Monday, December 31, 2007

Best Restaurant Dishes of 2007

In the year 2007, Mr Minx and I did our fair share of restaurant dining. I'd say we eat out about once a week or so, usually simple fare like diner food, Chinese, or sushi. We also ate a number of pricier meals this year, and dined in six different states. What was sorely lacking, however, was good ethnic food. Although we got carry out from Yeti, a Nepalese restaurant near Belvedere Square, we did not dine in an Indian restaurant in the last 12 months. We had one Korean meal, and one Thai, and that was in NYC. If our local favorites Bangkok Place and Purim Oak had not closed, this wouldn't have been the case, but there it is. (Would someone please open a Korean restaurant in a non-sketchy neighborhood that doesn't require taking the Beltway to get there? Good Thai food in northern Baltimore County would be nice too, thanks.)

Although I can whine all day about missing my tod mun pla and dolsot bibimbop, I thought maybe I should concentrate on the good dining experiences we had in 2007. Although we had some mediocre food this year, we also ate some stellar dishes. The criteria for making this list is simple: if a dish pops into mind, and I say "mmmm, I'd like to have that again" at the memory, then it's a winner.

Top Ten Tastes of 2007

1. Black squid ink risotto with prawns and lobster, Bolo, NY
2. Portobello mushroom stuffed with warm lobster salad, Sotto Sopra, Baltimore
3. Deep fried macaroni and cheese with tasso ham and lump crab with spicy tomato glaze, Cajun Kate's, Boothwyn, PA
4. Scallop ceviche with crab salad and microgreens, Roy's, Baltimore
5. Preserved duck salad with tangerines, pomegranates, & spicy almond brittle, Bolo, NY
6. Crab bisque, Louisiana, Baltimore
7. Whole rockfish, Hunan style, Jesse Wong's, Columbia
8. Warm duck salad, Centro Vinoteca, NY
9. Twelve-layer potato tapas, Bolo, NY
10. Lavender gelato, Sotto Sopra, Baltimore

Runners up:
Hamachi tartare with crispy shallots, Morimoto, Philadelphia
Laos salad with duck, Yin Yankee Cafe, Annapolis
Lobster risotto, Sotto Sopra, Baltimore
Tom Yum Goong, Prem On Thai, NY

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Chili and Cornbread

For the last six years, we've been having both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day festivities at Casa Minx. I'd prefer to have one big party on Christmas Day, but because the holiday is no longer All About Me, I have to make concessions for the other families involved. This has meant that Dad and his SO visit us on the 24th. Because they are so busy on that day, they can't stay very long, so in 2006 I decided we should have a party and invite other folks to celebrate with us. This way, there's merrymaking before Dad's arrival and it still goes on after they leave for their next stop of the evening.

Casual party food should be both fun and easy (to make and eat). Last year, we had pulled pork sandwiches. This year, chili was on the menu. What's easier than tossing a bunch of ingredients in a pot and letting it simmer all morning? And what's more fun than having to taste it every hour or so to make sure the seasonings are just right?

I love chili and prefer a hearty no-bean Texas-style preparation with chunks rather than ground meat. I am quite the shiterein cook, tossing things in until the dish tastes good, so there's no formal recipe. But I can give you a rough idea of what it entails.

Minx Chili
4 lbs beef stew meat, cut in uniform pieces (if you find big chunks, make them smaller with your handy-dandy knife)
1 32-oz can whole tomatoes
1 15- or 16-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 large onion, chopped
2 - 3 large cloves of garlic, crushed
regular commercial chile powder
ancho chile powder
ground cumin
1 or 2 whole jalapenos
1 or 2 small cans chopped green chiles
beef stock
1 oz or so unsweetened chocolate or 1 tablespoon cocoa powder

Brown the meat in a large Dutch oven. Remove from pan; add onion and allow to sweat. Add garlic and cook a few minutes. Hand crush the whole tomatoes and add them and their juice plus the small can of tomatoes, the green chiles, and a good tablespoon or so each of the chile powders, plus almost as much cumin.

Return the beef to the pot and add about 2 cups of beef stock (a Knorr bouillon cube plus 2 cups of water works too) and the whole jalapeños. (I like to cut a slit in them first. If you like heat, hell, chop them up instead. Add 3 or 10. Personally though, I like to taste my food.)

Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Give it a stir every 30 minutes or so. After about an hour, give it a taste. Remember there's no salt at this point, but don't add that yet because the sauce is going to reduce and the end result may be too salty. If you think it needs more chile powder or cumin, add it. At this point I'd probably put in a bit of chocolate, maybe a drizzle of honey, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Non-traditional, but hey, it's all about the flavor! I like my food to be rich and complex.

After another hour or so, taste it again. More garlic? Sure! More chocolate? Of course! How about a sprinkle of cinnamon? Why not? Taste and add, taste and add. Repeat every hour or so.

Christmas Eve's chile got a good 4 1/2 hours of cooking at very low heat. At that point, the meat was falling apart, and the sauce was fairly rich and dark. The 1 1/2 oz of unsweetened chocolate and small handful of Hershey's kisses guaranteed that! (And no, it wasn't sweet and the chocolate wasn't obvious in the least. I remember watching an episode of "Calling All Cooks" on the Food Network some years ago in which a home cook's secret recipe for chili included ONE Hershey's kiss. Mr Minx and I still laugh at the absurdity of that.) At the last minute, I added more chile powder and cumin and finally the salt. You may find that it doesn't need much salt at all, especially if you used a bouillon cube or non reduced-sodium stock.

Serve with garnishes of chopped onion or scallion, shredded cheese, cilantro, sour cream, chopped jalapeños, tortilla chips - whatever turns you on. I like to make cornbread.

We had the best cornbread at the Molly Stark Inn in Bennington, Vermont. The recipe, we were told, was based on one found on a bag of cornmeal. It's now my go-to recipe if I make cornbread from scratch (rather than cheating with Jiffy.) I gave it a twist by baking it in my neglected non-stick Madeleine pan - they are easy to remove and their small size makes them even easier to eat.

Mexican Cornbread
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1 1/2 cups white flour
1 t salt
6 t baking powder
2 eggs
1 cup half & half
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup butter, softened
pinch of sugar (optional)

Optional ingredients
6 spring onions, coarsely chopped
2 small jalapeños, seeded and chopped
6 strips of cooked bacon, chopped
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 small can chopped green chiles
1/2 corn kernels, fresh or thawed frozen

Preheat oven to 400ºF.

Sift together dry ingredients. Add egg, milk, and butter. Beat until smooth. Stir in any or all of the optional ingredients.

Lightly butter a Madeleine pan. Drop about a tablespoon of batter into each well. Bake for about 12 minutes.

Makes approximately 48 Madeleine-shaped muffins. Oh, and the chili feeds...not as many as you may think....heh.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Chocolate Linzer Tart

My friend Amy mentioned making Linzer cookies during her holiday baking, and that reminded me of an old favorite recipe that I haven't made in a while: chocolate linzer tart.

Years ago, I used to have annual chocolate parties which involved myriad chocolate desserts served to an all-female crowd. At first I made everything myself, but then I realized that I could share some of the back-breaking work by having my guests supply favorite chocolate dishes. Despite the many new varieties of fabulous cocoa-laden desserts that arrived each year, it didn't feel right unless I made this tart.

It's been about fifteen years since I first made this, so I have no idea where the recipe came from originally. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Chocolate Linzer Tart
1 1/2 cups ground blanched almonds
1 1/3 cups chocolate Teddy Grahams, pulsed in the food processor until they are fine crumbs
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 t ground cinnamon
2 T cocoa powder
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 whole egg
1 jar Polaner All-Fruit seedless raspberry jam
1/4 cup sliced almonds

Place ground almonds, cookie crumbs, flour, sugar, cinnamon and cocoa into a large bowl and mix well. Distribute the butter over the mixture and add the egg. Work the dough with your fingertips, rubbing in the butter and making a smooth dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly butter a 9" tart pan with removable bottom. Pat about 3/4 of the dough into the bottom of the pans, forming a bottom crust.

Spread the jam thickly over the crust but not quite to the edges.

Roll pieces of the remaining dough into strips and arrange on jam in a lattice pattern. Sprinkle on the chopped almonds.

Bake for 35 minutes. Let the pastry cool in the pan before cutting into thin wedges.
Serves 12 - 15

Christmas Cookies

I don't do a lot of baking during the year, apart from the occasional pan of Ghirardelli brownies for a party. But at Christmas, I set aside one day for the annual Baking of the Cookies. This has been a tradition since time immemorial--or at least for the last fifteen years or so.

Chocolate chip cookies are always a must. We always baked them when my brother was home so he could eat them hot from the oven with a glass of very cold milk. Mom liked them too, but without the chips, so we'd make a couple of "bald" cookies for her. I also have a fondness for Snickerdoodles, so they became part of the repertoire sometime in the late 90s.

Now that I'm married, I haven't given up the traditional cookie day. My brother still comes over to get his hot from the oven. We make chocolate chips and 'doodles, and occasionally a third or even fourth cookie. My brother has a fondness for amaretti, the chewy Italian macaroon topped with sliced almonds. (Personally, I like the pignoli version better, topped with pine nuts, but my brother has severe nut allergies so they are a no-no.) They are a little spendy to make, plus they get stale almost instantaneously, so we only make them every other year or so.

A few years back I tried a tea cookie made with finely ground Earl Grey tea. They were an odd blue color, tasted strongly of tea, but they didn't stay fresh very long. Last year we made chocolate cookies, but it was hard to tell when they were done or when they were burnt. Many got burnt, so we saved them for Dad (who seems to enjoy burnt things, or at least he's been pretending to for the last 40 years or so).

This year, we made the standard two varieties. Chocolate chips were made with the old standby Toll House recipe, and Snickerdoodles from The Joy of Cooking. Nothing earth-shattering, I'm afraid, but they were very tasty as they came out of the oven!

I would love to find a recipe for a chewy Snickerdoodle, but every one I've tried (even those purporting to be chewy) have produced profoundly crisp results. If any of my readers have a chewy recipe they would care to share with me, I'd be grateful!

Want a cookie? We have plenty!

Monday, December 10, 2007

I Before E Except After C

Why is it that some food terms are consistently mispronounced and/or misspelled? I mean, I can understand small children pronouncing spaghetti as "pisketti" - they usually grow out of that sort of thing fairly early. But adults...grrrr! Here are a few that I see or hear on a regular basis, and which annoy me as often.

Carmel is a town in California, not a chemical reaction that occurs when sugars are heated. The correct term is CARAMEL. And CARAMELIZED. There's an extra syllable in there that you carmelizers skip. Do use it next time.

CHIPOTLE - chee po tlay. NOT "chi pol tay" or "chil pol tay." Or, as Bobby Flay pronounces it, "chee po til lay." Do you say "Mc Donlads" too??

That luscious sweet cheese in tiramisu is MASCARPONE, not MARSCAPONE. How's this, boobs - MASCAR like...NASCAR!

Do you have any food language peeves? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Happy Chanukah!

Blogger Nancy Kay Shapiro spotted these lovely Chanukah hams at Balducci's this past weekend.

Friday, November 30, 2007

What Are The Five Foods You Couldn't Live Without?

I spotted this on Ed Levine's blog and thought I'd take the challenge. Man, it's difficult. Because I am such a fickle eater, my favorites change from day to day and month to month. I'm not one to eat the same thing over and over again, like my husband and his daily lunch of a turkey sandwich, cookies, and a piece of fruit. I like variety. But what can't I live without? What would I miss the most from my varied diet?

Numbered, but not actually in order:
1. chocolate. I have a horrible sweet tooth and sometimes a small piece of chocolatey goodness is all I need to satisfy a craving.
2. ice cream
3. cheeseburgers. I am an unrepentant carnivore, but cheeseburgers are the only meat product I regularly get a hankerin' for
4. citrus fruits
5. salads - my favorite way to eat vegetables, they are infinitely variable and go well with cheeseburgers

So what are the five foods YOU can't live without?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

New Menu

Last night, Mr Minx and I, along with MinxBro and MinxDad hit up Jesse Wong's Hong Kong for a post-birthday dinner only to find that the menu had changed completely from the last time we had eaten dinner there. Granted, it's been a year, but the menu was no longer the 12-page Chinese food extravaganza. Instead, in its place, was a few-page listing of pan-Asian dishes that included Thai favorites like Pad Thai in addition to American-style Chinese foods. Bo-ring.

I complained to our waitress that the menu was different and she said, "oh, do you want to see the Chinese menu?" Yes I did! It wasn't as long as the original, but there were plenty of interesting options. And we could request non-menu items as well.

Hard to believe that the four of us put away one order of scallops, conch, and squid with snowpeas, a whole Peking duck, a whole Hunan-style rockfish, and an order of crispy chicken, plus pan fried dumplings and won ton soup all around. And it was all amazingly delicious, particularly the fish.

So when you go...remember to ask for the Chinese menu. You won't be disappointed.
Jesse Wong's Hong Kong on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 23, 2007

Giving Thanks

Yesterday was Thanksgiving and we had our annual feast of starch and tryptophan, with a goodly measure of vegetables and alcohol. Every year we descend on my Mother-in-Law's house with vegetables and pie, homemade cranberry sauce, and gravy fixins. Minx MIL provides the starches and the roast beast, BIL the stuffing, and Minx Brother brings the beer.
Click images to enlarge.

This year the turkey got cooked in an electric roaster, which really freed up the oven for heating the classic green bean casserole, the stuffing, and the sweet potatoes. No, those are not multiple penises on the turkey. My in-laws like to arrange sausage links on the top of the bird for the last half hour or so of roasting, presumably for basting purposes. It looks like the creature is getting a perm and wearing rows of hair rollers (sorry I don't have a pic of that!) I hate sausage links, but everyone else gobbles the horrid things up.

Here's my corn pudding in all its browned glory. It's a simple blend of three eggs, one cup of heavy cream, the kernels of 6 ears of corn (or a whole bag of frozen kernels), and a bit of salt and sugar. Bake for 1 hour at 350F. The recipe was given to me by a woman I never have liked. Still don't, but I make this stuff every year even though it reminds me of her. I bake it the day before and then heat it up in the microwave for about 4 minutes before serving.

Minx MIL cooked up a few pounds too many of the taters this year. We have mash coming out of our ears. Not that we're complaining!

It really makes a difference when one uses fresh sweet potatoes rather than canned or frozen. There's no need to add crushed pineapple to kill the canned flavor (as we used to do), and marshmallows can be kept to a minimum.

My MIL's friend Wayne likes peas, so she makes peas. These were sauteed with a bit of garlic and a small tomato, chopped. The garlic really makes itself known in this dish, particularly since almost nothing else on the table contained it.

My BIL makes really great stuffing with sausage and giblets. The gravy I make by cheating with a jar of Williams-Sonoma turkey gravy base and adding a cup or so of drippings. It's really delicious, and so rich it probably could be eaten on roast beef.

Here's a view of the table. When my DH was taking photos of all the dishes, he missed getting individual shots of the sliced brussels sprouts steamed with lemongrass oil (in the sprout-shaped dish), the green bean casserole (end of table, top left) and the dishes of cranberry sauce (behind the sprouts). He's not a fan of cranberries, and that's probably why he omitted them. This year, I made two kinds - my standard raw version (two whole clementines, peels and all, seeds removed, half a bag of fresh cranberries, and about 1/2 cup sugar, a dash of cinnamon, all ground up in the food processor) and a cooked variant with red pepper jelly, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, sugar, and a bit of rice wine vinegar to make it chutney-esque.

My favorite part is the side dishes, as I could really live without turkey. I'll eat it, but it has never been a focus of any meal for me, as evidenced by this photo.

I intended to make an apple galette but to buy the pumpkin pie. When we found the grocery store was out of them, we made one with canned pie filling. It was good, if a bit sweeter than I would have made it. The galette had thinly sliced golden delicious and granny smith apples, a bit of sugar, and some cinnamon, folded up in a refrigerated pie crust. After it came out of the oven, I glazed it with some mango preserves heated up with a little maple syrup. Both were a bit on the lazy side, but the results are what counts, right?

We wash the meal down with shandies (a mixture of beer and fizzy lemon soda, or as this year, ginger ale) which comes from the British side of the family. Before dinner, everyone but me partakes of Manhattans. By the time dinner is over, both the turkey and the alcohol have taken over, but the clean up takes precedence over napping! Once all that is done, we retire to the living room to jeer the football game and chat and/or fall asleep.

A good time was had by all, and I look forward to doing it again next year!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Holiday Questionnaire

This is from Baltimore Snacker by way of Chris at Take the quiz and pass it on.

1. Egg nog or hot chocolate?
Hot Chocolate. Egg Nog makes me gag. Although I love custard sprinkled with nutmeg, just not raw.

2. Does Santa wrap presents or just sit them under the tree?
When I was a kid, they occasionally were "wrapped" in plastic garbage bags, since my Dad did (still does) everything at the last possible minute. But my husband and I wrap everything.

3. Colored lights on tree/house or white?
White lights with green and red chile pepper-shaped covers.

4. Do you hang mistletoe?
No. I can kiss my husband any time I please.

5. When do you put your decorations up?
First or second weekend in December.

6. What is your favorite holiday dish (excluding dessert)?
We don't have standards every year anymore so I have no favorite. When I was a kid, it was always baked ham, mashed potatoes, and kapusta i kielbasy. Every year, every holiday. Love Ostrowski's fresh and garlicky kielbasa, but it doesn't love me. These days I mix it up. Last year it was short ribs, this year it's going to be pasta Carbonara.

7. Favorite holiday memory as a child?
Every year, my older cousins (25 years older) would arrive to the family festivities late, but bearing the most expensive gifts for my brother and I. After they ate dinner, they would come upstairs to our part of the house (Grandma had the first two floors) and help assemble said expensive gifts.

8. When and how did you learn the truth about Santa?
I'm not sure I ever really believed. Our apartment was small and it was hard to conceal things, so I was pretty sure it was Dad putting gifts under the tree with Mom's supervision rather than some old dude in a red suit.

9. Do you open a gift on Christmas Eve?
Not usually.

10. How do you decorate your Christmas tree?
Duh - with ornaments and lights! I have a fetish for pine cone-shaped ornaments, so there are lots of those, and mermaids.

11. Snow: love it or hate it?
I like the way it looks when it's falling, but I hate shoveling it and walking through it from the bus stop. We have neighbors who just don't bother shoveling at all.

12. Can you ice skate?
Not well, but yes.

13. Do you remember your favorite gift?
I get favorites every year!

14. What’s the most important thing about the holidays for you?
The sense of belonging I get when I spend time with my family and friends. I don't get to see so many people at one time during the rest of the year.

15. What is your favorite holiday dessert?
Pumpkin pie, but I secretly love Christmas Pudding, especially when drowned in Bird's Custard.

16. What is your favorite holiday tradition?
Baking cookies with my brother is one of the few traditions carried over from my single days. I always enjoy putting up the tree too.

17. What tops your tree?
If memory serves, a star.

18. Which do you prefer, giving or receiving?
Giving, but receiving is always nice, particularly if it's something I really really want!

19. What is your favorite Christmas song?
I love Christmas music, everything from the old standards (particularly when sung by Ella Fitzgerald) to new tunes by the Barenaked Ladies. But my favorite is probably "Let it Snow" sung by Dean Martin, for errr...sentimental reasons.

20. Candy canes:
Peppermint ones, yes!

21. Favorite Christmas movie?
White Christmas

22. What do you leave for Santa?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Christopher Daniel

I asked Mr Minx to surprise me with the location for my birthday dinner this year. His choice: Christopher Daniel, a steakhouse in northern Baltimore County. I had heard good things about the place and the menu looked interesting, so I was very happy with his choice. Tucked away into a strip mall on Padonia Road, Christopher Daniel was hopping at 6PM on a Saturday night, with a private party in one room and lots of elderly couples elsewhere. Yeah, so it's a place the older crowd likes. But the food is good, so I hope younger folks do drop in for dinner later in the evening.

We decided to split an appetizer of cornmeal fried oysters to start off. They were unusually tender in their crunchy crusts and the light mustard sauce was a perfect accompaniment. For our salad course, I went for the steakhouse classic iceberg wedge with bleu cheese dressing, this one gussied up BLT style with flecks of tomato and bacon on top. The serving looked like a giant slab of white-iced birthday cake with a funfetti garnish. There was a bit too much good dressing, but it was cheese-ful so I can't complain. Mr Minx went for the poached pear salad with mesclun, spicy pecans bleu cheese and raspberry-hazelnut dressing. The pear was nicely spiced and the salad was both generously-portioned and delicious. In fact, after the salad course, neither of us were particularly hungry anymore.

But...steaks were forthcoming. He chose the 8oz strip with a port wine reduction and crispy onion rings. I decided to go for the Kobe beef, which turned out to be a large tenderloin, with horseradish sauce and mushrooms. At $28 for 12oz, I sincerely doubt it was Kobe (considering that the stuff costs $20 per ounce with a 6 ounce minimum at Morimoto), and a lean cut like tenderloin kinda misses the point of the whole unctuous super-marbling for which the Japanese beef is famous. was flavorful, perfectly cooked to medium. The strip steak, as well, was perfectly cooked, and both pieces of meat were well-seasoned.

Vegetables were a la carte, and I went for the lobster mac and cheese. It was more buttery than cheesy, and the little lobster bits really did make it special. Mr Minx's baked potato was indeed baked, rather than the ubiquitous steamed in foil versions most restaurants dare serve, and had a nicely crispy skin. We both tried the spinach with garlic which was lightly cooked and heavy on the raw garlic.

Although we were full and doggie bagged part of our steaks, I agreed to take a look at the dessert menu because it was my birthday. But we didn't need to order anything, as our waitress immediately trotted back to the table with a warm hunk of flourless chocolate cake decked out with chocolate sauce and a candle. A very nice touch that I greatly appreciated.

A happy birthday to me. :)
Christopher Daniel on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Brussels Sprouts

After reading accounts on several other blogs about how wonderful it is, last night we decided to try out David Chang's brussels sprouts recipe. We love the earthy goodness of brussels sprouts and usually prepare them by separating the leaves, giving them a quick steam and seasoning them with Golden Whisk's Star of Siam oil (sadly discontinued).

Chang's recipe involves roasting the wee cabbages at 450F and then dousing them with a Southeast Asian-inspired combo of fish sauce, sugar, garlic, and fresh mint and cilantro. I didn't have the Thai chile called for in the recipe, so I substituted some Korean red pepper flakes. The puffed rice garnish comes from Indian snack foods, but seasoned with Japanese seven-spice powder makes this dish truly pan-Asian. No sichimi togarashi in my house, unfortunately, so I just added salt, pepper, and ground ginger to the rice.

I decided that pork tenderloin would be the main dish and wanted to give it a similarly Asian flavor profile. I made a sauce with peanut butter, mango preserves, coconut powder, rice wine vinegar, and ginger, thinned out with some store-bought Thai broth. Plain Jasmine rice was the final component of the meal.

Ok, those sprouts were seriously good. Although while roasting, they gave off the unmistakable smell of cruciferous vegetables, they didn't taste cabbage-y at all. The sweet morsels of caramelized goodness, combined with the crispy rice (which really seemed like a skippable novelty ingredient) were a symphony of textures and flavors. All they needed was the rice, although the pork was pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Shrimp Curry

Last night we tried the first of the Let's Dish meals - a shrimp curry. When we were packaging the stuff up at the shop, I was smart enough to add twice as much ginger and curry powder as the recipe called for. Mr Minx said it tasted ok, but that it needed salt and the curry powder was a bit spicy but otherwise one-dimensional. So of course he doctored it up with other Indian spices. And added more shrimp. And as there were no vegetables in the dish, he cooked up a head of cauliflower and seasoned it in an Indian manner as well. With a cilantro leaf and pistachio garnish and spoonfuls of various chutneys from my collection, it was a tasty meal. However, one that could have been made from scratch just as quickly. (No photos, as without the cilantro, the dish was a symphony in beige.)

Mr Minx did admit that it was nice to have something in the freezer that he could cook up without having to put any advance thought into the meal.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Let's Dish

I understand that there are busy people out there who have no time to prepare a decent dinner. Really, I do. Rather than resort to fast food or frozen dinners, or worse yet, Sandra Lee, they flock to a new breed of take-out that allows them to prep dishes in advance of cooking and keep them in the freezer until it's time to cook. According to the Web site for one such enterprise, Let's Dish:
Need help with dinner...every night? Then you need Let's Dish! - a totally fresh approach to meal making. It's the fun, easy and affordable way to prepare healthy and delicious, homemade dinners in no time.

I like to cook and find it enjoyable. What I don't find fun is competing for ingredients in a small room with thirty other people who have dubious hygiene. A dear friend gave Mr Minx and I a very generous gift certificate to Let's Dish for Christmas last year. We managed to put off using it for nearly 11 months; realizing that it expired mid-December were finally forced to schedule a session. So we put ice packs in our cooler and made the trip to Timonium.

Mr Minx had envisioned a cooking class, with some knowledgeable chef leading us through the preparation of a meal step-by-step. I envisioned a room full of stations, each laden with ingredients for a particular dish, and people sipping wine while casually chatting and laughing and putting meals together. I was closest. There was no wine, of course, just water and coffee with some amazingly gooey and highly artificial-tasting brownies and still-frozen chocolate chip cookies. Because there were so many people signed up for our session, there also was no casual chatting, just rigid determination to get through one dish and onto the next while receiving the Death Stare and heavy sighing from others waiting for your station.

Upon arrival, we received bandannas and aprons and a cursory "orientation" that involved several admonishments to wash our hands before, during, and after food prep. It's possible that Mr Minx and I were the only people adhering to this cleanliness warning, as the sinks were consistently free and uncrowded, despite 30 busy food assemblers in the room.

Basically, it's like this: Find a station holding ingredients for one of the items you signed up to make. It will have the "recipe" and the ingredients needed, plus plastic crocks for mixing. One takes a gallon-sized plastic bag and places it in the crock as a liner, then tosses in the various ingredients - beef strips, frozen veggies, soy sauce, etc. The bag gets sealed, labeled, and bagged again before going into the freezer. Rinse and Repeat until all items signed up for have been completed. Then pack all of the myriad plastic bags (the hungry landfills of America thank you, Let's Dish) into a cooler and get the hell out of there. We completed our eight dishes (each serves 6 people) in an hour. The woman at the front desk said that none of the folks who had signed up for four dishes were finished yet. Huh? How difficult can it be to measure one tablespoon of oil (with provided tablespoon measure and squirt bottle of oil) and put it in a plastic bag? There were several women at the Jambalaya station who seemed to need remedial reading lessons and/or to better familiarize themselves with chicken chunks, rice, and shrimp because they were sorely confused and took twenty minutes to pack up one bag of ingredients.

So now we have a ton of new food in our freezer, waiting for the day we attempt to cook some of it. Does baking something pre-prepared for 45 minutes really save time? ::shrug::: I guess it depends on the individual. I realize we'll have to season some of the dishes, as salt and pepper were not residents of every station, nor were they on the instruction sheet. Truthfully, I'm looking forward to trying the flank steak with caramelized onions and the curry shrimp. I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Three Duck Weekend - Bolo

Because my dear husband and I had marvelous meals at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in both New York and Las Vegas, we thought we'd give Bolo a try. Until recently, I had never been particularly interested in Spanish cuisine, but the tapas trend has got me hooked.

Bolo has a four tapas for $16 deal that seemed quite reasonable, so we tried a few items we've never had before, like crispy frog's leg with mint & garlic and a salt cod fritter with parsley garlic sauce. Our choices were presented in a square plate with four individual compartments. Mr. Minx's carby choice of twelve layer potato with caramelized shallots was the best of the bunch, with meltingly tender potato, seasoned subtly with onion, and perfectly caramelized shallots. A big bowl of this would have made me very happy. The next favorite was a bit of pan fried duck liver with sherry vinegar, honey, & black pepper. This was not foie gras, but the more strongly-flavored liver of a normal duck, cooked lightly and dressed with a nicely acidic vinaigrette that cut the richness of the meat.

The salt cod fritter was largely potato, and it reminded me of an old-fashioned Baltimore coddie, sans mustard. Last was the frog's leg, which indeed tasted "like chicken," but with a touch of the sea. It was completely unremarkable, apart from its novelty value.

We sat at the table against the wall on the leftmost side of the picture.

Our salad course was the duck course for this meal. Since I had the duck salad the night before, it was my husband's turn to have it tonight. His preserved duck salad with tangerines, pomegranates, & spicy almond brittle consisted of a very generous confitted duck thigh, on the bone and with crisped skin, next to a little pile of white endive and other greens. The duck was meltingly tender, and the almond brittle was a lovely touch that added a bit of sweetness to a savory dish. Truly delicious. Never having tried merguez before, I was interested in the white chicory salad with spicy lamb sausage, poached egg, and mustard-toasted almond vinaigrette. It struck me as I was eating this that it would be a perfect breakfast dish. The sausage was definitely spicy, but the heat was tempered by the mildness of poached egg and the light dressing. The egg was a bit overcooked, as the yolk did not ooze gracefully over the greens but rather sat on top as a bright orange semi-orb. Regardless, the combination of flavors worked well and I did enjoy the salad.

The two entrees that were the most attractive to Mr. Minx and myself were the black squid ink risotto with grilled prawns, lobster, & green onion vinaigrette and the pork tenderloin with walnut romesco, oloroso sherry-fig sauce, & whipped green onion potatoes. The risotto was a gorgeous pile of glossy, jet black rice, topped with two head-on grilled prawns, and a ring of green onion vinaigrette around the very edge of the bowl. My first forkful tasted of chile, and my second of green onion, so I am guessing that Bobby Flay's famous squeeze bottles of chile and scallion oils were also employed on this dish (as they were on all of the tapas items). The vinaigrette gave yet another, tangy, variation of onion flavor to the dish. The bits of lobster were perfectly cooked, but one of the prawns was a little mushy. And the rice was softer than that of classical Italian risotto; still, I would fight over this dish. Not only was it beautiful, it was a festival of flavors.

Not so the pork tenderloin. I had the pork tenderloin at Mesa Grill and it was glorious; served medium, it was tender and juicy. The three large chunks of pork in the Bolo dish were sadly dry and overcooked, and the sauce was too darkly flavored, like burnt licorice. The potatoes were pretty, but did not have the flavor to stand up to the overwhelming sauce. And the walnut romesco went completely undetected. With better cooked pork, a lighter version of the sauce, and a stronger starch like sweet potato mash, this would have been an excellent dish as well. Perhaps it was merely an off night.

Finally, dessert. Mr. Minx chose the sherry-Robiola cheescake with fruit shortbread crust, citrus granita, and apple cranberry compote. (Robiola is an Italian soft-ripened cheese, similar to cream cheese.) The cake was topped with a bruleed sugar crust and was delicately flavored with sherry. The best part of the dish was the amazing granita that was both fantastically tart and sweet at the same time, and a perfect accompaniment to the creamy cake. My caramel apple date cake with warm toffee sauce and vanilla creme fraiche ice cream was also quite good, although the toffee sauce didn't taste of much at all, and the ice cream could well have been made with regular cream. Both desserts went well with the remainder of our 2005 Christopher Creek Zinfandel.

Although not quite as good as Mesa Grill, I still would go back to Bolo just for the risotto.

Bolo on Urbanspoon

Three Duck Weekend - Centro Vinoteca

The executive chef of Centro Vinoteca is Anne Burrell, perhaps best known as Mario Batali's sous chef on Iron Chef America. I love watching her make fresh pasta on that show - she works so hard and she is really a big part of Mario's ICA successes. When I heard she had opened a restaurant with Sasha Muniak of Gusto and Mangia, one that serves small plates called piccolini, I knew I had to try it. Even though here in boring Baltimore they are calling the small plates craze "dead," "over," and "so 2005," NY has yet to hear that news. Not only are there lots of tapas joints in the Big Apple, there are also other ethnicities trotting out their own versions for those of us who like to experience lots of flavors at one meal.

Small plates are perfect for nibbling with a glass or two of wine, and Centro Vinoteca offers several varieties by the quarto. We tried two, a Dolcetto d'Alba with a deep fruity flavor but a surprisingly light body; and a montepulciano that had an earthy mushroomy quality that became woodsy later (and reminded me of a wine version of Shisheido Feminite de Bois, a plummy, woodsy perfume).

Although several of the piccolini were tempting, we tried only two, the polpettini (tiny meatballs with a crisp crust arranged in a bowl of rich beef jus) and the fried cauliflower wedges with parmigiano crust and agliata. The polpettini very much reminded me of my grandmother's itty bitty meatballs, but much herb-ier, and I wanted to use all of the basket of good bread to soak up the sauce. The cauliflower was tender, undoubtedly pre-steamed, coated in batter and deep fried. The agliata tasted more of olives than garlic, and there was a bit too much cheese in the dish.

The titular duck of the evening comes in the salad course. As soon as I spotted the warm duck salad with caramelized onions, belgian endive & pears, I knew I had to have it. It was plated as a pile of warm shreds of duck alongside a small salad. The caramelized onions added even more richness to the already rich duck, and the crisp matchsticks of pear were a welcome contrast of crunch, as were the lightly dressed greens. I only wish there were more duck (not that it was a measly portion, but it was so good).

Mr. Minx opted for the braised oxtail cakes, as he had never tried oxtail and was naturally curious about how it might be presented in a cake form. It resembled a small hamburger, with a crispy outside and meltingly tender inside, due to a nice meat-to-fat ratio. It was accompanied by a generous portion of shaved celery salad, the tartness of which nicely balanced the rich meat. In addition, there was a crispy round of parmesan frico for another level of flavor and texture.

We could have stopped there and been happy, but we also ordered entrees. Sadly, Mr. Minx's lamb bolognese with crispy gnocchi and fried onions was marred by too little sauce with far too much salty cheese flavor that obscured the flavor of the lamb completely. The gnocci weren't quite "crispy" but had a harder outside texture than the very soft insides. They were well-made gnocchi, tender and not of the rib-sticking, overly-glutinous variety, and might have worked better with a wetter, less-cheesy sauce with more lamb flavor.

My crispy skate in "acquapazza" with bay scallops, calamari and rock shrimp with raw fennel salad was also a miss. Although the skate was nicely cooked, crispy on the outside and possessing a fresh, scallop-y flavor, the "crazy water" broth was far too acidic for my taste, rendering the tiny scallops, shrimp, and tender calamari rings into merely textures. Only the fennel salad was assertive enough to cut through the acid. The sauce would have been better balanced with the addition of some fish stock and perhaps a nice knob of butter for richness.

As I noticed the wine menu included a Brachetto d'Acqui, I knew we had to get dessert. At the recommendation of our server, I chose the goat cheesecake with figs because I thought that a tangy goat cheese would work especially well with the lightly fizzy sweet wine (as it did at Babbo). The cake was disappointingly neither tart nor noticeably goaty, although it was otherwise a good, soft-textured cheesecake. My husband's cappuccino "panna cotta" appeared to have been missing the gelatin ordinarily used to set the dessert, as it was the soft texture of mousse. The generous portion was well-flavored with strong coffee and was accompanied by lovely cinnamon shortbread cookies topped with a pinch of salt and chocolate covered espresso beans.

The highlights of this meal were pretty high, and the lowlights weren't unforgiveable, so I definitely would be willing to go back and give Centro Vinoteca another try. Especially that duck salad.

Watch Anne Burrell discuss her restaurant:

Centro Vinoteca on Urbanspoon

Three Duck Weekend - Prem-on Thai

Sadly, since our favorite Thai restaurant closed some months ago, Mr. Minx and I have not been able to properly satisfy our jones for Thai food. Sure there are other restaurants nearby, but none of them are particularly good to our liking. So when planning our weekend in Manhattan, we were sure to include a Thai restaurant on our dining agenda.

Prem-On Thai, the fifth New York restaurant of Thai chef/restaurateur Prakit Prem-on, opened in 2005 to favorable comments from the Times' Frank Bruni. I liked the look of the Web site, and the menu looked promising and reasonably priced, so we made a reservation.

The weather had been less than stellar that Friday, rainy and steamy hot, but by evening it had cooled down enough to make sitting by the open front windows at Prem-On pleasant. We started our meal with the two soups on the menu - Tom Yum Goong (a spicy broth with shrimp, lemongrass, and mushrooms) and Tom Kah Gai (coconut milk-based chicken soup with galangal, kaffir lime, and mushrooms). The former, served in a stone mortar, was rich and delicious, with an intense broth spiked with chiles. The coconut soup came in a mere bowl, but the flavor was equally deep, if less-spicy. Probably the best versions of these classics that I have ever tried.

We next tried an appetizer sampler consisting of spring rolls, dumplings stuffed with chicken, peanut, and radish, and another dumpling, Kanom Jeeb, stuffed with chicken and seafood with garlic. The spring rolls were nothing to write home about. Both varieties of dumplings were delicious, however, but suffered from too-thin wrappers or too much filling, as they were nearly impossible to pick up without bursting their contents onto the plate.

Now comes the duck. Mr. Minx and I both love duck, and if it's on a menu, one or the other of us will order it, almost without exception. At Prem-On, we both opted for duck entrees. The sauce on his Duck Panang Curry was full of chile flavor yet was not overtly spicy; string beans and slices of pumpkin added their vegetal qualities to the generous portion of well-roasted, fat-less, mostly-boned duck. I went for the Thai Orange Duck - another generous portion with a not-too-sweet orange sauce with orange segments and curious flat deep-fried objects that I determined were eggplant. There was too much batter on the eggplant and the sauce rendered them into soggy blobs of flannel. Although my duck itself was good, it was only half as good as my husband's entree, and I almost wished I had ordered something else. But I couldn't resist the multiple duck options!

All of the above was washed down with Thai iced teas and many glasses of water. The fancy Thai-tini-type cocktails looked interesting, but tea had more allure.

A pretty decent meal, overall, that made us miss our local Thai joint all the more.

Prem-On Thai
138 W Houston St
New York, NY 10012
(212) 353-2338

Prem-on Thai on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lunching in New York

My husband and I just got back from a long weekend in Manhattan. We had, of course, planned out our three dinners, making reservations at Prem-on Thai, Centro Vinoteca, and Bolo. But what to do for breakfast and lunch?

As it turned out, our hotel, the Hudson, was across the street from the Time Warner Center, an ugly glass behemoth housing a tony shopping mall and offices. And the Bouchon Bakery. We'll probably never have the opportunity (nor the budget) to eat at Per Se or the French Laundry, but a quick luncheon grabbed at the Bakery was certainly within reach.

People waited in line to dine in the reserved, restaurant-style part of the bakery, so Mr. Minx and I headed to the carry-out. It was nearly 2pm and although we had 7pm dinner reservations, we were starving and needed sustenance. We decided to split the roast beef and fontina sandwich, an almond brioche, and a pumpkin macaron. Because the area was so crowded, and I had forgotten to get something for us to drink, we headed to the Whole Foods on the lower level and found both beverages and seats. I was momentarily tempted by the huge array of prepared food at the vast salad bar, but knew we already had enough food to keep us satisfied.

The sandwich was delicious, light and crunchy ciabatta bread stuffed with roast beef, fontina, and an herby green pesto. So often one gets roast beef that is gristly, or worse, marinated in something to hide the off flavor of the cheap meat. This roast beef was meltingly tender and tasted of nothing but beefy goodness.

After the sandwich was dispatched, we split the flat slab of brioche, coated in sliced almonds and dusted with powdered sugar. I missed the whimsical typical brioche shape which always reminds me of Babar (he dined on brioche with the Old Lady), but enjoyed the flavor and thought that unsold leftovers would make a killer bread pudding. The macaron, one of those pretty pastel yummies that I've been seeing in Parisian blogs, was delectable perfection, and I hope to try my hand at baking some of these whimsies during the holiday season.

The next morning, we had breakfast at Bergdorf Goodman. It consisted of flavorless bagels, no doubt un-boiled and un-authentic, tiny commercially-produced muffins and danishes, and a decent fruit cup. Needless to say, after our adventure in the fragrance department, hubby and I needed actual food. We had decided to spend most of the day wandering through the museums on the Upper East Side and discovered a Papaya King not far away. We had heard that a papaya drink alongside a hot dog was an improbably perfect combination that we needed to experience for ourselves. Papaya smells like vomit to me, so I opted for a mango shake instead. And yes, it did go well with the two Sabrett's dogs in a toasted bun with mustard and onions in a ketchup-y sauce.

Sunday's bagel at Bond No. 9 was closer to the real thing, small and chewy, and enough to get us through to our lunch at the Pizza Box on Bleecker Street. I had been there last November, on a trip to NYC with my dad, and enjoyed a regular slice of cheese pizza. This time, Mr. Minx and I opted for the Sicilian style slice and were rewarded with a nice, non-doughy bread crust, crisp on the bottom, with just the right amount of cheese and sauce.

Monday's breakfast was poached eggs and bread smeared with hazelnut spread at Le Pain Quotidien. Lunch consisted of more hot dogs, this time from Nathan's at Penn Station, followed by more yummies from Bouchon Bakery.

It's a darn good thing we walked so much, to burn off all of the calories we consumed over the weekend. Dinner-related posts to follow.

Bouchon Bakery on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 15, 2007

Buttermilk Pancakes

Pancakes were always a favorite breakfast treat in my house; they were a nice switch from the usual eggs or cereal. But for many years, decades even, I didn't know what a from-scratch pancake tasted like. My parents' recipe was the one on the side of the Bisquick box, which turned out leaden cakes that no amount of Mrs. Butterworth's could moisten. We called them "syrup suckers."

Even after I got married, I still made my pancakes with Bisquick, only this time it was the reduced-fat version, thinned out with yogurt or canned pumpkin to make less flannel-y cakes. My hubby said his mother used to make pancakes from scratch and that always made me feel just a wee bit guilty that I didn't do that, too.

The day before our seventh anniversary we were going to my Dad's to celebrate his birthday. I made a lemon bundt cake for the occasion, using a recipe that required buttermilk. DH bought a quart, but I only needed a single cup. So as an anniversary treat, the next morning I made buttermilk pancakes. From scratch. They were revelatory. So light and airy, yet somehow crispy around the edges! Bisquick didn't do that, no matter how many additional ingredients I added.

We still had some buttermilk left over this weekend, but only a scant 3/4 cup. I dumped in a cup of vanilla lowfat yogurt to compensate, and the resulting pancakes were maybe not as light as the previous week's, but they were still far better than the kind from a box. I think I might never go back.

Buttermilk Pancakes, adapted from the Joy of Cooking
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3 tblsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cup buttermilk
3 tblsp unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Stir together wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Do not combine wet and dry until you are ready to get cooking (so sayeth anal-retentive cooking geek Alton Brown). At that point, pour wet over dry and stir until just combined. Don't worry about lumps, as they will work themselves out in the cooking (according to Alton). Add any additional dry ingredients (berries, nuts, chocolate chips, coconut, etc.) and stir briefly.

Grease and heat a griddle pan or large sautée pan until hot. Add batter to create whatever size pancakes you'd like. Cook on first side until you see bubbles appear on the top surface. Flip and cook until golden brown on the other side. To keep warm while preparing all of the pancakes, stack finished cakes on a plate and tent with aluminum foil.

Serve with butter and real maple syrup, preferably grade B (because it actually has flavor). Enjoy!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sotto Sopra

Hubby and I celebrated our seventh anniversary with a trip to Sotto Sopra. We had eaten there once during Restaurant Week a couple of years ago, and had always wanted to go back. We picked a good time to return - they just got a new chef who definitely has a way with food.

Everything on the regular menu sounded good, but we were especially intrigued by two dishes from the specials menu: a lobster-stuffed portabella appetizer, and a lobster risotto entree. I chose the latter, and started with the frittura di calamaretti; DH took the former, followed by Ravioli d'Anantra.

The stuffed mushroom could have been a real disaster--I imagined a heavy imperial sauce over tough lobster in a limp mushroom cap, a version that I might have encountered in my youth at someplace like Smitty's or Haussner's. But after an effusively elaborate description of the dish by a waiter, I had high hopes. And they were, I am happy to say, certainly met. The dish was a triumph of flavor. A large portabella cap had been laid on a bed of basil chiffonade and topped with a mixture of chopped tomato, onion, artichoke and lobster knuckle meat in a light basil sauce, and garnished with two whole lobster claw meats and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. The lobster was absolutely perfectly cooked; it was tender and juicy and had the lovely light springy quality that the claw should have. It was also imbued with a light herbal flavor. My husband said the dish was too good *not* to share (especially with his wife on our anniversary) and fed me forkfuls of tender mushroom, shreds of basil, and luscious lobster. As the sauce did not become gummy as the dish cooled (it was not the most heat-retaining of ingredient combinations) I thought it must be mayonnaise-based. Even at room temperature, the resulting lobster salad was delicious and would have been just as welcome served cold on a bed of baby greens as warm on a mushroom cap.

I really can't go on enough about how much I enjoyed this dish. Seriously. was only $12. In New York, it would easily have been an $18 appetizer.

My fried calamari was just ok in comparison. The rings were a bit thicker than I'd like, and their coating didn't seem to be seasoned much at all. The accompanying wasabi sour cream and warm tomato sauce were nice, but not quite perfect. I think the sour cream could have benefitted from a bit of thinning. I did like very much, however, the scant few salty morsels of fried zucchini that were buried under the squid.

I had originally wanted the mint pappardelle with lamb ragu, but was told the restaurant did not have the lamb that night and were taking the item off the menu. I then decided to splurge and ordered the other lobster special, described to me as a lobster tail stuffed with roasted cherry tomatoes resting on a bed of lobster risotto studded with crawfish and sauced with lobster bisque. Again, the lobster was perfectly cooked, with a light herbal flavor. The risotto was perfect, creamy and unctuous, with the proper faintly crunchy-centered rice and tasty nuggets of crawfish. The bisque sauce was light and perhaps a bit underseasoned, but full of lobster stock flavor; was nice to see that they had utilized every part of the crustacean between the two lobster dishes.

Mr. Minx's house-made ravioli were stuffed with shredded duck meat and bathed in a strongly meaty brown veal sauce with an unmistakable truffle savor. Despite the deep flavors of the sauce, it was still obvious that the contents of the pasta pillows was indeed duck. All the dish needed was a garnish of duck confit. Heh. Yum. The sauce would have been magnificent on a juicy steak, and despite it's long-simmered bone-rich quality, it did not make our lips stick together (yes, I'm talking to you, Cindy Wolf).

To gild the lily, we had dessert. Mr. Minx's Nutella- and strawberry-stuffed crespelle (crepe) was decadent. My selection of house-made gelato in lavender, pistachio, and tiramisu was some of the best gelato I've had in this town. The lavender, recommended by our server, was a delicate surprised that DH and I both enjoyed.

All of the above was washed down with a singularly unexceptional bottle of white burgundy and lots of ice water (why is it still so hot in October?).

Sotto Sopra is a restaurant we should visit far more often. The decor is charming, the waitstaff is even more so, and the food can be exceptional.

Sotto Sopra
405 N Charles St
Baltimore, MD 21201
(410) 625-0534

Sotto Sopra on Urbanspoon

Sotto Sopra

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Quality Control - or Lack Thereof

When Donna Crivello opened her eponymous coffee bar at Madison and Charles Streets in 1992, I was working at an auction house on North Howard Street. I loved that I could walk there on auction days to pick up a hot latte and a baked good to get me through the day. Back then, the coffee was good. Her business partner, Alan Hirsch, ran a TCBY outlet at the Rotunda Mall when I worked at the bookstore there. He was already plotting a coffee bar idea, and would often ask me to test drive new flavors of brew.

The good coffee lasted for a few years - my Dad and I became habituées and needed our daily dose of Donna's (usually their flavor du jour). It was strong and rich and a good way to start a morning. Then, suddenly, the coffee went downhill. I think I remember something about losing their original distributor/roaster, or something like that. Currently, Donna's coffee is weak swill, like a brown crayon dipped in hot water. I refuse to drink it at all these days. And why should I, when Starbucks is a block in the opposite direction? (Now there's a place that understands quality control and consistency are keys to a successful business.)

Donna's isn't just a coffee bar though - they have served food of some sort at just about every location. The Madison Street outpost is a full-service restaurant that became a semi-regular hangout for my friends and me in the early 90s. My favorite dish was the roasted vegetable salad, and their bread pudding was to die for. I haven't had the pudding recently, but I have had the salad. And that's where the title of this post really comes in.

The Donna's at the University of Maryland Medical System has been the only decent non-ethnic sit-down restaurant near work for a long time. Our group has the occasional celebratory lunch there, and sometimes I go with a vegetarian friend who is in the neighborhood for a doctor's appointment. Every once in a while I order the roasted vegetable salad, for old time's sake. A month or so ago, it was stellar. The sweet potatoes and beets we well-caramelized and sugar sweet. The potatoes were tender, and all of the veggies were still warm. The balsamic vinaigrette was the same as ever. It was a perfect example of how good this combination of vegetables and baby greens can be.

Then I had a salad recently. The white potatoes were still crunchy, the sweet potatoes were gritty, as if they hadn't been properly washed, and the beets were basically still raw. There was at least half a cup of under-roasted red onions that were from the outermost layer, making them tough. The eggplant was completely over-roasted and mushy (I don't think roasted eggplant in a salad is a particularly good idea to begin with. Maybe in a sandwich.) and the dressing was too tart. It was awful, and I couldn't finish the salad. A shame, because the portion of roasted vegetables was very generous.

It's been a while since I've eaten at another Donna's location. My husband and I had dinner at Cross Keys a few years ago, and while it was far from perfect, it was pretty good. Maybe the lack of care taken in roasting the vegetables is limited to the UMMS location? The staff does seem to have more attitude than customer service skills, with too many people behind the counter doing seemingly nothing, and the disaffected waitrons counting the minutes until their shift ends. I know the chain has a general manager-type who roams from branch to branch, but maybe she just skips this one? I don't know what the problem is, but there's really no excuse for such inconsistency.

Donna's at Umms on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Christmas in September

In New Mexico, if you want both green and red chile on your enchilada, you ask for "Christmas." And I did just that on several occasions during our recent trip to our future home state.

Meal #1
After a day of traveling and some snafu with our hotel room, we had supper at the hotel restaurant. We hadn't eaten anything other than snack foods for about 14 hours, and we were famished. We figured it would be quicker and easier to eat in the hotel than to go out and find a restaurant in an unfamiliar city. Wrong-O. A "Dream Catcher" margarita (orange and raspberry flavors) kept us occupied for a bit as we watched the Maryland UWV game on the bar TV, but we soon wondered if the kitchen had to slaughter a cow to make our burgers. After what seemed like an eternity, the burgers arrived and we set upon them, famished. They were billed as 8oz burgers, but they seemed larger than that, maybe 10oz. I had some nice sweet potato fries as my side, while DH went for the ordinary type. The burgers were not medium, as ordered, but we were so hungry and had waited so long, we didn't say anything about their abysmally dry consistency. A real shame, because the beef seemed of high quality and would have been tasty had they not been overcooked.

Meal #2
The next morning we had breakfast at the recommended Weck's, located almost walking distance from our hotel. (Although it's hard to walk most places where there are no sidewalks. Abq is mostly sprawl.) DH had a breakfast burrito, Christmas, and I had the green chile chicken enchiladas, smothered with both red and more green chile, plus a fried egg and hash browns. Frankly, I make better red and green chile. These were fairly bland, and the boiled chicken was completely without flavor. The pork in the burrito was tender, but didn't have all that much flavor either.

Meal #3
Dinner was at another recommended restaurant, Sandiagos, where we fared much better. The popular restaurant at the base of the Sandia Peak Tramway offered several different flavors of margaritas; we opted for the blood orange version. I could become an alcoholic very easily at this altitude. Two margaritas barely made an impact on me at 7000 feet, whereas one would render me silly at sea level. With our drinks we had unctuously rich guacamole, and savory beef-filled green chile stew appetizers. Our entrees were a somewhat underwhelming snapper Veracruz and a flavorful pollo adobo with a great red chile bbq sauce that I would like to attempt to duplicate at home. Dessert was a chocolate cinnamon flan, and a cheesecake brownie topped with dulce de leche ice cream and chocolate and caramel sauces. I was also tempted by a coconut margarita, but was wary of finding out that the third drink is the one to make me blotto.

Meal #4
Seven years ago, while on our honeymoon, we twice dined at Tortilla Flats, a small New Mexican restaurant housed in a former Weinerschnitzel (West Coast hot dog chain), where we had really tasty carne adovada and monster breakfast burritos full of chorizo and egg. On our recent day trip to Santa Fe, we made a point to find Tortilla Flats for lunch. In the past year, the place had been completely physically transformed into a much larger, adobe style building, but luckily the menu had remained the same. We both went for the combination platter which included one cheese enchilada, one tamale, one chicken taco, beans, and posole. We opted for the colorful Christmas-style saucings, and sopapillas rather than tortillas. I now understand why New Mexicans eat the fried tortillas topped with honey alongside a savory meal - the honey brings great depth to the chile sauces, particularly the red.

Meal #5
Back in Albuquerque that night, we went to a local pizza joint called Scarpas, where we had the first real vegetables of the trip so far - salad. Ok, lettuce isn't much more nutritious than water, but it was green and it wasn't chiles. In fact, we were pretty sick of chiles at this point, so Italian food was a nice change. DH had a pasta Sorento with oak grilled chicken breast, garlic butter, parmesan, and roma tomatoes. The chicken had a nice woodsy flavor, and there was a generous amount of garlic on both the pasta and the accompanying garlic bread. I ordered a cheese pizza with meatballs. The crust was wafer-thin and crisp edged, but the underneath was as white-bellied as I am, making for a nicely soft and foldable crust. The marinara sauce was very flavorful, a nice change from the usually bland pizza sauce I've encountered in the past; the meatballs, supposedly made in house, had that odd chewy/gristle texture that commercial frozen-in-a-bag meatballs have. For dessert, we had something called torta mele, puff pastry topped with sliced apples, cinnamon ice cream, chocolate shavings, and home made caramel sauce. The pastry reminded me of a childhood favorite treat - Pepperidge Farm frozen apple turnovers - and I would have been happy with a wheel of the pastry with some ice cream. Everything else was overkill, but it tasted good anyway.

Meal #6
The following day found us at the New Mexico State Fair. I thought it would be a bit of a bust, but we actually had a pretty good time. We also had our first ever corndogs, big juicy dogs coated in a batter that reminded me of hush puppies, and deep fried. Mmmm! Greasy and good! We also split a bbq beef brisket sandwich that had somewhat tough beef on a surprisingly good roll. And for dessert, we split a piece of peach strawberry pie from Asbury Cafe, a la mode, of course. It's really amazing how much difference a quality pie crust makes to the overall success of a pie. This one was made with care, flaky, if a bit pale/underdone for me, with a filling of sweet peaches and strawberries that went surprisingly well together. And I was happy for an opportunity to eat a fruit I am otherwise allergic to (peaches, when raw).

Meal #7
This time, we opted for a sushi dinner at Samurai , not too far from where we were staying in Albuquerque. We had a few rolls and some nigiri, the standout being the "Key West" roll of shrimp tempura topped with seared white tuna and spicy mayo. The tuna was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the spicy Japanese mayo had an intriguing smoky edge to it. The nigiri - yellowtail, albacore, striped bass, and halibut - were all impeccably fresh and tender. The low point of the meal was a weird version of the standard "Rock and Roll," this one with very little eel inside plus a huge chunk of tamago (sweetened omelette) and a too-sweet eel sauce. It wasn't bad, per se, just very sweet and eel-deficient for my tastes.

Meal #8

Since we were heading North to Bandelier National Monument, we thought to have a big breakfast and popped into the nearby Village Inn for pancakes, bacon, eggs, and coffee. Simple and hearty breakfast fare.

Meal #9

This was to be our last dinner in New Mexico, and I hadn't yet tried a green chile cheeseburger. DH found a listing in the very useful Abq phonebook for a place called Doc & Eddy's that offered what I was hungry for. Unfortunately, the place was a bar with lots of pool tables and a mediocre menu. I did get my green chile cheeseburger, made with a frozen patty and not enough chile, but it was moister than the hotel burger, cooked to medium, and satisfying enough. DH eschewed the chile for bacon and mushrooms, and who could blame him?

Meal #10
Our last meal in Albuquerque was another breakfast at the Village Inn. I went for the breakfast burrito this time, Christmas-style, and was happy with the savory chiles. Poor hubby had a cold for the entire trip, and by this time had lost his sense of taste. His breakfast was merely a textural sensation.

Now we're back home and meals will consist of mostly vegetables, to make up for the lack of them on our trip!

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Then-fiancé-now-Mr.Minx and I had an opportunity to visit New Orleans with a group of Emeril Lagasse fans in the hot summer of 2000. We had reservations at Commander's Palace and the original Emeril's, and were going to wing the rest of our meals. The Mister and I, being fairly avid fans of the big E at the time, and recalling my very positive experience at his restaurant in Orlando, wanted to try another of his places, NOLA. Lynne, the brassy and bossy self-appointed leader of our motley group of travelers advised us that NOLA had gone downhill and it was not worth visiting. We decided to actively disobey her and made lunch reservations, abandoning the group one sultry afternoon for our own adventure.

It was a very very good idea. Not only was it the best meal of the trip, it was also the occasion of my trying the very best version of gumbo I have ever had the pleasure to eat. It was full of seafood, dark, rich, spicy, and as sultry as the air outside the front doors. I wanted to take home a suitcase-full of it.

I like to make gumbo, as does Mr. Minx. We've together and individually created many a good batch, but nothing like the now-legendary stuff from NOLA. And then I got very lucky.

My friend Kate moved to Delaware a year ago. Since living there, she discovered a little Cajun food stand in the Booth's Corner Farmer's Market in Boothwyn, PA, a short distance from Wilmington. Raving about the gumbo, she brought me a pint to try. It was dark, rich, authentic, and wonderfully delicious. Turns out, its creator, Don Applebaum worked for Emeril at NOLA for several years, one of those being the year 2000.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet Don and eat at Cajun Kate's. I sampled more of the gumbo, his jambalaya, popcorn shrimp, a muffaletta, bananas foster bread pudding, beignets, and the completely outrageous deep fried macaroni and cheese made with crabmeat, tasso, four kinds of cheese, and topped with a tangy sweet tomato glaze. While stuffing my face with his fare, I told him about the seafood gumbo we experienced in New Orleans. He admitted, admirably un-modestly, that it was his.

I felt like I had discovered the Holy Grail.

Don doesn't make the seafood gumbo regularly, so if you're in the Booth's Corners Farmer's Market and happen to see it on the menu, do yourself a favor and grab yourself a bowl. It sells out fast, so go early. And hell, if that's not the flavor of the week, try the pork, or the brisket, or the smoked duck or the...deep fried mac and cheese!

Cajun Kate's
Booth's Corners Farmer's Market

Open Friday and Saturday only!

Cajun Kate's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Island Hopping

We love Roy Yamaguchi's Hawaiian fusion food and eat at his local outpost at Harbor East at least a couple of times a year. Yesterday, they had their annual "Island Hop" dinner, a five course wine-paired extravaganza, and we were there to join in the revelry.

The last wine dinner we attended at Roy's was odd. The food was marvelous, the wines were meh, but the company at the communal tables for 12 was less than stellar. We hoped that this time everything would be of high quality. I'm happy to report that our dinner companions, Nicola and Brad, were delightful. They had recently returned from their fourth trip to Hawaii and had interesting tidbits to share with us. They were friendly, engaging, and not in the least bit weird (that we could tell). We were separated by two empty seats from a party of four who also seemed to be really nice folks. So the company aspect was greatly improved. And I'm sure the very strong and sweet Mai Tai we received before the start of the meal played a part in the overall conviviality of the evening.

The wines were quite good, particularly the Zinfandel we enjoyed with our main course. It was dark and rich and redolent of fresh plums and chocolate-covered dried cherries. And the champagne served with our first seafood course was extremely yeasty in aroma but light and mild in flavor.

The food, however, didn't quite live up to my usual expectations of Roy's kitchen. It wasn't the fault of the staff at Harbor East necessarily; I think that some of the combinations of flavors were not particularly well-conceived by the Roy's chefs who were asked to contribute dishes to the menu.

Our first course was Pupu Style Honoka'a Spiced Sirloin Steak, served with a Chalome Vineyard, Monterey County Pinot Noir, 2005. The steak was mid-rare, served in a stack of slices, topped with a dollop of "pesto" made with a type of Japanese capsicum. The meat was nicely tender, and the pesto was good, but I thought the spices were negligible, and the temperature was off-puttingly cold. The pinot was a good match, fragrant and soft, with no tannins to overcome the mild meat.

Second was my favorite course: Ceviche of U-10 Dayboat Scallops & Crab Salad, served with Moet & Chandon "White Star" Champagne, NV. The dish was originally supposed to feature abalone, but chef Rey Eugenio explained that the shipment of the expensive shellfish arrived in Baltimore on Friday, but he was not alerted about it until Monday. Over the weekend, it had gone bad. So he scrambled to find a substitute and went for scallops. If they were U-10s though (a designation meaning "under 10 per pound") they had been cut down a bit. On elongated plates, we received three medallions of scallop, each about the diameter of a half dollar and twice as thick. They had been marinated ceviche-style, so although opaque, they had the silky smooth texture of raw scallop. Gilding the lily were dollops of crab salad, tasting of fresh blue crab dressed with a bit of a mayo-based sauce and garnished with a slightly bitter type of microgreen and granules of black lava salt. I could have eaten three portions of this dish, it was so good. Better than the scallop dish at Morimoto, hands down.

Our third course was seafood again: Seared Rare Ono Sashimi, Lobster, Hearts of Palm & Pancetta, served with a Boschendal "Grand Cuvee Reserve" South African Sauvignon Blanc, 2006. Here's where components didn't seem to work for me. The ono, or wahoo, a large Hawaiian fish related to mackerel, was crusted in Sichuan peppercorns. The fish was very mild and silky, but the only thing the peppercorns contributed was a crunch akin to finding sand in one's food. There wasn't enough of it to be flavorful, and definitely not enough to produce the tongue-numbing sensation for which the tiny buds are famous. There was a streak of lemon-flavored cream near the ono that we were instructed to swipe each morsel of fish through before popping into our mouths. It added just enough extra spark to the very neutrally-flavored seafood. On one side of the plate were two heirloom tomatoes the size of large cherries, separated by a curl of fried pancetta. The tomatoes had a cooked, canned-tomato texture and flavor, as if they had remained in the blanching water (the skins had been removed) for too long. On the other side of the fish was a nicely-cooked bit of lobster claw meat reclining on some wilted spinach that was mixed with slivers of crisp hearts of palm and flavored with much garlic. The lobster in itself was a nice dish, but I didn't see the relation to the ono or the weird tomatoes. The wine, on the other hand, was crisp and flavorful, with the fragrance of ripe pears.

For a fourth course, we were presented with a Grilled Venison Chop, Kalbi Pork & Thai Citrus Shrimp, served with a Rosenblum Cellars, San Francisco Bay Zinfandel, 2005. Another course that didn't seem quite right. The generously-sized venison chop was medium-rare, very tender, and possessing a nice liver-y but not quite gamey flavor. The purple mashed potatoes that served as its nest were very creamy and had a good, simple, potato flavor. Next to it, was a thick slice of somewhat garlicky, kinda tough, pork belly that was very difficult to cut, topped with a sadly-overcooked citrus-marinated shrimp. The flavors were good, but the textures there were off, and I didn't see the connection between the venison, pork, and shrimp. There was also a vegetable accompaniment consisting of a few pieces of slender asparagus tips and loose leaves of brussels sprouts flavored with soy. The wine, however, was the best of the bunch, plummy and rich, matching well with the venison and pork and even the vegetables.

Last but not least came dessert: Guava Chiffon Shortcake, Lilikoi & Strawberries, served with Kona coffee or tea. By this point, I was getting tired of eating, but the shortcake was a fluffy delight flavored with guava. There were some blueberries in with the strawberries, and the whipped cream tasted of passion fruit. My decaf was a little weak, and I can't speak for the hi-test version.

Multicourse meals are not without their little disappointments, and this one was certainly no exception. But we'd do it again, because we're foodies, and we're always optimistic that we'll be served at least one exceptional dish.


Thursday, August 02, 2007

Summer Restaurant Week 2007 - Spice Company

The Polo Grill was Baltimore's dining hotspot in the Inn at the Colonnade for some fourteen years, all but two of which I spent living within walking distance. Yet I never managed to eat there, never got to order their famous fried lobster tail, or the blackened chicken pasta. In 2002, after years of success, owner Lenny Kaplan turned the restaurant over to his son-in-law, Rob Freeman, who renamed the place and basically ran it to ruin, allowing Aramark to take over in 2004.

Enter John and Todd Yuhanick, who together with experienced restaurateur Kehar Singh (Banjara, Ambassador Dining Room, Carlyle Club) took over the space and remade it last summer into the Spice Company. I had been wanting to eat there ever since, partly to make up for not having dined at the Polo Grill, and partly because I knew what Singh can do with a restaurant.

When I saw that they were participating in Restaurant Week, and offering an interesting menu, I knew this was the chance. So last night we entered the large dining room, decorated in warm and inviting tones, and had our post-Polo experience.

We were handed an extended version of the Restaurant Week menu that was available online, one that afforded us more choices. That only made our decision harder. I ended up choosing the Crab Lauren, followed by Roast Duck with Pomegranate Reduction. Hubby ordered the Duck and Mushroom Cannelloni, and something from the extended menu, Roast Pork Tenderloin with Sesame Noodles. We also chose a bottle of Temperanillo from the wine list, a medium-bodied red with low acid and nice fruit.

My Crab Lauren consisted of lumps of crab meat (the same kind sold as "backfin" in my local SuperFresh; I have no idea what variety of crab it comes from, but it's definitely not Blue crab, and it doesn't have much flavor) mounded over slices of avocado, and both sweet golden and earthy red beets. It was topped with a sprightly citrus herb vinagrette that did a lot to make the crab taste like something. DH remarked that the dish was suprisingly light and refreshing - perfect for the heatwave we find ourselves in. His appetizer consisted of two small homemade-tasting pasta cylinders filled with a rich and delicious mixture of duck meat and mushrooms, with some red-orange sauce on the side. We debated over whether it was tomato or red pepper, or a combination of both. It was very light, fresh and vegetal, and definitely not the roasted garlic aioli described on the online menu.

My entree featured more of that glorious roast duck. I received an ample portion of meat and crisp skin, glazed with a sweet sauce that did not have the tang of pomegranate. Rather, it was like the world's best plum sauce on a stellar Peking Duck. There were also some fruity pieces with the duck - apple slices perhaps? They had absorbed a lot of sauce and had become soft morsels bursting with flavor. On the side were some perfectly cooked (that is, the way I like 'em) green beans - still bright green, but very soft and a little charred, some forgettable rice, and a slice of acorn squash. After the lovely summery appetizer, this dish was all about Fall.

My husband's entree, too, reminded us of cooler weather. His pork tenderloin, closer to well-done than the medium he requested, was sauced with an orange glaze with a big hit of cinnamon, a lovely flavor combination with the tender pork. His sesame noodles were a much lighter, yet still very tasty, version than the one we routinely make at home, and he also received the green beans and squash.

For dessert, I chose the chocolate cake, but really wanted the pot de creme that my husband ordered. The cake was ok - a small slice of three layer cake with a rich chocolate ganache frosting and something moussey/buttercreamy between layers. Unfortunately, it was cold from the fridge, which probably wasn't the optimal temperature for enjoying the cake. The pot de creme was surprisingly coffee/mocha flavored, and of a far runnier texture than those I've had in the past. It was more like a fallen mousse. But it was rich, unctuous, and definitely delicious. We swapped plates halfway through, but I couldn't possibly finish the generous portion of creme.

We definitely got a good taste of Spice Company at a bargain price. The service was formal and attentive without being suffocating, and the atmosphere was overall pleasant, despite the somewhat loud and eclectic music coming from the bar area. My big gripe is the seating. The tablecloths are draped with several long layers of cloth that are uncomfortably heavy on one's lap, not to mention rather awkward to manipulate while trying to get oneself seated. (If I recall, we suffered the same tucked-into-bed-like fate at Carlyle Club.) We were seated at a small table with two overstuffed armchairs that were entirely too soft. Sinking into our seats made the table seem too high, and sitting up straight gave me a backache, since I had basically no support under my rump. Next time, I will request a table with the firmer-looking black chairs.

And yes, we'll definitely be going back. It will be good to have a special occasion restaurant closer to our neighborhood than downtown.

The Spice Company on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 30, 2007

Summer Restaurant Week 2007 - Alonso's

It's been quite a while since I've eaten at Alonso's, a neighborhood bar on Cold Spring Lane best known for its gigantic 1 and 1.5 pound hamburgers. On the occasions when my father would take me there when I was a little kid, we'd order one of their thin crust pizzas and either sit around the (then) horseshoe-shaped bar or at one of the booths. Now the Classic Restaurant Management Group owns it and the Tex-Mex place next door, Loco Hombre. They've been combined, mostly sharing one menu but two different vibes. Alonso's still has pizza, but the bar has been trimmed down, and the place doesn't quite seem as dark as it did in the past.

The two restaurants also share the Restaurant Week menu. Given the choice to sit in either restaurant, I chose the Alonso's side. I'm still smarting over the Loco Hombre dry tuna fiasco from a few years back, but the special three-course menu looked so appetizing, I thought it would be ok to give the kitchen another chance. There's no way the same grumpy chef was still cooking there.

After ordering a couple of beers (the deliciously malty Brewer's Art Resurrection for me) we decided on our dinner choices. I went for a seafood extravaganza - Pacific sea scallops wrapped in applewood smoked bacon with a cilantro chile-lime sauce, and the soft shell crab "haystack" served over a mix of spicy greens, topped with onion straws and Old Bay. My husband chose an all-meat menu of Southwestern chicken egg rolls and the roasted 9-oz NY strip steak with port wine mustard sauce, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, and sautéed green beans and onions.

First the appetizers. Mine consisted of two huge scallops, swaddled in smoky bacon. The bacon was a little undercooked, but the scallops were absolutely perfect, a bit translucent in the center and imbued with lovely bacon-y flavor. Marring the dish was the thin, pungently tart sauce that puddled around it and the small bits of diced tomato on the plate. It had no discernible cilantro or chile flavors. A light drizzle of aged balsamic might have been a better accompaniment. Hubby's eggrolls were practically an entree in themselves - two large fried cylinders filled with chicken, beans, and avocado scented with cumin were sliced on the diagonal and arranged around a small cup of what appeared to be melted jalapeno jelly. The filling was a little bland, but tasty, and helped by the sweet and spicy dipping sauce.

Before last November, when I took a taste of a friend's sandwich, I had never eaten soft crabs. Recently I liked them in a sushi roll. This time I was more daring and was rewarded with two crisp-fried crabs, cut in half and arranged body side-down on the plate, their legs pointing skyward splayed higgeldy-piggeldy. What an amazing thing, being able to eat a crustacean, carapace and all, right down to their crispy toes! The legs were tangled with pieces of crispy onion, and underneath it all was a small mound of cooked greens - collards perhaps (I had thought it would be a salad when I read the description). And to the side were small dollops of the most garlick-y mashed potatoes I've eaten in some time. There was a bit of white sauce on the plate too, probably thinned out sour cream or creme fraiche, with a scattering of tiny diced vegetables, to give the otherwise dark plate some color. It was an attractive presentation and the dish was delicious as well.

My husband's NY strip was nicely sized and cooked to perfectly medium-rare as requested. The sauce was flavorful but not overpowering, and he had generous portions of the garlic mashed potatoes and perfectly crisp petit haricot verts sautéed with lots of red onion. All were well-seasoned and the dish as a whole was well-thought-out. It's nice to eat dinner at a neighborhood joint and receive vegetable side dishes that aren't simply heated and plonked onto the plate, unsalted and unsauced, as if their existence was a requirement or a chore.

I was pretty full after the two courses and beer, but dessert was next. Ironically, DH and I had a conversation just the other night about how a Sandra Lee-type strawberry shortcake would involve one of those nasty artificially-yellow-colored cakes (that could do double-duty as Today Sponges) they sell near the strawberries in the supermarket, topped with berries and Cool Whip. Imagine my horror when that exact thing was placed in front of me at Alonso's. Well, perhaps not exactly that - the berries had been macerated in lemon juice, and the resulting sauce completely saturated the cake. Maybe it was store bought, maybe it was home-made, I couldn't tell by the flavor (but it was sized and shaped exactly like those spongy monstrosities). The swirl of cream on top was oddly thick, thicker than real whipped cream, and it did have a mild flavor of extruded plastic. It was almost as if Cool Whip made a gourmet full-fat version of whipped topping.

Hub's dessert was an echo of his appetizer - 2 deep-fried banana spring rolls, cut in half on the bias and arranged around a scoop of chocolate chip ice cream and drizzled with caramel sauce. Home-made, grainy, buttery caramel sauce. Swoon! What a nice combination of fruit and sweetness. The bananas were at the perfect slightly-green ripeness for this dish, and the ice cream melted into a delicious sauce. Not surprisingly, he didn't want to trade with me. But he did share generously (as did I).

Overall, it was a pretty good experience, I'd say. Definitely worth trying again.

415 W Cold Spring Ln
Baltimore, MD 21210
(410) 235-3433

Alonso's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 26, 2007


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.....

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

Morimoto on Urbanspoon