Monday, June 29, 2015

Cyrus Keefer @ 13.5% Wine Bar

Although we'd written about Hampden's 13.5% Wine Bar not all that long ago, we felt we had to visit and write again, now that Cyrus Keefer was running the kitchen. We knew Cyrus from his delicious work at Fork & Wrench, and we supported his efforts to open his own Hampden restaurant, Pique. That didn't pan out, but we're happy that he did end up in the neighborhood. He's doing his own thing at 13.5% which means clever techniques and lots of big flavors with a touch of Asia here and there.

We started out with a dish of crispy brussels sprouts that had been given a Mediterranean flavor treatment. The sprouts had been fried to a dark brown, but they were somehow still fairly light in texture, and served with chopped cucumber, pine nuts, grapes, oregano, lemon peel, and feta cheese. It was one of the more unusual brussels sprouts preparations in a town full of brussels sprouts preparations. We loved the textures and the pop of sweetness from the grapes.

We also tried the lamb meatballs, which were delicate and very juicy. They also came on a flaming hot plate that the runner did not warn us about. Consequently, I burned my fingers moving the plate because my OCD needs everything to be centered if it can be centered. So, you are forewarned. However, the balls were great and we could have eaten more.

Because we're piggy like that, we also ordered the pork belly spring rolls. The tender pork was bound with shrimp puree, which gave the rolls a briny fragrance and a dense meaty texture. They weren't much to look at (hence no photo), but they were lovely in flavor and had a nice crispy texture.

For his entree, Mr Minx enjoyed the squid bolognese, which was both expected and unexpected. Expected in that it was a straight-up sort of tomatoey bolognese sauce, unexpected in that the pasta was a tagliatelle made with squid ink. The dish was topped with a tangle of barely-cooked squid that had been cut to mimic the shape of the pasta. Mr Minx dispatched it post haste (after sharing a few bites with me).

I also liked my dish, a "congee" made with barley and creamed corn, topped with a wonderfully meaty soft shell crab, and fried mushrooms. The creamy and crunchy textures plus the flavors of land and sea were a delight to my palate. My only issue with the dish is that it had a few too many chili threads on top. They're fine, flavor wise, but not necessarily texturally.

Photo credit: someone at 13.5% Wine Bar. My pic was horribly blurry, so I swiped this one from FB.
I have been eating a lot of soft shell crabs recently, because it's the season and because I usually feel deprived of them. Cyrus' version was one of my top 5 ever. It didn't hurt that they were the plumpest, meatiest, crabs I've encountered.

We didn't order dessert, but the three or four on the menu looked like they had potential. Next time. And next time we'll be sure to get octopus (Cyrus does wonderful things with the cephalopod) and I am curious about his taken on ramen as well.

13.5% has just revamped their front, opening it up wide and adding outdoor seating. The extra light and warmth should be popular now that summer is finally here.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Flashback Friday - Morimoto

This post was originally published on July 26, 2007.
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Morimoto

When presented with an opportunity to go to Philadelphia, I immediately jumped on the idea of eating at Morimoto. DH and I have long watched Iron Chef, both the original Japanese and current American versions. Although we usually think the food Masaharu Morimoto concocts seems a bit weird (and in some cases, possibly inedible), we've wanted to try his restaurant for years now.

On Tuesday the 24th, after an afternoon of King Tut and friends at the Franklin Institute, we entered our long-awaited Chestnut Street destination. The lime green glass doors revealed a long, high-ceilinged room with undulating patterns on the walls and light-filled Lucite booths that changed color. The place was nearly full and extremely noisy, as techno music from the sound system did battle with diners who yelled to be heard over the din. A particularly noisy party of six was unfortunately seated at the booth next to ours, and all evening long we were subjected to the wincingly-loud kookaburra-like laugh of one of the women who was trying entirely too hard to impress her date.

A shot of the sculpted wall, the booth in a blue mood, and the noisy woman, caught uncharacteristically with her mouth (and eyes, heh) closed.

Hubs and I, after about 30 seconds of discussion, went for the omakase option. There were $80, $100, and $120 price points, the difference being in the exoticness of the ingredients rather than the number of courses. For comparison's sake, we chose to order an $80 and a $100 version. Our friend Kate, not being a fan of raw fish, went for a more conventional appetizer/entree approach.

First up for her was the "10-Hour Pork 'Kakuni'" - a dish of rice porridge, or congee topped with a chunk of braised pork belly. Unfortunately I didn't get a photo of it before she dug in, and the after photo wasn't nearly as appetizing, so I'll spare you that. The pork was tender and juicy, and the congee was well-flavored and not as bland as versions I've had in the past. It was a oddly haute-Asian version of comfort-food, and possibly a perfect lunch for a chilly autumn day.

For her entree, Kate chose the seafood tobanyaki:

It came in a vented, celadon-lidded, clay pot that emanated a fantastic aroma. Inside was a bounty of seafood in a citrus-soy butter: New Zealand green-lipped mussels; large scallops; snow crab legs; shrimp; plus oyster mushrooms and baby bok choy. Everything was perfectly cooked. I particularly enjoyed morsels of crab and scallop. Kate enjoyed it all.

As for the omakase...some courses were different, some were similar or identical. All were delicious.

First up: Hamachi Tartare - crispy shallots, caviar, fresh wasabi, soy broth
The tartare was a marvel of textures and flavors. The slightly cold and bland hamachi was finely chopped (by that famous Morimoto "double-barreled chopping action" done with two cleavers perhaps?) and blended with crispy shallots. Molded into a timbale shape, it was topped with caviar and rested atop a very salty miso soy broth that was to be spiced up by adding some of the fresh wasabi. Each taste was a melange of cold, soft, crispy, salty, warm, and pungent. I was most pleasantly surprised - remember that I am not the biggest fan of raw seafood, but I was going to be game for Morimoto, since I knew the quality would be impeccable. Plus, if I really hated it, I'm sure I could foist it onto my raw-loving hubby. Raw or no, I think this was my favorite dish.

The little pink fruit is a mountain peach. Our waiter had asked if we had any food allergies, so I made sure to tell him about my problems with stone fruits and soy milk. He realized the peach mistake as he was telling us about our dish, and whisked mine away to be replaced with a tiny dish of chopped pineapple. Hub says the peach tasted like a raspberry.


Our next courses were similar. DH was getting the more expensive dishes, so he was presented with thinly sliced scallop carpaccio drizzled in warm oil with soy, while I received striped bass. As he's not a big fan of scallop, we traded. The seafood was tender and delicious, subtly flavored with soy and yuzu. As you may be able to see in the photos, the warm oil cooked the flesh a bit in spots, giving it slightly different textures.


The "salad" course was next. Unfortunately, the restaurant was so loud, I couldn't hear the components of every dish, so I'm probably missing something here and there. My salad had slices of kingfish (Spanish mackerel) that had been seared on the skin side, leaving the flesh raw. There was a small mound of baby greens, lightly dressed and garnished with bonito shavings and what seemed to be a finely chopped onion confit. The mackerel was suprisingly delicious, rich and not at all fishy, and the bonito was chewy with an earthy flavor.

DH got Alaskan sockeye salmon, and his greens got a creamy yuzu dressing that was a real knockout, flavor-wise. I think I heard that his dish also contained udo, a Japanese vegetable, but I didn't taste that.

The three of us were next brought an intermezzo of "sour strawberry soda" - tall shot glasses with a bit of strawberry puree at the bottom, topped off with club soda.


Hot entrees were next. Mine was black cod with miso, garnished with a bit of sweet pepper and three huge sweet black beans. The cod was perfectly cooked, a little on the rare side, and sweet. We were all enchanted by the way the sugary glaze worked with the fish. I know this is a traditional Japanese recipe that can be found online, and I am sorely tempted to try this dish at home.

The pricier entree was wild halibut wrapped in nori, topped with a bit of lobster claw meat, and garnished with a crispy object somewhat like a wonton. I didn't catch that part of the description, nor did I get a chance to taste it. Although complicated, this was probably the most boring dish of the evening. The seafood was well-cooked, and the nori was remarkably un-fishy-tasting (I dislike nori for that reason), but it was altogether unremarkable.


Next, I was presented with a bowl of soba carbonara, with tiny scallops, bacon, and parmesan. My pasta-loving husband looked at it longingly. I ate half, enjoying its unusual buckwheat-and-bacon flavor (which Kate did not like), before trading it for his panko-crusted baby lamb chops. They rested upon a dark substance that I think was finely ground black olives mixed with something else that I couldn't quite make out (and of course did not hear), and a dab of sauteed spinach. On the side was a small dollop of sunchoke puree garnished with sunchoke crisps. The lamb was cooked to about medium, and in itself was quite good. However, there was a weird sweetness about the dish that seemed out of place to me.

Our last savory dish was a selection of nigiri-style sushi. Mine included giant clam, Spanish mackerel, Japanese whitefish, hamachi, and maguro tuna. Hub's was similar, but his tuna was the pricier and fattier otoro. All were very fresh and clean-tasting, served with more of the fresh wasabi (the real thing, not green-tinted horseradish) and very spicy pickled ginger. My biggest problem with this style of sushi is that the pieces of fish always seem far too large, and I have a hard time stuffing it all into my mouth at once and chewing daintily.



Last, but certainly not least, was dessert. Because the blueberry dish contained a little soy milk, that one was placed before my dear husband. The guy who doesn't particularly like blueberries. He said the dish was somewhat like very gelatinous cheesecake (or panna cotta) and, although edible, wasn't anything special. I got the Morimoto brownies. They were rich and fudgelike and completely delicious, especially when dipped in the accompanying Suntory whiskey-flavored caramel and rolled in nutty cookie crumbs.

Kate went for the lemon sesame creme brulee. The unctuous cream was deeply flavored with lemon, and I believe the sesame must have been in the broiled sugar topping. We all loved this dish, and I think it's one of the best versions of creme brulee I've ever eaten.

Because there was a very long wait between the last entree course and dessert, we were given complimentary glasses of slightly sweet champagne. The rest of the meal was washed down with a bottle of Iron Horse Tin Pony chardonnay and many glasses of tap water.

I was very happy to have had the opportunity to finally eat at Morimoto, and would definitely consider going back. Perhaps to the NY outpost. And I'd go for the $120 omakase - from photos on the Web, I see that there's lobster involved.....

Morimoto
723 Chestnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 413-9070

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Few Meals in Charles County

A couple weeks back we spent some time in Charles County as we attended the Potomac Snakehead Tournament with our friends Fran and Bill. For research purposes - we weren't doing any actual fish-wrangling. We heard that there were few choices for decent food in the area, apart from the usual chain restaurants. Most of those were in Waldorf, but we stayed a few miles down the road in La Plata where choices were even fewer. We did *not* want to dine at the Applebee's, even ironically, so we did a little research and came up with a place called Captain Billy's Crab House in Popes Creek.

It was a Saturday night and when we rolled up to Captain Billy's, the parking lot was packed and there was a line out the door. We put our name in at the hostess booth, got a buzzer, and went to sit outside and wait. It had been a hot day, but the evening was breezy and our wait was not unpleasant in the least. We got in some good people-watching and selfie-taking, and found that Charles County is pretty inexpensive. The guys went in to bring us drinks. For $18, they got two Sam Adams drafts and two jumbo pina coladas that weren't top shelf but weren't bad, either. In any case, it occupied us for part of our 40 minute wait.

Eventually, we were shown to a table and ordered some grub. Mr Minx and I were starving, having eating little more than some Trader Joe's muhammara and Triscuits in the 12 hours since our 8am breakfast. I declared as much to our waitress, who did an admirable job of taking care of us despite the hordes of people around us.

A while after we ordered,, our dining companions' side salads arrived. We were not prescient enough to know that the kitchen was backed up and hot food was coming out slowly, so we could only watch them eat. Our waitress, knowing we were hungry, brought us a conciliatory dish of hush puppies. They looked more like tiny potatoes than hush puppies, but they tasted great and we fell on them with gusto.

Some minutes later, she brought more apologies and a plate of steamed shrimp. Those were also quickly dispatched.

Finally, we received our entrees.

I ordered the fried oyster dinner with sides of excellent fresh cole slaw and rather characterless boiled green beans. The oysters were nicely cooked, and the batter had a good crunch--there was just too much of it, and I noticed pockets of raw batter here and there.

Mr Minx got the broiled seafood platter, which came with a plump crab cake, shrimp, scallops, and a fish fillet. It was the most expensive thing we ordered, at $30, but we figured that seafood on the Western shore, in a restaurant right on the Potomac, couldn't be bad.

We were wrong.

The shrimp and scallops were fine. Bill had scallops too, and he enjoyed them, but the crab cake was all shades of wrong. For one thing, it had bits of bell pepper in it. One expects incorrectly-made crab cakes in Pittsburgh, but not in Maryland. I'm sorry, but one simply does not put bell pepper in crab cakes. Crab imperial, ok. Not crab cakes. Not only that, the cakes were so full of breading as to be mushy, and I guarantee the crab was sourced somewhere in Asia. The fish was tilapia, which I wouldn't feed my dog. I don't know how humans eat it. Yeah, so it's marketed as a mild-tasting white fish, but farm-raised tilapia (which is pretty much all of it) tastes like its own waste products. That's not a mild flavor, sorry.

The fries were from a bag in the freezer, but they were palatable, and the apple sauce was good. Fran ordered crabcake sliders. Hers didn't have bell peppers, and she ate them, but I can't imagine they tasted any better than the crab cake Mr Minx had.

Still, our waitress' kindness went a long way, and despite issues, I'm going to say our meal at Captain Billy's was successful: we didn't go back to our hotel hungry.

The next morning, we had breakfast at Pancakes Plus, in beautiful downtown La Plata. I had read somewhere on teh Innernets that this place served the "best breakfast in Charles County," and while I've never had breakfast elsewhere in that area, I must concur.

The place is tiny - 8 tables and a dozen+ stools at an L-shaped counter - and it was packed. There were stools available at different places at the counter, so we physically moved them to one end so we could sit together. I indulged in a North-meets-South breakfast of scrapple, grits, and over-medium eggs with toast for less than $6. Everything was great, the coffee was impressively tasty, and the pancakes that both Fran and Mr Minx ordered were enormous. Side orders of bacon were generous. And we didn't need to eat again until late that evening.

Were I to find myself in Charles County again, I'd definitely go back for breakfast at Pancakes Plus. I'd skip Captain Billy's though, and see what there was to eat in Waldorf, instead. But I hear from a good source that there are some pretty good BBQ places dotting the county, so that might be a better option.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

Jokers n Thieves

It took us a while to get to Jokers n Thieves. A media dinner had been scheduled a while back, but the curfew put the kibosh on that. Instead, we media types went in dribs and drabs on various weeknights; June 17th was our turn.

Formerly JD's Smokehouse, Jokers n Thieves is an attractive bar on the quieter side of Canton's O'Donnell square. Jesse Sandlin, who had most recently ruled the roost at Oliver Speck's and Vino Rosina, is running the kitchen and serving up quasi-lowcountry vittles with splashes of local color.

We started our meal with two drafts, a Southern Tier double IPA and Union Craft AM Gold (which had tasted strongly of coffee when I sampled it at the brewery but just tasted like beer at JnT) and a couple of appetizers. The "white trash tacos," (fried chicken, slaw, pickled jalapenos, queso) would be as comfortable in Dundalk as in the Carolinas. I thought they were perfect little bites, and appreciated that the fillings were encased in single corn tortillas, rather than doubles, which I think muffle the flavors a bit (and are better for juicy fillings).

We also had the poutine, a massive pile of fries covered in two kinds of cheese with little nubbins of fried chicken (the menu said smoked chicken, so I suppose they were out). This is a dish best served to a mob, as it's far too much for two people. It was salty and cheesy and would probably make a hell of a hangover helper with a fried egg or two on top.

I had seen photos of the soft crab waffle sandwich on Instagram, and determined that I HAD to have it. OMG, it was so good. Hands down it was the most tender soft shell I have ever eaten (and I've eaten so many of them in the past two weeks, you don't even know). The coating was crisp, but the crab was so plump and juicy underneath, I couldn't tell there was shell in it at all. And the accompaniments - house smoked bacon, green tomato, arugula, slaw - were perfect. The bacon was crisp and not too smoky, the tomato and slaw added just the right amount of both moisture and acid. And the waffle was really tasty. Of course, waffles get soggy fast and by the time I got to the second half of the sandwich, it was falling apart, but it was worth the mess.

Mr Minx opted for the 12-hour smoked brisket, which came elegantly presented as two toothsome slabs over a generous serving of slow cooked Carolina gold rice studded with bits of asparagus. It was nicely smoky and worked well with the bleu cheese butter on top. We also enjoyed the rice, which was not quite risotto, not quite congee. A bowl of it would be comforting on a cold winter morning. Or evening. Or afternoon.

We shared a dessert, the cornbread strawberry shortcake, comprising a nicely-crumbly, somewhat coarse-textured cornbread with sugar macerated stawberries and sweetened whipped cream. The edges of the cornbread had a little crunch, and the strawberries were just sweet enough. Really good.

So, only good things to say about Jokers n Thieves. The staff was incredibly nice, the food was really good, and we liked the ambiance of the place as well. I kinda hate that it's in Canton, because we'd prefer it to be closer to us, but we can't have it all.

If you're a fan of soft shells, GO NOW and get them while the getting is good. You won't regret it.

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