 and $30, respectively). The baby mac is a sufficient portion for a small meal, but also would work well as a single side to, say, a burger or something. Because I was breaking my week-long restriction of no carbs and because Mark and I had ventured all the way from Santa Monica to downtown LA by bus, I wanted something more substantial and went with the momma mac. A Yelp reviewer’s experience with ordering that size made me laugh (and also feel kinda sick): “I’ve come to realize the momma portion must be in reference to the feeling of expecting a noodle baby when you’ve finished. Maybe I just gained five pounds. Maybe I don’t care.” The daddy mac and mac daddy sizes are intended for groups, and over the course of our meal, several people came in to pick up their daddies for take-out.

Once you pick the size, you have to decide on regular elbow noodles or rice ones and cheese-based sauce or soy-based sauce. I didn’t give either of those choices more than a second of thought.

The next step is to add ingredients, first veggies and then meats. Each size comes with one free ingredient, but any extras are a dollar more each. Because I prefer my mac and cheese just straight up (as I state in nearly every review), I really struggled with this step. I like spinach and green onions and black olives, but not necessarily in my macaroni and cheese. Other add-ins included collard greens, peas, jalapeños, mushrooms and tomatoes.

I opted out of veggies and went with a meat: diced hot links. Other options included ground beef, BBQ chicken, tuna, bacon, ham, chorizo and veggie sausage. Mark also opted out of veggies and went with BBQ chicken and bacon.

Lastly is the toppings, which are included with the order: a cheese blend and spicy toasted walnuts. This step is an important one, because once everything is combined in the disposable metal baking tray, the cheese and/or walnuts are sprinkled on top before the creation makes its way through the oven where it’s all heated one last time and the top is toasted. That’s what creates the yummy baked look in the picture.

After all is said and done, I’d have to say I was somewhat disappointed. I know, I know, I worked it all up just to come crashing down. I think the DIY customization is really clever and allows customers to create the dish and taste they want. But, I think the chef needs to go back to the beginning and make some adjustments to the most basic aspect of the dish: the cheese. Aside from using a different noodle, there isn’t much he or she can do there, so making sure the cheese is no less than superb is essential. Unfortunately, I think it was lacking. It was slightly runny and far from creamy. It didn’t have much flavor and am very confused what restaurant a different Yelp reviewer was at when she said it was “rich”. Yes, I know the idea is to add flavor with the variety of other ingredients, but why not make tasty mac and cheese tastier with the ingredients? What about people like me who would rather not add anything? They would be severely bored and disappointed.

I will admit that I regretted not adding more and different ingredients. I ended up eating a lot of Mark’s because his was much tastier and had a thicker consistency because of the additions. The BBQ chicken added a pleasant sweetness that paired surprisingly well with the cheese flavor. The chicken was shredded, which I really liked because the smaller pieces blended better with the noodles than large chunks would. Even though we both agreed that his was better, we didn’t have any trouble polishing off all of his and most of mine.

The restaurant: Mac & Cheeza, Los Angeles
The plate: Momma Mac, $10
The ingredients: Elbow noodles, white cheddar cheese sauce, diced hot links
The verdict: The DIY customization is perfect for mac-and-cheese lovers who like the concept of adding to the American staple; for me, it has a lot to live up to.

The last gourmet macaroni and cheese I sampled brings to mind two of my favorite TV shows as a kid…

I used to watch Full House religiously every afternoon with my sister, and there’s one episode that stands out as a favorite. Little Michelle is trying to earn her Girl Scout cooking badge and Uncle Joey is helping her. In true Michelle fashion, she thinks that simply combining two of her favorite foods will create a delicious new dish. One of the concoctions combines canned tuna and ice cream. While both are good separately, together they are not. I can’t remember her other recipes, but you get the idea. Finally, with Joey’s help, she makes orange juice popcicles.

The other show is Wheel of Fortune, which I used to watch with my dad. Being a words-person and obsessed with all things clever, one of my favorite puzzles is “Before and After”. It combines two phrases that have the same word (one at the end and the other at the beginning), such as mac ‘n’ cheese and cheese sandwich.

Which, oh-so cleverly I must say, brings me back to my review. Thought up by the brains behind The Grilled Cheese Truck, Dave Danhi, this macaroni “dish” is not served in a bowl, but instead between two slices of Texas toast. This popular LA food truck combines two of my favorite foods (actually one more, but I’ll get into that later) to create an even more scrumptious meal, just like Michelle tried to do. It’s like macaroni and cheese knocked up a grilled cheese sandwich to procreate a mac ‘n’ cheese sandwich. (That’s the “before and after” if you haven’t caught on yet.)

Before I describe the Cheesy Mac and Rib sandwich, I’m just going to say it now: It’s amazing! The bread is toasted just right and moistened with a perfect amount of butter. I don’t know if they put cheese on it before slopping the macaroni in, but it really doesn’t matter. There’s plenty of gooey cheddar cheese to go around. The third yummy ingredient that I mentioned above is BBQ pulled pork (which is actually optional). So for those of you who like meat in their sandwiches – I’m raising my hand – this is for you. However, I actually found the result to be the opposite of what Michelle encountered with her failed mixtures: Separately, I typically don’t like meat in a standard grill cheese sandwich or in mac ‘n’ cheese. But when you combine the two carb- and cheese-loaded items, meat is great mixed in, especially BBQ pulled pork. The meat version also has caramelized onions in it, which adds a nice hint of sweetness, along with the BBQ, to the palate.

Served fresh off the grill, piping hot and out of a truck nonetheless, I was left completely satisfied. The creator of this sandwich, which actually spawned the idea for the business when Danhi entered it in LA’s 7th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational, is pure genius, not to mention the brilliance behind his grilled cheese cookery on wheels. The menu had an extensive list of different grilled cheese sandwiches, ranging from $3 for a standard sandwich with American cheese to $7.75 for the Brie Melt with smoked turkey. I almost ordered  the Brie Melt, which comes with doubled-cream brie, sliced pears, honey and smoked turkey, but changed my mind at the last minute. I’m very glad I did; though I don’t doubt the other one would have been very delicious. I’d like to track the truck down and try some others. But that will have to be a whole different blog series.

The “restaurant”: The Grilled Cheese Truck, Los Angeles
The “plate”: Cheesy Mac and Rib sandwich, $7.50 ($5.50 minus the meat)
The ingredients: Macaroni and cheese, sharp cheddar, Texas toast, BBQ pulled pork, caramelized onions
The verdict: An utterly amazing mac ‘n’ cheese masterpiece that you can eat with your hands!

Although this mac ‘n’ cheese doesn’t fall under the gourmet noodle dishes that many restaurants are trying to exploit and that I’m intent on taste-testing, I had to include it in my Ultimate Mac ‘n’ Cheese Quest because it’s a fairly new addition to Panera’s already extensive menu (less than two years old, which is right in line with this “gourmet” macaroni and cheese trend) and it’s utterly delicious!

The deli-bakery’s Signature Macaroni & Cheese is the “More” under the Soups & More section of the menu. It can be ordered in a large (pictured) or small – basically like ordering a bowl or cup of soup. It’s also one of the many items you can combine in a “You Pick Two” meal. The large size is enough on its own for a meal, but the small goes well with a half salad or sandwich. Unless you request a substitute side (apple or chips), the pasta comes with a baguette – a Panera staple – which ends up being a bit of a carb overload. As tempting as it can be to tear into the center of the baguette, I highly recommend setting it aside and saving your entire carb allotment and all the room in your stomach for the mac ‘n’ cheese.

The cheesy goodness is served on the slightly soupy side, but because it’s also typically served piping hot (can you tell I’ve had it more than once?), giving it a little time to cool down thickens the cheese sauce right up. At that point, give it a little stir to coat every shell and it’s just right. According to the website, which currently has the dish featured in its “What We’re Celebrating” section, “When we created our Macaroni & Cheese, we tried 20 different  cheese to find the right blend. The winner: Vermont white cheddar with a touch of mild American.”

The cheese sauce is what does it for me. It’s creamy and smooth with lots of rich flavor. It’s different from others in the sense that it’s not gooey and stringy in the melted-brick-cheese kind of way. Maybe that means its creamy in a powdered-cheese kinda way, but I try not to think about that. I think one of the reasons I like this mac ‘n’ cheese so much is because it’s very similar to my favorite boxed macaroni and cheese: Shells and White Cheddar Pasta Roni (a review of this will come later).

One disappointing aspect is one that I only discovered today, as I write this review. I happened upon Panera’s nutrition guide and saw that the large serving has 980 calories! I guess I should have figured as much, but it tasted a lot better before I knew that. But the fact that it has 70 percent of your daily calcium is a plus, right?

The restaurant: Panera, Santa Monica, CA (nationwide chain)
The plate: Signature Macaroni & Cheese
The ingredients: Enriched frigate pasta, skim milk, American cheese spread (cheddar and Colby cheese), cheddar cheese, soybean oil, cream
The verdict: Though it’s on the basic side, it’s a tasty mac ‘n’ cheese that leaves you licking the bowl when it’s gone.

This mac ‘n’ cheese was one I’ve been looking forward to reviewing for a long time. Even before moving up to Santa Monica, I had visited and fell in love with Barney’s Beanery – a restaurant I’d often call Billy’s Beanery or Johnny’s Beanery, simply because I could never remember the name. So, you can imagine, once I moved up here, Barney’s became a frequent lunch spot or Friday happy hour venue. (The Third Street Promenade location is one of five in the Los Angeles area.)

I love the place not only because it has a great atmosphere, with comfy bench seats from actual cars and free shuffle board, but also because it has the most extensive menu I’ve ever seen. It has anything you could want, with an emphasis comfort food – from omelets and pizza to Salisbury steak and grill cheese sandwiches to several different kinds of PB&J sandwiches and, of course, macaroni and cheese.

Just to give you an idea, here’s a blurb about the restaurant’s menu, which is printed like a newspaper:

“Our menu is a sight to behold, both for its breadth across a multitude of cuisine styles and its breadth over the printed page. So large is the menu, that we must print it as a newspaper, complete with anecdotes and tales of the many customers who have dined at Barney’s Beanery. There is breakfast, lunch and dinner options, all served around the clock . . . With one thousand items and variations to choose from, we can only sum it all up by saying ‘If we don’t have it, you don’t want it.’ ”

The excerpt is right on point with its description of the extensive menu, but it also makes an interesting point that I didn’t think about the first few times I looked through it. But I’ll address that later in my review. Now, on to the mac ‘n’ cheese!

Simply called Macaroni & Cheese, the dish is included in the half-page Pasta section on page nine – there are 12 total! All the pasta dishes come with bread and a small soup or salad. Although I didn’t really need the salad (just as at the past two restaurants), the bread was a yummy addition. It was Texas toast, lightly buttered and seasoned. Probably more carbs than necessary for the meal, though.

As you can see from the photo, I couldn’t resist from digging into the gooey goodness before snapping a photo. Much to my surprise though, my first bite – and second and third and so on – was that of disappointment. Though the dish appears cheesy and creamy, it was bland and dry. It needed bolder flavor, creamier sauce and a variety of cheeses blended in. I’m no cheese expert, but I could tell the sauce didn’t include any of the gourmet cheeses with fancy names of restaurants past. Even a little sharp cheddar would have been nice, but it definitely lacked the flavor kick that would have added.

Where many restaurants on my Ultimate Mac ‘n’ Cheese Quest list have jumped on the gourmet macaroni and cheese bandwagon, I now know that Barney’s Beanery has not. Here’s my theory: Instead of focusing on high-quality ingredients and superior recipes, Barney’s focuses on having numerous items with basic ingredients and then lots of variations. Quantity over quality. I guess it is a sports bar after all. But I was just so enamored with the impressive atmosphere and menu, that I never really put much thought into it until my disappointing mac ‘n’ cheese.

This isn’t to say that nothing on the menu is good. I can say from experience that I have had some tasty dishes. But now I understand why I had such high – misinterpreted – expectations. And I know not to expect so much next time I peruse the lengthy menu.

The restaurant: Barney’s Beanery, Santa Monica, CA
The plate: Macaroni & Cheese, $10.50
The ingredients: Elbow noodles, cheese sauce, bread crumbs
The verdict: With the menu is as extensive as it is, you’re better off passing on the mac ‘n’ cheese and picking something else.

This is another impromptu inclusion to the Mac ‘n’ Cheese Quest because I met friends for lunch at Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery and saw macaroni and cheese on the menu. I didn’t actually order it, but my boyfriend did, so I took every opportunity I could to steal a bite.

The restaurant’s “Classic Mac ‘n’ Chicken” is listed in the restaurant’s Brewery Classics section aside other signature entrees. Unlike Karl Strauss’ dish that left chicken optional, this dish adds it as a key ingredient. To me, a good macaroni and cheese doesn’t need any meat or other nontraditional ingredient to make it good. I prefer it served straight up and super cheesy. But Rock Bottom’s chicken addition was actual good. The menu says mac ‘n’ cheese “loaded” with chicken, so I was worried I’d have to fish for my pasta amongst the chicken chunks. There was just the right amount, however, and the pieces of chicken were just the right size. It didn’t take away from the flavor, and honestly, if it added any flavor, it was only slight. More than anything, the chicken provided some texture.

Rock Bottom understands my theory of using a deeper dish: It came out in a deep bowl, which helped with saturation. The dish actually seemed small, but it really held a lot. The meal also came with a decent-size side salad, so there was more than enough food. Again, comparing to Karl Strauss: A salad really wasn’t necessary; the pasta was sufficient.

The cheese sauce was very creamy and gooey, and it was the perfect consistency to coat the spiral fusilli noodles. It had great flavor: not too rich, but not bland by any means. The baked dish appeared to be topped with shredded cheese that had been toasted, but according to the menu, they were “crunchy Parmesan breadcrumbs.” Either way, they didn’t do much and could have been left off.

The restaurant:
Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, Long Beach, CA
The plate: Classic Mac ‘n’ Chicken, $13.50
The ingredients: Cream sauce, jalapeno Tabasco, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, onion powder, secret Rock Bottom seasoning, cheddar cheese, Velveeta, asiago cheese, monterey jack cheese, milk, fusilli pasta, chicken, parmasan breadcrumbs
The verdict: Delish! While I won’t be adding chicken to my macaroni and cheese on a regular basis, Rock Bottom’s classic showed me I can have my mac and chicken, too.