Monday, July 16, 2018

Chez Hugo

While walking through downtown on my way to meet Mr Minx after work one evening, I noticed that Chez Hugo was on the way to his office. We hadn't yet been there, so I suggested that its convenient location to our already-parked car meant that we needed to check the place out. 

Chez Hugo bills itself as a seasonally inspired, farm-driven bistro, featuring classic French dishes by Chef Steve Monnier. Baltimore has never been a hotbed for French fare, so rarely has there ever been more than two French restaurants in the city. Petit Louis in Roland Park is usually quite busy, so it seems the need is there. However, I was disappointed to find that Chez Hugo was quite empty when we arrived for our 5:45 reservation. Granted, we eat early, but when we left after 7pm, there was still only one other diner. Give the place some love, people!

We deliberated over the menu for a bit before deciding on the duck liver pate and the server-recommended tarte aux courges.

The pate was rich and smooth, with a flavor a bit more refined than that of chicken liver pate. It came with tangy red currants and lovely grilled bread.

Our server was so enthusiastic about the zucchini tart, we felt we couldn't pass it up. But we should have. It's still on the menu, so someone likes it; personally I thought it was bizarre. The crust was crumbly and sweet, somewhat like the graham cracker crust on a no-bake cheesecake. Then came a layer of onions, which the server said would be perfectly caramelized. They appeared to be cooked only a few notches above sweated (you can see they're still pretty white). Finally came a topping of thinly sliced zucchini that were only barely grilled so they still seemed raw. I love the combination of onion and zucchini, which if cooked together slowly can be fairly sweet. Plop that into a savory tart shell, perhaps with a smidge of cheese, and I'm sold. Chez Hugo's version though, not so much.

Things improved considerably with our entrees. I had the Thursday plat du jour (the daily plates aren't on the menu as of this writing) of merguez sausage with a cous cous salad and black garlic naan. The merguez was fab--salty, lamb-y, spicy, juicy. And generously portioned, so I got to take a bit home for breakfast the next day. The black garlic naan was swoon-worthy fluffy and tender on the inside, with a faint garlicky-ness and extra flavor provided by the aggressive charring.

Mr Minx ordered the leg of lamb, which was succulent and well-seasoned. He said it was the most tender lamb he's eaten in a while. Though the farro and pea accompaniments weren't exactly camera-ready, they also were tasty and fulfilled the starch and veg components required by my husband.

Though the entrees were very good, dessert is really where it's at. I had always wanted to try a Paris-Brest, named for a bicycle race from Paris to Brest and back to Paris again. A donut-sized ring of choux paste filled with decadent hazelnut pastry cream, this dessert was a sweet-lover's dream.

The tangy tarte au citron with tiny dollops of crisp meringue, fruit, ice cream, and even squares of fruit gelee, was a less-sweet but still delectable finish to our meal.

I have heard that Chez Hugo can get noisy, but I have to assume this happens later in the evening or on the weekends, as it was as quiet as a tomb on our particular Thursday night. I'm looking forward to going back; perhaps one day I can sneak over for lunch....

Chez Hugo
206 E Redwood St
Baltimore, MD 21202
(443) 438-3002

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Flashback Friday - Okra

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This post originally appeared on on October 19, 2012.
Okra is a very maligned vegetable. People who have never even tried it will make a face and say, "eww, it's slimy!" Oh grow up. Give it a chance before you judge it.

I find the texture of lightly-cooked okra is better-described as "creamy." It's really only slimy if you slice it while raw and then rub your fingers in it as it oozes on your cutting board. (Oh, just toss it into a hot frying pan, you wuss.) Yes, okra does contain a bit of goo that binds the seeds together, but so do tomatoes and cucumbers and I've never heard anyone complain about them. Plus, okra isn't eaten raw; once it's cooked, any of the ickiness that makes adults flap their hands in distress completely dissipates.

"But how does it taste?" ask the okra virgins. I think the earthy green flavor is like a combination of mushrooms and corn, both of which rank among my favorite things to eat. Your mileage may vary (I know there are mushroom haters out there, too).

There's no better way to eat fresh okra than to sauté it in a hot pan with a bit of olive oil and butter until the pods are tender (five minutes or so). Add salt and pepper and eat 'em hot. Okra's also good dipped in flour/egg/bread crumbs and shallow-fried until brown and crispy. Stewed sliced okra, cooked with tomatoes and spices is also nice, as is the classic okra-enriched gumbo. And a good gateway experience for some people might be okra pickles. (I've seen Talk of Texas brand in most area supermarkets.) They're crunchy and garlicky and great in a vodka martini.

Besides tasting good, okra is low in calories and high in fiber, folate, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins C and B6. So really, there's no good reason *not* to eat okra.

Okra season might be over (or close to it) but whole and sliced pods can be found in the freezer section of many area supermarkets. Give it a try; you might find yourself liking something new.

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Monday, July 09, 2018

Avenue Kitchen & Bar

I've eaten at Avenue Kitchen and Bar several times by now, so it's high time I said something about the place.

I love it.

Now, I haven't really had an entree-ish meal there at all, just small plates/appetizers/tacos. But everything I have eaten has been wonderfully fresh and georgeously plated. Just look at these carrots I enjoyed early this year.

The plate was a work of art, both rustic and refined, and the flavors were just as lovely. I am crazy about carrots, and I was bananas about these.

The roasted brussels sprouts I ate on the same visit were just as good, nicely crispy but also tender on the inside.

And the tuna tartare with avocado was similarly delicious. And beautiful.

On another trip, we had dinner with friends. Mr Minx and I shared this burger, which was pretty darn good. It wasn't crowded with toppings, which let the nice beefy flavor shine. The fries were particularly tasty, which is something coming from a person who isn't all that into potatoes.

I tried the octopus with scrapple hash twice. The first time, the scrapple was much more noticeable, and both times the octopus was super tender. It's nice to find more restaurants serving octopus--and doing it right.

(Almost) every restaurant in Baltimore has a crab cake, and Avenue is no exception. And on Wednesday nights, their crab cake is half price, which means $15. It's generously sized, quite lumpy, and easy on the filler. They could broil it a little longer for my taste (I like 'em crispy), but I gotta say it was pretty damn fine.

I happened to be in Hampden one recent afternoon and planned to try a new eatery for lunch. Unfortunately, it didn't open until later in the day, so I skipped over to the Avenue instead. I happily chowed down on these shrimp tacos with a salad of beets and avocado over arugula and was kinda glad I missed the other place (but will get there eventually).

Avenue Kitchen & Bar has become my go-to restaurant if I find myself in Hampden. It's the fourth restaurant to take over that space in the last 10 years or so, and I hope it's the one that stays.

Avenue Kitchen & Bar
911 W 36th St
Baltimore, MD 21211

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Friday, July 06, 2018

Flashback Friday - Sammiches

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This post originally appeared on on April 16, 2013.
Cajun Kate's softshell crab po boy, image from user philadining
Last Friday they were discussing sandwiches on WYPR's Midday with Dan Rodricks and it got me thinking about sandwiches I have known. I put in my two cents by recommending the po' boys from my friend Don's restaurant Cajun Kate's in the Booth's Corner Farmers' Market in Boothwyn, PA, because it's one of my current favorites (especially the brisket, fried oyster, and soft shell crab versions), but that's not the only sandwich that has struck my fancy over the years.

When I was quite young, my maternal grandmother had a stroke. During her recovery, we ate lunch together every day, and every day it was the same thing - an imported deli ham sandwich with iceberg lettuce and Kraft thousand island dressing on seeded rye bread from Levin's bakery, with a side of Funyuns. I don't know the origin of the sandwich, but I suspect it was my mother's invention, as I have never seen it elsewhere. Occasionally, when I'm feeling particularly nostalgic, I have a ham on rye with lettuce and thousand island for lunch. It never fails to take me back to age 3, when being cute and entertaining came far more easily.

Another sandwich I enjoyed in my youth, but not nearly as often, is the Baltimore classic, pit beef. It seemed that I only ate them in the first weekend of October, when the Fells Point Festival was in full swing. We lived on the 500 block of Ann Street at the time. Dad and I always walked down together in search of a pit beef sandwich, which Dad would order well-done, with burnt ends,  to which we'd add mayonnaise and enough horseradish to make our noses run. Oddly, we always had to share the sandwich (Dad's rule, not mine), so I tend to feel a little greedy that now, as an adult, I get to have my own.

When I like something a lot, I try to eat it often, but not often enough to tire of it. Back in the heyday of Harborplace, there was a little Greek stand on the second floor of the Light Street pavilion. After a morning of desultorily shuffling from shop to shop with my college buddies Leslie and Wanda, we'd occasionally grab lunch there. My personal favorite was a veggie pita, basically a gyro without the meat. If I remember correctly, a warm and fluffy Greek pita was piled high with a combo of lettuce, tomato, raw onion, and cucumber and glopped with tzatziki and feta before being wrapped in aluminum foil to make the messy sandwich easier to handle. So simple, but so good, and something I could eat once a week without getting bored.

I'm also quite fond of a good chicken salad sandwich, and by "good," I mean chicken salad made with a mix of white and dark meat, chopped into fairly small pieces, a generous but not overwhelming amount of mayonnaise, and bits of minced onion. The seasoning can be simple salt and pepper, or something fancier like curry powder and mango chutney. The bread can be rye or a nice artisan loaf. Chicken salad sandwiches I am currently fond of include, believe it or not, the ones found at the University of Maryland Medical Center's Aramark-run cafeteria. The sandwich ladies are not skimpy with the scoops of salad, and they carefully remove the tough part of whole romaine leaves before arranging them carefully on your sandwich. And it's a steal at about $4. Mary Mervis, in the Lexington Market, also makes a fine chicken salad sammie. I like to make it a Chicken Smith by requesting a salty addition of a slice of Smithfield ham. This sometimes confuses the sandwich makers, so tell them to slice and weigh the ham and add the price to the sandwich.

Oh, there are so many more I can mention here: the asparagus and goat cheese wrap from the SouperFreak food truck, any number of tasty grilled cheeses (love the Fresco at Grilled Cheese & Co.), Attman's corned beef! and let's not forget Maryland's potential state sandwich - the soft shell crab. And burgers - but they're a completely different post....

What are your favorite sandwiches?

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Monday, July 02, 2018

Happy Hour at Fogo de Chao

I have always been a hearty eater, and there have been times when I may have gone a little overboard putting on the feedbag. On one occasion, the day after a very large meal at a Brazilian BBQ restaurant, I woke up with the absolute worst meat hangover. Painful, but well worth it. Still, I've been a tad leery of such restaurants because of my self control issues. Fogo de Chao is one of those places. I have so wanted to go there over the years, but I didn't want to trust myself around all of that food.

And then I found out that it's possible to eat a la carte in the bar. What? And miss out on skewers of beautifully roasted meats served tableside? Plus a buffet of salads and whatnot? Yes! And for me, it's for the best. How else would I have known about the POLENTA FRIES? or the chocolate cake? Because after 10,572 servings of meat, there is no room for side carbs or sweets.

Mr Minx and I met up with some foodie friends at Fogo de Chao's bar one evening to taste their happy hour menu, plus other items served only in the bar. We started off with a round of drinks from the HH menu that includes 5 delicious and generously portioned beverages at only $8 each. Above we have a refreshing Cucumber Mint Smash, made with Tito's Vodka, and a Caipirnha, a drink made with lime, sugar, and the sugar cane-derived booze called Cachaça. The Passionate Caipirinha adds passion fruit to the original. Below is yet another version made with lots of fresh muddled strawberries and hibiscus. So good! And only 170 calories. (Yes, the menu includes calorie counts, which can get a little depressing.)

Happy Hour food is also delicious, but also super cheap! Two spiced chicken sliders (below) or two braised beef rib sliders are only $4.

The Brazilian empanadas, warm hearts of palm and spinach dip, and crispy parmesan polenta fries are also only $4.

I could have eaten all of those fries. I may have eaten most of them....

The bar also has small and large plates, to share or not. Like these lamb chops--three double chops with mint chimichurri sauce, cooked to your desired temperature (medium rare for us). They were nicely seasoned, perfectly cooked, and something I'd definitely order in the future.

There are also items like garlic shrimp and meaty pork ribs, or costela de porco, both excellent. We also shared a classic shrimp cocktail.

A burger with smoked provolone and chimichurri is also available, and even a goat cheese and vegetable sandwich for those very rare folks who go to a Brazilian BBQ but don't want meat....

Not having a meatapalooza allowed us to have dessert, like this swell chocolate mousse cake that I couldn't stop eating, plus the house specialty, papaya cream (fresh papaya swirled with vanilla ice cream and topped with black currant liqueur). There's also flan, tres leches cake, molten chocolate cake - you get the drift.

While I was pretty happy with the food and drinks at Fogo's bar, another thing that pleased me was that there are NO TVS in the bar area. Which means no business bros yelling at the Orioles for sucking so much. No real noise at all, actually. It was amazingly civilized, and I'm all about serene, non-noisy, dining experiences. I think I might have to put Fogo de Chao into my regular Happy Hour rotation.

Fogo de Chao
600 E Pratt Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

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

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