Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Barbecue Schmarbecue

Inspired by Elizabeth Large's Tuesday Top Ten on barbecue restaurants, I thought I'd throw my two cents in. We might know our crabcakes, but we don't have a big tradition of bbq in Maryland. Other states, however, have unique styles, techniques, and preparations, and each of them claim to be the best. Pshaw. I don't give a rat's ass about regional pride when it comes to BBQ, I just know what I like: tender meat that falls off the bone with little effort, and a flavorful sauce, glaze, or rub that isn't too sweet and has a bit of a kick to it. If I want to braise my ribs in the oven, then broil them with lashings of sweet sauce, I'm-a gonna do it, and I'm going to call it "bbq." (I'm no purist. If you want to use a ravioli press to make pierogis, I won't cry foul. You have no problem with calling General Tso's Chicken "Chinese" food, as authentic as it isn't.) A lot of "q" is about smoke, and I think that detracts from the flavor of the meat. I like the savor of grill char, but heavily smoked meat tastes like...smoke. Once in a while, when we're up for chain bbq, we go to Famous Dave's. I like their rib tips, because I have a thing for cartilage (blame my mother), but I can only eat a few before the smoke flavor overwhelms me.

North Baltimore (including both the north part of the city and the county above it) seems an unlikely mecca for the local "bbq" lover. However, there are several rib joints out that way: Corner Stable and Andy Nelson's in Cockeysville; Big Bad Wolf's House of BBQ in Hamilton; Razorback's, in Towson; and the Charred Rib in Timonium. An outpost of Bare Bones was once on York Road as well, but I suppose it had too much competition in the area. (I preferred the food at the original Ellicott City location anyway.) Out of those I've tried in that bunch, I like Razorback's the best. (And I'll like it even better once the statewide smoking ban goes into effect. Phew, that place reeks.)

When I was a kid, the rib joint of choice was Arbaugh's, on Connecticut Avenue in DC. Arbaugh's was an institution, popular for several decades before my family found it. Because it was a haul to get there, Dad had to be having a real jones for their tender ribs, piles of onion rings, and the best cole slaw ever. But it was always worth the trip. It was a sad day in the W household when Arbaugh's closed their doors sometime in the 80s. Sadly, it's been so long, I don't even remember what it tasted like anymore, but Dad and I still reminisce fondly.

The only other ribs that I think about from time to time are the spicy dry rub variety at Brother Jimmy's BBQ. I was in Chicago with my two best friends on a baseball, blues, and barbecue tour of sorts. We stopped at Jimmy's to hear the live music, and partook of a variety of ribs while waiting. The dry rub was so spicy, my nose hairs tingled before I got the rib to my lips. But damn, it was memorably tasty. Checking out the Web site, I see that it's a NY joint, so I might have to pay one of those outposts a visit on my next trip up north.

So what's your favorite BBQ?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Korean BBQ

There's a widely-held stereotype that Asians drive badly; anyone who's been in the parking lot of a Korean grocery store will not refute that. Inside, the story is pretty much the same; get out of the way, or you will be run down by a shopping cart - or a person. DH and I were meeting our friend LaRaine to try out Shin Chon Gardens, in Lotte Plaza, and decided to head out early and do a little grocery shopping before dinner. The Lotte mart was small, extremely crowded, and lacking the amazing array of Asian foods we were used to at the much more-interesting Han Ah Reum. We bought a few basics - fish sauce, rice noodles, baby bok choy - and beat a hasty retreat from that madhouse.

If you read the Baltimore Sun review linked to the restaurant name above, you'll see that the service is good and that the staff speaks excellent English. Weeelll...they must have had some major turnover between then and now, because the service was abysmal and the English was just as bad. The food, however, was pretty good.

We went specifically for the barbecue, so requested to sit at one of the special tables with a grill in the center of it. LaRaine and I ordered the bul goki (thin slices of marinated beef ) and pork belly, and also pa jeon (a large pancake studded with seafood and scallions) for the table. Hubby tried the dolsot bibimbap.

In a few minutes, food started to arrive and was placed on the table higgledy-piggledy. Rain and I sat across from each other at one end of the rectangular table with a square grill taking up the center. The location of the grill left little room for the many dishes that normally accompany a Korean meal, and our waitress chose to put most of them in the small space nearest to my end of the table, including Neal's miso soup. There were also two small trays bearing whole cloves of garlic and sliced chiles plus a blob of bean paste; a basket of romaine lettuce leaves; a bowl of thinly sliced scallion greens; small saucers of something that tasted like sesame oil with salt and pepper in it; about eight small dishes containing the panchan, (the vegetables and whatnot that always accompany a Korean meal); two small lidded metal bowls containing rice; a squeeze bottle of kochujang; a saucer of sauce for the pa jeon; and two small casseroles, one containing a beefy soup and the other with steamed egg. We were confused about the casseroles; were they sides for the bbq? If so, why one soup in one bowl for two orders? Double-dipping really isn't a problem for Raine and I - we've shared enough communal Chinese meals in which we've picked up food with chopsticks that had already been in our respective mouths. But still - weird.

A waitron silently brought our meat, cutting the beef with scissors, and placed it on the grill in front of Neal, never indicating what we should do next. Do we cook the meat? Will they come by and tend it? It turned out to be a bit of both. When I decided the beef was probably burning on one side, I started turning it with my chopsticks, and Neal did the same for the pork, since he was the only one of us who could reach it. His bibimbap arrived, prettily arranged with bits of vegetable and an egg yolk, and he dug in, famished, while LaRaine and I busied ourselves with the beef and the pork, the steamed egg and the soup.

I love Korean panchan. The variety of flavors and colors is a delight to the eyes and the tastebuds. At our late, lamented favorite, Purim Oak, the panchan was generous and refilled regularly. At Shin Chon, once the dishes were placed on the table, we were left for dead. There were some tasty things - the omelette-type things with zucchini, the spicy cucumber, the marinated radish - but nothing was special, and I missed my sigeumchi-namul (a spinach preparation).

As we were scraping up the last bits of now-burned meat from the grill, our pa jeon arrived - big as a pizza, and crowded with 2" long pieces of scallion greens and nuggets of squid and small shrimp. It was crispy, greasy, and brown on the outside, and chewy on the inside. The accompanying soy and sesame sauce was too salty, but the pancake itself was delicious, a festival of textures and flavors.

After stuffing ourselves silly, I needed more water, but I couldn't get the attention of any of the waitrons floating by. The one for our section seemed to have disappeared completely, and the others just ignored us. Finally, one came to set the table behind us and I collared her on the way past (she made the fatal mistake of looking our way). I got my water, and eventually, the check came. We did not tip as well as we ordinarily might have, but now that I think of it, the waitron still got almost 15%.


I don't think this is the place we'll race to when we have a jones for Korean. But it was worth a shot, and for the most part, we enjoyed the food.
Shin Chon Garden on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Flat is Fabulous

My husband is a pastaholic. I think if it were up to him, we'd have it practically every day (with an occasional break for mashed potatoes or rice). I like pasta too, don't get me wrong, but I'm a bit picky about it. If I only ate pasta once a month, it would be fine. Apart from the eight-course pasta tasting menu at Babbo, and one seafood and pasta combination eaten at Harry Caray's in Chicago many years ago--possibly more memorable for the company than the actual food--it's probably safe to say that I never order pasta when we eat out. (Why, when it can be made so deliciously and easily at home?)

Speaking of cooking at home, I'll eat his favorite spaghetti, or shaped pasta like farfalle and the various tubes, but I don't enjoy it as much as when we have flat pasta. (My favorite dish at Babbo was the black tagliatelle swimming in butter with roasted corn.) I've decided that overall, dried pappardelle is my favorite (followed by tagliatelle, fettuccine, and linguine, in that order). I love the sensuous quality of biting into the swath of slightly firm and perfect smoothness. And to my jaded tastebuds, the flavor of the pasta itself, uncomplicated by ridges, ruffles, or fancified turnings, is best appreciated in flat form. Pappardelle requires only the barest of saucing--perhaps some butter and a healthy dose of freshly grated parmesan. I also like it with chunky meat sauces in the form of a nice bolognese, or a creamy sauce studded with small nuggets of sausage. In contrast, spaghetti, or another of its vermiform brethren, is merely the vehicle by which I ingest ladles-full of flavorful tomato sauce.

Perhaps my preference for the flat comes from my childhood, when wide and flat egg noodles were de rigeur for Grandma's rosol z kury (Polish chicken soup) that I ate on nearly a weekly basis. Sometimes I insisted on a bowlful of noodles with butter instead of soup (I can't even really look at chicken soup any more, much lest ingest it). Regardless, when I eat pasta today, I want it flat.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sangria & Salsa

Rather than the usual beer or margaritas that I serve with Tex-Mex food, I decided a pitcher of sangria would be the perfect accompaniment to the chicken quesadillas with homemade corn-and-black bean and choco-tomato salsas.

1 bottle dry red wine
Juice of 1 lime
1 lime, cut into thin slices
1 orange, cut into thin slices, the slices quartered
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup Grand Marnier

Stir together the juices, wine, Grand Marnier and sugar, stirring well until the sugar dissolves. Pour into a pitcher and garnish with the fruit. Serve over ice.

The salsas were pretty easy to toss together.

Corn and Black Bean Salsa
1 cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed several times to get the starchy goop off
1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed (or fresh, if you can get it, cooked until tender)
15 grape tomatoes, quartered
3 scallions, both white and green parts, chopped
Handful cilantro leaves, chopped
olive oil
balsamic vinegar
salt & pepper

Put vegetables in a bowl. Drizzle on some olive oil and vinegar, to moisten. Salt and pepper to taste. Add more vinegar if neccesary, and maybe a sprinkle of sugar to round the flavors. Serve at room temperature.

Choco Salsa
1 can diced tomatoes, drained (reserve liquid)
3 scallions, both white and green parts, chopped
handful cilantro leaves, chopped
1 heaping teaspoon cocoa powder
balsamic vinegar
ground cumin
salt & pepper

Put tomatoes, cilantro, and scallions in a bowl. Stir in the cocoa powder and a bit of sugar. Drizzle on some vinegar, a teaspoon or so to start. Taste for seasonings and add more cocoa (it imparts a smoky quality), vinegar, or sugar, or all of the above. If the salsa seems dry, add some of the reserved tomato liquid. Stir in about 1/4 teaspoon of cumin, and salt and pepper to taste.

All amounts are variable in both recipes, which is one of the joys of can't be "wrong." If you like, you can substitute finely chopped red onion for the scallions, add chopped fresh jalapeno chiles, or a canned chipotle in adobo if you want more heat. Serve with tortilla chips, crackers, or like I did, atop quesadillas with a bit of sour cream.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Restaurant Reviewing in Baltimore

Elizabeth Large, primary restaurant reviewer for the Baltimore Sun, has posed a question on her blog regarding the use of stars as a rating system. Currently, the Sun's classifications are as follows: one star is "poor," two is "fair or uneven," three is "good" and four is "excellent." This odd system has long bothered me. Why awards stars to restaurants judged to be poor or fair? What's the logic in that? It's like saying, "your food sucks, but I'll give you points for having the audacity to charge money for it." Commenting on her post, I proposed a new ratings system, much like that used by the New York Times and Washington Post (real newspapers): 1 star = good, 2 stars = very good, 3 stars = excellent, 4 stars = exemplary or extraordinary.

By the Sun's current system, restaurants like Zen West and noisy chain P.F. Chang's get three stars, while James Beard Award nominee Cindy Wolf's Charleston gets four. What? You don't think they're that close? Me neither. There are several possible rankings between "good" and "excellent." The Sun tries to get around these shades of gray by awarding half stars. Ixia earned 3.5 stars. While this may seem equitable when comparing it to Charleston (but frankly, I prefer Ixia), is it really only half a star better than Koco's Pub and Grill? I'm not trying to be a snob here by picking on a bar that serves food. Stars are not only about rating the flavor of food, they also represent the quality of food, quality of service, and the atmosphere as well. If Koco's fits the three star bill in all of those categories, or maybe the atmosphere is a 2 and the food flavor is a 4 while service and food quality are solid threes, then by all means, the overall rating should be three. But P.F. Chang's? Just because the place is fancier-looking than KFC doesn't mean the food is of any higher quality, nor does it necessarily taste better.

Karen Nitkin, the Sun's other restaurant reviewer (huge eyeroll) wants to make the star system far more complicated than it needs to be.
If I had my way, I’d change the stars to: deliciousness of food, inventiveness of food, fanciness of setting, and attention to customers. For example, Gourmet Again was delicious, but very casual. So if it got three stars for deliciousness, one for inventiveness, one for fanciness and two for attention to customers, readers might get a clearer picture of what to expect. Dogwood, for example, might get more stars for inventiveness than deliciousness. The star system now is set up as a system of insult vs. compliment. Maybe there’s a way to make it more descriptive.

Then why the hell not just SAY all of that in the review?? WTF is "inventiveness" anyway? Would molecular gastronomy classify as such? Or would putting a slice of avocado on a BLT be inventive for Nitkin? And if a restaurant is bad, saying so is not an insult - it is the truth. Saying "the steak tasted delicious, but I was dismayed at the amount of gristle" isn't an insult, it's a criticism. That's why the job title is "restaurant critic." It is not a requirement of a critic to overlook flaws in order to be "nice." I've read reviews in which the critic has issues with at least two dishes and the service and still gives the restaurant three stars. Why bother even writing about it if the review won't be completely honest? Who benefits?

In addition to the awkward rating system, Sun critics don't have the opportunity to visit a restaurant multiple times in order to properly evaluate the overall dining experience. If the evening they choose to review a new restaurant happens to be the one night in 100 that things go awry in the kitchen (or, conversely, the 1 in 100 that things go right), a one-shot review could be rather unfair to both restaurant and potential diner. If, on the other hand, a critic can visit the same place 3 - 5 times over the course of a few weeks, a more accurate gauge of the restaurant's overall merits can be made.

No system is perfect, however, particularly in a podunk town such as Baltimore. But I believe improvements can and should be made in order to better represent the quality of dining experiences in the region.