Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Discovering Soto

Back in 2010, I went to a wine dinner at Uchiko that was so wonderful that by the end of the year, I was still sufficiently moved by it to declare it my favorite meal of the year. In 2011, I had another such meal at Uchi. Since then, I've been lucky enough to enjoy countless fantastic meals, but none have gone out of their way to suggest that they might qualify for "best meal of the year" status.

Until now.

Soto, a Japanese restaurant in Cedar Park, has been open for two years, now, and has developed a loyal following amongst the Yelp crowd. I'd heard about it multiple times from various friends, but somehow I had never made it up there. So I was really glad when the King of Yelp himself and a Soto regular, Errol M., suggested that we grab lunch there one Saturday afternoon. I envisioned a nice little sushi lunch, perhaps a one-plate sushi combo, or maybe a bento box. We arrived, chose seats at the sushi bar, and Errol said to the owner, Chef Andy: "This is Michelle's first visit. Surprise us." And that's when the doors blew off the place.

The courses started arriving. And they didn't stop. Plate after plate of unique and stunningly beautiful food kept appearing in front of us. And somehow, I kept consuming every bite, gasping and clapping my hands together and "oh my god"-ing and all the while kicking myself for not having made it to Soto sooner.

We started with something that Chef Andy called "white salmon truffle" - delicate slices of white salmon topped with truffle, the most wonderfully crispy fried scallions and shallots, soy sauce, and a bit of truffle oil. The texture and flavor combinations this dish presented were a true delight; Chef Andy expertly balanced the light fish with the ethereal onions and the heavier truffle flavors, taking care to ensure that the truffle sang without overwhelming the dish.

Soto - White Salmon Truffle
White Salmon Truffle, $25

Our next dish was called a ceviche, though it played more like the lightest sashimi salad than a true ceviche, which in my experience is usually much more acidic than this dish was. This ceviche paired impossibly crisp cucumbers with ripe tomato, fresh orange slices, thin slices of jalapeno (or was it serrano?), crab (the real thing, not that ridiculous fake crab nonsense), and fresh slices of raw fish, all tossed in just the right amount of whisper-light vinaigrette. It was a perfect example of how using the freshest, most high quality ingredients can transform a dish into something truly special. It was as if Chef Andy had somehow captured a spring day on the coast and presented it on a plate.

Soto - Ceviche
Ceviche, $21

Much pomp and circumstance accompanied the flaming salmon, a dish that for good reason Yelpers and Instagrammers alike love to photograph. Thin slices of raw salmon are seasoned and draped over a horizontal stick of lemongrass under which lies a dish of flaming rum-drenched coffee beans. You can choose to leave it rare or let it cook a little longer if you prefer; either way, the salmon, by virtue of being so thinly sliced and well-seasoned, is succulent and delicious.

Soto - Flaming Salmon
Flaming Salmon

Chef Andy was determined to keep it interesting, and sent out a couple of pieces of nigiri next. Shima-aji, or striped jack, was topped with a little uni, microgreens, shiso, and gold leaf. Chef Andy does not miss an opportunity for show.

Soto - Shim-Aji
Shima-Aji with Uni

Errol wanted me to experience the Kawasaki lunch, so he ordered one for us to share. Various cuts of gorgeous fish prepared in several different ways were presented on a really cool platter - the white dishes had square feet that fit into the wood piece underneath. Ingenious! One of the dishes that came with the combo was a little ramekin of risotto. I was a little confused by getting a dish of risotto at a Japanese place, until I tasted it...and nearly fell off my chair. It was, hands-down, the best risotto I have ever tasted - creamy, rich, and earthy in a way that I felt from the back of my tongue to the tips of my toes. It was positively stunning.

Soto - Kawasaki Lunch
Kawasaki Lunch, $17

A couple of oysters arrived next, served on an LED-illuminated bed of shaved ice that harkened me back to the days when I used to sling black lights at Spencer's Gifts.

Soto - Oysters
Kumamoto Oysters

Next I was introduced to my first taste of geoduck. The clam nigiri I've had in the past has typically been a little on the chewy side, but this was tender and mild. A little ikura lent the bite a bit of brinyness.

Soto - Geoduck
Geoduck

Errol must have mentioned to Chef Andy how much I love monkfish liver, because two gorgeous pieces of it arrived next, nestled in a cut crystal bowl.

Soto - Monkfish Liver
Monkfish Liver

All of my favorites made it to the menu. Chef Andy insisted we try his new foie gras preparation next - with a bit of white chocolate shaved on top and a glass of 20-year tawny port. I had given up on restraint about four courses back, so there was no point in resisting.

Soto - Foie Gras
Foie Gras with Chocolate

Thinking that our meal was surely over by this point, I rose and gave Chef Andy a standing ovation. He very graciously nodded and thanked us for coming to experience his food. And then our very sweet server, Tommy arrived...with dessert. What? You've got to be kidding me!

This is their green tea tiramisu. It was divine. You take a scoop and then dip it into the pool of green tea under the glass.

Soto - Tiramisu
Green Tea Tiramisu

And these are their yuzu balls. A casing of something they call "white chocolate butter" (if you can imagine what white chocolate butter might taste like, you've got the flavor of this pegged) surrounds a liquid burst of refreshing yuzu juice. I think the tart yuzu juice is supposed to trick you into thinking that you didn't just eat something called white chocolate butter.

Soto - Yuzu
Yuzu Balls

This was a meal I won't soon forget; the flavors, presentation, and service were all absolutely top notch. If you want an experience comparable to Uchi/Uchiko but don't feel like hassling with the crowds, the din, and the hipsters, I'd suggest that you get in your car, drive up to Cedar Park, grab yourself a seat at the sushi counter in front of Chef Andy, and hand over the reins. It won't be the cheapest meal you have all year, but it very well could be the best.

Soto - Chef Andy
Here's what Chef Andy looks like so you can find him when you go!

[Full disclosure: Chef Andy comped the flaming salmon and the two desserts for us. However, we paid for the remainder of the meal as well as my husband's meal, which is not shown because I was too busy swooning over my food to bother taking photos of his.]

Soto
11066 Pecan Park Blvd., Ste 402
Cedar Park, Texas 78613
(512) 257-0788

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Shake Shack Opens Today in Austin!

Shake Shack Austin

Austin fans of the Shake Shack, rejoice! Austin's first Shake Shack opens today at Lamar Union. I got to attend a preview party at the new location to sample some of their offerings. Here are a few of the delicious treats we tasted:

Shake Shack Austin
The Smoke Shack, a cheeseburger topped with griddled Kreuz Market jalapeno cheese sausage, ShackSauce, and pickles. I really love that they incorporated some local products into their Austin offerings, and thought the spicy sausage was a surprisingly nice complement to the cheeseburger. The super thick-cut pickles added a hearty crunch and kept the burger from being overwhelmingly meaty.

Shake Shack Austin
Crinkle-cut fries are usually too mealy and soft for me, but these Yukons were super crispy on the outside and very potato-y on the inside. The experience was almost tater tot-like - and who doesn't like tater tots?!? 

Shake Shack Austin
Apologies to Shake Shack for comparing their products to the competition, but I know most people will relate when I say that the Uchi-Koncrete is about the texture of a DQ Blizzard. Made in collaboration with the folks at local favorites Uchi/Uchiko, this dish combined vanilla custard, chunks of Uchi & Uchiko miso hazelnut blondie, and huckleberry jam. So sweet and impossibly creamy that I would have been hard pressed to eat more than the little cup they gave me...but I did eat every bite of that little cup! I saw on the menu that 5% of sales from the Uchi-Koncrete support Austin Pets Alive, which is another great excuse to indulge.

Shake Shack Austin
The decor at the Austin Shake Shack puts all other fast food burger joints to shame. Cool bubble lights are mixed with interesting bubble planters, with a backdrop of a huge living wall.

I am very much looking forward to checking out some of their other menu items, especially their version of a Chicago dog. Welcome to Austin, Shake Shack!

Shake Shack
1100 South Lamar Blvd, Ste 2100
Austin, TX 78704
512-717-0430
Their website

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