Friday, June 28, 2019

Flashback Friday - Service? What's That?

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This post originally appeared on on June 3, 2007. I remember this meal very well.

We have been back to Michael's and it was much better. No sign of the annoying waitress either.


Last night I went out to dinner with my friend Stacey and her friend Alex. Friday night at 7pm is a bad time for dining out in Baltimore if one doesn't have a reservation, but we gave it a shot. Alex wanted seafood, mentioning crab cakes in particular, so I did a quick Google search to see where they might be found in the northern Baltimore County area. I knew Ocean Pride would be packed, and they were. We definitely didn't want to wait 45 minutes, so headed further up York Road. I had never been to Michael's Café, but read that they had crabcakes, so we gave it a go. Unfortunately for us, they could accomodate us right away. At least, we got to sit down. Actual accomodation was a long time in coming.

Right away, our waitress came up to recite a list of specials in her bizarrely nasal Minnie Mouse with strep throat voice. She took Alex's drink order for an iced tea and left. A minute or so later, she brought the tea, and a small plate of butter, and then disappeared for a bit. Which was fine. Since one of us is constantly talking, I needed the extra time to grab a minute here and there to actually concentrate on the menu. Bread eventually came, but Minnie Mouse disappeared fast without taking our order. After what seemed like an eternity, she returned and we requested the seared Ahi tuna, calamari, and crab/shrimp dip appetizers. Alex and I ordered crab cakes for our entrees, and Stacey decided on scallops. And because some of us really needed a drink, I selected a bottle of Ravenswood Zinfandel, very nicely priced at $25.

Alex's side salad came first, a decent-enough looking mix of greens and other salad veggies, with dressing on the side. Unfortunately, it looked as if the dressing cup had come off of someone else's plate - it was barely half-full. Alex wanted extra dressing, so needed the waitress. When she arrived with our wine (presenting it to Stacey, even though I was the one who ordered it), her response to the request for extra dressing was, "no." Considering we had been sitting in the restaurant for about 45 minutes already and had only gotten one salad, some rolls, and now wine, I didn't think Minnie had any right to attempt humor. She did bring the dressing with the appetizers, which we fell upon with vigor.

The ahi tuna was quite nice, albeit outrageously priced at $12. (One can get a more generous portion of even o-toro for less at a reputable sushi restaurant.) Seven long thin slices of tuna, raw in the middle and crusted with peppercorns and sesame seeds, lay atop mesclun greens dressed in a nice soy vinaigrette, with small dollops of wasabi sauce and a Thousand Island-looking aioli at the compass points. The tuna was delicious, as were the greens, and a larger portion of both would have made a nice dinner in itself. The menu claims that the calamari is "hand breaded," but I believe those hands worked for a frozen seafood plant somewhere far away. The adequate portion of squid, both rings and tentacles, were unexceptional, the bland breading tasting of nothing, and the accompanying marinara was merely something red and wet in which to dip the seafood. As for the crab and shrimp dip, I was hard-pressed to find any actual seafood in the pink-colored cream cheese goo, but it was tasty enough slathered on the crisp slices of garlic bread that came with it.

Surprisingly, the entrees came not long after the dinner plates were cleared. At least the kitchen's timing was good, if not the waitress'. Each of us got two vegetables with our protein, but somehow my green beans ended up on Alex's plate. Minnie Mouse went to fetch some for me and actually did arrive before I was finished eating. My single crab cake was full of lump crab, with very little binder, but it was overall fairly bland and needed more seasoning of some sort. The side of tartar sauce tasted weird, and I didn't bother with the cocktail sauce, since I don't think it goes with crabcakes. The potato, baked in foil, was predictably arid, but the beans, once they arrived, were cooked perfectly crisp and bright green; slicked with a touch of fat of some sort, all they needed was a bit of salt to bring out their flavor. Stacey's scallops came in a ghost-white creamy wine sauce, but the generous portion was well-cooked and flavorful. Her side of beets came from a can. Alex did not comment on the quality of her entree, but I did notice her request for mayonnaise (presumably for her fries) was never fufilled.

Minnie Mouse's appearances at our table were sporadic, and she never seemed to be around when we needed her. For instance, when our appetizers arrived, she still had not brought Stacy a place setting or napkin. After her fork ended up with the dirty appetizer dishes, she was not given a replacement with which to eat her entree until she managed to flag someone down. When pouring my wine, Minnie slopped it all over the base of my glass, and I was afraid to lift it lest I dribble on my shirt. She offered to bring a napkin to clean it, but that took 10 minutes. By the end of the meal, we were completely exasperated and opted to find dessert elsewhere. It was close to 9:30 p.m. when we left the restaurant, and I noticed the table next to ours was turned over twice while we were there. Oddly enough, they had the same waitress.

Although parts of the meal were enjoyable, I can't say I plan to return to Michael's Café. It's a standard, run-of-the-mill Maryland seafood restaurant, somewhat dingy, with mostly unexceptional food and poor service. We were seated within sniffing distance of the restrooms (which are badly located behind a short partition and which open directly into the dining room) and practically on top of a service station with various piles of whatnot on it but not useful things like napkins and silverware. Some attention to detail was evident in the meal: the green beans; the nice crisp dinner rolls; the perfectly cooked tuna. But other signs suggested the kitchen was on auto-pilot: the half-full salad dressing; the canned beets; the dull calamari. I can't blame the fact that it was prime time on a Friday night - the place was full but not busy, there was no line to get in, and the pace overall seemed to be quite leisurely. Nobody looked harried, distraught, or overworked.

Michael's is a place that has its regulars, and indeed I knew one gentleman who confessed to eating there every weekend, at the bar. That's well and good for them, if they like what they get. They can have it.

Michael's Cafe Raw Bar & Grill
2119 York Rd
Timonium, MD 21093
(410) 252-2022

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Friday, June 21, 2019

Flashback Friday - Cook Somethin' Up

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This post originally appeared on on June 22, 2008.


Check out my late friend Jim Six's song, Cook Somethin' Up, "a tasty blues concoction filled with references to celebrity chefs from the Food Network."

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Friday, June 14, 2019

Flashback Friday - Memorial Day Tapas

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This post originally appeared on on June 01. 2009.


I don't know why I got it my head to make tapas for Memorial Day. Not exactly traditional, is it? I thought it would be a good excuse to get out the grill and cook up the leg of lamb that's been in our freezer for a while. Not that lamb needs excuses. Nor is tapas the most popular way to accompany it. But once I get something in my head....

Since Mr Minx had to fiddle with charcoal and all that, I thought it would make it worth his while to toss some chicken breasts on it too, to eat later in the week. Then I invited my brother, which killed the leftovers idea.

The spread consisted of grilled chicken and lamb (mingling on the same plate, both marinated in lots of garlic and soy, with tomato paste on the chicken and brown sugar on the lamb), grilled shrimp, potatoes and chorizo (from José Andres' tapas cookbook), endive salad with bleu cheese, tomato and herb salad (herbs freshly-plucked from the freshly-planted garden) with goat's cheese, marinated mushrooms, and "crab" balls. There was also some red pepper mayo for dipping, bread, and Marcona almonds. Oh, and a pitcher of sangria!

Cheap sangria: 1 bottle Sutter Home "white Cabernet Sauvignon" ($5.99), 1 orange, 1 lemon, 1/4 cup leftover cheap brandy, 1/4 cup cheap Triple Sec. Fruity and boozy and a fine accompaniment to my selection of eats.

I tried to get a good combination of textures, flavors, and temperatures going and think I was pretty successful.

The endive salad was pretty basic: sliced Belgian endives, bleu cheese crumbles, balsamic vinaigrette. I usually add walnuts, but bro is allergic to them, and anaphylaxis is a real buzz kill. The tomato herb salad had pineapple mint; sweet, Thai, and variegated basil; French tarragon; chives and chive blossoms; and some store-bought cilantro (it refuses to grow in my garden). And a couple gobbets of goat's cheese. The tomatoes were the "on the vine" type, which I've been having roaring success with recently. Don't know where in the world they were grown (nobody will ever accuse me of being a locavore) but they have been juicy, red, and sweet.

The potato recipe called for Spanish chorizo, which I could not find at Giant. Go figure. However, I always have Mexican chorizo in the freezer so used one of those. Being raw, they have a very different texture, and are flavored primarily with annatto. Unfortunately, the pimenton called for in the recipe was quite masked by the annatto. The potatoes were tasty anyway, but I will endeavor to make them with the proper chorizo next time.

The marinated mushroom recipe came from a little tapas cookbook called Tapas Fantasicas that I got for Christmas a couple years back. Sherry vinegar is I was worried that the mushrooms would be too tart. I used a combination of baby bellas and shiitakes, and it really was quite delicious. I'd make them again.

Marinated Mushrooms

1/2 lb mushrooms, sliced
2 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
2 T sherry vinegar
2 T water
1/2 t dried tarragon
1/2 t brown sugar
dash Tabasco
salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a small saucepan over low heat. Add garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until softened. Add mushrooms and stir to coat with oil. Continue to cook for another minute or two. add vinegar, water, tarragon, sugar, Tabasco, salt, and pepper. Cover pan and simmer on low for 5 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Remove from heat. Cool mushrooms in marinade. Eat at room temperature.

As for the "crab" balls.... Remember the fish tacos I made earlier in the week? Weirdly, after I washed and dried the fish, my hands smelled like crab meat rather than fish. So I saved a piece of the cooked fish, for experimental purposes. I flaked it, added crab cake ingredients (Old Bay, bread soaked in milk, mayo) and made three small balls which I fried up for tapas. They fell apart, as my crab cakes usually do, but they tasted reasonably crabby. Because it had been sauteed, he meat was a little tough; if I try something like this again, I think I'll poach the fish so it stays soft.

Gotta admit - Mahi from Trader Joe's is far cheaper than crab meat, and it's no less crabby than the flavorless non-blue-crab "jumbo lump" they sell at the supermarket.

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Friday, June 07, 2019

Flashback Friday - Pho Dat Than

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This post originally appeared on on June 24, 2011.


With the recent demise of one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in the area, Saigon Remembered, I decided we need patronize the other Viet joint in town to make sure that one stays around for a while. Pho Dat Than, an offshoot of a Columbia restaurant of the same name, is located just below the annoying traffic circle at the crossroads of York, Joppa, Dulaney Valley, etc., in Towson. Luckily, the circle can be avoided by parking in the lot behind the Recher Theatre, accessible via either Joppa Road or Towsontown Boulevard.

Pho Dat Than's decor is pleasant enough - it's simple and tidy, with mint green walls, high-backed booths, and tables arranged in neat rows. On the early Friday night we were there, the restaurant had a decent number of diners, and I could see carry-out orders lining up on what used to be a sushi bar in the back. That boded well for weekend traffic.

I had already perused the somewhat messy online menu and knew what I wanted us to try. But first, we ordered some iced coffee. The Vietnamese version differs from the more familiar Thai in that rather than receiving a glass of ready-made coffee, a cup of sweetened condensed milk topped with a metal brewing device full of coffee grounds and water, along with a glass of ice, is brought to the table. I was afraid that I'd spill the coffee all over the place while transferring it from cup to glass, but with judicious use of the saucer (and assistance from our waiter), it was easier than it appeared. The coffee was rich and dark and sweet - everything a good iced coffee should be, except cold, since the ice melted on contact with the hot coffee.

We started our dinner with an order of Bò Lá Nho (grilled beef in grape leaves). I recalled having this dish at Saigon Remembered and liking it very much. Pho Dat Than's is different in that the grape leaf rolls are larger, with less of a smoky flavor than those at SR. However, the juicy chopped beef (rather like a succulent meatball) and slightly charred bits of grape leaf were a lovely combination of flavors and textures, and much more to my liking than the usual rice-stuffed Middle Eastern/Greek version.

Next came an order of Muc Rang Muoi (crispy spicy squid). The only dish that didn't come with a small bowl of nước chấm, the ubiquitous fish-sauced based accompaniment for many Vietnamese dishes, it still benefited from a drizzle. The calamari was not as crispy as I'd have liked, possibly because it was served on a bed of roughly-torn iceberg lettuce, nor was it spicy, but it was pleasantly chewy and otherwise tasted fine.

Bún Thit Nuóng Cha Giò (grilled pork & cha gio vermicelli) was a huge bowl of slender rice noodles topped with thinly sliced grilled pork, beansprouts, carrots, shredded lettuce, cilantro, plus crushed peanuts and scallions. It was very similar to the other noodle dish we tried, the Bánh Uot Cha Lua Thit Nuóng (plain rice crepe with Vietnamese ham and grilled pork), which only differed in that the noodles were thin and sticky sheets - similar to the wrapper of the Chinese dim sum dish cheong fun - and the inclusion of steamed pork roll, which I suppose was the "Vietnamese ham."

The combination of smoky pork and bland noodles, sparked with additions of nước chấm and cilantro, was delicious. I preferred the vermicelli over the crepes, which were too gelatinous even for me. The pork roll (which I initially took for chicken or turkey) provided nothing but texture to the dish, as the flavor was nearly nonexistent. I could detect a vague peanut aura and maybe nuances of wet newspaper, but that's about it. Stick to the grilled pork.

Overall, the meal was pleasant and the quantity of leftovers made for a tasty supper a couple days later. I'm looking forward to going again, to experiment with different meats and definitely try the pho, which seemed to be on quite a few tables while we were there.

Pho Dat Thanh
510 York Road
Towson, MD 21204
(410) 296-9118

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