Friday, March 27, 2020

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Recap - Episode Two

Happy Friday to my peeps hunkered down at home, eagerly awaiting the end to this covid19 bullshit. Fucking viruses. We're so much bigger, yet some little microscopic asshole can really drag us down. And kill us. Ugh.

I mentioned last week that it's been a few years since we've watched Top Chef, and I'm happy to note that the show hasn't changed one iota. I am averse to change. I fought getting a smart phone for years, and I'm really against the whole teleconferencing thing we're having to do right now as we work from home. Honestly, I don't want to see my coworkers in person at work, so I definitely don't want to see their faces when I'm in my home. Bad enough my dining room table looks like a fucking Best Buy. Home should be a sanctuary, not someplace I'm eager to escape. But I love that TC still has Tom and Padma and Gail, and one or two of them have barely aged.

On to the recap.

At the end of last week's show, Padma tells the assembled cheftestants that their next challenge starts immediately. But it really doesn't. At the top of this week's ep, she goes on to say that they won't be having a Quickfire this week. Instead, they'll be dining out at a few of the restaurants in Jonathan Gold's 101 Best Restaurants, a publication put out by the LA Times. Gold was their restaurant critic, a figure beloved by readers and restaurants alike. He was a proponent of LA's smaller, mom-and-pop, ethnic, strip-mall joints, writing about them with the joy of an avid eater. (Wait - I'm an avid eater. Why do I not have more joy?) Gold won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2007, the first food critic to do so. Sadly, he died of pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2018.

The last issue of 101 Best came out in October of 2017. As volatile as the restaurant industry is, I'm curious as to how many of these places are still open. Open, that is, as of this month, before the mass nationwide restaurant closures. And I wonder how many will survive. [sad emoji]

Padma then goes on to say that while the cheftestants are dining out, they are to let the food inspire them to make a dish of their own. They will cook said dish for 200 guests at an event honoring Jonathan Gold, to be held at Union Station. Additionally, the guest judge for this episode will be Ruth Reichl, who was a very close friend of Gold.

The cheftestants go home, presumably to sleep, at least to shower and change, and to toast the end of the first challenge with glasses of red and cans of Pelligrino Essenza flavored mineral water, the labels conspicuously turned to the camera. The next morning, they set out in their BMW X7 Sponsorship Mobiles.

The fourteen chefs are in four groups, each tackling a different area of Los Angeles. The first group we see is the trio of Melissa, Karen, and Lisa, who hit up Chengdu Taste for spicy Sichuan food, then taco truck Mariscos Jalisco for seafood-based tacos and ceviche, and finally biscuits and such at Manuela.

Kevin, Gregory, Angelo, and Eric first visit Thai restaurant Jitlada, then Ethiopian Meals by Genet, and finally to Republique for updated French fare. We then get a poignant moment where Kevin tells us that a while back a giant tumor was discovered on his kidney, which put him out of action for a year. He is competing to "feel alive." You go, Kevin! One of my favorite cheftestants in his season, though of course I didn't like him as much as um, Bryan Voltaggio. (<3 <3 <3)

Bryan, Nini, Malarkey, and Jamie visit Filipino restaurant Lasa, Bolognese restaurant Rossoblu, and Guerilla Tacos.

The last group of Jenn, Lee Anne, and Stephanie hit South Indian Mayura, Japanese Shunji, and ???? (Did they get to eat in a third restaurant? No idea.)

The chefs then have $700 to spend at Whole Foods before heading back to the Top Chef Kitchen to prepare their dishes. They pack up after three hours of prep. The next day, they have an hour to complete their dishes at Union Station.

The gathering is full of Jonathan Gold's friends, which includes chefs like Michael Cimarusti and Roy Choi, and actor Jon Favreau. Gold's wife, Laurie Ochoa--arts and entertainment editor at the LA Times--is there as well. The judges are, too, of course, and tag team the cheftestants in teams of two: Padma with Gail, Tom with Ruth.

Karen, who had visited Chengdu Taste with her team, has handmade--wrappers and all--cumin lamb dumplings with roasted chili oil and pickled cucumbers. They look amazing. And as someone who has recently made dumplings and their wrappers, I can say it's not exactly an easy or fast process, even with a friend. Melissa was also inspired by Chengdu Taste, and makes an interpretation of beef tartare using the popular ma la (numbing and spicy) flavors of Sichuan provence. Tom's bite has too much chili, but Ruth's seems just right. Lisa was in the same group as Karen and Melissa, but her dish of pickled chili salad with spicy caramel duck seems to have a different inspiration from the three restaurants they visited. Tom wonders if she was successful in using spice to cut the fattiness of the duck. Which of course she wasn't, if he even asked such a thing.

Kevin was inspired by the duck and mushroom terrine at Republique to make a terrine of his own, which he forms into balls and deep fries and garnishes with apple butter. Ruth raves over the butter, saying he should bottle it. Angelo, who got on my nerves mispronouncing turmeric as "too-MARE-ic" made a soupy concoction that was inspired by the whole deep fried fish dish served at Jitlada, only with raw tuna and way too much sugar. Tom calls it "a savory dish that eats like a dessert," which ain't good. Gregory also mispronounces turmeric, but at least he didn't say it over and over and over like Angelo. His halibut in turmeric and tomato broth with chiles, lime, and pineapple was nicely cooked. Apparently the man has a way with fish. Finally, we have Eric's weird-ass scallop with red cabbage and kitfo oil. He originally wanted to use duck, but Lisa bought all of it. I don't think the scallop was the issue here. His cabbage was undercooked, and the flavors didn't mesh properly. I'm kinda intrigued by "kitfo oil" though. Kitfo is an Ethiopian dish like a spicy steak tartare seasoned with mitmita (a blend of chiles with sweet spices like cardamom and cloves) and a spiced clarified butter called niter kibbeh. Not sure if the oil is just the mitmita and butter, or if there's some way to get the raw meat flavor in there, too. Hm. Nevermind.

Nini's "masa ball soup" impressed all of the judges, though she worried about the simplicity of her masa dumpling and coconut-ginger chicken broth dish. Jamie managed to snag some duck from Lisa and made a duck mole taco with lime crema and fire-roasted chile salsa. The judges nodded but didn't say much otherwise. Bryan did a short rib with charred eggplant puree, fermented radish, and butternut squash vinaigrette that Tom complimented simply by saying it was the first dish that wasn't sweet. Finally, Malarkey makes a beef tartare over fried rice with kimchi vinaigrette, peanut "crack" and fermented egg yolk. He's super confident and bouncing off the walls, as usual. Ruth, who is at her snarky best, says his dish is a "show-off dish" that is what people hate about restaurants. Ha!

Ruth compliments Jenn's vegetarian chickpea and navy bean stew with hominy, herb yogurt, cashews, and pickled red onion by saying it "really honored the challenge." Lee Anne's dish of hayashi with black plums, tomato-seaweed gelee, king crab vinaigrette, and mozzarella got an eyebrow raise from Italian Tom at the combo of fish and cheese, but not much other comment. And finally, Stephanie's "Indian taco" of crispy lamb, curried peas, carrot relish, and cheese on homemade grilled naan earned her a sneer from Padma. Never try to impress Padma with Indian food if you don't actually know anything about Indian food. Or even if you do.

Judges' Table: Bryan, Kevin, and Nini are on top. Tom calls Nini's soup "penicillin in a jar" and claims to have gotten some to go because he is feeling under the weather. Gail says that Bryan's short rib was a departure from anything he's made before, but still had his signature refinement. But Kevin's dish was deemed the best tribute to Jonathan Gold. He fought back tears as he is overwhelmed by the win and the fact that that mofo cancer didn't bring him down.

Angelo, Stephanie, and Eric are on the bottom. Tom again said that Angelo's dish was too much like dessert, as if a pastry chef had coached him on it. Ruth said the tuna "died in vain." Zing! Stephanie's nacho got flayed by Padma, who said it lacked salt, acid, and a POV. Bam! And Eric's cabbage and lack of cohesiveness got him a thumb's down. Ruth opines, "I feel the bottom three chefs forgot that food has to be delicious." Zow! Ruth was on fi-yah!

I wanted Angelo to go home because of the whole "too-MARE-ick" thing, and I got my wish. Sorry  (not sorry), guy.

* 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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Friday, March 20, 2020

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Recap - Episode One

Today I'm going to do something I haven't done in quite a long time: recap a reality show. Once upon a time, I used to spend a few hours every week attempting to squeeze some humor out of shows like The Next Food Network Star and Top Chef. I even recapped Shear Genius and Project Runway on my fashion blog, Opalescent. At first, it was fun. And then it wasn't. It's been a few years, and I thought I'd give it another go. Because I'm crazy.

I haven't even watched Top Chef since season 10! (My long-suffering husband put the kibosh on it after the Olympic-style chaos of the season 9 finale. I squeezed out one more season before he took the remote away from me, permanently.) So why do I plan on torturing us again after so many years? two words. More accurately one name: Bryan Voltaggio. My almost-home-town boy (he's from Frederick, MD, I'm from Baltimore) finished second to his brother Michael in season 6, and was a runner-up in season 5 of Top Chef Masters. Always the bridesmaid....

I must admit I picked on him a bit while recapping season 6. Not because I disliked him. On the contrary, he was my favorite chef of the season. Probably of all the seasons. Yes, I thought he was hot. And he's not my usual type at all. I'm more into brunettes with dimples, but hey, at least I'm not predicable!
Bryan didn't seem to have many facial expressions to work with back in season 6. Yet, somehow...there was plenty of hotness. My late friend Kate understood my attraction and we'd share a fangirl moment or ten in a text message while virtually watching the show together. The first time Mr Minx and I went to Bryan's restaurant, Volt, in Frederick, Bryan was standing outside in their courtyard, watching us approach. And he gave us a stony, unemotional, stare, much like any of the looks above. The next time we went, we ate in the kitchen, with him RIGHT THERE. He didn't even look at us that time, probably disgusted and embarrassed by his over-emotional greeting from the first time. Something must have happened in the following years, because when I was finally introduced to him at a media preview of the Baltimore outpost of his restaurant Family Meal, and he shook my hand, he displayed a wider range of facial expressions. And his hands were big and warm. Oooh.... (Man, I miss Kate!)

I just want to say, Bryan, I'm sorry for picking on you. <3 <3 <3 That doesn't mean I won't still do it this season.

But I digress, big time.

So here we are now, back to watching. And recapping. And I hope you will read and maybe laugh and enjoy. AND PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS (I'm looking at you, Chrissie Perry), even if you think my writing is shit. Which it may well be.

Let's meet this season's competitors, shall we:

Lee Anne Wong: season 1; season 15
Brian Malarkey, season 3, finalist
Lisa Fernandes, season 4, finalist
Kevin Gillespie: season 6, finalist; Duels
Bryan Voltaggio: season 6, finalist; Masters, season 5, finalist
Jenn Carroll: season 6; season 8 All Stars; Duels
Angelo Sosa: season 7, finalist
Stephanie Cmar: season 10
Gregory Gourdet: season 12, finalist
Melissa King: season 12
Karen Akunowicz: season 13
Jamie Lynch: season 14
Joe Sasto: season 15
Nini Nguyen: season 16
Eric Adjepong: season 16, finalist

This year's competition takes place in pre-Coronapocalyptic Los Angeles, California, where, for no apparent reason (is there ever a reason?), the cheftestants gather at the Griffith Observatory. The usual suspects, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons are on hand to greet the gang and tell them about their first Quickfire Challenge. It's one they are all familiar with, involving preparing a mise en place. In the past, the chefs were divided into teams and the competition was a relay. This time, each chef competes on his or her own. The first five people to turn three California artichokes become one team, the next five to supreme 5 California oranges becomes another team. The remaining five chefs become the final team, of course, but first they have to successfully crack 20 perfect California almonds. (Is anyone else of a certain age disappointed that The California Raisins weren't involved? Only me? Ok.) Each team then heads back to the Top Chef Kitchen where they are to create two dishes using all three ingredients. The final team gets only 15 minutes for this task. The other two teams get a bit more time, depending on how long it took them to complete their mise en place to begin with.

This challenge really shows that all of these chefs aren't involved in actual meal prep anymore. As Kevin says, "I have people for this shit." Bryan is so eager to finish in the first team, thus getting more time to cook, he calls out that he's finished his artichoke prep three times before the judges agree that he has actually removed the entire hairy choke from the thing. And I know there's a dirty joke in there somewhere, but my allergies are kicking my ass and I am having trouble thinking clearly. Also, Bryan Voltaggio.

Honestly, none of the three challenges are particularly easy. Anyone who has prepped an artichoke knows that it's a bit fiddly. First one has to remove the leaves, peel the stem, then scrape out the choke, leaving only the tender heart and a bit of tender stem. As for supreming an orange, that involves cutting the segments of juice sacs out of each protective membrane. The first couple are fairly easy--if your knife is sharp!--but as you work around the orange, it starts to fall onto itself and cutting out the remaining segments is fairly difficult. Personally, I always make a big mess. Finally, cracking almonds without a nut cracker is an interesting problem-solving challenge. Jenn Carroll attempts to use her wine key, since it folds over and seems like it could work. And it might, for a soft-shelled nut like a peanut, but it doesn't provide enough leverage to crack a large hard-shelled nut like an almond. The cheftestants should be happy that they weren't competing in a state known for harder nuts, like walnuts or pecans. (Yes, another lost opportunity to make a dirty joke.)

Team Artichoke, aka the Red Team, is Bryan, Melissa, Kevin, Jamie, and Joe.
Team Orange, aka the Blue Team, is Malarkey, Kevin, Lisa, Nin, and Stephanie,
Team Nuts, aka the Green Team, is Lee Anne, Gregory, Angelo, Eric, and Jenn, who finished dead last. The wine key didn't work.

The Red Team arrives at the kitchen first and sets to making their artichoke, orange, and almond dishes. A short 5-ish minutes later, the Blue Team bursts in and starts their own cooking. Finally, the Green Team gets in and begins their very quick fifteen minutes.

It's almost as if the chefs forgot there were time constraints. Joe, on the Red Team, thought that making pasta in less than 30 minutes was a good idea. Of course it was doughy, dry, and gummy. Lee Anne, on the Green Team, thought tempura was a good idea. Unfortunately, there weren't enough empty deep fryers available in order to cook her food in a timely manner, which caused her batter to thicken unpleasantly. But aside from those two big loser dishes, the rest were edible. Luckily for the Red Team, their other dish was good enough to get them the win. And finally, after a couple dozen Quickfire Challenges spread over two full seasons, Bryan Voltaggio (as part of a team) wins his first one ever. YOU CAN DO IT! LOVE YOU BRYAN!

Elimination Challenge: Each member of the winning Red Team will be a captain instructed to choose two people from the remaining teams in order to form their own team. Each new team of three people will be responsible for three seafood dishes cooked over an open fire on the beach. They will have no other cooking methods available to them, no gadgets or appliances. Just their knives, their skills, and the flames.

Bryan chooses Eric--a former protege of his--and Lisa (Aqua Team). Well, Lisa was the last one left, so he sorta just gets her. I can't say "stuck," because she was a finalist in her season and can cook. Kevin has Jenn and Nin (Blue Team). The Yellow Team comprises Jamie, Gregory, and Stephanie. The Red Team has Joe, Lee Anne, and Malarkey. Finally, the Green Team is made up of Melissa, Angelo, and Karen. The teams have 5 minutes to meal plan, and 30 minutes to "shop" in the pantry. This mostly means chefs shoving each other out of the way as they battle for their protein of choice.

Armed with shopping bags of produce and fish, the Cheftestants leave the Kitchen and head for their swanky new home in the Hollywood Hills. Though it looks like a huge manse, the chefs are still forced to sleep in bunk beds, at least while there are still 15 of them.

The next day, the Cheftestants have 2 1/2 hours to cook their food. On the beach. While a bunch of high-powered chef judges tap their flip flops and wait for their food. How high-powered? How's Nancy Silverton, Suzanne Goin, Michael Cimarusti, Josiah Citrin, Marcus Samuelsson, and Jeremiah Tower for ya? All but Samuelsson (who is quite the media whore) are bastions of the LA food scene, with Tower being one of the originators, along with Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, of what we think of as California cuisine. Then there's Caroline Styne, who's a restaurateur and Goin's business partner. (I had to look her up on teh innernets.)

The chefs seem less worried about the judges than they are about making sure the fire pit works for them. It's not easy to cook fancy food over an open fire. It's like glamping on steroids. I guess. I've never ever been regular camping. (I'm high maintenance. I like flush toilets and feather pillows and hate bugs.)

(While I'm being parenthetical here....damn. I haven't recapped in so long and I'm realizing now that it's HARD WORK. Especially since my brain has been half-eaten away by all the Coronapocalypse news I've been reading. I'm trying hard to avoid it. Realizing that I'm probably going to be working from home until June is causing anxiety. I predict that the birth rate will go up in December, but so will the rates of suicide and divorce.)

The Green Team is cooking and presenting their food first. I guess I nodded off when they determined the order of who will be feeding the judges when. If they did at all. I guess it makes sense to stagger the cooking, as seafood is fragile and nobody wants to eat it cold if it's not supposed to be. They presented a "modern California" meal of grilled scallops with ginger plums, nuoc cham, and napa slaw (Karen), oysters with smoked bacon rice porridge (Angelo), and grilled swordfish with hot and sour sauce, ember-grilled radicchio, and fresno chiles (Melissa). The judges enjoyed Karen's dish, liked the radicchio best in Melissa's, and felt Angelo didn't embrace the challenge, since there was no real aspect of fire cooking involved.

Team Malarkey created a sesame and semolina flatbread with clams, fried garlic, pickled peppers, miso parm aioli, and uni (Joe), Shoyu tare glazed halibut with charred sweet corn and cabbage, miso beurre blanc, and uni (Lee Anne), and spot prawns with hibiscus ponzu, burnt avocado, and uni (Malarkey). We saw Lee Anne dump oil on the grate after she realized her fish was sticking, which caused a flare up and added much-unneeded soot to the flavor of her dish. Joe's flatbread had too much stuff going on, and the crust itself was soggy under all the aioli. Meanwhile, Malarkey's dish was pretty, but the surfeit of sauce, when served family style, made the other dishes on the plate too wet.

The Yellow team presented charred salmon with grilled peaches and roasted chili dressing (Gregory), steamed mussels with ember scalded cream and toasted bread (Jamie), and brined prawn with charred tomato sauce and roasted corn dressing (Stephanie). Jamie put hot embers from the fire into his cream sauce (and removed them, of course), which received praise from the judges. Unfortunately, his mussels got dried out. Stephanie's dish scores really high marks, as does Gregory's "perfectly cooked" salmon. Nancy Silverton says this meal is the menu that the judges expected and deserved. No modesty there, huh Nance?

The Blue team produced spiced tuna loin, grilled kale, roasted tahini sauce (Jenn), grilled scallop with carrots, tomatoes, charred brussel sprout and fennel salad (Nini), and eye of swordfish braised in chorizo with coal-roasted onion, olive, and peas (Kevin). The judges love Jenn's dish, saying they would eat it for lunch any day. Nini's dish is beautiful and the scallops well cooked, but the veg didn't seem to have much done to them. Kevin's dish, while visually quite lovely, is overcooked and there are too many things going on. I could have told you that.

Finally, the Aqua team presents charred shrimp and scallop ceviche with candied squash (Lisa), a Chesapeake boil with grilled prawns (Eric), and sablefish with corn porridge and charred leeks (Bryan). The judges enjoy Lisa's and Eric's dishes, but Gail thinks that Bryan's dish was too same-same in texture, though others think it had finesse.

The judges seemed mostly impressed with the day's food, with Jenn's tuna and Melissa's swordfish as favorites. The Yellow Team was singled out for having the best menu, with Gregory awarded the win for his nicely cooked salmon with the surprising addition of peaches.

Team Malarkey ends up on the bottom, though Angelo's oyster and Kevin's swordfish are singled out for their badness, too. Malarkey's dish made everyone else's soggy, Lee Anne's fish had too much of a charcoal flavor and some editing, but the Joe's overloaded flatbread sends him home.

The next challenge starts immediately, but we are spared another 75 minutes of viewing...until next week.

* 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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Flashback Friday - I'm Just Wild About Harry's!

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This post originally appeared on on November 3, 2006. It might have appeared again later, too. I like it, so here it is once more.

The chef at Harry's back then is one of the owners of Cajun Kate's in PA and DE, and the Kate I speak of is my late best friend, Kate Becker. She was surprised that I didn't like oysters and had never tried a soft shell crab before this particular occasion. Now, of course, I like both very much. Tastes can definitely change over the years.


Last week, I was hanging out in Delaware with my dear friend Kate when she suggested that she treat me to a birthday lunch since we probably wouldn't have opportunity to get together before that hallowed day (November 17). She suggested Harry's Seafood Grill and sent me to check out the sample menu on their Web site. Now, as a graphic designer, I am well aware of the importance that needs to be placed on such things as image and marketing, and was pleased to see that Harry's site was good-looking and well-designed. That means good things, in my mind, so I jumped at the chance to dine there.

The restaurant was as tastefully decorated as the site was well-designed, with interesting sea-themed artworks (including the wire starfish sculpture that took up most of the ceiling of the main dining room) and a large window overlooking the river. There are also tables outside under a broad awning for dining in more clement weather.

Kate was acquainted with one of the chefs at Harry's, and we had an opportunity to meet with her and chat a bit before ordering our food. She made some suggestions as to the best items on the rather large lunchtime menu (that included an impressive selection of raw items like sashimi and several varieties of ceviche). I had to agree with her that yes, the Cajun Short Ribs with Fried Shrimp and Grits in a Tasso Cream Sauce was not to be missed. Kate went for the Soft Crab Sandwich with Remoulade and Yukon Gold Potato Chips because she was in the mood for crab, and because I had never eaten a soft crab before - mainly because of the legs that dangle from the sandwich. I have no issues with hard crabs, but put one between two slices of bread and suddenly it becomes a fried spider. The chef had also recommended the Oktoberfest Moules Frites, so we ordered that as a shared appetizer.

The next thing we know, an order of New Orleans Barbeque Shrimp and Toasted Focaccia with Fresh Smoked Tomato Salad was coming to our table, compliments of the chef. Four large, plump shrimp bathed in a tangy sauce were nestled together next to a generous pile of greens topped with smoky tomatoes. Now, don't think N'awlins style barbeque sauce has anything to do with what one normally thinks of as 'cue (any region's style)'s basically lots of butter, Worcestershire sauce, lemon, garlic, and spices, along with a dose of hot sauce. It was fan-tastic, much tastier than my preparation of one of Emeril's recipes some years ago (that was too heavy on the Worcestershire).

As soon as we were done with the shrimps, our lovely and perky waitress brought Kate's pre-appetizer of 3 different PEI oysters. I'll have to take her word for it that they were tasty, as I don't like raw oysters. :) Then came the mussels. A platter was placed before us containing a lidded serving vessel with 10 or 12 huge, beer-steamed specimens, a fancy wire swirly thing holding a cone of thinly cut frites, and a ramekin of black pepper mayo. Although the mussels were the usual black-shelled variety, some of the critters were so large I needed to cut them in half before popping them in my mouth. They were soft and succulent and even-textured, and didn't have the somewhat sickening "gack, is that a mussel spleen, or maybe a mussel colon I'm biting into now?" lumpy quality that I find in some larger mussels, particularly the green-lipped variety. The enormous serving of frites was crisp and delicious, and the mayo was a nice dip for both starch and shellfish.

I could have stopped right there with the eating, as I was already quite full, but we still had entrees coming. Whew! Mine was a dinner-sized portion - three meaty short ribs, three large shrimp that had been dipped in a savory batter and deep fried, and a good half-cup sized timbale of grits, all atop a lake of creamy sauce studded with bits of tasso ham. The meat was so tender, it fell off the bone at the mere threat of being struck with a knife, and the shrimp had that lovely iodine flavor that I like so much (I know some people probably don't like it, but to me, that's what makes a shrimp taste like a shrimp). But it was too much; I ate the shrimp and the grits and took the ribs home for a future lunchtime treat.

Kate's soft crab sandwich was also quite yummy. She shared a portion of the body so I wouldn't have to deal with the legs, and the crisp carapace was accented beautifully by the savory remoulade sauce. I didn't try her chips, but they were definitely of the home-made variety.

To add insult to injury, or rather, to avoid additional risk of stomach explosion, we opted to share a dessert. There were several interesting options on the menu, but I've always wanted to try a Sticky Toffee Pudding. Harry's was a hefty cylinder, served warm, with a large curved tuile acting as a dish for a scoop of house-made vanilla gelato, the plate further garnished with splotches of tart raspberry coulis and squiggles of homemade caramel on a pool of creme anglaise. Yowsa. It was delicious, and far too much to finish.

Two hours later, we waddled out of Harry's, very full and happy. This was one of the most consistantly delicious meals I've had in a long time (apart from the two dinners at Pazo this past summer), and I would be delighted to go back at any time. I highly recommend it.

Harry's Seafood Grill
101 S. Market St
Wilmington, DE 19801
P: 302-777-1500
F: 302-777-2406

Harry's Seafood Grill on Urbanspoon

* 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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Friday, March 13, 2020

Flashback Friday - Top Chef Las Vegas Episode Twelve Recap

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This post originally appeared on on November 19, 2009.  You should go read the comments on the original post. Yes! This was back when I still did get comments!

I hope to recap the upcoming season of Top Chef. Bryan Voltaggio--one of my all-time favorites--will be competing once again. Gotta root for my fellow Marylander. Plus he's still cute. Yes, even with only one facial expression.

On our penultimate morning at the McMansion, we find that Bryan is worried about money, since his fledgling restaurant's business is slowing while he's been gone. Kevin is missing his wife. And he must be a big fan of 80s Madonna, because we see him put a rosary on like a necklace and tuck it under his chef's whites (thankfully we were spared the scene of him putting on ripped fishnets). Eli mentions that season 4 finalist Richard Blais was his mentor and he wants to win the big prize for the both of them. I can just hear the conversation now:

"Hey Richard! I won! For both of us!"
"That's great, Eli. Where's my half of the giant check?"
"Um, well. I have to give it to Mom. But I'm sharing the glory! That's good, right?"

Jen, as usual, is feeling the pressure but hopes she can perform better in the day's challenges.

Nobody misses Robin.

/navel gazing

On to the M Resort where the five remaining cheftestants find Padma with a rather elf-like creature.

Not only did Wee Gavin win a Beard Award but he also represented the U.S. in the prestigious Bocuse d'Or competition in 2007. Yet he was beat out in the Next Iron Chef competition by Michael Symon. Go figure. Anyhoo, Wee Gavin talks about creating a ballotine of chicken with a crayfish center for the Bocuse. What he doesn't mention is the Tale of the Dishwasher. One of the side dishes for Wee Gavin's platter involved chicken wings. His hungry (and possibly stupid) dishwasher saw the wings, thought they were reject parts, and ate them. The result: Wee Gavin came in 14th. So the next time you scoff at the dish of butter-and-hot-sauce-soaked yumminess that is Buffalo wings, remember just how crucial they can be in a competitive situation.

Back to the Quickfire Challenge you say?

But wait - what's a ballotine?

I know there's a dirty joke in there somewhere.

There is no immunity, but the winner of this challenge will receive a significant advantage in the Elimination challenge.

Bryan is pretty confident, since he's made ballotines before, and is planning one with merguez sausage and lamb. His brother is even more confident and decides the contest isn't about ballotines at all but about combining three proteins, so he's making a compressed terrine. Meanwhile, Kevin thinks they're both a little dumb to try something so risky in a short 90 minutes.

Jen jokes about making a turducken, but switches to what she knows best - seafood. And Eli does his own thing too.

Obviously Top Chef Masters had not aired by the time this episode was filmed, otherwise Eli would have seen how successful Chef Art Smith was with his Scotch Egg. Not.

Time's up! Padma and Wee Gavin go around and taste everyone's wares. Bryan's dish was complimented; Kevin's breaded catfish dish may not have been risky, but it was dry. Wee Gavin actually did like Eli's egg. He wasn't crazy about Michael's terrine, as it was a terrine and not a ballotine-style preparation.

Apparently his ego was so puffed up, it clogged his ears or something.

Wee Gavin loved Jen's calamari with scallops and salmon and proclaimed her the winner, to loud sighs of relief from both Jen and the many viewers who have been pulling for her to make a comeback. Way to go, Jen!

No time to celebrate, next up is the Elimination Challenge which will be a Top Chef-ified version of the Bocuse d'Or. Let's call it "L'Excuse du Jour." Each chef must create a single protein dish and two fancy garnishes and plate them all on those silly mirrors (I think they're used so the puffed-up judges have something in which to admire themselves). They have the choice of salmon or lamb and the rest is up to them. They will have four hours to cook at Alex Stratta's restaurant Alex at the Wynn. Because she won the Quickfire, Jen gets the advantage of an additional 30 minutes to cook. The cheftestants will be judged by a party of 12, some of whom are reps from the American Advisory Board for the Bocuse d'Or, one of which is the illustrious Thomas Keller. None of which is Toby Young.

The cheftestants then pile into Sponsormobiles and head to Whole Paycheck for the obligatory shopping scene.

Back at the McMansion, we find Bryan shoveling Alexia Crunchy Snacks into his mouth while they all stare glassy-eyed at videos of Bocuse d'Or competitions. Michael has gone straight to bed, still in his chef's whites (hygiene is important in the kitchen but apparently not in the bedroom). Kevin asks Bryan about cooking sous vide, and Bryan explains the technique.

The next day, the chefs settle in at the Alex kitchen. Tom comes in with Thomas Keller to give the chefs a pep talk.

Michael is already pretty confident.

He also takes the opportunity to trash talk Kevin.

Kevin explains why he's trying a new technique.

Tom ditches Keller and comes back for his Sniff 'n' Sneer. He gives Kevin funny looks when he sees his immersion circulator. As if leprechauns aren't allowed to use technology and must rely on their elfin magic!

Bryan seems confident but he's obviously nervous because suddenly he's smiling and doing this weird staccato laugh, "hahahahahaha."

Tom decides to throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings. Or does he?

Guess who finds this funny? "Hahahahahaha."

We then cut to a schmancy dining room where the guests are arriving. They include Padma, Gail, Tom, Thomas Keller, Wee Gavin, Traci des Jardins (who also won a James Beard Award but lost the title of Next Iron Chef), Alex Stratta, Daniel Boulud, Jerome Bocuse (son of Paul), and Timothy Hollingsworth, the French Laundry sous chef who represented the U.S. in the Bocuse d'Or in 2009.

Kevin's shiny mirrored platter comes out first, bearing Poached Lamb Loin, Sherry-Glazed Beet, and Asparagus in Sunchoke Cream. While they seem to enjoy the flavors, Keller says the dish seemed a bit "elemental" for the length of time and the caliber of chef.

Michael is next with his Salmon with Cauliflower Chickpea Tart and Zucchini Tzatziki. He calls it "Mediterranean" but that was declared a misnomer by most of the judges. And then Alex Stratta found a bone in his fish, which seemed to concern Padma more than most.

Bryan was next with Crusted Lamb Loin, Lamb Shank Crepinette, and Orzo Au Gratin. Bocuse liked the presentation but the lamb was undercooked and tough.

Eli's Sausage-wrapped Lamb Loin, Carrot Puree, and Tomato-Piquillo Canapé came out next. His lamb was seriously undercooked with unpleasant bits of raw fat. His meat was also sliced unevenly. Padma liked the flavors, and the judges agreed that the idea was good but the technical production was a failure.

Finally we have Jen's Salmon and Caviar, Shrimp Flan and Truffle, and Celery Root and Shiitake. The flavors and presentation were nice, but not well thought-out. And the salmon was unevenly cooked.

After the judges finish eating, the cheftestants were brought back out to face the diners. Gail said she was proud that they could produce the food they did with only 12 hours to shop, plan, and cook. After a round of applause, the chefs were told that the winner of this Elimination Challenge would be allowed to compete for a spot on the 2011 Bocuse d'Or team.

The chefs are then herded to the Glad Family of Products Stew and Booze Room where we get our fakeout scene which is all ooey-gooey with emotion. Bryan says they should be proud because they cooked for the best chefs in the world! And Tyler Florence. Jen says at the end of the day, even though they are competitors, they are all friends. Awwww. /fakeout

Padma comes in, far perkier than in any prior episode, to call *all* of the chefs to Judges' Table. Wee Gavin has been replaced by Jerome Bocuse for the occasion. The chefs were alternately complimented and castigated for their dishes and then sent back to stew. It seemed to me that none of the judges exactly agreed with each other, so this was going to be a tough elimination.

Finally, the cheftestants were brought out again. Tom told them he had incredible respect for all of them - but one of them had to go. First - the winner. Despite complaints about the over-simplicity of his dish, Kevin's lamb was perfectly cooked. He was given the 30K in poker chips, plus a Bocuse d'Or jacket and some reference materials he might need if he wanted to compete for a position on the 2011 team.

After Kevin leaves the room, they again tell the remaining chefs their shortcomings.

Not only was there a bone in Michael's fish, but his cucumber wasn't impressive. Now that should knock his ego down a few pegs!

Then Padma said the magic words, which this week included the name "Eli." He managed not to cry and snivel too much on his way out the door to be briefly reunited with his ladylove, Robin (who no doubt was already fighting off the attentions of DoucheyMike).

Next week: the Final Four do battle in wine country!

* 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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Monday, March 09, 2020

True Chesapeake Oyster Co

Full disclosure: I have been acquainted with one of the investors in True Chesapeake Oyster Company since the late 1980s. Also, Chef Zack Mills has long been a favorite person in Baltimore's rather small culinary world. He was very helpful with providing recipes for our third book, Maryland's Chesapeake, and is just an all-around good guy.

Sometime in the second half of 2018, I became aware that True Chesapeake Oyster Company, based in St Mary's County, was planning to open a restaurant in Baltimore, that Zack Mills, who had most recently been executive chef at Wit & Wisdom in the Four Seasons, was involved in the project, and the restaurant would be housed in the as-yet-to-be-redeveloped Whitehall Mill complex on Clipper Mill Road. The Local Oyster, a popular raw bar in Mt Vernon Marketplace, had also signed onto the project. I'm not sure there could be a better trifecta of concept-chef-location, especially not in Baltimore. The resurgence of the region's oyster population, due to the recent boom in oyster farming, has made everyone's favorite bivalve more popular than ever. Maryland native Mills was known for his ways with local seafood. And opening a restaurant along the banks of the Jones Falls has been a recent success story for several restaurateurs (see: Birroteca, La Cuchara, Gypsy's Truckstaurant, and Cosima).

The wait for True Chesapeake the Restaurant (as opposed to the Oyster Farm) seemed interminable, but it finally opened its doors in October of 2019. Mr Minx and I hit them up fairly early, not always a fair thing to do to a new restaurant, but we were eager to experience the food. We weren't the only ones; on our first visit, there seemed to be a pretty good crowd, which included local seafood expert John Shields and his husband John Gilligan, owners of Gertrude's at the BMA.

roasted half-shell oysters, Zack's crab soup
The high-ceilinged restaurant is rustically beautiful, decorated with large globe lamps wrapped in fishing nets, photographs by Maryland photographer Jay Fleming (who provided some of the photos in Maryland's Chesapeake), and lots of exposed brick and beams. There is a large bar that exists both in the front bar area of the restaurant and in the dining room, accommodating both casual and fine dining. Despite the clear separation between bar and dining room, the overall vibe of the restaurant is not formal. However, the food is serious.

the fish stick: fried blue catfish, mayo, capers, cornichons
Ingredients are sourced as locally as possible. Most of the oysters come from True Chesapeake's farm on St Jerome Creek in Southern Maryland, but the restaurant also offers those from other Chesapeake-region growers. Blue catfish and snakehead can also be found on the menu. Though they are damaging the ecosystem and consuming native fauna like rockfish, these invasive species are delicious. Eating them seems like the best way to eradicate them, after all, it worked for local shad and terrapin, which are still struggling to make a comeback in the Chesapeake area.

mushroom toast, crispy horseradish, tarragon, creme fraiche
Non-seafood dishes like the mushroom toast (above) and a regular vegetable-based entree, such as the one with roasted squash and turnips offered earlier this year, will please vegetarians. There are meat dishes too, including a classic burger topped with Hagerstown's Palmyra cheddar, for those folks who go to a seafood restaurant but don't like seafood. (Yes, I know they exist. I just don't understand them.)

crab cake, golden beet puree, creamed leeks, fennel salad
semolina fried oysters, braised swiss chard, caper hollandaise
spaghetti with clams
One of my favorite dishes at True Chesapeake is the house-made spaghetti with middleneck clams and bacon. The portion is app-sized, and fine to share if ordered with a few other apps. Honestly though, they should offer an entree-sized portion. It's one of the best pasta dishes in town.

panfried snakehead, cauliflower, beluga lentils, romesco
It was hard to find fault with anything on our two visits to True Chesapeake. Everything we tried was excellent, from the raw oysters to the duck fat-roasted monkfish. I will quibble, however, that the yogurt panna cotta dessert didn't contain enough gelatin to be an actual panna cotta, and the ice cream sundae dessert may have been a bit on the enormous side. (They were both delicious, though.)

panna cotta
I would be remiss not to mention the bar program, which is in the hands of Chelsea Gregoire. We were fans of her inventive beverages during her time at the Hotel Revival; True Chesapeake also benefits from her creativity. The restaurant got a boost when Gregoire was named Esquire Magazine's Beverage Director of the Year, which is rather a Big Thing and so well deserved. Congrats to Chelsea!

True Chesapeake Oyster Company
Historic Whitehall Mill
3300 Clipper Mill Road

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Monday, March 02, 2020

Nando's Hot Sauces #sponsored

There is a Nando's Peri-Peri approximately 500 steps from my office, and I have been there for lunch and dinner many times over the last few years. For those who aren't fortunate enough to have a Nando's nearby, it's an Afro-Portuguese restaurant specializing in chicken seasoned with peri-peri chile sauce. Even their mildest dishes have a bit of heat, but I like that. So when Nando's contacted me to promote their commercially-available line of bottled sauces, I was more than willing.

Though I must say that I was a tad disappointed that my shipment didn't include my favorite lemon & herb, I happily cracked open the bottles of garlic and medium-hot Peri-Peri sauce and started using them on everything from eggs to chicken wings and oatmeal (yes, we eat savory oatmeal on occasion). Mr Minx particularly enjoys the garlic version. A friend who is more into ass-blistering heat appreciated the extra extra hot sauce. All of Nando's sauce varieties are tangy with lemon, are halal, kosher, and non-GMO, and contain no artificial stuff. Most of them are also sugar-free.

There's no requirement that hot sauce needs to be used straight from the bottle. When peaches were still available (they still sorta are, but I mean good peaches) I used it in a fruity sauce for chicken wings.

There's enough acid and heat in any of the Nando's sauces to cut the sweetness of fresh, ripe, peaches (nectarines, apricots, etc.) yet still retain the fruitiness. If, of course, you'd want your sauce to be on the sweet side, you can add a bit of brown sugar or maple syrup. Now, that would be fantastic slathered on chicken and waffles, eh?

No real recipe. Just skin and cut up a couple three ripe peaches, put in a saucepan with a few tablespoons of water and cook over medium-low heat until the peaches are so soft that they fall apart. Add Nando's Peri-Peri sauce to taste, maybe some salt, brown sugar if you like. Whiz with a stick blender or put it in a food processor to get a smooth texture, then dollop on whatever you think needs peachy heat. Yum.

Nando's Peri-Peri sauces are available on

* 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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