I had occasion to spend a few days in Anchorage recently and offer the following report on four dinners plus a quick lunch. Please note that I don’t usually order halibut so much, but I was curious about how it would be prepared so close to the source.
Orso: This place is right downtown. I ordered a bottle of the 2007 Rex Hill Pinot Noir, which was fine but not exceptional. They brought out some nondescript bread slices with a very nice dip of white bean hummus and olive oil. My starter was a salad of pickled Matanuska Valley beets, manchego slices, crushed almonds, and greens, with an orange vinaigrette. This was billed as a beet salad but was relatively light on the beets. Good, though. This was the only locally-sourced reference at any of the places I ate. The Matanuska Valley is about 50 miles northeast of Anchorage.
My main was the grilled halibut, which was served with zucchini and a spicy sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers, and onions atop a crisp saffron risotto cake. The halibut (a thinnish piece) was right on the verge of being overcooked. Overall not bad, though. I finished with a cheese plate of coastal cheddar, French feta, gorgonzola, walnuts, dried apples, figs, and prunes with Oregon honey—good, but the cheese was served cold. The service was fine, the server herself sweet but distant. The room was energetic, with several large parties.
Sacks: Also downtown, right around the corner from Orso. I ordered a bottle of the 2007 Martin Sanchez Rueda Verdejo, also fine but not exceptional. They brought out some nice bread with a rosemary crust, and olive oil. I started with the calamari salad with polenta croutons, baby spinach, olives, capers, grape tomatoes, artichokes, onion, and warm herbed vinaigrette. This was good, with strips of calamari steak done nicely.
I continued with the grilled sockeye salmon, with “deconstructed” spring roll, soy maple glaze, chili oil, wasabi aioli, jasmine rice, sashimi marinade, and pickled ginger. This was a dazzling presentation. The “deconstructed” spring roll turned out to be flash fried rice paper embedded vertically in a mound of cabbage and onions with the salmon overlaid. All good although, again, the fish was very close to being overcooked. I ended with the baked brie en croute, with sherry poached apricots, caramelized walnuts, olive tapenade, roasted garlic, and balsamic reduction. This was very good. Plus a glass of dessert wine, the Yalumba Viognier. The service was good and engaged, the room mellow with Coltrane’s Giant Steps as background.
Southside Bistro: This place is way south, right off the Seward Highway about 15 minutes from downtown, in a strip mall next to an Ace hardware store and a very good bicycle shop. They had the 2007 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc at a reasonable price, so I ordered one. It was good as always. They brought crusty bread and olive oil. I started with the crab ravioli in grilled fennel and sweet corn broth. This was not successful. The fennel was limp and the whole preparation overwhelmed by the corn flavor.
The main course was oven roasted halibut with saffron cream and wild mushroom relish, served with “bistro” rice (a mix of Arborio and wild rice), and steamed al dente zucchini, carrots, yellow squash, and broccoli. The halibut was cooked properly but the piece was also on the thin side. The saffron cream was yummy. At that point my tooth was more savory than sweet, so I finished with the appetizer I should have ordered in the first place, grilled eggplant with tomatoes, capers, garlic, onions, chard strips, sun dried tomato-red pepper relish, and goat cheese. A mouthful of flavor. The service was perfunctory and almost robotic. Also, they can put in all the shades they want, but the room still looks out on a parking lot with a view of a busy gas station.
Kincaid Grill: This place is also in a strip mall, just off the road to Kincaid Park, near the airport. Fortunately the view beyond the parking lot is of the Chugach Mountains to the east. I ordered a bottle of the 2007 Chateau Ste Michelle-Dr. Loosen “Eroica” Riesling, which was very good, although “Dr. Loosen” is an odd name for a food product. They brought crusty bread and butter and immediately offered to supplement it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I started with the scallop chowder with leeks, potatoes, and white truffle oil. There was one nice, perfectly cooked scallop, topped with a mound of thin strips of fried leeks, which were chewy. An excellent choice.
They brought a palate cleanser, watermelon granita with a mint leaf. Very subtle flavor, but good. I continued with the halibut special – the fish pan-seared with a porcini crust with sautéed green beans and sun dried tomatoes, all drizzled with a wine reduction and a Dijon sauce. On the side were horseradish mashed potatoes. This was a substantial piece of fish, cooked wonderfully, easily the best fish of the four meals.
The only problem was the horseradish mashed potatoes, which were so horseradish-laden they could have been served with gefilte fish. One bite and it was almost impossible to go back to the delicate halibut. I asked the server to try a bite and after she recovered she agreed and comped me a dessert. This was a massive cheese plate – suitable for four, really – comprising many large slabs of gouda, gorgonzola, and petit Basque, plus dried figs, currants, and walnuts. I packed the leftovers to take on the plane home. The service was good and engaged.
I also want to mention a quick bite I had at Savannah Grill downtown. This is the local tapas place (!). I ordered a glass of the Tilia malbec/syrah, plus two plates, the fried calamari with tomato dip and spicy mayo and the patatas bravas on skewers with chorizo sausage. Good stuff. This was on my last afternoon in town and I immediately wished I had had a dinner there instead of Orso or Southside.
When I dine while traveling my usual question is “would I eat here if it were close to home?” So for Anchorage the answer is “yes” for Sacks, Kincaid Grill, and Savannah Grill and “no” for Orso and Southside Bistro. That said, my overall impression is that the dining is pretty good for a metro area of ~350,000. And all of the places had interesting, thoughtful wine lists.