Thursday, April 29, 2010

Last Night's Dinner

Pumpkin and sage ravioli topped with mushroom sauce, served over mixed greens, and baked artichokes stuffed with gorgonzola

Thoughts on the Food Network

My feelings on the Food Network chef "personalities":

  • Emeril Lagasse: arrogant chef stereotype (though entertaining)
  • Paula Deen: uses too much butter
  • The Neelys: so lovey-dovey it's gross
  • Rachel Ray: that voice makes me cringe. She also over-uses nutmeg - just saying
  • Ina Garten: always seems to be preparing dinner for her husband. Women's rights, anyone?
  • Giada de Laurentiis: love her.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Culinary World Tour - Prague

The infamous Prague ball. Yes I finished it in one sitting.

"Eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside."

-Mark Twain

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Singing on Stuart Street

A Boston classic since 1868, retaining its old time feel with its mahogony bar and pub atmosphere, Jacob Wirth Restaurant transports you back in time. Serving traditional German food and some American staples, a meal at Jacob Wirth is not complete without the beer. With a huge selection of beers and ales, and cask conditioned beers - richer and more full-bodied flavor - Jacob Wirth is a place people go to enjoy their drinks as much as the food.

Yet the German mixed grill fare is the most authentic food of the Rhine region that I've found in Boston; specialties include weiner schnitzel, bratwurst, and jaegerschnitzel - breaded veal tenderloin drowned in a Jaegermeister sauce. Not the place for you if you are a) a vegetarian, b) on a diet, or c) not a drinker. Though they do offer selected small plate versions of the popular dishes as well. Their epic German tasting menu, four courses each paired with a different beer, is not for the faint-hearted. You begin with their potato pancake (can be dry, but yummy with cinnamon roasted apples), followed by wiener schnitzel, then your choice of wurst (with sauerkraut of course), and then finally the German chocolate cheesecake (at which point I leave on a stretcher.) Of course they do Oktoberfest as well.

Friday nights at Jacob Wirth is when the festivities really happen, as the piano player Mel plays tunes of all the great classics, from the Beatles to Motown, and everyone in the dining room is invited to sing along. With song books with the lyrics at each table, the evening becomes a giant sing-along ... growing louder as the drinks are drained ... It's a great venue for celebrations of special occasions, and there's a birthday party nearly every week. Though keep in mind that the noise level in the spacious dining room can become a cacophony, so this is not the place for a quiet dinner (or even a conversation) on Friday nights.

So go with a group of friends, be sure to make reservations in advance since the tables in the dining room near Mel's piano are sure to fill up quickly, sample the fresh beers on tap, and get ready to sing! Finally, I like to finish with a "Winter Warmer," their coffee drinks such as the Winter Mint Coffee and Black Forest Coffee, the perfect boozy hot mugs to fill your belly before heading back out into the Boston cold. You'll leave happy.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cooking Tips: Mushrooms

When Cooking Mushrooms:
  • Do not wash with water to clean - remove grit with a paper towel

  • Typically, remove the stalks from shiitake mushrooms (keep them on for button mushrooms)

  • Slice mushrooms cap side down

  • When sauteeing, do not add salt to mushrooms immediately after they have gone in to the pan - wait for them to soften first or the salt will dry them out

Nice pairing: mushrooms and thyme

"Never eat more than you can lift."

-Miss Piggy

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Culinary World Tour - Salad

Salad with sliced foie gras and pansy petals over mixed greens

Salads Galore

Tired of the dull house salad? If looking for creative alternatives, the New York Times article "The Minimalist: 101 Simple Salads for the Season" is fantastic:
With vegan salads, vegetarian salads, salads with seafood, noodle salads, salads with grains, just salads galore, this list of has a ton of interesting ideas. I've tried some that experiment with fruit, such as peaches with tomatoes and carrots with blueberries, and can't wait to make more.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Art of American Indian Cooking

Despite American Indians having been in this land for centuries before the European immigration and consequential culinary influences, today people are generally unfamiliar with true American Indian food.  For one thing, it ranges the gamut, as tribes from different areas of the continent had different wildlife to work with -  you wouldn't find Navajo fry bread among the Mohicans of the Hudson River; they developed separate cultures and also disparate cooking styles.  Post-melting pot it's difficult to find truly authentic American Indian food, but it provides insight into the generations of the past.

The cookbook The Art of American Indian Cooking by Yeffe Kimball, an Oklahoma Osage (my people), supplies recipes from all over the country, divided by region.  The sections - Gardeners and Gatherers of the Southwest, Fisherman of the Pacific Northwest, Wandering Hunters of the Plains, Planters of the South, and Woodsmen of the East - share (literally) a taste of traditional American Indian life.  I've tried numerous recipes from the cookbook, from Zuni green chili stew to slow-baked vegetables, and found them all to be wonderfully flavorful.  There's so much more to American Indian cooking than corn on the cob and pumpkin pie.  Don't get me started on my feelings about Thanksgiving ... Whether red snapper and crabs from the South or simple stewed tomatoes from the East, the variety of recipes are full of unexpected surprises.

Of course there are issues finding some of the ingredients the recipes call for - as buffalo meat isn't easy to come by around here, I substitute beef, for example.  I've found that lean ground beef works fine for the venison-stuffed bell peppers recipe, and I add extra spice to season the meat and some chipotle seasoning to add a smoky flavor that the venison would provide; after baking the dish for an hour and a half, the pepper softens and releases its sweetness, which makes for a dramatic contrast with the spicy meat.  So good.

Photo: lunch at the cafe of the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., which has different menus for each of the tribal regions.  Soft squash and beans from the Southwest, and sweet potatoes with a hint of marjoram - hands down some of the best food you'll find in the city, let alone at a museum.  5 stars.

Now That's Asparagus

When serving asparagus, include the tips, I say - I prefer the whole stalk with it's range of flavor

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Factory Food

After the Boston Marathon, our team's annual tradition is victory dinner at the Cheesecake Factory - it's conveniently located across from the hotel and has the infamous extensive menu to cater to the many tastes of a large group and massive portion sizes to feed the athletes' appetites post-race. A logical choice.

But let's be honest, the Cheesecake Factory is in fact a factory: it manufactures food in massive quantities without the craftsmanship of an independent artisan (i.e. gourmet cuisine.) The endless menu is both its appeal and it's downfall - offering salads, pasta, chicken, fish, sandwiches, you name it, it's a phonebook there are so many pages. Yet the Cheesecake Factory's variety of options means that it makes literally hundreds of mediocre dishes rather than focusing on perfecting a select number, and churns it out in enormous quantities to mask the food's average quality and somewhat justify the prices.

The menu has diversified to include "low calorie" options - while 600 calories for a salad hardly seems worth mentioning, one must take into account the gargantuous regular salads; don't be fooled into thinking you're eating healthy by ordering a salad here, as they come on plates larger than your head and come dowsed in salad dressing. Always ask for dressing on the side. My longtime favorites at the Cheesecake Factory were always the salads - either the Santa Fe or the Chinese Chicken Salad - but found that the leftovers often wilted before I could finish it all. Last night I opted for an "appetizer-sized" salad to avoid this, and of course it was still large. And not thrilling.

The main issue with the Fresh Vegetable Salad, I felt, was there was frankly too much lettuce in proportion to the rest of the vegetables; the attempt to bulk up the dish resulted in some less-than-fresh romaine. The pieces of green beans and asparagus were too small, and while the combination of roasted beets and white cheddar was interesting, the taste was dwarfed by lettuce. I was intrigued by the salad's pomegranate vinaigrette and liked the tang it provided, but found the raw edamame out of place, a failed attempt at Asian fusion. Luckily there are still dozens of other salads to try ... right?

So why do people wait for two hours at a crowded, noisy restaurant with the same decor as every other location of the chain, to be bombarded by 200 choices on the menu and in a panic end up picking something because they see the server coming back? That's easy. The cheesecake.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cooking Tips of the Day

  •  When making pasta, always salt the water after it has come to a boil.  
  • Never overcook pasta - only serve "al dente" (when using dry pasta, because fresh pasta is already soft to begin with.)
  • Do not drain pasta too much - it must be glossy with moisture.
  • When tossing pasta with olive oil, use good quality olive oil - it makes all the difference

On Pasta

"Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti."

-Sophia Loren

Can't Cook? Try Eurostoves

My roommate Jess tried a cooking class at Eurostoves Culinary Centre in Beverly yesterday, and gave it rave reviews. Eurostoves offers a variety of culinary instruction classes, such as Baking Basics, Healthy Dinners, Knife Skills, Latin Flavors, Cake Decorating, Great Grilling, Couples Cooking Mediterranean Food & Wine, and Girls' Night Out Mexican Fiesta. Yesterday's class, "Soups and Breads," focuses on these two specifically, honing bread baking and soup making skills.

"I had never considered making bread before- it had always intimidated me," Jess told me. "But they taught us how to do it, breaking it down to make it really easy." The class learned focaccia bread (used with good-quality olive oil and a hint of pesto), challah (wonderfully dense and sweet), olive bread (a salty delight), and classic French bread. I tried them when she brought them home afterwards and can attest to their excellence. For soups they made Hungarian mushroom soup, New England fish chowder, and butternut squash bisque - since the squash wasn't in season it lacked the right sweetness so they added cannoli beans to thicken it, she told me. The chef instructor also taught her the proper way to cut an onion, which she'd never learned, and she made a great minestrone with crisp vegetables (zucchini, tomatoes, green pepper) and cannoli beans, which really hit the spot this cold and rainy weekend.

If you lack confidence in the kitchen or are simply looking for a fun afternoon, take a class at Eurostoves - you'll go home satisfied.


Fresh pasta makes an incredible difference to a dish, and it's not easy to find good quality pasta in the States. My recommendations for the best places to buy pasta in the Boston area are:

Dave's Fresh Pasta: (Somerville) food and wine shop with handmade fresh pasta and ravioli, including spaghetti, linguine, angel hair, fettucine, pappardelle and lasagna noodles. Choose from whole wheat, spinach, pumpkin, black pepper, sundried tomatoes, artichokes, lobster, and basil pasta. Truly authentic.

Russo's Market: (Watertown) "the food lover's food store," Russo's has fresh produce, artisan cheeses, meat and charcuterie, and imported specialty products. My international friends swear by it.

Brunch On This

Sunday Brunch is not to be taken lightly in my house. Some of the best brunches I've had in Boston have been at:

Splurge: 29 Newbury- adorable and chic bistro on Newbury Street. Go all out and order a mimosa.
Sterling: Zaftigs- Brookline Jewish deli (see previous review.)
Steal: Busy Bee- "greasy spoon" diner near St. Mary's on Beacon Street, where the coffee is hot, the waitress barks at you to spit out your order, and the eggs are the best in town. Not to mention dirt cheap. Just don't ask where the bathroom is. You don't want to know.

Brunch today at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge was mediocre at best in comparison to other hotel brunch buffets. The Sonesta offers the usual American brunch spread: bland scrambled eggs, greasy bacon, grade B sausage, salty hash browns, dry croissants, dull muffins, and fruit. The French toast with bananas foster was over-battered so the bread was so thick the sauce could not penetrate the tough outer layer and saturate it, as one would like; and the bananas were not carmelized enough for a full, lasting flavor. I found that covering fresh pineapple with a layer of bananas foster created a nice combination, the warm sauce seeping through the cool fruit - try it. Savory or sweet, brunch needs to be satisfying.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Fugakyu Sushi

Tour de Brookline Sushi

Brookline has a remarkably high concentration of sushi restaurants in a close proximity, so there is a plethora of choices to from. Here's a quick review

Good quality sushi in a tiny little place on Harvard Street - make reservations because it fills up fast on weekends. Sit at the bar and you'll get a front row seat to watching them make the sushi, so you know it's fresh. Specialties include such innovative creations as Black Pearl Maki, Lady in Red Maki, Messy Caterpillar Maki, Black Diamond Maki, and The Volcano - so many choices to choose from it's hard to decide!

Genki Ya
All-natural and organic sushi, Genki Ya offers a brown rice option for every roll, and an extensive nigiri menu. Specials include the Boston Flower roll (King salmon, shrimp, flying fish roe, cucumber, mayo, green vegetables) and the Healthy Ichiban roll, playing into Genki Ya's health-conscientious marketing approach. Their sushi also shines in presentation, often decorated with tropical flowers on the plate. Beautiful food - gets me every time.

The high-end sushi restaurant in the area, Fugakyu is the self-described "House of Exquisite Elegance" with the prices to match. Yet the Fugakyu experience is truly superb, with traditional Japanese rooms with sliding screen doors for a more intimate dining experience. The sushi is of course top-notch, with such menu items as oysters and wine pairings, such as assorted sashimi paired with pinot blanc to accentuate the succulent fresh fish. This is definitely the place for special occasions.

Mr. Sushi
Decent sushi at an affordable price. Though definitely average compared to the nearby places, it still satisfies the craving (when I get the itch for sushi I must scratch it!) My favorites there are the spicy tuna and hamachi (yellowtail).

Sushi Express
As cheap as it sounds. The quick-fix option for carry-out on a work lunch break, not the nice sit-down dining experience of the others. They use imitation crab and don't roll always roll the sushi well. Mediocre at best.

One of Brookline's best-kept secrets. This tiny hole-in-the wall place is tucked on a side street off Beacon so it's out of the limelight compared to the rest, and the sushi shines. Tsunami uses fresh fish flown in from open-ocean fisherman rather than fish farmers so it's good quality. The sushi chefs also experiment with fruit, using cantaloupe, orange, pineapple and mango in their Hawaii rolls, creating a delectable contrast between the sweet tropical fruit and salty seaweed and soft scallops and fish. Not to mention its one of the few places in Brookline still BYOB, so you can stop by the wine shop around the corner on your way. Specials include Boston-themed rolls such as the Patriots, Celtics, and Red Sox makis, torched in Tsunami's special sauce. The secret ingredient? They'll never tell.

Savoring sushi

Chocolate Kahlua Cake

I tried out this recipe recently and found it incredibly moist and satisfying:

Chocolate Kahlua Cake

2/3 cup flour (recipe calls for pastry flour but I all-purpose works fine) 1/4 cup cocoa
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup low fat milk (vanilla soy milk works as well)
1/4 cup canola oil
3 tbsp. kahlua (I doubled this and also added Bailey's)
3 tbsp. brewed coffee (or 2 tbsp. ground coffee to give it a real kick!)

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup evaporated milk

Raspberries or strawberries to garnish

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees, coat 9 x 13" pan with canola oil, dust with flour
2) Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, sugar in bowl
3) Combine egg, milk, oil, kahlua, coffee - beat with wire whip; add dry ingredients, mix to combine
4) Pour into pan, bake 10-12 min. (I found that with my oven this was not long enough and even after baking an extra five minutes the center of the cake was still gooey, with a molten cake uncooked consistency. It was fantastic, though.) Cool.
5) To make ganache, place chocolate chips in double boiler (I place them in a metal bowl over a stovetop pot of boiling water) to melt, stirring with a wooden spoon. Pour evaporated milk over chocolate, let sit five minutes, whisk. Cool and spread over cake.
Note: cake and ganache must be cool before icing the cake, otherwise it will melt and not have the proper consistency.

*Ganache may be one of the most lovely things on Earth. Just saying.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Finally, Finale

In keeping with this week's dessert themed-discussion, I must recommend Finale Desserterie and Bakery, with locations in Boston, Brookline and Cambridge. Finale markets itself on creating the dessert experience; while it does ofter small-sized savory plates, the menu proclaims, "at Finale we start with desserts because that's what they're famous for." The pairing menu focuses on matching fine wines and (girlie) cocktails with artfully-designed plated desserts, touting dessert as the main course of the meal.

For good reason - the desserts truly are gorgeous. From French chocolate mousse and creme brulee to parfaits, tiramasu and the most elegant Boston creme pie around, Finale has a fine selection. The best-selling item the molten chocolate cake is made to order, with warm Vahlrohna sauce that seeps like lava from the gooey center, and is also offered in the Sharable Desserts Magnanimous Molten more generous portion size, served a la mode with a gelato trio. Don't let this size distinction fool you - even the desserts on the regular menu are enough to be shared by two (or more people), and the Sharable Desserts are downright shameful. Which os good, since the prices aren't cheap here - diners pay not only for the presentation of the plated desserts, but the sophisticated atmosphere that Boston's only "Desserterie" provides. Finale is a popular place for dates, and looking around the Brookline location's dining room it is predominantly couples (followed closely by groups of teenage girls celebrating birthdays.) While the romantic ambience can be charming if that's what you're in the mood for, definitely don't come here after a bad breakup, especially not around Valentine's Day. The pink and red heart-filled decor can be nauseating. If you're really needing a chocolate fix but don't want to endure the obnoxious canoodling of the diners around you, Finale has a carryout bakery that offers an array of mouth-watering cakes and pastries, including my personal favorite items not offered on their sit-down menu: the Chocolate Symphony and the Dark Chocolate Decadence, one of the densest, fudgy, flourless cakes imaginable - so rich that it's hard to finish. Order milk with this one, ladies.

The savory sensations menu includes cheese plates, crab cakes, salads and white bread pizzas - though good, they are not filling as Finale chefs clearly focus their attention to detail on the desserts. People don't come here for the crab, and they know that.

So if you're looking for a classy date to take someone on a special occasion, or simply satisfying late-night chocolate cravings (Finale stays open until 11:30 on weekdays and 12:30 on weekends), Finale is the place to go.

4/5 stars.

*Tip: try the hot chocolate!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

An Ode to Nutella

When discussing my chocolate addiction I think commentary on nutella is necessary - it may be the most highly addictive food there is. I first discovered nutella on my first trip to Italy when I was 18, where I found it was a typical accompaniment to bread an breakfast pastries, like butter or jam. Once I tried it, there was no going back.

Nutella was developed by Pietro Ferrero (of Ferrero Rocher) during World War II, as a way of stretching a dwindling supply of chocolate. Hazelnuts are plentiful in the Piedmont region of Italy, so they were ground and mixed with cocoa and milk to create this creamy spread, which could be produced in large quantities. The chocolate-hazelnut combination caught on, and soon people were hooked. (Try it - you'll see why.) They continued to make nutella after rationing was over and it became a common household item in Italy throughout the 20th century, though it was hard to find outside Europe until it started to become more popular elsewhere in recent years. Knock-offs, such as the Spanish product Nocilla or the French-manufactured version, which uses more sugar (we call it "faux-tella") just aren't the same. The best is the original Italian.

I began to see nutella advertisements on American television in the past year, signifying its transcendence into the U.S. market. What was once considered a novelty item is now becoming increasingly used in American kitchens. And what's not to love - nutella is literally half fat, with one of the richest tastes imaginable. I personally prefer it paired with lighter foods, such as fresh strawberries or bananas, though I've seen it eaten on white bread, (even with cereal) and of course on crepes. I find that once someone has a taste of nutella, they're hooked.

Sugar Bitches

To say that I have a sweet tooth is an understatement - I am the first to admit that I am a sugar addict, chocoholic, dessert-loving princess. So I love this time of year, the birthday-filled season in spring, cake after cake and ice cream ...

Though making a scrumptious dessert is hardly rocket science, especially with today's ready-made brownie mixes, I've never been the slice 'n bake kind of girl. Why take the easy route on the heavenliest of all courses, the grand finale, the best part? (Acknowledgement to my friend Kate who is a pastry chef is due here, as her work is not easy!) But follow a good recipe, and you too can make cookies like Betty. My grandma Betty or Betty Crocker, take your pick.
Among the baking cookbooks I've used I have to say that Sugar Bitches (Just Desserts) is one of the best; don't be fooled by the provacative title, this book is nothing but good recipes and no fluff. Organized by cakes, cookies, pies, etc., the recipes are easy to find and easy to make, no fancy advanced cooking techniques here. Not to mention there is a whole chapter on cheesecakes, including a white chocolate cheesecake (always make the crust from scratch, please!) that can't be beat. If there's one thing I know, it's desserts - this book is great.
Tip: after baking a cheesecake, turn off the oven and open the oven door to release the heat slowly, rather than immediately transferring to a cooling rack - this will prevent cracks from forming on top of the cake. I'm not a huge fan of water baths, but they do work. If your cheesecake does crack, cover the top with a thin layer of whipped cream to cover it up and voila! est magnifique.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Family Affair

Grilled shrimp with homemade pesto, asparagus, bell pepper, wheat bread

A Family Affair

Last night for dinner we made grilled salmon in an apricot mustard glaze, sauteed asparagus, a spinach salad with strawberries, dried cranberries, and goat cheese, served with angel hair pasta and fresh Clear Flour bakery bread - I call it my three favorite S's: salmon, spinach, and strawberries. Delectable.

Yet I can hardly take credit for developing my culinary habits alone, as I come from a (large) family of epicurean enthusiasts. Here are some photos my cousin Zephyr took of similarly-themed meals he cooked:
Grilled salmon with sauteed spinach with garlic and nutmeg, green beans with thyme, whole wheat bread

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sweet Surprises

Sibling Rivalry's caramel chocolate mousse cake - almost to beautiful to eat ... almost.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Sibling Rivalry Experience

Salmon and spinach wrapped in puffed pastry, served with rosemary tomato coulis

Warm parmesan garlic flan with wild mushroom and garlic confit in lemon brown butter

Try it Two Ways

When cooking there are so many ways to use the same foods and produce entirely different dishes, as Iron Chef shows. Cooking contests have become all the rage, especially with the popularization through television programming on the Food Network and Bravo's hit show Top Chef. The appeal is in the unpredictability, and the chance for chefs to show their creativity and delve into a gastronomic world of infinite possibilities.

Sibling Rivalry in Boston's South End took the concept of culinary competition and turned it into a happening restaurant, as brother chefs David and Bob Kinkead created a "dueling" menu that showcases their talents with different interpretations of the same seasonal ingredients. The dinner menu literally has two columns, one for each chef, to show the parallels and variations between each's selections. For example, while one will have duck agnolotti (a kind of ravioli) in a sage marsala sauce, while the other will make crispy pressed duck with cipollini onions and sour cherries - same bird, different takes. They also experiment using ingredients in different courses, as Chef David makes a Moroccan style lamb appetizer, while Chef Bob does a grilled paillard of lamb with rosemary as an entree. Alternatively, they also use similar cooking techniques to different ingredients as well, such as the Asian tuna tartare with pickled ginger and spicy aioli and the ancho chile steak tartare with pickled cabbage, a Southwestern-inspired version of the dish. Never lacking in creativity, Sibling Rivalry's menu changes regularly depending on what's in season, so the specials are always exciting.

Sibling Rivalry offers a pre-fixe menu to give diners the chance to experience three courses of culinary genious, which I highly recommend. Described as "modern American cuisine," Sibling Rivalry demonstrates the melting pot effect of U.S. culture - and food - blending different ethnic cuisines with a selection that includes mussels in Thai curry, Southwestern scallops, Korean style short ribs, classic Italian gnocchi, Vietnamese crispy fried squid, and Alaskin halibut, to name a few. Every single dish is well-executed, with a classy presentation to match the restaurant's posh atmosphere and swanky location, and of course cocktails to match. Yet Sibling Rivalry doesn't overdo it, because they know they don't have to. Minimalist decor, a good (yet not too lengthy and overwhelming) wine selection, top-notch (but not snobby) service, and most importantly, good food.

Who wins the rivalry? The diner, for you can't go wrong with a meal here.

4.5/5 stars.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Culinary World Tour - The Best ... I Ever Had

The Best ...

Breakfast: Stockholm, Sweden
Croissant: Barcelona, Spain
Crepe: Montreal, Quebec
Caffe latte: Madrid, Spain
Cappuccino: Venice, Italy
Tea: Fez, Morocco
Wine: Tuscany, Italy
Beer: Brussels, Belgium
Bread and cheese picnic: Paris, France
Fresh fish: Essaouira, Morocco
Shrimp: Shreveport, Louisiana
Paella: Valencia, Spain
Indian curry: Brick Lane - London, UK
Malaysian food: Penang - Washington, D.C.
American (cheeseburger, milkshake, fries): Cheeburger Cheeburger - Sanibel Island, Florida
Nachos - my dad's
Fajitas: Cozumel, Mexico
Enchiladas: New Mexico
Pizza: New York City
Calzone: Rehoboth, Delaware
Souvlaki: Athens, Greece
Falafel: Paris, France
Sushi: San Francisco, California
Vegan food: Moosewood - Ithaca, New York
Gelatto: Rome, Italy
Ice cream sundae: Charcoal Pit - Wilmington, Delaware
Tiramisu: Florence, Italy
Cannoli: North End, Boston
Pastry: Prague, Czech Republic
Chocolate: Azrou, Morocco (from Switzerland)

Best Falafel I Ever Had

From a stand in the Marais

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Good Food Enjoyed in Good Company

The motto of the growing restaurant chain Lebanese Taverna in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area is "Good Food Enjoyed in Good Company." For me that is certainly the case, as I have returned to this restaurant when visiting family over the years. The Abi-Najm family immigrated to the U.S. during the Lebanese civil war and opened Lebanese Taverna in Arlington in 1976, and it grew steadily from there, evolving from a small family-owned restaurant to a regionally-known name. They now have locations in Washington D.C., Pentagon City, Baltimore, Silver Spring, Rockville, and the most recent in Bethesda, Maryland. In the 90s they opened the Lebanese Taverna Market, which sells authentic Lebanese food and specialty products, expanding to include catering and cooking classes to teach the art of Lebanese cooking to an American audience.

The Bethesda location is prime real estate in the newly-developed commercial district Bethesda Row, with a pedestrian walkway to foment foot traffic. The restaurant decor jives with this escalating sense of sophistication, simple and modern with Middle Eastern decorating touches, such as the wall of large colored lanterns to accent the otherwise muted tones of the dining room, with cedar and ceiling-high windows overlooking the street. I came during one of the heaviest tourist weeks of the year for the area, as early April is primetime season for when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Accordingly Lebanese Taverna had a "Cherry Blossom Special" of the week, a rack of lamb, marinated with garlic, rosemary, and zaatar over a morello cherry cabernet reduction with fava beans and grape tomatoes - the pink lamb meat and red cherry sauce and tomatoes to celebrate the blooming trees! The dish uses holistic, prime Elysian field rack of lamb, and the Lebanese chefs know their lamb. The menu includes lamb done many ways: stewed lamb, braised lamb shank, lamb loin, lamb chop, spicy sausage, and in casseroles. Now that's options.

In a proper Lebanese meal you begin with the mezze, which in Arabic means snack and in the Eastern Mediterranean is a selection of appetizers or small dishes, similar to the Spanish tapas concept. The mezze menu includes the crispy spicy sausage, which was too charred for my taste and used to fatty a cut of meat, stuffed grape leaves, and m'saka, eggplant ratatouille cooked with chickpeas and tomatoes, my personal favorite. The falafel was decent (but I've had better - I've had some fabulous falafel) but needed more cumin and less green onions. The complimentary pita was stale.

The service was poor; though the server was friendly she messed up the order, and the food preparation was poorly timed and brought to the table irregularly, so the grilled vegetable side dish came out with the mezze and had grown cold by the time our entrees arrived. There was a particularly long wait between the courses - though perhaps a cultural difference as non-American patrons are used to taking more time to digest, it was still problemmatic with the parking meter running. When the main meals finally came, it was worth the wait, as they were all well-executed. The mouzat (braised lamb shank) was slow-cooked in a hearty tomato sauce with burghul pilaf so that it fell off the bone, and the sharhat ghanam (grilled lamb loins) were tender, juicy cuts of meat served in a tasty three-green herb sauce with a crisp aftertaste with a hint of mint to cleanse the palate. The kasteleta (the dish's lamb chop version) was also well-executed; no part of that lamb was spared. The fatteh, warm yogurt casserole with chickpeas, pomegranate seeds, and pine nuts, could be made with eggplant, chicken, or lamb (of course), and though plated attractively it had too much yogurt and not enough pomegranates,in my opinion the best part since they literally explode in your mouth. The same dish is better at nearby restaurant Bacchus. For the seafood friendly, the salmon meshwi, grilled with vegetables and served with tomato salsa and (undercooked) burghul pilaf, was also well-received. The menu is also family-friendly, catering to the young families in the Bethesda clientele, with a "Little Ones" selection with pita pizzas for the kids. This doesn't help the restaurant noise level, however, as the spacious dining area already creates a cacophony when the place is at full capacity. On a Friday night in Bethesda, it's always full - and for good reason.

Food: 4/5 stars.
Ambience: 3.5 stars.
Service: 2/5 stars.
Experience: priceless.

Dinner at the Plaza

Had Eloise lived in Boston, it would have been at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel. A symbol of Boston's long history of high society, the regal Fairmont holds catered events from weddings to conferences, so the banquet food is top-notch. The menu selection for events has butler passed hors d'oeurvres, both hot and cold options and demitasse soups to choose from; as well as a salad course; dinner entrees ranging from fish, fowl, lamb veal and pork, and vegetarian; and of course an assortment of visually stunning desserts. Despite the challenges of cooking for hundreds at a time - any caterer can tell you it is no easy feat - the Fairmont Copley Plaza chefs execute it well, making it one of the tastier hotel meals one can find in Boston.
At our annual Gala Tuesday night we began with a reception in the Venetian Room, which is decorated with crystal chandeliers and bronze marble columns to create a stately atmosphere. The passed hors d'oeurvres selected for the event were the frenched baby lamb chops with tumeric cucumber raita (a unanimous crowd favorite), spanikopita, jumbo gulf shrimp, and vegetarian spring rolls with sweet chili plum dip. While the shrimp and spring rolls are typical appetizers for these sort of receptions, the Fairmont also offers more adventurous options, such as seared foie gras with Indian pudding, spiced cake, pomegranate syrup and crispy fried shallots, and tuna tartare served in a spoon with a lotus root chip (a glorified potato chip but sounds so much more glamorous, doesn't it?) And of course you can choose caviar - with the "blue-blood" philanthropist guests, the menu selection is an indication of the sponsoring organization's financial standing, and even the food at the Gala signifies standing and sends a message. With the recent economic downturn, foundation and nonprofits are stretched financially even more and a new wave of "modest cuisine" has risen in popularity, as venues find more interesting ways to present the stereotypically boring chicken dinner (at $75 a head in comparison to the $95 rack of lamb, it's understandable and even expected.) The Fairmont Copley Plaza has responded to this trend with "rustic" themed meals, such as the grilled chicken breast with basil, Tuscan white bean and plum tomato stew, which years ago would have appeared dowdy but is increasingly in vogue. The passed hors h'doeurvres, likewise, include some topically provencal choices such as cream of cauliflower soup with morel mushrooms, or crispy polenta and oyster mushroom brochette with red pepper almond pesto. Though I found this considerably more interesting than the blase crab cakes and shrimp cocktails, ultimately we opted for the more "safe" appetizers, to please the masses rather than take a chance on a more risky dish. In the past we've chosen the field mushroom tartlet with marscapone creamed leeks, which had grown cold by the time it circulated the reception (unlike shrimp it does not keep well at room temperature), and the Vermont maple cured salmon bar with lemon and caper remoulade, which frankly was a bit slimy. The lamb chops, on the other hand, are reportedly good every year.
The Gala dinner was held in the Grand Ballroom, the elegant thirty-foot high room with balconies, mirrors, and gilded columns, creating a supremely luxurious atmosphere. The wait staff provides excellent service, well-trained in managing large-scale events and maneuvering serving and clearing while the program, including speeches, films and live performances, goes on during the meal. The salad was the picturesque California field greens with roasted yellow and red peppers, kalamata olives, hearts of palm and shaved parmesan with a light fresh herb and champagne vinaigrette; the dressing is served on the side (for all the calorie-conscious) and the salad was presented in a lovely bouquet-style formation, as charming to look at as it was to eat. In past years we've selected the salad with young spring mixed greens, Belgian endive with roasted baby beets and crumbled goat cheese, which is also excellent, using only fresh vegetables - no wilted lettuce in your salad at the Plaza.
For the dinner entree we had the chicken and mushroom wrapped in puffed pastry with a bordelaise sauce, served with steamed asparagus and carrots that added a nice touch of color to the plate. Though bordelaise (a French sauce made with dry red wine, bone marrow, and demi-glace,) is traditionally served with beef or steak, the rich flavor created a heartier effect that brought out the mushrooms and buttery puffed pastry, so it was incredibly filling. Though I would have preferred sliced mushrooms to the ground mushroom layer with the chicken, the steamed vegetables on the side were perfect, not overdone like so frequently happens, and married well with the bordelaise as well. The vegetarian option, wild mushroom ravioli with fennel puree, sauteed organic mushrooms and and sauce vierge, was also delectable. The hint of fennel accented but did not overpower the dish, as I find raw fennel often does, and the large mushroom-filled ravioli had an almost meaty texture. What made it truly exceptional was the sauce vierge, (which in French means "virgin sauce"), made from olive oil, lemon juice, chopped tomatoes, and freshly chopped basil. This rendition had thyme and chives, nicely infused into the oil to permeate the dish and create a real zing in combination with the lemon, for a light and savory effect. The secret ingredient: a hint of crushed coriander seed adds a certain "ooh la la!" and there you have a mouth-watering meal.
For dessert we had the seasonal berries with mousse served in a chocolate tulip cup, which is surprisingly light as it is mostly strawberries, raspberries and blackberries (I honestly would have preferred even more chocolate mousse), and of course comes in a charming presentation for this springtime Gala. The Fairmont dessert menu also includes such tasteful dishes such as the apricot and peach trifle, the lemon pyramid with raspberry, and the lavendar peach tart. Of course they also have the classic individual Boston cream pie, in honor of good ole Beantown. With their desserts you really can't go wrong.
After the Gala we went for drinks at the bar of the esteemed Oak Room, hailed as "a brilliant gemstone in a magnificently restored antique setting." The dark interior of the oak-paneled room creates an essence of a former era - honestly it feels like dining on the Titanic - with classical piano playing for the patrons' entertainment. A glass of beer from the bar comes with a "complimentary" soft pretzel, (aka the prices are jacked up even more than a typical overpriced hotel bar), so even beer on tap or a glass of wine there can burn a hole in your wallet. Still, the cocktails are first-rate, such as the heavenly espresso martini that's a whole dessert in a glass, in my opinion. Definitely not a grungy dive bar. The Oak Room is the perfect place to relax - with a cigar and a glass of scotch if you really want to fit in - after a long night at the Plaza.
The Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel epitomizes the luxury of Old Boston, from its decor to the fine dining, making it an excellent venue for holding an event.
4/5 stars.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

On Gastronomy

"Gastronomy: the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man's nourishment. The subject of gastronomy is whatever can be eaten; its direct end is the conservation of individuals; and its means of execution are the culture which produces, the commerce which exchanges, the industry which prepares, and the experience which invents means to dispose of everything to the best advantage."

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Physiologie Du Gout, 1826

Happy Easter

Our family traditional brunch is an Eastern European menu: Polish kielbasa, Slovak colutche (see apricot and cherry-filled pastries above), ham, hard-boiled eggs, and of course, candy. Living in London during Eastertime gained me a profound appreciation for Cadbury's, furthering my aspirations to become a true chocolate connoisseur.

"Man cannot live on chocolate alone. But woman can."

Happy Easter!

My Peeps

Washington Post Magazine Peeps Diorama Contest favorites:

Friday, April 2, 2010

Pizza Party

Pizzas I made from the Clear Flour bakery's fresh dough - caprese with mozzarella, tomato, and fresh basil (before and after baking), and pizza topped with spinach, sundried tomatoes, artichokes ...

Chili in the City

When visiting a new city it's always best to ask the locals where to find the best grub. Go to Washington, D.C. and anyone will point you to Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street, the capital's best hole-in-the-wall late-night diner that's popularity has grown to cultlike status. Ben's retains its '60s diner style feel, having opened in 1958, as well as the local color and "dirty spoon" grunginess that makes it a memorable experience; picture a classic diner counter with swiveling stools and soul music blasting in the jam-packed place, and you've got the Chili Bowl scene. Though at times the crowds can be overwhelming - the line out the door on a sunny spring afternoon like today is just as bad as the late-night scene since Ben's is open until 2 am weekdays and 4 am on Fridays and Saturdays - as Ben's attracts all kinds of clientele, from the longtime neighborhood families to the wide-eyed tourist thrown in the mix. The restaurant certainly wins no awards for cleanliness or service, but the food is just downright good. Ben's chili is just spicy enough to make you sweat, served in cups, bowls, on chili dogs, chili fries, you name it. It's Ben's famous half-smokes with chili sauce that sets this joint above the rest, as the sausage's smokey flavor far surpasses the run-of-the-mill hot dog, and the top-secret recipe of Ben's Chili Sauce pairs with it perfectly. Now that's a good all-American meal.

The walls are adorned with photos of the famous patrons to grace Ben's Chili Bowl with their hungry bellies, from Bill Cosby and Denzel Washington to politicians Hillary Clinton and of course a huge signed Barack Obama (it is our nation's capital, after all.) Obama reportedly loves Ben's chili, and who wouldn't - it's the real food you're craving. Go patriotic? Go Ben's.

3.5/5 stars (and four chili bowls!)

Pati's Mexican Table

An excellent fellow blog I highly recommend is Pati's Mexican Table, written by a cooking teacher, food writer, and chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. Pati provides "the basics" of Mexican cooking techniques, and explanations of kitchen tools, along with recipes from soups to salsas, and her trademark "anytime antojos."

The minute I read her words, "Avocados are, to me, amongst the most sensuous, luscious and luxurious of ingredients" I knew I like Pati - now that's sexy.

For the Love of Bread

When bread is good it's really good. My go-to neighborhood bakery is Clear Flour Bread, a homey corner shop from which the aroma of fresh baking bread wafts through the air, and a line of eager patrons spills out the door and wraps around the block every weekend. If I need bread to accompany a dinner I'll drop by on my way home from work; Clear Flour bakes "authentic breads of Italy and France" in shop, using organic and stone-ground flour, daily. From baguettes and batards to loaves of soft, chewy sourdough that's great for sandwiches or on its own, Clear Flour is always fresh, day-of, and delicious. They make pizza dough daily (ready by 1:30 pm, show up on the dot for first dibs) which you can roll out and top yourself - the possibilities are endless. The focaccia bread topped with onions is incredible, coming in large and smaller sizes, and my favorite item on the menu. The rotating pastry selection includes brioches, cookies from biscotti to macaroons, croissants, morning buns, scones, rustic tarts using seasonal fruit ... you never know exactly what you'll find. The cake selection alone ranges from bundt cakes, lemon pound cake, to gingerbread tea cakes, and the holiday specials go to another level - this Easter they'll make gateau Bretons and ganached chocolate egg-shaped cakes, but be sure to order one ahead of time, as they'll go fast. Clear Flour baked goods are hot commodities around here.

In the Washington, D.C. area my favorite local bakery by far is Praline, the bakery and bistro that's the love child of former White House executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier. Modeled after high-end Parisian patisseries, my favorite pastime at Praline is to curl up with a cafe latte and pastry by the crackling fire in the corner, indulging in a leisurely breakfast at a European pace. Praline, likewise to Clear Flour, does specialized holiday desserts such as Buche de Noel (Christmas Yule logs) and Gallette des Rois (Kings' Cake), and even wedding cakes. My friends, pastry chefs with extensive culinary training, that work there hail from as far as Switzerland - the Praline top chefs know that to be done right put it in the hands of a European. Praline is the best of both worlds: a combination of a welcoming neighborhood place and the class of a proper French bistro. Now that takes the cake.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Fool's!

Looks like meat, right?  It's actually grilled gingerbread soaked in butterscotch sauce!