Tuesday, March 27, 2007

What are you, some kind of tapas expert?

It seems like I've become bored with conventional, one-plate dinners, since most of my reviews lately have described tapas places around the country. I promise I haven't grown tired of a hearty burger and fries or chicken pot pie or whatever else isn't really sharing-type finger food. I guess I just have a sweet spot for variety. Call me crazy.

My folks and I met the vivacious M. for dinner at Eno Vino, another of the few retaurants on the West Side that doesn't serve mud butt-inducing crap food or force its employees to adhere to strict flair standards. In fact, since I took my parents to it last Christmas, Eno Vino has become their default joint for a "nice meal" (read: where they serve wine and real cocktails that don't have umbrellas in them). It's a pretty fantastic place - the lights are always low, chairs are wrapped in a rich mahogany leather, and St. Germain never fails to make an appearance on the iPod-driven stereo (thanks, bartender, for the appetite-whetting downtempo beats).

We arrived, sat, and launched immediately into our usual perusal of Eno Vino's seemingly voluminous-yet-one-page menu of succulent shareables, flatbread pizzas, and the like. By the way, I'm pretty sure Succulent Shareables ought to be up there with Potent Potables for 500, Alex. Anyway, M. and I opened with a pair of key lime pie martinis (she recommended them, and I'm a sucker for doing what a beautiful blonde tells me, especially when it is related to pie in even an ancillary fashion), while my dad went for their best ice water and my mother, in her usual unexpected twisty kind of way opted for a cosmo. Apparently she'd fallen in love when supping with her brother, the fabulous and wordly Uncle Steve from South Beach. We bandied around a couple of ideas, and the rest of the table decided I ought to order in their stead. Maybe they've been reading the blog...

I guess now would be a good time to mention that Eno Vino, as its name implies, is actually a wine bar that serves food, and their selection trumps most other wine lists in Madison. It's also one of the few places in town where you can order a quartino - that's about a third of a bottle of wine, for those of you who aren't semi-lush enough to know. Anyway, good wine, good cocktails, but back to the food.

I decided on an eclectic mix of grilled double lamb chops with roasted fingerlings and a minted winter vegetable ragout, foie gras (seared with roasted brandy apples and a cider reduction and served alongisde a quail egg dripping with truffled Hollandaise), portabella mushroom ravioli with a port cream and micro greens, and a flatbread topped with lump crab, bacon, thick slices of avocado, jalapeno (I can't make the tilde on this computer, forgive me), fontina cheese and a mango drizzle). Yum!

The food was delicious, although at the end we were left a bit misty-eyed that our favorite flatbread (with thinly-sliced tenderloin, a creamy sauce, and portabella mushrooms) had been elminated from the menu. All in all, however, the meal was excellent and presentation very aesthetically pleasing. The foie gras stood out - it was like a little battle of unconventional bird parts, with a seared slab of foie gras stacked on buttery, crusty bread on one end and the over-easy, melt-in-your-mouth quail's egg atop its toasty tower on the other. Luckily, neither M. nor my dad wanted any, so Mom and I made short work of it, and I only had to restrain myself from stabbing her for the foie gras once. Or twice.

Bellies full, we sauntered into the warm spring evening (rather atypical for this time of year in Madison, but not at all unpleasant), said our good byes to M. with a promise to meet again and added congratulations for her acceptance into med school, and headed home.

Eno Vino
601 Junction Rd.
Madison, WI 53717
(608) 664-9565

Ribs. Chicken. Jalapenos.

There wasn’t much in the culinary aspect of this past weekend that would be deemed particularly exotic or adventuresome. It was all rather straightforward. At the same time, it was wholly satisfying. Anticipating decent spring-type weather to start the Spring League season here in Chicago, Joe and I lured the Martin-Lee family up to Lincoln Square for dinner Friday night at Los Nopales. We were seated right away at 7 pm. Pretty cool. They even made room for Akira to squeeze in when he found out we were there and demanded a seat. It’s BYOB, so we brought a six pack each of Pacifico and XX. They were nice enough to provide limes, so we opened our beers and ordered some guacamole. I realize that the Scrumptulescence team hasn’t posted about Los Nopales yet. I’m hoping if I foot the entire bill for Joe to get a good sampling of their menu, he will agree to do a write up about it in his true Crazy Nomad style. Trust me when I say this: It is a small family owned Mexican restaurant, where they use fresh ingredients and basic techniques to make delicious food. I once asked what was in their guacamole. It’s so good, I had to know the secret. Turns out they just make it fresh to order, and only put in 4 things besides the avocado. I think they might be on to something. Anyway, our table had tacos, mainly. Tacos al pastor, Chorizo tacos, and Tilapia tacos. Akira had the carne asada / chile rellenos combo, and Thor had a combo plate with some other stuff, like a taco, an enchilada, and maybe a tamale. I don’t remember. Everything was great, it came out fast, and we topped it off by splitting a slice of tres leches cake. Everyone should try this place.

Saturday morning brought the first day of spring league, and a gorgeous 70+ degree day. This is a food blog, so I won’t go into much detail, but my team won. Our household is split over 3 teams. The other teams in the household did not win. Such is life. My team played early games, so I went home to get the gas grill going and threw together a basic cookout meal to celebrate the nice weather. Not a lot of people, nothing special food-wise, except it was all pretty good. It started off with some guacamole prepared by Angela (which was excellent) as well as some weak salsa prepared by me. The main courses were chicken thighs marinated in mojo criollo, some excellent bratwursts provided by a certain someone’s special someone, a few chicken andouille sausages by Amy, and a grill full of red peppers, zucchini, and portabella mushrooms. Nothing special, but everything was pretty good.

Sunday was the big day. Meal # 3 on the Weber Smoker. Dragged Joe with me to Costco where I purchased six racks of baby back ribs, along with some asparagus and pita chips. Then I took a quick trip to Family Fruit Market to pick up a few more fixin’s. Then I prepared the ribs. A quick rinse in water, followed by a quick rinse with vinegar. A light coating of mustard, a thicker coating of spice rub. Start the fire in the smoker, get the smoke moving. Throw on all six slabs on 2 levels.

While the ribs were cooking, I made hummus, Grandma’s pasta salad, and BBQ sauce. I also sliced open some fresh jalapeños, pulled out the ribs and seeds, stuffed them with chorizo, and wrapped them in bacon. Call it an amuse bouche if you want, although I might have to shoot you if you do. As people started arriving, the double batch of hummus disappeared rather quickly. I kept everything else in reserve. After 3+ hours on the smoker, including a top and bottom rack swap, one flip, and a few spritzes with cranberry juice and olive oil, the ribs were done smoking. I was able to send Ruby the dog in to distract everyone while I took the ribs off, covered them in foil, and hid them in the oven. I put the stuffed jalapeños and 1.5 pounds of fresh Italian sausage on the smoker. Then I fired up the gas grill and covered it with 2 pounds of asparagus that had been tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and cayenne (thanks boss). When it was time to put everything on the table, this is what it looked like.

Everything is pretty identifiable. The BBQ sauce is a little shadowed, but it looked like BBQ sauce. The potato chips are jalapeno crunchers. Great BBQ food. The wine is Casillero del Diablo Carmenere from Chile. Great casual red wine. You might not buy it because of it’s price. Trust me, it’s worth every penny.

Closeup time. The pasta salad is very basic. I actually didn’t put enough mayo in, but I knew the crowd would like it better with less mayo. I just used Grandma’s recipe, but instead of the rainbow rotini, I used a very nice imported whole wheat pasta that somehow avoids the graininess of most whole wheat pastas.

Grilled asparagus. So easy, so good.

The smoker has a lot of fire left in it even after 3+ hours of cooking time. Stuffed, wrapped jalapenos and Italian sausage seemed like good things to throw on while the ribs rested awhile. The Italian Sausage was tasty enough, but the flavors were a little too subtle to stand up to the ribs and the jalapenos. The jalapenos were really good. A could of guests said they were the best thing they’ve had that I’ve cooked.

How was the main event? Pretty good. I need to work on the fire control a little bit. They might have been a little overdone in places, but overall, flavor and texture were good. I didn’t sauce them at all, preferring to let the guests add sauce for themselves. People seemed to like them. I thought they were pretty good. Definitely be making them again pretty soon, I would say. Here are a couple of slabs, before I sectioned them for easier eating.

I have to say, it was a pretty good culinary weekend, and the food was appropriate to the weather. Now that we’re supposed to drop into the 40’s this afternoon, I need to start thinking about braising and stewing again, until it’s time for spring to come back. Hopefully mid-April.

Oh, who were the guests? The roommates minus the new guy. One brand new (and fantastic) ultimate player who is also a roommate girlfriend. The Russells, the Martin-Lees, some tall guy from Indiana, puppy Ruby, and her owner. Three of those people just kind of showed up and were fed. If you’re feeling left out, you shouldn’t. I generally don’t make too many phone calls for these things. Just call if you sense there might be something cooking.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Great Grape!

Okay, just in case you thought I'd descended into full-time melancholy, I'm back with another honest-to-goodness review without any hint of existential crisis! As part of my week in Madison, I thought it would be appropriate to review one of my favorite places back home. I called the delightful M., my favorite luncheon counterpart in the Mad City, and she wasn't so bogged down by a certain healthcare IT company to come out and play for a little while. I suggested Grape and Company, an independent wine shop no larger than your average pantry. It's located, nay, hidden, on the west side of town (right by where my folks live, in fact) in a little strip mall that houses such rarities as Atlanta Bread Company and the Madison Public Library. Well, my dad likes the library, and I confess to a certain fondness for any kind of hearty soup in a bread bowl, so...

Anyway. Grape and Company. Good little place, I've always made a point to stop by whenever I'm in town for the sage advice of Jack, the owner-resident wine expert-fresh mozzarella technician who owns the place. Jack and his wife moved to Madison from New York (which might as well be Istanbul or Djibouti, for all the cosmopolitan graces most Madisonians lack) for some unknown reason (ostensibly to bring solid wine knowledge and delicious pastries to an otherwise culture-starved population). I'm glad they did, whatever the reason, because Grape is one of the most delightful shops I know. There was a time when I still lived in Madison that I would make a weekly (or twice, even thrice, weekly) venture to Grape, if only to shoot the breeze with Jack. Yeah, right. It's impossible for me to leave Target empty-handed, much less a store full to the brim with delicious wines, melt-in-your-mouth confectionaries, and a variety of cheese that intimidate even the most sage cheeseophile (if there's an actual word for this, 1) please don't tell me, and 2) I really don't care).

In any case, I'd usually stroll in, glance about, read a few of the wonderfully descriptive tags that adorn each bottle of wine and pronounce the libations Bold, Big, Refreshing, Sweet, and the like, and then defer to the man behind the counter's better judgment. He would point out one or two I hadn't even seen lurking behind the cab I was holding, and I couldn't say no. There were a couple times I actually bought the place out of a certain riesling because I'd heard it was going out of production. Yeah, I'd heard that rumor three or four times and went into panic each time, snatching up at least half a dozen bottles like it was Wine2K (Jesus, I just thought of that, and it's probably the most hilarious thing I've ever written. I'm tempted to put it in bold). I still have one bottle left, but that's another story...

So yeah, M. and I went over to Grape because I'd heard the served lunch, and I was dying to try it. We arrived to Jack's smiling face and engaging chit-chat, then took a couple minutes to peruse the wines, cheese, and smallish sandwich and specials menu. M. ordered a turkey with Irish cheddar and raspberry dijon mustard on a flour-dusted sourdough roll. I held out until they offered me the pizza special - traditional Neopolitan-style margherita with freshly-made dough, pungent basil, thick-sliced, vine-ripe tomatoes, and some of Jack's trademark mozzarella.

M. and I sat in the back, at the counter by the oven, and were treated to the sight of my pizza cooking away until the clarion *ding* of the oven timer. The savory rectangle placed before me, I set on the simply-dressed field greens and sipped a glass of Pillar Box Red, a subtle shiraz-cab-merlot blend that played on the sweet undertones of the merlot while allowing the spice of the shiraz to show through in a slightly dampened fashion. All in all, simply delicious.

I was sad not to have enough room for a nibble of honeyed goat cheese or a marzipan fruit, but I trust I'll be back soon enough. Grape was, as always, great atmosphere, nice people, and delicious wine and food.

Grape and Company
745 N. Highpoint Rd.
Madison, WI 53717
(608) 831-8900

A Sip of Tea, a Bite of Thought

I'll preface this entry with another "bear with me" disclaimer - I hope you'll forgive this entirely self-indulgent post; another stroll through the dusky narrows of my heart and stomach. Sure, it's about food...but only as much as anything so self-exploratory can be about anything in particular.

It starts with a moment. I sit in repose on what used to be my bed (still is, officially, but I've since moved on to bigger, more comfortable sleeping quarters where cats' noses touch mine as we sleep and most times I wake up reaching for ghostly figures and phantom warmth). Clean, white light of Sunday morning streams through open windows. Strains Neil Young's "Live at Massey Hall 1971" mingle with my dad's tippity-tap on the keyboard at the desk by the windows. I stare at the ceiling, holding back the urge to scroll through my phone's contacts and send a random text. Nervous habit, that, but usually my chief means of communication with the outside world. All of a sudden (it's a rather languid sudden, though; today isn't for rushing about) it hits me: I'm thirsty. And a bit hungry.

I lift myself out of bed and move quietly out of the room, down the hallway that still holds the crappy watercolor and crayon drawing of trees reflected on water I made in third grade that somehow became the cornerstone of any perceived artistic talent within me. Down the stairs, back into the kitchen whose description you, reader, ought to be familiar with - you have been reading, haven't you? A quick aside: this post, while mostly introspective, will also be at times fiercely second-person. I hope it doesn't seem confrontational.

I reach into the daisy-printed bucket that holds an indeterminate number of tea bags and pull out one of the new Mighty Leaf green tea bags my mom scooped up the other day. As I read the tea bag's paper holder, a familiar, delicious smell wafts up and touches my nose. It's very subtle, like a closed-eye dandelion brush, but memories of summer days at the local pool, picnics where the wind blows the grass against my toes, and cold milk with Cheerios all clamor and shove to the front of my mind. I look down. Strawberries! Perhaps, I think as I write (how wonderfully postmodern, huh?), the use of an exclamation point is a bit superfluous - I generally try to reserve such drastic punctuation for truly urgent communication (Fire! Watch out! I'm so excited!), and don't get me started on multiple exclamation points (which are, in my mind, only appropriate in prose dealing with natural disasters and grisly, overplayed death scenes). I'll keep it there, though, since I want to convey the tinge of excitement that welled up when I noticed the plump, barn red fruits. I confess I didn't sample one - really, the smell was enough for me. You know what I mean. Right?

Back to my tea. I tore open the outer package and extricated a uniquely-bagged specimen of green tea infused with some tropical blend of fruit essence. I had laughed when Mom had described a new kind of tea whose leaves were "pulled apart, but whole," and whose gauzy wrapping was "more open" than normal tea bags. I mean, aren't most tea bags filled with pulled apart tea leaves wrapped in mesh? I was, I admit, skeptical, but when I examined this bag and pulled it close to my nostrils to take in its latent aroma I realized she was right. Instead of pulverized tea powder, nearly-whole leaves of green tea rested in a delightfully translucent pouch. The bag wasn't like its nearly-opaque cousins, but rather was more of a dusky viewing-glass to the tea that only barely obscured its dark green contents. More of a tea display than a tea bag, if you ask me. I dropped the bag into an empty mug and flipped the switch on the electric teapot (please note, reader, that this is one of the single most wonderful inventions of the 20th century, if not ever. Just imagine, hot water whenever you want it).

Ding! (Another exclamation point, but this time to reinforce my use of urgent onomatopeoia). I turned the teapot over, awaiting a steaming cascade of water to hit the tea and transubstantiate into what I imagined would be an excellent drink. Not so, though, since I had failed to notice the teapot was empty. Minor setback indeed. I'll cut to the chase: water in, water out, tea made.

"Green Tea Passion," promises the protective tea-pouch. It makes me think: I've been struggling so much with that barely-kindled fire within. I seek my own passion, my unique blend of ache and want and horizon-looking struggle. Perhaps it's time I take a step back. What do I seek? Well, with each sip of my not-too-hot tea I realize one thing: I'm passionate about tea.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Friday Link

A special Friday link. Neil Gaiman is an excellent storyteller, and that extends to talking about food.

If things go as planned, there might be something interesting going on this weekend, food-wise. If so, I'll write about it. Just to make Rick and Whitney happy. But be forewarned. I'm not the writer that Drew is. I'm not even the writer that Kevin is.

Coming Home for Dinner

As some of you may know, I flew back to Madison for the week to visit with my parents, do some martial arts training, and clear my head. I apologize in advance if this entry ends up being less food-oriented and more cathartic for me, but I promise to try to make it a good read.

I always smile when I come back home - the drive from the airport, regardless of the season, is always the same. Some things change - Madison is especially fickle about its eateries - and where that Thai place stood now resides the King of Falafel (I've already requested an audience from His Highness, if you were wondering). Likewise, the stores and bars come and go, but the feel of the place is constant. State Street, Madison's pedestrian mall that runs from the Capitol square to the Union at Lake Mendota, is always overrun by bleach-blonde sorostitutes and their beefy, backwards UW Hockey cap-wearing brothers. Interspersed are seemingly innumerable geeks, dweebs, dudes, chicks, foreign exchange students, and people just trying to get by. I usually fly in before lunch, so we have to dodge a million late-risers and slackers sprinting on their way to Psychology 101 or the like. It's fine, though, because it never changes.

When I get home, the first thing I do is open the fridge. I'm not necessarily hungry, and opening that cream-colored gateway is mostly a test for myself and my memory. I'm never disappointed. Without fail, there is an almost-empty half gallon of skim milk next to an unopened counterpart. Cliques of yogurt - usually two groups of three 100-calorie cups each (always one cherry, one blueberry, one peach) - stand as sentinels guarding Sargento low-moisture string cheese and a variety of cold cuts nestled amidst a hundred types of cheese (this time it was corned beef adjacent to queso fresco - Marti and Doug are really firing it up these days). I trust there is always spray-on I Can't Believe It's Not Butter that my dad loves and a couple slabs of Philadelphia cream cheese just in case my mom gets a hankering for cream cheese-and-jelly sandwiches of her childhood. The fridge is like Madison, really - the leftovers change, from a new recipe for potatoes au gratin out of Cooking Light, to penne or flank steak or tuna salad (always chunk light slathered in mayo with a generous shuffle of chopped celery). Some of the components change, but the general mise-en-scene is always the same.

The cupboards and pantry are no different. We've never been a one-cereal family, and it's not often you find us without Cheerios, Quaker Oat Squares, and some sort of granola. Taco shells that I've never seen used sit on the lower shelf along with various broths, Williams-Sonoma glazes and marinades, and countless other tins and cans bespeak my mom's love for exotic, prefab delicacies. You never can tell when you're going to need artichoke lemon tapenade or hand-cut marshmallows, but it's good to have them on hand.

Moving over to the bread box, you can be sure there's a least two slices of Oat Nut left (lucky for me, my parents leave the heels of the loaf until last because I think they're uncertain of their ability to finish an entire loaf before it gets moldy and leaving the end parts on will apparently preserve it). More often than not, there are two or three other loaves ranging from sourdough with whole garlic cloves embedded in it to crusty French peasant that makes a delicious, tooth-ruining peanut butter and jelly sandwich. On top of the bread box is an open package of dried apricots. This may be the touchstone of my culinary existence in Madison. I remember years ago when I started "eating right," and introduced mass quantities of nuts, dried fruit, and the like to our kitchen. At first glance, the package of apricots is the very progenitor of this trend, and by all rights ought to be filled with dessicated, inedible orange-brown lumps. It is, however, at least half-full of succulent, plump fruits whose soft-but-wrinkled skin I bite through with ease. I usually proceed to eat the remainder of the package within minutes, but somehow there is always another half-full clone in its place in a heartbeat. Don't ask me how it happens, because I don't want to know.

Being home reinforces a certain consistency with regard to food, but also reflects the constant change in my life. I don't eat every meal with my folks - not becaues I don't like them, but because sometimes I'm off kickboxing and don't get home until late, or I'm catching up with friends, or I just feel like eating alone...it may be impossible to really "come home" again, but at least I know there will be yogurt waiting for me when I get there.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Wednesday Morning Links. The JL edition.

Just a quick post this morning. Nothing really interesting has been going on with me food-wise. Maybe Joe will post something.
OK. The links.

  • Carrots are cool. Go to your local farmers market when it starts up and get some good ones. The non-orange ones are pretty cool and tasty. Joe likes carrots.

  • Because of this review, we went to Sabatino's last night. It was Kolb's birthday, so the guitar player and the violin player did a very nice Happy Birthday for him, and then offered to play him any song. I was hoping for Moon River, but he asked for a Sinatra song. So we heard a very skilled rendition of Summer Wind. Since Joe had the best dish at the table, perhaps he can do a write-up about it.

  • This thread over on LTH talks about a cookbook based on O'Brien's British Navy series of books that Master and Commander was based on. Ex-roommate (ex-pat) Kevin is a big fan of those books. If he ever comes back, with or without a wife, we should make a big meal based on that cookbook. Do you know who else is a big fan of those books? JL.
Yeah, a little light today. I'll do better in the future. Have a good Wednesday.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Gumbo and Scrimps on St. Patty's Day

If I were a little better-versed in the ways of the Deep South, I might open with something cleverly Cajun...but I'm not, so you're going to have to just assume I'm talking like Emeril right now (except for the fact he's kinda from Massachusetts instead of New Orleans, but whatever).

In any case, Todd and I were out on St. Patrick's Day (did you expect anyone else to be out with me on a Saturday night than my beloved Dr. Watson? I mean, unless he's Holmes and I'm Watson, but he's going to be a doctor, and I'm taller anyway). We were off to catch a flick and a quick bite at some chainy place (Bahama Mama? Biscayne Breeze? Whatever, it was rubbish), but luckiliy we opted to head home and check out the newly-opened Bryn Mawr wing of Carmine's Creole Cafe. The gumbo-and-blues joint is nestled inconspicuously (except for a rather garish, but not tasteless, sign out front) between a lousy Vietnamese place and an arthouse movie theater. Please note, I refer to the Vietnamese joint as lousy because the last time Geoff, Todd and I ate there Todd got the "Beef Deluxe," and apparently "deluxe" was a mistranslation of "every part of the cow, including the cat's tongue lining of the scrotum, which I thought was reserved for fan belt production. But yeah, that's another story. Carmine's...

We rolled in on a Saturday holiday at about half seven, which in the real world would equate to no table and an eye roll from the hostess. I mean, we got the eye roll and halfhearted offer for seats at the bar, but we held out, watched the last of a basketball game I can't remember, and were then ushered begrudgingly into the front dining room. Our waitress (server?) Kara brought us cocktails and crusty rolls accompanied by a bowl of oil-soaked garlic cloves. As some of you may know, the way to my heart is with garlic, so I had a good feeling about this joint.

Under advisement from the sage Kara, Todd and I opted to both start with a cup of seafood gumbo and the pork chop and crab cake, respectively. As we waited for the food I sampled one of the house martinis (odd to have a specialty martini list at a creole place...but I wasn't complaining), the Swamp Water. To the best of my sense of taste (and with a little help from the menu), I detected a couple ounces of Grey Goose (Finlandia maybe? My sense for tasteless alcohol is a little off these days), a generous splash of Tabasco, a Tanqueray float, and a couple of blackened shrimp mingling at the bottom. It really did resemble water from a swamp. DELICIOUS water from a swamp, mind you, but the look was a tad off-putting. I slugged it, and it was like a handful of fire for about two seconds followed by that deliciously shrimpy-Tabasco aftertaste I like to accompany all my culinary experiences.

The food came. The presentation was lovely - my mountainous crab cake sat amidst a gentle valley of whipped mashed potatoes, craggy lump crab meat boulders toppling down its perfectly-formed sides. And the taste? Out of this world, definitely in the top five crab cakes I've had. Todd's pork chop obviously came from some mutant, ginormous porcine creature, because it was amazingly big. And delicious (I always insist on eating some of Todd's food, if only to make sure it isn't poisoned). The chop came with an oddly delicious (and rather strangely shaped) brick of cheddar cornbread, which had that almost-done texture without being gummy. All in all, the entrees were wonderful. And yet, somehow, we still had room for dessert...

Two words, my friends: bread pudding. This, however, was not your mom's bread pudding (unless your mom either makes amazing bread pudding or works in the kitchen at Carmine's, in which case I retract). This was a heap of delicious, perfectly-baked, carmel- and fresh whipped cream-topped goodness that melted in your mouth and let the stomach feeling like an overfull bag of groceries (in an awesome way).

I couldn't even finish my coffee, it was so good. I'm not sure there's a good way to end this post...Carmine's I'll call you, and I loves ya, girl.

Carmine's Creole Cafe and Blues
818 Lancaster Ave.
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
(610) 520-9100

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

American Born Cooking Desi

Wow, this is a real honor. I'm really, really excited to be the first non-founding poster. First, about me: some of you (not many) will know me as Eck17. Others will know me as "the dumbest smart kid they know" (thanks, Tazo!). In real life, I do math. In non-real life, I play ultimate.

What qualifies me to write on this blog? I was a member of the late, lamented Dinner Club in Chicago. You can read about it here and here. I travel a lot. So, I get to eat interesting food in interesting places (bouillabaisse in the south of France, falafel in Israel, all kinds of amazing ethnic food in Toronto, etc., etc.).Finally, I'm of Indian (dot on the forehead, not Squanto) descent. Thus, I'm going to focus mainly on Indian food in my writing (I'm also, currently, writing this in India).

Now, you might say, didn't Drew already write about and express his love for Indian food (and, I might add, drop my name in a VERY flattering manner)? Yes, he did. But, with all due respect, Drew knows NOTHING about Indian food. And since I said with all due respect, he can't get mad. It's in the Geneva conventions. Look it up.

OK, so that's not quite fair. What I should say is that the Indian food Drew (and he knows more than essentially all Americans) knows about is but a tiny sliver of the vast variety of deliciousness prepared on this subcontinent. Now, I may not know a much larger percentage, but I do know a different percentage.

More precisely, most of the Indian food that's served in the U.S. is actually an interpretation of Punjabi/Mughlai cuisine. It's from a specific region of Northwest India, and what you get in a restaurant is basically rich, banquet-type food, not an everyday meal. Every now and then you'll hit a South Indian restaurant, which will serve dosas, and idlis, which, while delicious and integral parts of Tamil cuisine, are basically breakfast/snack food.

So, imagine if you ate a bunch of roasts and boiled vegetables with white sauce, and every so often some bacon and eggs, and maybe a croissant, and then, using that, formed an opinion of "European" food. You'd be crazy, right? (funnily enough, in a lot of places in India there is something known as "Continental" cuisine, which is basically what I described above).

So what I'm going to try and do is to highlight the cuisines of my parent's home states, Assam (in the northeast), and Tamil Nadu (in the south). I'll probably try and take it one dish at a time, and hopefully include some rough approximation to a recipe (I cook according to taste, in Indian slang, by andaaz). I'll also occasionally try and describe/cook other popular foods in India that don't often see the light of day in the U.S.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Test Run for Scrumptulescence Summit

I'm in Washington DC right now for work training. Sunday and Monday night I had disappointing dinners, but was eating at chain restaurants in DC, not known as the best culinary town in the country. Today, Drew came to town. It was our first chance to eat together outside of the Acapulco buffet. His friend Morgan was kind enough to join us, and we went to this little bar / continental tapas place. It didn't compare well to the previous tapas meal that Drew had, but it was good enough. The charcuterie platter and the cheese platter were good. The Steak Tartare was good. But two things pushed it over the top. One, our server, Sarah, was awesome. My previous 2 DC dinners were definitely at the bottom of the ranks in service. Sarah was awesome, waiting on the whole place herself, providing good recommendations, and buying us dessert and shots. Pretty sweet. Second great thing: Pork Belly Confit. Oh. My. God. It is well known that pork belly is the best thing ever. (Anyone know what else is made from pork belly?) Slow cooking it in fat? Jeez. I can't really describe it. Amazing.

I'm up 2 hours later than I wanted to be, but special thanks to Drew and Morgan for treating. And the whole point of this post is to say that Drew will be visiting Madison in a couple of weeks, and I think I've talked him into coming down to Chicago for the first real Scrumptulescence Founders Summit. If he does, we'll probably try to do one great dinner out, and one great dinner in. So far, for the great dinner in, we've talked about grilled kangaroo tenderloin, and possibly grilled pizza with goat cheese and grilled pancetta. It's all theoretical now, but if you want an invite, you'd best start working for it.

Oh, and we're adding a few contributors. You'll find out who when they post.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Amada? Amazing.

Imagine this: two posts in one day where Todd and I went on a totally nonsexual man-date and had a blast. Take that, women. So yeah, we were hungry again, and shopping at KOP, so we decided spur-of-the-moment to try to snag a table at the tres chic Amada, an Old City tapas favorite that we'd heard a lot about....I called, we got a table. Easy as that. Please take note: if you need a table at some restaurant, just ask Drew Coursin.

Aaaanyway. Amada. We sat and perused the menu - small print + lots of options = confusion. We opted for the first-timer special: the Chef's Choice. Forty-five bucks a person (plus a few bones for delicious red sangria, which tasted dangerously like fruit punch with a ton of fruit in it) got us three courses of tapas that seriously blew our minds. I'll just list everything we got and you can take it from there:

Appetizer/Palate Cleanser:
-Salty flatbread with a tuna and caper dip - seemed pretty unadorned, but hit the spot to start.
-Olive platter - large olives, small olives - definitely hit that salty area on the tongue that needs a good warming up before an enormous meal. Also, bonus points for being able to use the fondue skewer provided to poke at what seemed like innumerable olivey delicacies.

First Course:
-Spanish tortilla with saffron aioli - Spain's response to the traditional Mexican potato and flour dish, I'd imagine. Was a dense pastry-like creation that slid down the gullet in a few nibbles thanks to the deep yellow-orange of the saffron aioli. Yum.
-Serrano ham and fig salad, cabrales, and spiced almonds - arguably one of the best items on the menu - dark green leaves of spinach wrapped in Iberian cured ham and presented with sliced drunken figs, marinated red onions, and salty-sweet almond clusters. Utterly delicious.
-A platter of bread, crisp Granny Smith apple slices, a medium-dry goat's milk cheese, and garlic dulce de leche. Altogether a sumptuous treat - each item individually tasted great, and even better in concert.

Second Course:
-Flatbread with artichokes, black truffles, wild mushrooms, and a slice of aged manchego cheese. Todd commented on how similar manchego is to his favorite - parmesan. I agreed as I munched on the succulent pizza.
-Albondigas - lamb meatballs with shaved manchego that melted in our mouths as we skewered and tossed them down. Another favorite of the meal - a Spanish twist on the Swedish meatball with infinitely more delicate flavor and that wonderful lamb aroma.
-Crab stuffed peppers - sweet red peppers with shaved almonds overflowing with a bubbling cheese and crab filling. Again, hard to say what was the best about this meal, but this may have been it.

Third Course:
-Beef Tenderloin with an aged gorgonzola/bleu cheese and foie gras cover. Words really fall short, to be perfectly honest. We didn't have a steak knife to carve this bad boy, but we didn't need one; the butter knife sawed through the ever-so-tender flesh with remarkable ease. I can't describe the taste. Purchase your plane ticket for Philly now. In hindsight, I should have stabbed Todd and popped the whole tiny filet into my mouth to let its flavor dissolve while I waited for the cops to haul me away.
-Scallops on skewers with parsley, olive oil, and garlic. Unremarkable, to be honest, compared to the tenderloin and other accoutrements, but still tasty, especially with the...
-Chick peas with spinach - the garbanzos were cooked to the point where they were almost crispy (the way I love them, which really reminds me of Barcelona); they tasted almost like the sea, but the spinach set them off in a delicious almost-diavolo sauce.
-Patatas bravas - both Todd and I had experienced this Catalan delicacy in its native land, and really were hoping it didn't come tonight. It did, however, and at that point we were just too full of delicious food to enjoy the couture tater tots and repeated saffron aioli.

-Todd: seven layers of chocolate. As awesome as this sounded, it was a bit scant and not all that tasty. I can't recount what the layers were, exactly, which pretty much sums up the experience.
-Drew: avocado mousse, fresh pineapple, green tea meringue, Meyer lemon ice cream. In a word: amazing. Just like dessert should be: refreshing to the point that you forget you're full and want to eat more.

We finished everything off with a tipple of Ximenez muscato dessert wine and then ambled out into the Philadelphia evening, stuffed and completely satisfied.

Bless you, Amada. You are truly loved.

217-219 Chestnut St.
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Grasshoppers and Tequila

Another Saturday night, and Todd is hungry. So am I, for that matter, so what better thing to do than catch the R5 train into the thriving metropolis that is Philadelphia and blow the foam off a couple exotic brews while munching mussels at Monk's? If you've been reading the blog, you'll recall my so-so review of Monk's Old City sister, Eulogy. I'll dispel any dramatic tension for you:

We didn't go to Monk's.

Well, we went there, but it was a total cluster-, uh, cluster of people (this IS a family-oriented blog), so we put a name down just in case and hustled around the corner to one of my favorite Mexican joints, Tequila's. Quick aside: I realize most of my reviews have been pretty Mexican food-centric, but hey, tough, it's where I eat. And those are usually the places where excitement find us - keep reading.

Tequila's was less hopping than I expected for a Saturday night at nine. Todd and I brushed past a harried hostess and ensconced ourselves at the bar. Or rather, we tried, but some guy was sitting between two empty seats. Enter: Terry (obviously the guy mentioned in the previous sentence - you're not much of a close reader, are you?) Terry moved to one side to accommodate us ; the night was looking up. We ordered a pair of Tequila's house margaritas (rocks and salt, duh, as if there's any other way to drink 'em) and settled in for the final minutes of the Sixers game as we decided what to do (grab a table here or hold out for Monk's). Terry and I got to talking when I noticed a strange-looking appetizer appear before him. To my unexpecting eye it looked like stir-fried chili peppers, which Terry scooped up apprehensively with a corn tortilla and chomped on with a certain air of trepidation (again, the suspense). Of course I asked...

...grasshoppers. Terry's friend, the congenial bartender Don, had recommended a not-listed-on-the-menu-for-obvious-reasons alternative to chips and guac: DIY pan-fried grasshopper taquitos. I expressed interest, he offered, and I have to say the grasshopper faire was pretty yummy. I'm not sure if it was the insects themselves that were piquant, or the mole-like glaze that accompanied them, but I was impressed by the taste and the satisfying crunch. I regaled the bar with stories of my termite banquets in Belize and willingness to eat almost anything that won't try to leave my mouth.

After grasshoppers, we opted for some pre-dinner snifters of the house tequila, which was deep, silver, and vaguely reminiscent of Patron. It went down with the dull fire of good sipping tequila, which we cut with some ice-cold Pacifico. When in Rome, right?

After a few more pleasantries and a promise to meet up with T for some carousing later, Todd and I took a table in back and gorged ourselves on guacamole (again, even better than El Vez...I'm starting to doubt their awesomeness), fundido (a more massive, but ultimately simpler presentation than Lolita), and once again tempted fate with the carne asada order.

In other words, we basically replicated our meal at Lolita at this OTHER Philadelphia Mexican joint. Overall, I was impressed. The steak was done perfectly and melted in my mouth - no chewiness this time, just a couple succulent cuts presented perfectly alongside a chicken taquito, pork tamal, and various typical Mexican accoutrements (black beans, rice, guac).

Stuffed and happy, we departed Tequila's, our lives enriched by grasshopper nibblings and booze on the house...but that's another story.

Try Tequila's the next time you're in Philly. We'll go with you.

1602 Locust St.
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Friday, March 2, 2007

Suddenly I feel like eating a burger.

I was going to save this for Wednesday's links, but Drew's post, I have to get this up now.

Part of me wants to use this article as a checklist. Except for the Veggie burgers part.

Who's in? We can make it a group thing. Or maybe some of you out in our Chicago readership area can go to some of these places and report back. I'd give some guest post privileges for that. It's going to take me awhile to get through all of these. And lets be honest, it wouldn't be great for me.

Eat this, not that [you fool]!

So, I work at a gym. There are people of all shapes and sizes, from bodybuilders with lats that jut out and require an airlift in and out of the joint until we replace the doors with wider versions, to career class-goers (Group Ex, for those in the know) whose primary purpose seems to be to spend their husbands' dollars on fitness. In other words, we're just like any other health club as far as clientele goes. And like other places, we have subtle food propaganda that may not even reach the members, but still insinuates itself into the lives of trainers, instructors, and other employees.

Case in point (point in case? point in point?): I was sitting in the employee lounge, munching on my WaWa turkey sandwich (on wheat, whole sandwich toasted, lettuce, tomato, grated parmesan, extra turkey and cheddar, golden barbeque sauce [whateverthehell that is], pepper and oregano - BEEP BOOP BEEP - if you're familiar with WaWa, you know what I'm saying. Otherwise, sorry) and sipping on some of that barely-sweet flavored water when I glanced at a notice on the bulletin board that presented a side-by-side comparison of the "acceptable" choices at favorite chain restaurants versus their obviously immediate death-inducing counterparts.

For example, at Cinnabon, apparently it is wiser to order a Minibon than to go for the regular-size Cinnabon version. It has fewer calories, saturated fat, and is about a third of the size.

Mind = blown.

Basically, the sage advice of such pamphlets as far as I can glean is: eat less bad stuff. Oh? You mean, if I were to eat A piece of the Colonel's secret recipe extra crispy it would be "better" for me than devouring the entire 20-piece family bucket?

Needless to say, I was shocked. I had to share my profound discovery here - you all are so lucky to hear this from me. I'm pretty sure the information was sequestered in our break room because the government or whoever doesn't want the average gym-goer to know that there are relatively-sensible-in-the-way-that-cutting-your-arm-off-is-preferable-to-being-
crushed-under-a-thousand-tons-of-pirate-gold type of choices out there for what you eat and how it affects your wellbeing.

But wait, there's more. Get this: Whooper Jr. has fewer calories than a Whopper. So, my advice as a fitness professional is this: eat five Whoppers Jr. (also, be amazed by my grasp of linguistic formalism) every time you work out. Also, instead of water, drink Diet Coke, since Diet Coke doesn't have any calories, and you can never be too sure about water.

In case you don't have the guts to read this entire post but have skipped to the end, let me distill it down to today's food advice:

1. Eat as many Minibons as you can directly before exercising.
2. Smaller versions of things = waaaaay better.
3. You might not even have to work out if you would just stop eating Whoppers and start eating more Whoppers Jr., fatty.