Wednesday, April 26, 2023

My Poison Pen

I'm going to come right out and say it: writing positive reviews for good restaurants isn't fun. There are only so many ways of saying a dish works, that it's tasty, fun to eat, well-conceived, yadda yadda. There are myriad ways, however, of saying something is bad. While a meal might be unsatisfying during the eating aspect of it, the glee I get from trashing it verbally can more than make up for shitty food and worse service. The crazy comments a negative review can inspire are also pretty damn amusing. 

The highlighted text below contains links to my original posts, if you are so inclined to read them.

A long-ago visit to The Melting Pot in Towson left us wondering why anyone would pay good money to eat hot garbage. On the upside, the meal provided me with a fun-to-write blog post. Additionally, some unhinged TMP stan left an outrageous comment while posing as a West Coast food journalist. That got its own blog post.

Milan was a restaurant/club that was not well-received by its Little Italy neighbors. We ate there once. The food was actually pretty decent, but our first impression wasn't so great.

"Stepping into the restaurant, I was immediately struck by a smell. No, not of garlic and shellfish, nor of long-simmered tomato sauce, but of bathroom. A nasty chlorine+potty smell. Granted, we were the first people in the restaurant, and possibly when there are more people in the place and the kitchen is in full swing, the smell isn't noticeable. But it's really off-putting for that to be the first sensation encountered. (I eventually got used to it.)

"Once upstairs on the main floor, I saw that the glossy veneer from two years ago, when the restaurant was new, has faded. The black paint on the wood floor is worn off in paths, the paint on the ceiling has bubbled and cracked, and the tables and chairs show wear. One of the high-backed chairs, which doesn't quite match the others, is patched up with white tape. I'm guessing that the intended effect of the stark white decor with touches of scarlet is "modern" and "classy." And I suppose it is. Classy like a strip club with bottle service. It's a place where Pauly D and The Situation would be completely at ease, hanging out one on of the lounges covered with upholstery straight out of a '72 Nova."

From a write-up about a quick trip to NYC, which included dinner at A Voce in Columbus Circle:

"While the first course was successful, the pici that I ordered for my entree was a total disappointment. Pici is a hand-rolled pasta, somewhat like a thick spaghetti. Imagine making a snake of modeling clay by rolling it between your palm and a table top, and you've got pici. Because they're somewhat thick and about  4" long, picking them up with a fork is like wrestling with a bowl of tarantulas. They're not easily twirled, so a fork full had random ends hanging out in each direction, some of which were happy to slap me in the face as I brought the fork to my mouth. Eventually, I used my knife to cut them into shorter bits. In any case, awkwardness was the least of the dish's problems. The sauce was a bolognese in name only. It had an agrodolce (sweet and sour) thing going on that could have been quite delicious had the sauce had any other thing going on, too. The tiny nubbins of ground duck (which could have been any meat - turkey, rattlesnake) served as a textural element only, and I couldn't taste the cocoa in the pasta. After three or four bites, I was bored with the dish. Thankfully, it wasn't a large portion, so I pushed on and finished it, knowing that a doggie bag wouldn't safely survive the three-plus hours it would take me to get home."

Restaurant Week is always a fine opportunity to eat crappy food. I have always thought that the reason for Restaurant Week is to lure in new patrons with a reasonably priced menu, hook them with amazing food, and turn them into repeat customers who are willing to pay full price. Apparently that memo is only in my head. A 2008 RW meal at Tabrizi's had a high point or two, but was otherwise unexceptional.

"This unadorned plate of worms/bran buds/Plah-Doh after a trip through a Fuzzy Pumper play set is actually Mr Minx's chocolate mousse. Or, more accurately, chocolate ganache - melted chocolate whipped with heavy cream. If it was real mousse, with egg in it, I'd be very surprised. It tasted ok, but really wasn't worth the effort of washing out the ricer."
Another fun post to write involved our 2011 meal at Alchemy, in Hampden. It was Restaurant Week, and clearly Alchemy couldn't handle the extra-ness of it all. Though we normally eat on the early side of dinnertime, when the restaurant isn't busy, the kitchen still had a problem getting the courses out on time. The first course took forever, and the entrees came out while we were still eating our apps. Our waiter, who had promised to "take care of us," never gave us a second look, even while we were juggling five plates of food on a tiny table. The food itself was uneven, perhaps too ambitious. Dishes had multiple components that were under-seasoned or improperly cooked, though the proteins were pretty good. My dessert, a cabernet blackberry sorbet, was outstanding, and the only thing that would prompt my return to Alchemy. As it was, we never went back, and the restaurant closed a couple years later. If you check out the post, do read the handful of entertaining comments.

Occasionally, friends rave over a restaurant enough that Mr Minx and I have to try it. Over the years, I've learned that not all of my friends have good taste. One couple in particular loved Silver Spring Mining Company. I suppose lots of people like the place, as the restaurant has multiple locations. We, however, were not impressed. The food we ate was...edible...but not good enough for a return trip. I took umbrage to a mixed-protein creole masquerading as a jambalaya, and a "Reuben" sandwich that had rye bread and thousand island, but not corned beef, sauerkraut, or Swiss. Additionally, it contained a "razor-thin slice of nearly-white supermarket blandness that is a sin even during the Winter, but worthy of eternal damnation during tomato season." I stand by that opinion.

Some people think I'm a food snob, but that's not true at all. I just expect good-tasting food that is properly made and falls within standards that are acceptable to any local health department. My BFF's 50th birthday party was held at the Kentmorr, a seafood restaurant on the Eastern Shore. The only thing I remember about that meal is being served tepid crab soup, one of those half-and-half jobbies that was a mix of Maryland crab and cream of crab. Apparently, someone had accidentally turned off the burner under the pot of cream of crab, which remained on the stove long enough to get cold. Soup with cream and seafood in it. thanks. 

Occasionally an otherwise decent meal has dishes that fall short of expectations. And sometimes those dishes are pretty bad. But that makes them fun to write about.

Barcocina dip
"The Barcocina dip, listed on the menu as "an Oaxaca queso fundido" had a curious fluffy texture studded with odd rubbery and flavorless bits of chorizo, topped with a whole poached egg (not fried, as the menu indicated). While the yolk was runny, the white was very firm and required a knife to cut and distribute through the dip. The accompanying tortilla chips were weeny, as if made from taco-sized tortillas, and not big enough to scoop up a decent amount of dip."

While we adored Jesse Wong's Hong Kong, a restaurant on the lakefront in Columbia, we felt the opposite about his Hunt Valley restaurant. Jesse Wong's Kitchen served various Asian cuisines, including sushi, but wasn't particularly good at any of them. At least not the food we tried on our two visits. After our disastrous first meal, a lunch, I swore I'd never set foot in the place again. Then we received a gift card from my Dad's girlfriend, which made me eat my words. Sadly, they were tastier than the food at Jesse Wong's Kitchen. Turns out the gift card had no balance, and I had to pay for the crap we ate. I was pretty pleased when the restaurant closed, though I was sad that Hong Kong eventually shut down as well.

I'm sure I've written about several more poor restaurant experiences over the years, but I want to include just one more in this post. It's another Restaurant Week meal, this time at Oyster Bay Grille. The problem was not the meal itself (which was pretty good), but the way management handled a situation.  

"In a few moments, the man who had shucked the oysters came by, ostensibly to apologize. Now, let me give some pointers on apologies for restaurants. Restaurant Apologies 101, if you will. The very first thing to do is to say, 'I'm very sorry.' The next thing to do is to offer recompense. 'Let me take the oysters off the check,' or some such. And that's it. Then go away and let the diners finish their meal. Sticking around to make excuses like, 'they were hard to open,' and 'this is why we put oyster forks out' are not acceptable. (Especially when there was only one oyster fork present, and it was jammed into the rind of a lemon. Were we to wrestle it out and then share it?) You work at a damn oyster bar--learn how to shuck a fucking oyster. Bleeding customers are not happy customers, and Mr Minx spent the rest of the meal in a foul humor. Especially when another man, presumably an owner or manager who had been randomly wandering, came around to say he saw something going on at our table. He did not offer an apology or anything else; it seemed that he was there simply out of curiosity. When each of these men returned to our table yet again, individually, to ask 'you ok?' later on during the meal, it must have been the thought of liability niggling them. It just plain annoyed us." 

OBG's chef read my post and, in a comment, offered a free dinner. Because he knows how to treat guests properly. We declined, but I had enjoyed my rockfish entree enough to request the recipe for one of our books. 

Have you had any bad meals or bad service recently? I'd love to hear about leave a comment!

* 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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Wednesday, April 19, 2023

100 Best Restaurants in NY 2023

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells just dropped his ranked list of the 100 best restaurants in New York City. I was surprised to see that I've eaten in two of the Top Five, but only four overall: Le Bernardin (#3), Via Carota (#4), Empellon (#19), and Mercado Little Spain (#63). 

barely cooked scallop in brown butter dashi, at Le Bernardin
I took Mr Minx to Le Bernardin to celebrate his 50th birthday. That restaurant has maintained a 4-star rating from the Times since it opened in 1986,  has 3 Michelin stars, and is on the list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants (#44 at press time). It is likely the best restaurant the two of us will ever experience, and was featured here back in 1994. Another restaurant I've visited and have written about is Empellon. My experience there (granted, it was only one meal) earned a big fat "meh" from me; I am surprised to see the restaurant on a 100-best list. 

pappardelle with wild boar ragu at Via Carota, the watermelon salad,
and another dish that I do not remember particularly well
I dined in the other two restaurants during the pandemic, when blogging wasn't my focus. After seeing many positive Instagram posts and hearing a friend talk up Via Carota, she and I met up there on my first trip back to NY after a year-plus-long forced hiatus. It was a first stop on our usual Walking Tour of NYC Food Orgy, so we only ordered a few smallish dishes. I do remember that what I tried was delicious and would love to visit again.

morcilla and eggs at Spanish Diner
As for Mercado Little Spain, I've dined there three times so far, twice on my own in Spanish Diner, and once with my BFF at La Barra. (If that seems confusing, I should explain that Mercado is actually a food hall that has both stalls specializing in ice cream or wine and a couple of restaurant spaces with tables.) The convivial Spanish Diner is located in an expansive self-contained space with a long windowed wall that can be opened up onto the street in warm weather. The menu is short and very diner-y, with an emphasis on egg dishes. I enjoyed pork meatballs in a cuttlefish gravy on one occasion, and eggs with morcilla (blood sausage) on another. La Barra is within the main portion of the food hall itself. The menu focuses more on tapas-type items, with a few larger plates. Andree and I were particularly enthused about the pollo Catalana, a dish of chicken stewed with plums. Spanish Diner--a quick walk from the Javits Center--will probably get another visit from me in June when I'll be in the neighborhood for the Summer Fancy Food Show.

pollo Catalana with patatas bravas in the background, at La Barra in Mercado Little Spain
Four out of one hundred restaurants seems a tad pathetic. I think I need to bring my list of personal visits to NY's Top 100 Restaurants up to at least ten. Let's see how many I can achieve! I'd love to go to Tatiana (#1), though I never find myself in that part of town. CheLi (#8) looks incredible, as does Shukette (#20). Yoon Haeundae Galbi (#59) is down the street from where I normally stay when I'm in NY, so that should be do-able. Same for Cho Dang Gol (#40). I'd like also to visit Great NY Noodletown (#37), Dirt Candy (#60), and Casa Mono (#24). Heck, I'd eat pretty much any place on that list!

Have you been to any of Pete's Top 100? Leave a comment and let me know!

* 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, April 10, 2023

Restaurant Review - Golden West Cafe

Golden West Cafe has been around for a long time--I'm going to say at least 25 years. It started in a wee storefront on 36th Street on the Chestnut Avenue end of Hampden's popular strip of shops and eateries popularly know as "The Avenue." The menu was similarly tiny. I can recall my one visit to that location, during which I enjoyed a Thai-ish noodle dish with shrimp, while seated on the front porch with a friend. After a few years, the restaurant moved several blocks down the street with much larger digs and a huge menu of breakfast-all-day options, vegan items, and the flavors of the Southwestern US, plus burgers and a number of gluten-free items.

I'd eat there once in a while until a bajillion new restaurants opened in the neighborhood. Then I sort of forgot about it. Mr Minx and I ventured in a few years back but had a less-than-stellar experience. The dish I ordered was just shy of being too spicy to eat, and Mr Minx bit into a stone that was lurking in his black beans. The manager was very apologetic and comped hubby's meal, but we were wary of returning. 

Recently, however, I've been seeing Golden West get Instagram love for its vegan offerings. While far from vegan, I'm lactose intolerant and appreciate the ability to have a restaurant meal that doesn't require a handful of Lactaids to enjoy. I decided to give the place another chance. It's just down the street from my hair salon, and unlike some other Hampden restaurants that are dinner-only places, Golden West is open all day so I can pop in for lunch before my appointment.

On my first visit, I sat near the bar and ordered an oatmilk latte and the vegan French toast. I'm not sure why I did that, as I mostly eschew wheat bread; I suppose I was feeling indulgent. I was completely satisfied by the mountain of coconutty ciabatta and banana, which didn't even need the accompanying syrup. Unfortunately, I couldn't finish the mammoth portion and didn't want to carry soggy leftovers around for the rest of the day, so I didn't get a doggy bag. 

I did doggy bag about half of my next lunch of chorizo and eggs with hash browns. It's a burrito on the menu, but can be had as a bowl. I requested the spicy chili sauce and salsa on the side, just in case the sauce was too hot for my palate (it was actually pretty mild). I loved the locally made pork chorizo and would definitely order it again.

On another occasion, I was tempted by the El Supremo vegan chicken sandwich. The tofu-based patty is made by Little Fig, a vegan bakery in Rosedale, and has just the right texture and flavor to mimic a battered and fried chicken thigh. It was topped by a vegan mozzarella stick that actually oozed like real mozz. The flavor was more buttery than cheesy, but was a realistic facsimile of dairy cheese. The whole sandwich, which included tomato, lettuce, pickle, and something called "wild island sauce" was rather gigantic (as things tend to be at Golden West) but so good I finished it all. And didn't have to eat for 2 days afterward.

I went Whole Vegan again on my next visit, this time with Mr Minx. We shared the fried green tomatoes with vegan pimento cheese and basil-forward herb aioli. The cheese was pretty impressively cheesy, and I made sure to scrape up and eat every bit of it that fell off the messy tower of tomato onto the plate. 

I also had the "Mission Impossible" burger, which in addition to an Impossible patty included fried brussels sprouts, vegan bleu cheese sauce, lettuce, tomato, and pickle, Additionally, a vegan chicken drumette was impaled atop the whole thing. (Again, a lot of food.) It was delish. Also excellent was Mr Minx's over-the-top Hangover Burger, with 8 ounces of beef, cheddar cheese, guacamole, bacon, and a fried egg. It was messy enough to require a knife and fork, but hubby didn't seem to mind the extra effort.

One might say that I've become quite fond of Golden West Cafe over the past few months. I have a lunch date with a friend later this week and have already been perusing the menu ahead of time. Should I go vegan again, or should I opt for meat this time? Sweet breakfast food, or a savory lunch? I feel like it's hard to make a bad choice there.

Golden West Cafe
1105 W 36th St.
Baltimore, MD 21211
Rating: Recommended

* 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, April 03, 2023

Stuffed Peppers, Kung Pao-style

Kung Pao chicken is commonly found in both Chinese-American and more traditional Sichuan restaurants, and it's the dish that Mr Minx and I use to judge the quality of their food. If their kung pao is to our liking, chances are good we'll enjoy everything else. (The original Szechuan House in Timonium had terrible kung pao. We tried it several times--normally carry-out or delivery--and found we couldn't get past the elephant cage smell. We didn't particularly enjoy anything else from that restaurant, but they had free delivery....) Our favorite version of  kung pao chicken is well-balanced, features chicken thigh rather than breast meat, and is not too sweet or gloppy with sauce. The dish should be spicy but not incendiary, and we prefer it without ma la, the numbing and spicy sensation produced by the combination of chiles and Sichuan peppercorns.

The earliest versions of kung pao chicken that I recall eating were usually cloaked in a thick brown sauce that tasted of hoisin. They also contained cubed celery and sometimes chunks of green bell pepper. I rather enjoyed the celery, but the pepper ruined the dish for me. Unripe bell peppers tend to make everything they touch taste like them. Ripe peppers, on the other hand, are quite delicious and versatile vegetables. I still don't want them on my pizza or in my Chinese food, but I like eating stuffed peppers quite a bit. And of course I love kung pao chicken. Why not combine the two? So I did.

Kung Pao Peppers

6 bell peppers
4 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons hot broad bean paste or sriracha
1 tablespoon black Chinkiang vinegar (balsamic vinegar will do in a pinch)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
4 scallions, white and green parts, chopped (divided use)
1 stalk celery, chopped finely
1 lb ground turkey or chicken
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 star anise
2 cups steamed rice, at room temperature
1/4 cup chopped peanuts
Sriracha or chili crunch

Slice the tops off the peppers about half an inch down from the bottom of the stem, forming caps. Scrape out the seeds and rinse and dry the peppers. Place both parts of each pepper on a microwave-safe plate and microwave on high power for 10 minutes. (If your microwave is small, do this in two batches of 3 peppers each.) Set peppers aside until completely cool.

Combine the hoisin, bean paste or sriracha, vinegar, soy, brown sugar, and oyster sauce in a bowl.

In a large skillet, heat the vegetable oil and add the onion and 3/4 of the scallions. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes, then add the ground turkey. Breaking up the turkey with a wooden spoon, cook until meat is no longer pink and any liquid given up by the meat and veg has evaporated. Add the garlic, ginger, and star anise and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring frequently, until the meat and onions are beginning to brown in spots. Add the sauce and a half cup of water and toss to coat. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and allow to cook for about 5 minutes, so the meat gets a bit more tender and the sauce is absorbed. Scrape the turkey mixture into a bowl, cover and refrigerate until cold.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Scoop 2-3 tablespoons of rice into the bottom of each pepper. Fish out the star anise and divide the turkey evenly among the peppers, adding some peanuts as you go. Cover the filled peppers with their tops and place into a 9 x 13 baking dish. If there seems to be too much room around the peppers, roll  up some aluminum foil into balls or snakes and insert these between the peppers so they stay upright. Pour a small amount of water into the bottom of the baking dish and cover tightly with foil.

Bake 30 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 10 minutes. Serve with additional rice, if desired.

Serves 6.

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