Sunday, August 26, 2007

Gumbo

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.


Roy's

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
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