Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Restaurant Week - Sotto Sopra

It's amazing how few restaurants on the Charles Street corridor, a place largely deserted after the businesspeople and lawyers call it a day, have chosen to participate in Restaurant Week. Last night, Neal and I tried out one of the few that did, Sotto Sopra.

I had been in the space during its former incarnation of...gee, what was it? A hip coffee bar? (I think that was over 10 years ago.) but had never visited the lively Italian restaurant that is there today. Sotto Sopra is in a long, narrow space with high ceilings, the walls painted with festive murals. There's a hip bar at the back, and we were seated at a corner booth table nearby. Monday, fortuitously, happened to be half-price wine night, and I sure needed a drink. Our waiter recommended a Dr. Loosen Riesling that was both sweet and tangy and proved a perfect accompaniment for our meals.

The night's special menu selections were:

Dinner Appetizer (choice of one)
Carrot Soup with wild mushroom & balsamic glaze

Proscuitto di Parma
Imported Prosciutto from Parma with fresh Mozzarella in a Parmesan Basket

Carpaccio di Manzo
Thinly sliced lemon-cured beef served with celery, shaved Parmesan cheese and Lemon-truffle oil dressing

Insalata di Rucola
Baby arugula served with crispy apple-wood smoked bacon, crumbled goat cheese and dried cherries with stone ground mustard-sherry vinaigrette

Dinner Entrée (choice of one)
Risotto di Funghi
Risotto with wild mushrooms served with duck confit and veal demi glaze

Porcini Ravioli
Homemade ravioli stuffed with porcini & mascarpone served with Veal reduction sauce and sautéed frisse'

Petto di Pollo Farcito
Roasted free-range chicken breast stuffed with sage, fig, proscuitto and foccacia served with grilled Peppers Agro dolce and mashed potatoes with an herb reduction sauce

Dinner Dessert (choice of one)

Fresh Mixed Fruit with Vanilla Bean Gelato

Neal went for the carpaccio, chicken breast, and fruit. I had the salad, risotto, and tiramisu. Everything was scrumptious. The carpaccio was "wafer-thin" and had the subtle flavors of truffle oil and lemon. My salad was very tangy and refreshing - important elements for an appetizer eaten after walking several blocks in the humidity.

The chicken breast was tender and juicy, nicely browned on the outside, with a delicious stuffing. The potatoes were fairly ordinary, and the peppers added a nice sweet and sour touch. My risotto was perfectly cooked, rich and flavorful with wild mushrooms, and the leg of duck confit melted in my mouth. True comfort food.

My tiramisu was perfect - light, fluffy, full of coffee and booze flavors. Neal said his fruit and gelato dish was "refreshing," but I thought it was nothing special. So I shared my tiramisu. :)

Would we visit Sotto Sopra again? Most definitely! The service was fantastic, the food delicious, the space interesting and inviting.

Yay for Restaurant Week. May it be a regular tradition in Baltimore.

Sotto Sopra

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Baltimore Restaurant Week

After reading about Restaurant Week in places like NY and DC for several years now, I think it's high time that Baltimore followed suit.

Taking a look at the participants offering three course dinners for $30, I see that some notable restaurants are on the list: Saffron, Sotto Sopra, Abacrombie Fine Food, Pazo. Pricey ones too: Oceanaire Seafood Room, the Black Olive, and the Prime Rib. But then you have Ding How. A neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Personally, I like their food very much, but come on! Outside of overpriced places like Mr. Chow's, who pays $30 for three courses in a Chinese restaurant? At our favorite local joint - and not only because it delivers - we can get three entrees, a quart of soup, and spring rolls for around $36. Even the deliciously authentic food at Jesse Wong's Hong Kong will cost less than $30 for three courses.

There'd better be shark's fin and abalone at Ding How.

And what about Mondo Bondo, a pizza joint that has "Pasta Night" on Thursdays - a choice of 4 pasta dishes, salad, and garlic bread for $7! Huh? What are they going to have that's worth $30 per person? Babbo it ain't, you know?

The point of restaurant week is to offer a bargain (relative, I know) rate for a meal in restaurants that the common man might ordinarily not visit because of the prices. Get them hooked with that one meal, and they may return to pay real money for their food.

A handful of hotel restaurants are also participating. I don't think any of them are known for their food and imagine that only hungry tourists who are afraid to explore the area would eat in any of them. Wonder how many people Restaurant Week will draw in? This is a case where lower-priced food might get locals to stop in and check a place out.

As for me, I hope to snag a table at Sotto Sopra, although Oceanaire sounds good too. I'll make a full report when the week is over.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Kacher in July

Last night, Neal and I attended a very nice wine dinner at Roy's at Harbor East, an outpost of Roy Yamaguchi's eponymous Hawaiian-fusion restaurants.

Robert Kacher, an importer of French wines, worked with chef Ray (I didn't catch his last name) to put together a lovely selection of dishes and wines.

The dinner was held in the back room, with guests seated at communal tables for 12. We had an odd assortment of people at our table, including a couple with extensive tattoos and odd piercings, their friends who arrived half an hour late and still expected to sit at our table despite it being full (one couple left and joined another table), and a couple in which the female partner obviously had issues with certain types of food and should have been left home with a hamburger and Coke.

We started the dinner with an aperitif glass of Sauvignon Blanc and Roy's warm sourdough rolls. I was famished, and the wine went straight to my head.

The first course soon came. It consisted of:
Citrus Butter Poached Maine Lobster
Green Papaya Salad & Summer Truffles
and was served with
Chateau Puy-Servain, Huat-Montravel, Cuvee Marjolaine, 2003

I was looking forward to trying butter-poached lobster, and this was surprisingly more citrusy than buttery. The green papaya salad could have used more aggressive seasoning, as the tiny slivers of red onion pretty much overpowered the flavor. The "summer truffles" were infused into a quenelle of a creamy substance (was it creme fraiche? farmer's cheese? mascarpone? all of the above?) and perfumed the entire room. The wine was light and refreshing and made an appropriate accompaniment.

The second course:
Pan Roasted Muscovy Duck Breast
Thai Chili Spiced Pomegranate Jam & Foie Gras
served with
Andre Brunel Chateauneuf du Pape 2003

The foie gras was crusted with panko crumbs and served crusty on the outside and meltingly tender on the inside. It was topped with slices of extremely rare duck breast and a large dollop of very spicy pomegranate jam flavored with star anise. I could have eaten more of the foie - yummy! But instead, I had two glasses of the Chateauneuf du Pape. It was a rather light red, somewhat like a pinot noir.

The woman across the table from me too a bite or two then proclaimed that she could not eat the dish because it reminded her of the ducks near her home, "and of Donald." She complained so vociferously, I couldn't help myself. I leaned forward and said in a stage whisper to her husband, "if she can't bear to eat Donald, she's really going to hate eating Bambi!" She heard, as was intended, and looked distraught.

"Shhhh!" the husband admonished, "I had her convinced that 'venison' was another word for 'baby.' She'll eat lamb."

Personally, I'd be worried if using a euphemism for "baby" would entice my spouse into eating something.

The third course:
Tomato Molasses Barbequed Sika Venison Lamb Chops
Porcini Mushroom Polenta Frittes & Baby Pepper Confit
served with
Domaine Santa Duc Gigondas 2003

And there you see the confusion with venison and "lamb chops." The venison chop indeed resembled a lamb chop, replete with large frenched bone attached. It was sliced and served on a pool of sauce that tasted not of tomato nor molasses but was reminiscent of a cherry- or plum-based fruit sauce. The "frittes" were astonishingly delicious. They resembled cubes of brownies, dark brown and crusty, but they were actually porcini-flavored cornmeal, fried to a crispy finish.

Ms. Baby-Eater took two bites and then complained, "it tastes like dirt!" It most certainly did not - the venison was extremely lean and not at all gamey. Pork and beef have far stronger flavors than this delicate meat. Ms. B-E was looking forward to dessert, however, as it was cheesecake. I couldn't wait until she found out it was goat cheesecake.

Chevre Cheese Cake in a Cocoa-Nib Florentine Cup
Port Poached Pears & Black Pepper Sabayon
served with
Domaine Beaumalaric Muscat Beaumes-des-Venise, 2004

I love florentine cookies, but was afraid the bitter cocoa nibs would be too harsh a flavor. I was wrong - the cookies were buttery and flecked with chocolatey bits and slivered almonds. The cheesecake was a small thimble-shaped timbale of the dry and crumbly cheesecake variety, and nicely goaty. The poached pear slices topped with a spoonful of sabayon was a sweeter addition to the variety of flavors on the dish. And I loved the Muscat - it was extremely fruity and had a crisp quality, not at all like the honeyed muscats I've had in the past, and very sweet. It was not unlike a Brachetto d'Acqui in flavor, but, of course, without the effervescence and pink tint.

We were handed a price list for the wines, should we want to purchase any from the one local retail outlet that carried them. Honestly, apart from the Muscat, I wasn't entirely impressed with the wines. They were not mind-blowing, although they did pair well with the food. In this case, however, I think "pairing well" mostly means that they did not interfere with the dishes; they certainly did not *add* anything.

The price for this adventure was a very reasonable $75 per person. I think it would be great fun to do this sort of thing with a group of friends - provide they arrive on time.

Gee, do I even know anyone who has any sense of time? :::pondering::::


Friday, July 07, 2006

U.S. Sears Foie Gras

Neal Patterson
Special Correspondent

The efforts to ban foie gras in Chicago and California most likely signal the beginning of the end for this delicacy in the U.S. For most, this will mean nothing, since only those who frequent finer dining establishments even consume the fatty duck liver. In fact, many might rejoice that such elitist fools will be denied one of their treasured indulgences. It’s one of our quirky American traits to worship wealth while simultaneously sneering at anything that smacks of aristocratic pretentiousness. No wonder Donald Trump and Paris Hilton are so popular.

For the politicians who enact legislation against the production and sale of foie gras, it’s an easy call. They can afford to offend a few duck farmers and gourmands in their effort to finally do something that will placate the vegans and PETA zealots. It’s rare when an elected official can take a stand that will win praise from this faction without pissing off just about everyone else.

Of course, the primary reason behind the ban is that force feeding ducks to create those extra fatty livers is considered unusually cruel. Attempting to make ethical decisions in the area of animal farming is like trying to discern what should be considered a war crime. At least the ducks raised to create foie gras are free range. Can’t say the same for the agribusiness calves chickens who are trapped in cramped pens, wallowing in their own feces while being fed hormonally enhanced food that create plumper breasts. Of course, don’t expect to see the politicians going after the likes of Tyson anytime soon. No up side there, since the animal farming giants are too big and, dammit, too many people like fried chicken and hamburgers. I believe that the enjoyment of chicken tetrazzini and a medium rare steak will be a god-given right for some time to come. I even believe the immobilized calves will be ignored so that we may continue to enjoy veal parmesan. Foie gras, on the other hand, has been sacrificed to the evil sin column.

Banning foie gras is the culinary example of our constant effort to nibble around the edges of our moral dilemmas. We attack what is easy to attack so that we may preserve the larger transgressions. We feign outrage over viewing Janet Jackson’s breasts at the Super Bowl, but true pornography will thrive. We like it too much. Illegal flag burning has a good chance of becoming a Constitutional amendment simply because most people have no interest in burning flags. A ban on radio talk show hosts who spout opinions other than those of the reigning administration may have a tougher time getting through.

I suppose I should take some comfort in this: the fact that we seldom give up the core of our rights since such things are important to the majority of us. But I can’t help wondering whether the 18th amendment, which created Prohibition, would have ever been repealed from our Constitution had it only covered champagne rather than all alcoholic beverages. I suspect people would be drinking just as much alcohol today as they currently do; they just wouldn’t have the special delight of enjoying one of its finest examples.

If foie gras disappears from every menu in the U.S., I’m sure the country and its citizenry will survive. However, I don’t believe we should feel any better about ourselves for it. As in so many aspects of our lives, there are some hard realities that we don’t like to face. We eat animals, and the raising and slaughter of those animals is not a pretty process. We can’t gain higher moral ground simply because we have stopped one form of animal farming. We simply lose one of the more exquisite offerings a meat eater can experience.

As for the vegans who declare that their lifestyle is the only ethical choice, it’s important to bear in mind that such a lifestyle is a privilege only allowed in a developed country and could not be feasibly imposed on all humans around the globe. Instead of feeling superior, they should celebrate living in a country of such freedom and abundance that allows them the opportunity to consume only quality fruits, grains, and vegetables (along with the nutritional supplements they must take to make up for the meat they aren’t eating). And while the vegans are celebrating their good fortune for living in the United States, maybe they can exercise a little tolerance, which is essential to any free and civilized society.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Jesse Wong's Kitchen

Local restauranteur Jesse Wong has recently opened a third dining establishment in the new Hunt Valley shopping complex. We visit Jesse Wong's Hong Kong on a regular basis for dim sum on the weekends and for authentic Chinese dishes at dinnertime and haven't had a bad dish yet. A solitary trip to Asean Bistro revealed excellent and well-priced Chinese and Malaysian dishes. Based on those trips, we expected Jesse Wong's Kitchen to offer a similar experience.

The restaurant is an elaborate multi-tiered, extremely purple room with an open kitchen and loud smooth jazz piped in over the audio system on the day we visited for lunch. We were given both the regular and lunch menus to peruse. The dinner menu offers multi-course prix fixe meals for around $33. (Frankly, you can't beat the "prix fixe" dinner at New Han Dynasty in White Marsh - won ton soup, eggroll, fried shrimp, a choice of entree, and fortune cookies - for less than $10. It's all piping hot, freshly cooked, and very tasty for a neighborhood joint.) The lunch menu has a selection of sushi combinations for $10.95, and other lunch combos for $8.95, the latter served incongruously in Japanese-style bento boxes. Ok, so they serve sushi, but the lunch choices were mostly Chinese.

Neal went with his usual, kung pao chicken with shrimp. I went adventurous and tried the Malay red curry beef. Each meal was served with white or brown rice, two pieces of cucumber maki, a green salad with French dressing, and some fresh fruit. A "vegetable buffet" was also part of the meal, consisting of one roll-top steam tray that was off to the side of the sushi bar. We didn't bother with it.

The salad dressing was a bit off, and watered-down. After I ate that, I tried the sushi. Ehh, ok, but the rice was a bit cold. Then I sampled the Malay beef. Oh, it was AWFUL. The beef was tough and the sauce had an odd grainy texture. There appeared to be pieces of tomato and onion as well, but there was no flavor to speak of. I expected something complex, spicy, interesting, TASTY. What I got was more like badly executed beef stew. It was one of the worst things I have ever eaten in a restaurant (or outside of one, for that matter). I flagged the waiter and told him just that. He apologized and offered to bring me something else, but I refused so he just took my meal off the bill. To tell the truth, I was afraid to try anything else.

I didn't count Neal's kung pao as successful, either. It ok, with a taste like hoisin sauce straight from the bottle. The small shrimp were fishy-smelling and mushy, so he ate the chicken and left the crustaceans behind. I would have said something to the waiter about this one too.

It doesn't take much to break me. I'll never set foot in this place again.

What I ended up having for lunch was much better: a pumpernickel bagel from Wegman's, spread with Cashel bleu cheese and topped with sliced fresh purple figs. Now, that's tasty!

Jesse Wong's Kitchen
118 Shawan Rd
Cockeysville, MD 21030
(410) 329-1088

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