Monday, July 30, 2007

Summer Restaurant Week 2007 - Alonso's

It's been quite a while since I've eaten at Alonso's, a neighborhood bar on Cold Spring Lane best known for its gigantic 1 and 1.5 pound hamburgers. On the occasions when my father would take me there when I was a little kid, we'd order one of their thin crust pizzas and either sit around the (then) horseshoe-shaped bar or at one of the booths. Now the Classic Restaurant Management Group owns it and the Tex-Mex place next door, Loco Hombre. They've been combined, mostly sharing one menu but two different vibes. Alonso's still has pizza, but the bar has been trimmed down, and the place doesn't quite seem as dark as it did in the past.

The two restaurants also share the Restaurant Week menu. Given the choice to sit in either restaurant, I chose the Alonso's side. I'm still smarting over the Loco Hombre dry tuna fiasco from a few years back, but the special three-course menu looked so appetizing, I thought it would be ok to give the kitchen another chance. There's no way the same grumpy chef was still cooking there.

After ordering a couple of beers (the deliciously malty Brewer's Art Resurrection for me) we decided on our dinner choices. I went for a seafood extravaganza - Pacific sea scallops wrapped in applewood smoked bacon with a cilantro chile-lime sauce, and the soft shell crab "haystack" served over a mix of spicy greens, topped with onion straws and Old Bay. My husband chose an all-meat menu of Southwestern chicken egg rolls and the roasted 9-oz NY strip steak with port wine mustard sauce, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, and sautéed green beans and onions.

First the appetizers. Mine consisted of two huge scallops, swaddled in smoky bacon. The bacon was a little undercooked, but the scallops were absolutely perfect, a bit translucent in the center and imbued with lovely bacon-y flavor. Marring the dish was the thin, pungently tart sauce that puddled around it and the small bits of diced tomato on the plate. It had no discernible cilantro or chile flavors. A light drizzle of aged balsamic might have been a better accompaniment. Hubby's eggrolls were practically an entree in themselves - two large fried cylinders filled with chicken, beans, and avocado scented with cumin were sliced on the diagonal and arranged around a small cup of what appeared to be melted jalapeno jelly. The filling was a little bland, but tasty, and helped by the sweet and spicy dipping sauce.

Before last November, when I took a taste of a friend's sandwich, I had never eaten soft crabs. Recently I liked them in a sushi roll. This time I was more daring and was rewarded with two crisp-fried crabs, cut in half and arranged body side-down on the plate, their legs pointing skyward splayed higgeldy-piggeldy. What an amazing thing, being able to eat a crustacean, carapace and all, right down to their crispy toes! The legs were tangled with pieces of crispy onion, and underneath it all was a small mound of cooked greens - collards perhaps (I had thought it would be a salad when I read the description). And to the side were small dollops of the most garlick-y mashed potatoes I've eaten in some time. There was a bit of white sauce on the plate too, probably thinned out sour cream or creme fraiche, with a scattering of tiny diced vegetables, to give the otherwise dark plate some color. It was an attractive presentation and the dish was delicious as well.

My husband's NY strip was nicely sized and cooked to perfectly medium-rare as requested. The sauce was flavorful but not overpowering, and he had generous portions of the garlic mashed potatoes and perfectly crisp petit haricot verts sautéed with lots of red onion. All were well-seasoned and the dish as a whole was well-thought-out. It's nice to eat dinner at a neighborhood joint and receive vegetable side dishes that aren't simply heated and plonked onto the plate, unsalted and unsauced, as if their existence was a requirement or a chore.

I was pretty full after the two courses and beer, but dessert was next. Ironically, DH and I had a conversation just the other night about how a Sandra Lee-type strawberry shortcake would involve one of those nasty artificially-yellow-colored cakes (that could do double-duty as Today Sponges) they sell near the strawberries in the supermarket, topped with berries and Cool Whip. Imagine my horror when that exact thing was placed in front of me at Alonso's. Well, perhaps not exactly that - the berries had been macerated in lemon juice, and the resulting sauce completely saturated the cake. Maybe it was store bought, maybe it was home-made, I couldn't tell by the flavor (but it was sized and shaped exactly like those spongy monstrosities). The swirl of cream on top was oddly thick, thicker than real whipped cream, and it did have a mild flavor of extruded plastic. It was almost as if Cool Whip made a gourmet full-fat version of whipped topping.

Hub's dessert was an echo of his appetizer - 2 deep-fried banana spring rolls, cut in half on the bias and arranged around a scoop of chocolate chip ice cream and drizzled with caramel sauce. Home-made, grainy, buttery caramel sauce. Swoon! What a nice combination of fruit and sweetness. The bananas were at the perfect slightly-green ripeness for this dish, and the ice cream melted into a delicious sauce. Not surprisingly, he didn't want to trade with me. But he did share generously (as did I).

Overall, it was a pretty good experience, I'd say. Definitely worth trying again.

415 W Cold Spring Ln
Baltimore, MD 21210
(410) 235-3433

Alonso's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 26, 2007


When presented with an opportunity to go to Philadelphia, I immediately jumped on the idea of eating at Morimoto. DH and I have long watched Iron Chef, both the original Japanese and current American versions. Although we usually think the food Masaharu Morimoto concocts seems a bit weird (and in some cases, possibly inedible), we've wanted to try his restaurant for years now.

On Tuesday the 24th, after an afternoon of King Tut and friends at the Franklin Institute, we entered our long-awaited Chestnut Street destination. The lime green glass doors revealed a long, high-ceilinged room with undulating patterns on the walls and light-filled Lucite booths that changed color. The place was nearly full and extremely noisy, as techno music from the sound system did battle with diners who yelled to be heard over the din. A particularly noisy party of six was unfortunately seated at the booth next to ours, and all evening long we were subjected to the wincingly-loud kookaburra-like laugh of one of the women who was trying entirely too hard to impress her date.

A shot of the sculpted wall, the booth in a blue mood, and the noisy woman, caught uncharacteristically with her mouth (and eyes, heh) closed.

Hubs and I, after about 30 seconds of discussion, went for the omakase option. There were $80, $100, and $120 price points, the difference being in the exoticness of the ingredients rather than the number of courses. For comparison's sake, we chose to order an $80 and a $100 version. Our friend Kate, not being a fan of raw fish, went for a more conventional appetizer/entree approach.

First up for her was the "10-Hour Pork 'Kakuni'" - a dish of rice porridge, or congee topped with a chunk of braised pork belly. Unfortunately I didn't get a photo of it before she dug in, and the after photo wasn't nearly as appetizing, so I'll spare you that. The pork was tender and juicy, and the congee was well-flavored and not as bland as versions I've had in the past. It was a oddly haute-Asian version of comfort-food, and possibly a perfect lunch for a chilly autumn day.

For her entree, Kate chose the seafood tobanyaki:

It came in a vented, celadon-lidded, clay pot that emanated a fantastic aroma. Inside was a bounty of seafood in a citrus-soy butter: New Zealand green-lipped mussels; large scallops; snow crab legs; shrimp; plus oyster mushrooms and baby bok choy. Everything was perfectly cooked. I particularly enjoyed morsels of crab and scallop. Kate enjoyed it all.

As for the omakase...some courses were different, some were similar or identical. All were delicious.

First up: Hamachi Tartare - crispy shallots, caviar, fresh wasabi, soy broth
The tartare was a marvel of textures and flavors. The slightly cold and bland hamachi was finely chopped (by that famous Morimoto "double-barreled chopping action" done with two cleavers perhaps?) and blended with crispy shallots. Molded into a timbale shape, it was topped with caviar and rested atop a very salty miso soy broth that was to be spiced up by adding some of the fresh wasabi. Each taste was a melange of cold, soft, crispy, salty, warm, and pungent. I was most pleasantly surprised - remember that I am not the biggest fan of raw seafood, but I was going to be game for Morimoto, since I knew the quality would be impeccable. Plus, if I really hated it, I'm sure I could foist it onto my raw-loving hubby. Raw or no, I think this was my favorite dish.

The little pink fruit is a mountain peach. Our waiter had asked if we had any food allergies, so I made sure to tell him about my problems with stone fruits and soy milk. He realized the peach mistake as he was telling us about our dish, and whisked mine away to be replaced with a tiny dish of chopped pineapple. Hub says the peach tasted like a raspberry.

Our next courses were similar. DH was getting the more expensive dishes, so he was presented with thinly sliced scallop carpaccio drizzled in warm oil with soy, while I received striped bass. As he's not a big fan of scallop, we traded. The seafood was tender and delicious, subtly flavored with soy and yuzu. As you may be able to see in the photos, the warm oil cooked the flesh a bit in spots, giving it slightly different textures.

The "salad" course was next. Unfortunately, the restaurant was so loud, I couldn't hear the components of every dish, so I'm probably missing something here and there. My salad had slices of kingfish (Spanish mackerel) that had been seared on the skin side, leaving the flesh raw. There was a small mound of baby greens, lightly dressed and garnished with bonito shavings and what seemed to be a finely chopped onion confit. The mackerel was suprisingly delicious, rich and not at all fishy, and the bonito was chewy with an earthy flavor.

DH got Alaskan sockeye salmon, and his greens got a creamy yuzu dressing that was a real knockout, flavor-wise. I think I heard that his dish also contained udo, a Japanese vegetable, but I didn't taste that.

The three of us were next brought an intermezzo of "sour strawberry soda" - tall shot glasses with a bit of strawberry puree at the bottom, topped off with club soda.

Hot entrees were next. Mine was black cod with miso, garnished with a bit of sweet pepper and three huge sweet black beans. The cod was perfectly cooked, a little on the rare side, and sweet. We were all enchanted by the way the sugary glaze worked with the fish. I know this is a traditional Japanese recipe that can be found online, and I am sorely tempted to try this dish at home.

The pricier entree was wild halibut wrapped in nori, topped with a bit of lobster claw meat, and garnished with a crispy object somewhat like a wonton. I didn't catch that part of the description, nor did I get a chance to taste it. Although complicated, this was probably the most boring dish of the evening. The seafood was well-cooked, and the nori was remarkably un-fishy-tasting (I dislike nori for that reason), but it was altogether unremarkable.

Next, I was presented with a bowl of soba carbonara, with tiny scallops, bacon, and parmesan. My pasta-loving husband looked at it longingly. I ate half, enjoying its unusual buckwheat-and-bacon flavor (which Kate did not like), before trading it for his panko-crusted baby lamb chops. They rested upon a dark substance that I think was finely ground black olives mixed with something else that I couldn't quite make out (and of course did not hear), and a dab of sauteed spinach. On the side was a small dollop of sunchoke puree garnished with sunchoke crisps. The lamb was cooked to about medium, and in itself was quite good. However, there was a weird sweetness about the dish that seemed out of place to me.

Our last savory dish was a selection of nigiri-style sushi. Mine included giant clam, Spanish mackerel, Japanese whitefish, hamachi, and maguro tuna. Hub's was similar, but his tuna was the pricier and fattier otoro. All were very fresh and clean-tasting, served with more of the fresh wasabi (the real thing, not green-tinted horseradish) and very spicy pickled ginger. My biggest problem with this style of sushi is that the pieces of fish always seem far too large, and I have a hard time stuffing it all into my mouth at once and chewing daintily.

Last, but certainly not least, was dessert. Because the blueberry dish contained a little soy milk, that one was placed before my dear husband. The guy who doesn't particularly like blueberries. He said the dish was somewhat like very gelatinous cheesecake (or panna cotta) and, although edible, wasn't anything special. I got the Morimoto brownies. They were rich and fudgelike and completely delicious, especially when dipped in the accompanying Suntory whiskey-flavored caramel and rolled in nutty cookie crumbs.

Kate went for the lemon sesame creme brulee. The unctuous cream was deeply flavored with lemon, and I believe the sesame must have been in the broiled sugar topping. We all loved this dish, and I think it's one of the best versions of creme brulee I've ever eaten.

Because there was a very long wait between the last entree course and dessert, we were given complimentary glasses of slightly sweet champagne. The rest of the meal was washed down with a bottle of Iron Horse Tin Pony chardonnay and many glasses of tap water.

I was very happy to have had the opportunity to finally eat at Morimoto, and would definitely consider going back. Perhaps to the NY outpost. And I'd go for the $120 omakase - from photos on the Web, I see that there's lobster involved.....

723 Chestnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 413-9070

Morimoto on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 16, 2007

Food on TV

I've always found myself sucked into food shows. As a little girl, my favorite was the Galloping Gourmet. I thought Graham Kerr was so suave and flirtatious and he made cooking seem like such fun. Later on, I was a fan of the late Frugal Gourmet, whose enthusiasm for Chinese food made it look easy enough that I could cook it myself. Madeleine Kamman and Pierre Franey had annoying French accents, but Mom and I were glued to the TV when they were whipping up country French or seafood dishes while shilling their cookbooks on PBS. And of course, there was the inimitable Julia Child.

With the advent of the Food Network in the 90s, I was introduced to a whole new bunch of television cooks, particularly Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay. Eventually Emeril's act wore thin when I started to notice him making lots of verbal mistakes. If he didn't know what he was talking about, I certainly wouldn't give him any more of my attention (a particularly bad meal at Emeril's in New Orleans didn't help matters). But back in those days, most of the shows were about meal preparation and starred chefly folks who not only had personality but also real food knowledge, like Ming Tsai and David Rosengarten.

It seems that the Food Network has changed in recent years, aiming nearly all of its programming towards people who have neither time to cook nor creativity, or eat all their meals in restaurants. Overexposed hacks like Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee extol the virtues of 30 minute meals and doctoring convenience foods, and just about everyone on the network has his or her own version of a show in which they travel the country, eating stuff other people cooked. Do we really need to see Rachael stuffing her ample mouth with cheap food (that even she admits doesn't always taste as good as she pretends it does)? How about the Deen boys? Giada? Even Alton Brown has gotten into the act, driving his motorcycle around the country and eating road food. Sigh. What happened to actual cooking shows? It shouldn't take a presumably instructional television show to know how open a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and dump a jar of salsa on it, and I'm sure it tastes as crappy as I imagine it does, Sandra Lee. And not everything tastes better with a cup of mayo in it, Paula Deen. Which leads to an if-Carrie-Bradshaw-were-a-food-writer kind of thought:

Has actual cooking with fresh ingredients become something shameful?

Apart from the always-entertaining Iron Chef (in either the original Japanese or new American format), the only other show I regularly watch on the Food Network is The Next Food Network Star. For the third season in a row, they've lined up a bunch of poor saps vying for the unenviable position of hosting a cooking show that will air either early on a Sunday morning or in the wee hours of the night. Unlike the past two seasons, however, this one copies some elements from Bravo's Top Chef. No longer do the contestants have individual apartments; they share a space with bunkbeds and a judges room on the first level. Few of the challenges involved being on camera - odd that, since the goal of the competition is a show, not a restaurant. And the challenges seemed more...challenging. Interesting too. Can't say the same for the contestants. It was easy to see that the final three would be Amy, Joshua (a.k.a JAG), and Gummy. I mean...Rory. They seemed to not only have cooking chops but also some personality. Others had one or the other...or neither...and were eliminated without further ado.

Amy is my favorite of the three. She brings a bit of gourmet to her cooking, like a downmarket Ina Garten. Her Gourmet Next Door theme might actually be closer to a flat-chested Nigella Lawson - a working mother who isn't afraid of exotic ingredients with foreign-sounding names. JAG was my second favorite contestant, although I knew he probably wasn't the ideal Food Network personality. He seemed a bit too serious, too into the actual cooking. He would be better on Top Chef. Alas, he lied about both his military service and his culinary credentials and removed himself from competition. It's a shame he was so insecure he needed to invent his past. I wish him well for the future. He's still so young, and he has great potential in the kitchen. Rory isn't my favorite, but she would do well on TVFN. She's got a bold personality and could probably be trained to cook for the lowest common denominator or eat other people's food. We'll see who the voters pick next week.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Greening in the Garden

Every summer, my husband and I plant our little gardens. He's in charge of the flower garden in our shade-plagued front yard and he stocks it with impatiens, coleus, petunias, salvia, and always a single lonely geranium. He also tends to the monster hostas that threaten to take over with their giant variegated leaves. My garden consists of several containers on our kitchen porch. In addition to the must-have cherry tomatoes and basil, this year we also have rosemary, lemon verbena, and jalapeno peppers.

I was worried that since we planted fairly late this year (nearly mid-June) that we wouldn't have the harvest we have had in the past. On the contrary - the jalapeno plant has already yielded 10 or so fruits and is bearing another half dozen as I type this, in addition to the flowers signaling more to come. The three varieties of miniature tomatoes (Sweet 100s, Yellow Pear, and some sort of mini-me Plum variety) are growing like crazy and it looks like we're going to have a plethora of fruit all at once.

I thought it might be interesting to try using up some of the tomatoes while they were still green and found this Mario Batali recipe for spaghetti with a green tomato sauce on the Food Network site.

Spaghetti con Pomodori Verdi

1/4 cup mint leaves
1/4 cup basil leaves
1/4 cup arugula
1/4 cup dill
5 green tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 pound spaghetti
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper, to taste

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons salt.

In the bowl of a food processor combine the herbs, tomatoes and garlic and puree. Add the cheese and pulse for 30 seconds.

Cook the pasta in the boiling water until tender yet al dente. 1 minute before the pasta is done, turn on the food processor and slowly drizzle the oil in to make a smooth sauce. Drain the pasta, discarding the water, and return to the hot pot. Stir in the tomato mixture, season with salt and pepper, to taste and serve immediately.

The effect was largely that of a mixed herb pesto. I used two handfuls of my small tomatoes, probably equivalent to three or so larger ones, rather than the five called for. Thus, the tomato flavor was negligible. We didn't have the dill, so omitted it, but I think we'd definitely try to obtain some the next time we make this recipe. The mint really added a light and summery quality to the dish, and I was happy that we had a package of the stuff in the fridge. Half of it was turning brown, but there was almost exactly a quarter cup of green leaves left.

Because it reminded me so much of regular basil pesto, I garnished each plate with a few pieces of crushed walnut and an additional smattering of grated Parmesan. Other than making sure I had more dill and more tomatoes, I'd also add more garlic to the dish. One clove did add obvious garlic savor, but two would be even better. Especially if one gets to breathe on people the next day. ;)