Friday, November 08, 2019

Flashback Friday - Cooking with Il Douche

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This post originally appeared on on November 28, 2011.


While I love to pick on chef Rocco DiSpirito, he probably doesn't deserve the beating I give him as much as does another chef, Scott Conant. (Rumor has it that DiSpirito is actually a very nice guy.) Conant first popped up on my radar when he appeared as a guest judge on Season 5 of Top Chef. He didn't have to open his mouth for me to slap the "smarmy" tag on him; one look at the carefully-groomed stubble was quite enough. Top Cheftestant Fabio Viviani wasn't all that impressed with him, either. (Check out the last part of our interview with Fabio.)

A blogger that I follow posted on Facebook and Twitter not long ago that she was thisclose to Conant. I told her that I think he's a douche. Conant himself responded on Twitter that she should "tell her friend I'm not a douche."

After poking around his account for a few minutes, I noticed that he seems to enjoy re-Tweeting comments that disparage him. Maybe he gets off on it. 

He deleted his "tell your friend I'm not a douche" comment before I thought to screen-cap it. Guess he can't deny the truth.

Since this is a food blog, I figured I should try one of his recipes before I trash talk him. Because I've read raves about his simple spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce, that seemed to be the dish to try. Mr Minx and I whipped it up one recent evening.

Eh. It's fine. The sauce was so unctuous from the copious amounts of oil, butter, and starchy pasta water, the tomato provided merely an acidic accent that could also be achieved with a more reasonably-priced squeeze of lemon or dash of zest.

It's almost criminal that this dish is listed on the Scarpetta menu at $24. Wait...what am I saying, "almost?" Definitely criminal.

Personally, I think it would be tastier with more cheese, some shellfish, and chopped red onion.

Scott Conant's Spaghetti with Tomato-and-Basil Sauce

1⁄2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
30 fresh plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
11⁄2 pounds dried spaghetti
1 tablespoon butter
8 basil leaves, cut into a fine chiffonade
1⁄4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Add the olive oil to a pan and heat until it begins to smoke lightly. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, and red-pepper flakes, but take into consideration that the sauce will reduce and the salt will become concentrated. Crush the tomatoes with a potato masher to release all their liquid. Cook for 25 minutes over medium to medium-high heat, until the tomatoes form a semi-chunky sauce.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and add the spaghetti. When it is three-quarters cooked, drain the pasta and reserve the water. Add the spaghetti to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat until all the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is al dente, stirring occasionally. If the sauce becomes too thick, add a little of the pasta water to thin out the sauce. Remove from the heat, and, just before serving, add the butter, basil, and cheese, mixing thoroughly until the pasta is an orange hue. Season to taste with salt.

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Monday, November 04, 2019

La Calle

There are so many chain restaurants in the Inner Harbor area of downtown Baltimore, that when a locally-owned joint opens up, I get excited. Situated on a bland block of South Street, between Baltimore and Redwood, and a stone's throw from The Block, La Calle--"the street" in Spanish--is among the most exciting. While the name conjures thoughts of street food, the decor--some walls paneled, others painted the color of red mole, a full bar--suggest fine dining.

At this point, I've only ever been for lunch, so have not experienced the lobster empanadas or braised lamb shank barbacoa or chicken mole poblano, all of which sound amazing.

What I have had, so far, has been the shrimp ceviche, light and full of flavor (though the accompanying "sweet" tortilla chips are a little too thick and crunchy for my tastes).

Also a perfectly cooked, crisp-skinned, salmon that was so good I've had it twice. It was accompanied by tiny potatoes, tomatoes, and fava beans in an epazote lobster cream sauce. And it's $12. Honestly, both times it was the best salmon I've had in town in ages, hands down, and at a fraction of the price.

Several of my various dining companions went with tacos, and though I didn't get to try any of them, they looked uniformly tasty. That might be my next order, unless of course I finally go for dinner. The last time I was at La Calle, it was with Mr Minx, and he tried the al pastor torta. It's a nice big sandwich, as tortas usually are, filled with tasty and tender pork bits that I couldn't resist snatching off of his plate.

We also tried the flan, which was excellent--firm, very smooth, just sweet enough, and dusted with a smattering of sesame seeds. One of the best I've tried.

La Calle is a long walk from work for me, but well worth it. And of course if I'm feeling lazy, I can always take a bus. I'm already contemplating my next visit in a couple of weeks. Do go, because I'd love for this place to stick around for a long time.

La Calle
10 South St
Baltimore, MD 21202

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Friday, October 18, 2019

Flashback Friday - Tequila Mockingbird

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This post originally appeared on on October 26, 2011.

Ocean City, Maryland, is hardly a foodie destination, and we're ok with that. Most trips, we end up eating pretty decent pizza at Lombardi's, tender ribs from J.R.'s, and terrific sushi at Yokozuna. If we're there more than three nights, another restaurant has to enter the rotation, and occasionally it's Tequila Mockingbird. Every time we go there, I think it's a terrific idea, and every time we leave I think, "why did I eat that?"

Not that the food is bad. It's not bad. It's just...bland. But that doesn't seem to keep anyone away. Seems like every time we've eaten there, there's been a small hoard of people at the front of the restaurant, waiting for a table. I don't really get it.

Ok, maybe I get going there for a margarita and some chips and salsa, which always seem freshly made. The chips were warm and un-greasy, and completely unsalted on our most recent visit. (That's fine - I prefer my tortilla chips unsalted.) The salsa also seemed underseasoned, but otherwise had the standard mix of tomatoes, onions, and cilantro.

After perusing the pun-heavy menu, which is divided into sections like "Chimi Chimi Bang Bang," "Gone with the Taco," and "Love American Style," you know, the usual suspects (see what I did there?), I ordered the "Tijuana Triple," a typical Tex-Mex platter of excess including a mini shrimp quesadilla, a chicken hard taco, and a cheese enchilada, plus arroz verde and refried beans. Pretty standard fare that can be made at home quite easily, with or without the help of Old El Paso. How could it go wrong? Well, not wrong, per se. Just horribly...uninteresting. The chunks of chicken breast in the taco were not only boneless and skinless but also completely devoid of seasoning and flavor. They were also slightly tough, but that was expected. Topping the meat were some unseasoned bits of tomato and onion and shredded lettuce. More of this bland vegetation topped the cheese enchilada, which was orange goo wrapped in a corn tortilla. The enchilada sauce had slopped off to the side and was killing the crispness of the quesadilla, which was filled with - you guessed it - more of the tomato/onion blandness. The small shrimps hiding in the cheese were pretty tasty though, adding a modicum of flavor to an otherwise snooze-worthy plate that also included underseasoned arroz verde and gummy refried beans.

After eating as much as I could stomach, I went back to the chips and salsa. After the blandness of my dinner, I could detect that the salsa *did* have seasoning - maybe a bit of vinegar. Perhaps even salt.

Mr Minx fared much better. He wisely ordered beef as the filling for his chimichanga, and found it to be nicely seasoned with a bit of cumin and other spices. It was actually flavorful. Unfortunately, it came with the same boring beans and rice, and more completely unnecessary tomato/onion/shredded iceberg.

My camera phone sadly doesn't have a flash. My dish came out blurry,
but that's fine - it looked like a mess anyway.
We washed down our food with glasses of sangria, which tasted heavily of cinnamon. It reminded me of the Korean persimmon- and cinnamon-flavored dessert beverage, sujung gwa. I probably should have ordered a margarita. was edible. Everything seemed fresh, and it was fine for folks who don't like spicy or flavorful food, I suppose. Really quite a let-down after eating some really good Mexican chow at Miguel's recently. I did notice that we were possibly the youngest customers in the dining room, and that might have been the reason for the "taco night at the nursing home" quality of the meal. But then the place has a captive audience, as do the rest of OC's restaurants that don't seem to try very hard.

Sadly, eating at Tequila Mockingbird gave me this thought: Ocean City could use a Chili's.

Tequila Mockingbird
12919 Coastal Hwy
Ocean City, MD 21842
(410) 250-4424

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Monday, October 14, 2019

Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro

I have long lamented that there aren't any really good Chinese restaurants in northern Baltimore County. There are plenty of smaller American-style Chinese carry-outs, and Szechuan House, which has always been hit or miss. (They deliver, however, so that is definitely in their favor.) When I read in Kit Pollard's Hot Plate column for Baltimore Fishbowl that a new Sichuan restaurant opened on Allegany Avenue, we visited post haste, hoping for the best.

Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro is a rather expansive restaurant with a soothing decor and not particularly comfortable, unpadded, Chinese-style wooden chairs. The kitchen is also large and visible through a plate glass window at the back of the restaurant. Continuing the size theme is the menu, a glossy tome featuring not only lists of available dishes, but also helpful photographs of nearly all of them. Another theme of Red Pepper is spicy, which of course one would expect to find in a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Sichuan province. My kinda food.

I'm always attracted to spicy wontons, so we had to order the Sichuan spicy wontons in red oil. I'm forever chasing the flavor of a similar dish I had years ago in a restaurant in Randallstown called Szechuan Best. There, the red oil was as aromatic as it was spicy. Red Pepper's rendition is very good, with nicely tender pork-filled wontons, but the sauce didn't have the kick that I was looking for. Still, it was pretty tasty and I'll order it again.

One of our two favorite Chinese restaurants is Grace Garden in Odenton, and one dish we always order there is the Sichuan pork belly, a dish of thinly sliced pork belly stir fried with chiles and leeks. We thought the Fried Salty and Dried Pork with Scallion at Red Pepper would be similar. It was, and it wasn't. When tasting the dish in the restaurant, I did notice that the pork was indeed salty, but it wasn't until I ate the leftovers at home three days later that I noticed the pork had also been smoked. Saltiness aside, the dish was quite nice, and as it was not spicy, somewhat of an antidote to the following dish.

We used to get a dish called "beef on toothpicks" at our other favorite Chinese restaurant, Hunan Taste (which appears to have closed permanently). Literally fried slivers of beef impaled on toothpicks, the meat was flavored with cumin and chiles. Red Pepper offers both beef and lamb with cumin. The dishes seemed similar enough despite the lack of pointed wooden implements, so we tried the latter. Baby, it was hot, but also redolent of the promised cumin. I can dig the heat of dried red chiles, which to me doesn't last as long on the palate as that of fresh green chiles, and is much easier for me to tolerate. However, Mr Minx found it a bit incendiary.

Another way to beat the heat of the lamb dish was to take bites of Shrimp with Rice Crusts. The menu describes the dish thusly: "When rice crust is combined with beef or pork, it tastes spicy. With shrimp or fish filet, amazingly, it changes to sweet and sour." The rice crusts - squares of crisply fried rice - are presented on their own in a large bowl, with the topping poured over at tableside.  Rather than some mysterious alchemical transformation, the shrimp and fish versions are simply presented in a somewhat brothy, lightly sweet and tangy sauce that is absolutely nothing like the ketchup-and-pineapple juice sweet-and-sour that Americans are used to (thank god). I imagine that the beef and pork versions have a spicy sauce, which we will have to try at another time.

The shrimp were plump and sweet, and there were a nice amount of vegetables. The rice crusts themselves have a nice roasty flavor, and I'd love to nibble them on their own. I am torn about their texture once deluged with sauce.

Finally, we tried the Stir-fry Green Beans, which I loved. The beans were still a little crisp, garlicky, and salty. Mr Minx likes them a little softer, and preferred the reheated beans a few days later. Still, a very good rendition of a favorite dish.

With only one visit under our belts, we determined that Red Pepper doesn't quite tickle our palates in the same way as Grace Garden or Hunan Taste, but our meal was still very good. Amazingly good for Towson. And while it might not be at the top of the heap for us just yet, we will put Red Pepper into our regular dining rotation and hope to taste most of the menu (might skip fish maw though) in the not too distant future.

Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro
11 Allegheny Avenue
Towson, MD 21204

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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