Viandes & Beyond at The Lord Essex

As one who heads to the Mayo Clinic for his yearly physicals, I’ve discovered something about dining in Rochester: You can treat yourself to a nice dinner, or you can treat your doc to a nice clean prep for your colonoscopy the next morning. You can’t do both (I’ve tried, but my efforts were poo-poo’d by the gastroenterology team).

My most recent, however, was of a less…invasive nature. So when Joanne and I stumbled upon the semi-hidden, dinner-only LORD ESSEX STEAKHOUSE in the Kahler Hotel, we made a beeline for the host stand and requested a table.

Talk about a step back in time. It was medieval décor on steroids – oozing Old World charm; warm, cozy, small and intimate. It reminded me of the splendid design work of Paul Albitz back in the day in Minneapolis. Anybody remember THE CAMELOT?

I thought that I was aware of every important steakhouse in Minnesota, yet I had never heard of the Lord Essex. WHY? It turns out that the restaurant was only recently converted into a steakhouse. For most of the Kahler’s nearly 100 years, it served as the hotel’s bar while THE ELIZABETHAN ROOM was the main restaurant.

By the way, you’ve got to love any restaurant with “Room” in its name. Remember THE ORION ROOM at the IDS Center? THE PUMP ROOM at the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago? And of course THE OCEANAIRE SEAFOOD ROOM. So retro classy! I think if I do another fish restaurant, it’ll be PHIL ROBERTS’ NEPTUNE ROOM.

But I digress.

Today The Elizabethan Room serves as banquet space. And although I can’t be sure, I suspect that the menu at the Lord Essex’s predecessor was probably centered around meatloaf and walleye for many of those years before becoming a steakhouse.

Oh, and I also learned that rock star chef Stewart Woodman opened the restaurant. But he has departed, and now the culinary team is in the capable hands of Tommie Tran and Duc Le.

Seated in a cozy red leather booth (#311), our server brought us a basket of quite good bread, embedded with raisins and other dried fruit. Then she wheeled up the meat cart and showed us the steaks, which looked impeccable. Appetizers were a Crab Claw and Shrimp Cocktail (typical steakhouse fare) and an outstanding Goat Cheese Flatbread with apples and caramelized onions (not your typical steakhouse fare).

Salads were generous and crispy. Joanne had the Farmer Salad with goat cheese and golden beets. I enjoyed the Chophouse Salad with bleu cheese, cucumber and hard boiled egg.

So how were the steaks?

I couldn’t tell you. We got the Grilled Salmon and the Roasted Chicken.

I know, I know – pretty lame for a blog post about a steakhouse discovery. But just as I was about to order, Joanne reminded me that I was going to get weighed first thing in the morning. Suddenly I had a taste for chicken.

One thing I CAN tell you about their meats, however: They’re advertised as “the finest available hand-selected USDA Prime…served to your exact preferences, seasoned with sea salt and resh, cracked black pepper,” then “broiled at 1,8000 F and finished with herb butter.”

So without being able to tell you firsthand about the steak, what’s my take on the place overall?

We liked it and would definitely go back. Our dishes were tasty, and I can only assume the steaks would be just as good. Service was smart and attentive, too. Dinner at The Lord Essex won’t break the bank, either. Expect to pay about $40-75 per person depending on wine; not bad for a first-class steakhouse.

I’m not certain I understand the Rochester market. On a Thursday night, the restaurant wasn’t very busy. You’d think, with thousands of people coming to the Mayo every week, it would have drawn a larger crowd. Then again, I’m told that the clinic “front loads” patients on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of each week, leaving Thursday and Friday open for follow-up tests, so maybe that impacts the number of diners at the Kahler.

WTF – give ‘em a try. I think you’ll like The Lord Essex – especially if your dining companion doesn’t shame you into ordering the chicken.


The Joys of Roy’s

It was probably 20 years ago that I visited ROY’S Hawaiian restaurant in Waikiki. And being my first trip to Hawaii, it was my first experience with real – and really great – Pacific Rim cuisine. Prior to that, my “Hawaiian” dining had been limited to TRADER VIC’S, DON THE BEACH COMBER and our own WAIKIKI ROOM at the Nicollet Hotel – frequently pre-made and “scooped and plopped” on the plate.

So when I discovered dishes freshly made to order from pristine local ingredients (before that was fashionable), beautifully plated and often witty, I had entered an entirely new Hawaiian culinary world. So every time I returned to Hawaii, I didn’t miss a chance to visit Roy’s.

Dinner started with a small bowl of salted edamame beans followed by Blackened Tuna….virtually raw (I swear that the tuna was so fresh that it was swimming earlier that day). We continued by sharing a Deep Fried Dragon Roll – a nice counterpoint between soft and crunch. Ginger Chicken Potstickers were just as we had remembered them years ago.

It should come as no surprise that Roy’s excelled. After all, the founder is Roy Yamaguchi….CIA grad from Hyde Park Culinary school and James Beard Award winner. One of his signature dishes, a favorite of Joanne’s, is Misoyaki Butterfish – moist and perfectly prepared ($37). Out of my respect for gluttony, I opted for the Duroc Pork Chop with braised apples and crusted with blue cheese ($39).

Roy built the company to number more than thirty restaurants both in Hawaii and here in the mainland, and then around the year 2000 sold the continental U.S. locations to BLOOMIN’ BRANDS, owner of OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE, CARRABA’S, BONEFISH GRILL and some APPLEBEE’S. I can remember being concerned about that sale. Could a fine dining concept be effectively operated by a casual dining culture? I still wonder about that.

I never gave the mainland restaurants a try and as time went by, the publicity and trade rags seemed to mention them less and less, and it appeared to me that they were fading into restaurant limbo.

Time passes and two years ago we were in Maui and our daughter and her husband decided to give ROY’S a try at Kanapali in Maui. They returned with RAVE REVIEWS. So the next night Joanne and I decided to give ‘em a try as well, probably after a ten year hiatus. And as jaded as we probably were at that time, we came home thoroughly impressed. Roy’s still had all of the attributes that we so fondly remembered – polite, professional artful plating and flavor profiles…and that touch of whimsy that I love.

Let’s return to the sale of the company several years ago.

When I complimented the manager at Kanapali on our dinner, he informed me that Roy retained control of all the restaurants in Hawaii. It made sense, not only because the food was great, but the whole operation had a feel of being very well-tended and loved.

Fast forward to three weeks ago when we were in Naples, Florida. Mainland ROY’S was not our first choice, but all of the “GEEZER TABLES” at our preferred restaurants were fully booked by 6:00 PM and Roy’s had a table available on the patio for the six of us. Now I suspect that you are thinking I’m going to trash the place. I’m not. It was actually pretty good – which was something of a surprise since by this time the restaurant was an additional step removed from Roy Yamaguchi. Bloomin’ Brands off-loaded its franchises to an Applebee’s operator from Texas. I can only imagine how much money it ultimately lost on the deal.

Still, many of the signature dishes from Roy’s Hawaiian outpost were featured on the Naples menu. Szechuan Spiced Baby Back Ribs were there as well as the Macadamia Crusted Mahi Mahi and a $44 Seafood Sampler with salmon, swordfish, mahi mahi and tuna (I often worry about “samplers” – wondering if they’re just leftovers or scraps, but this was good). Our grandson had a great burger, and the desserts were all tasty, especially the Banana Crisp and the Molten Chocolate Cake.

Here’s my takeaway. Roy’s on the mainland does a decent ¬– even good – job with the food. Service is professional. Does it seem a bit more formulaic than Roy’s in Hawaii? Yes. But our experience at the Hawaiian location was special. Very special.

Finally we shared a traditional Hawaiian dish that we should have avoided…just because it’s famous: THE LOCO MOCO. It gives new meaning to the term GUTBUSTER, starting with a bowl of white rice….topped with two half pound burger patties (sometimes SPAM or MEATLOAF )…..heavily napped with brown gravy and garnished with two fried eggs. The weight? I’d say about three pounds.

It’s named after a Spanish teenager from a local sports club who apparently was sort of crazy, thus the first name LOCO. MOCO is a bit more mysterious as I’m told that the Spanish translation is BOOGER!!!

Would you eat a dish called CRAZY BOOGER? We did, so you don’t have to.

Oh, and here’s a goofy thing. A few weeks ago I touted another restaurant in Honolulu called MORIMOTO, only to discover that it suddenly closed at the end of the year.

I’m on a streak: Roy’s in Naples closed up a week after we were there!!!!

W.T.F…….I mean really…. W.T.F. ???????


Cock ‘o the Walk for Chicken Lovers

I love chicken…LOVE IT!!!

And I’ve been fortunate enough to eat it all over the world – from street food stalls in Bangkok…to Kansas City for STROUD’S cast iron skillet chicken deep fried in lard ……or the Central American sensation, POLLO CAMPERO’s grilled chicken, so coveted by Los Angelenos that prior to its U.S. opening they smuggled it in their suitcases on planes arriving from Guatemala City.
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Getting Burnt at Roast

While in London a few years ago Joanne and I set out in the early morning from our hotel near Hyde Park for a long, long walk. Our destination: BOROUGH MARKET, the 1000-year-old wholesale and retail market in the Southwark neighborhood in Central London. It’s on the same side of the River Thames as The Tate Modern and The London Eye, and directly across from St. Paul’s Cathedral. The two-hour walk is mostly along the River Thames and the payoff for our trek, in addition to the market itself, was a seafood lunch at SWEETING’S across the river from the market (more about SWEETING’S in a later posting).

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