Feast your eyes.
Story by Michael Cervin
If real estate is all about location, location, location, then dining out is all about presentation, presentation, presentation.
You eat with your eyes first. We’ve all been in a restaurant when a server walks by with a plate of food and said to ourselves, “That looks good!”
These five restaurants create visually-appealing food that not only entertains, but exceeds expectations and feeds the soul.
L’Opossum Restaurant in Richmond, Virginia has been rated The South’s Best Restaurant by Southern Living Magazine. Chef/owner David Shannon dreams up elaborate and playful dishes. The Fabergé egg bedazzled with caviar and dill-cured salmon is one such eccentricity. He created the dish as a nod to the largest Fabergé egg collection in the United States, housed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that’s located nearby. The elaborate Fabergé eggs were originally created during the Russian Empire and it’s believed as many as 69 were created though only 57 survive today. “I wanted to do a fancy version of a deviled egg, so I replaced the egg filling with lobster salad using fresh whole Maine lobster combined with crème fraîche, capers, tarragon, red onion, and lemon,” he says. He then made a vinaigrette with Stolichnaya vodka and lemon juice. “It’s finished with two paper-thin wafer slices of potato with a piece of dill between them, crisped in the oven with a little clarified butter.” The eggs are topped with paddlefish and trout roe and for special occasions he uses Osetra caviar. “When we can get the Russian caviar it amps up the ties to the Fabergé egg combined with the Russian vodka in the vinaigrette.” The Fabergé egg ($15) is currently available for dine-in or take-out. “As far as holding up for take-out, it’s coming across very well,” says Chef David. “It packs well in the to-go container.”
In Pensacola Beach, Florida, the hickory-smoked tuna maki roll at Bonsai is an eye-popping fusion of authentic Japanese food with a touch of Southern cuisine. It is made with top #1-quality tuna, hackleback caviar, fresh wasabi root, an Asian blend of edible plants from the chef’s garden, and cherry blossom shoyu. “This dish was inspired by a smoke cocktail that I used to do,” says Executive Chef Omar Torres. “I wanted to give a touch of the South just like the smoked bourbon cocktail that I’ve done in the past. It’s a cold smoke which brings an amazing aroma of southern smoke to a delicate tuna roll.” As is true of all menu items at Bonsai, the tuna maki roll ($28) is not available for takeout. The restaurant is open for indoor dining. “We believe Bonsai is a unique experience where the food needs to be enjoyed as soon it’s made,” says Torres. In addition to the stunning contemporary Japanese dishes, savor breathtaking views of the Gulf.
There’s no reason breakfast can’t be beautiful. Even a dish that’s simply structured can catch the eye. Bob’s Well Bread Bakery in little Los Alamos in Santa Barbara County, California is best-known for artisan breads but also offers a full menu for breakfast and lunch. Among the menu options is a compacted breakfast known as “Egg In A Jar.” The genesis for this dish stemmed from Bob’s time living in London. (Bob, a former Sony Television Pictures executive started making bread after he was laid off from his bread and butter job and needed dough.) “We curate all our meals here around our bread,” he says. In this case, the bread is toasted and sliced into six even “soldiers,” as he calls them, to be used for dipping into the jar, which are served stacked like a Jenga game. Bob fills a mason jar with mashed potatoes mixed with melted Gruyère cheese, then topped with bacon, crème fraiche, and poached egg. Order the Egg In a Jar ($9.75) to-go and it’s presented in a compostable soup cup rather than the mason jar.
Architectural might best describe the Zellagabetsky sandwich—actually, scaffolding might be more accurate. Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston, Texas offers a six-pound, eight-decker meal of special-cut rye bread, corned beef, pastrami, turkey, roast beef, salami, tongue, and Swiss cheese, layered with coleslaw, Russian dressing, and red sweet peppers. Owner Ziggy Gruber created this Gaudi-like sandwich in 1994. “We came up with the Zellagabetsky because we wanted something that was funny and schticky,” he says. His grandfather, who opened the first Jewish deli on Broadway in New York, was always telling Yiddish folk tales, each of which would start, Zellagabetsky zeit, meaning once upon a time. “I can count on my fingers how many people have eaten it by themselves in one sitting,” says Gruber. However, one day a really big guy came in. “I said okay, thinking this guy might just be big enough to do it,” he says. “He ordered one, ate it, and then looked at me and says he wants another. So I bring another, and he eats the whole thing, again. I’ve got to say, I would have remembered him for doing all that, but he happened to be the basketball player Shaquille O’Neal!” The Zellagabetsky ($85) is not officially on the to-go menu, but anyone requesting one for take-out can get it.
Of course, beverages can be beautiful, too. At Spoon By H in Los Angeles, California, chef-owner Yoonjin Hwang, who is originally from South Korea, is self-taught in the kitchen—but you’d never know it. In addition to reinventing creative iterations of Korean food, she creates beautiful bingsu (shaved ice) and smoothies. Her most popular drink is the fresh mango. Guests can customize their shaved ice; for example, to make it vegan you might ask for it to be made entirely from frozen coconut milk and topped with agave drizzle. Almost everything on Hwang’s menu is made in-house, from her milk tea ice cream to the dehydrated fruit medley that she uses in her blueberry hibiscus tea. She even makes flavored ice cubes including coffee ice cubes to add to her drinks. Shaved ice, shaved snow and smoothies are available in flavors like lychee-grape, lemon-yuzu, and watermelon with cacao nibs. Nearly all are topped with flowers, hand cut fruits, and succulents. “For me, the best feeling is seeing people eat well with nothing left over,” says Hwang. “When I see that, it makes me so happy.” All smoothies, shaved ice and snow drinks ($6-$10.50) are available for take-out; the visuals are lost due to packaging, but the excellent taste remains.
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Michael Cervin is the author of five travel books and is currently working on a new cookbook, Santa Barbara Eats. He has served as restaurant reviewer and travel editor for Santa Barbara News-Press and has written food and travel articles for Robb Report, Forbes Travel Guides, The Hollywood Reporter, Decanter (London), Fine Wine & Liquor (China), and Old Liquors Magazine (Netherlands), among others. He is the Wine Reviews Editor for both Bonfort’s Wine & Spirits Journal and Drink Me Magazine, writes the “Cocktail of the Month” column for Arroyo Monthly Magazine, and contributes to The Whiskey Reviewer. He has also helped judge various competitions and is the wine buyer for the Santa Barbara Airport.
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