Trouble With Toast

Long time gone

August 4, 2008
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Sorry for my unexplained absence–duty called last week, as I was participating in a conference in Baltimore. Food-wise, the trip was pretty uneventful; the one highlight was a lovely meal at Ciao Bella in Little Italy. I also had nice views from my hotel room.

After a week in Charm City, I immediately headed to Chattanooga for a bachelorette party (no food-related stories there, as you can imagine). As if that wasn’t enough travel, I’ll be on the road for work tomorrow and Wednesday. Whew! So, I’m a bit worn out and my cupboards are bare, but I hope to get back in the groove over the next few days.

Pardon the interruption–I hope everyone had a great weekend!


5 & 10: Best restaurant in Atlanta?

March 1, 2008
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During my jaunt to Athens, Georgia, last week, I decided to treat myself to one nice solo dinner. Being a college town, the Classic City isn’t exactly chock-full of haute cuisine options. However, 5 & 10–a restaurant that I had visited once before, right after it opened, about eight years ago–garnered the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Restaurant of the Year” title in 2007. What better reason to give it another taste?

I decided to take my chances at the bar instead of securing a reservation, so I got there early (about 5:30) to make sure I could snag a stool. There were about 4-5 older folks at the bar already, and they looked to be regulars, so I immediately thought I’d be neglected by the bartender (bad to assume, I know, but past precedent weighs heavily, especially when you dine alone as much as I do). Not so–he was very attentive and knowledgeable. I asked for a glass of something white and dry, and he came up with a chenin blanc that was on the wine specials list for the day. Hit the spot.

I had a hard time deciding how to proceed food-wise. Nearly all of the entrees looked delicious, but I wanted to try as many varied things as possible. So, in the end, I had three appetizers and a dessert. First, I chose the cauliflower soup with butter poached Maine lobster and chive cream ($9). It was creamier and a little thinner than the version I recently had at Proof (which I loved), but the flavor was really good. The lobster didn’t really add or subtract from the dish, which causes me to conclude that chefs should just leave their cauliflower soups alone and stop adding seafood (Proof’s version had cornmeal-crusted fried oysters, and I thought they were superfluous as well).

Next, I ordered a half dozen oysters on the half-shell. Now, you may not think that’s the best dish by which to test a chef’s mettle, but as an oyster-lover, I pay great attention to the care that is taken in selecting and presenting raw bar items. In this case, the oysters (which were Kumamotos–small, but briny and somewhat sweet, and absolutely fantastic) were served with a homemade cocktail sauce and a mignonette, and it was a wonderful middle course (especially when paired with an insanely reasonably priced $6 glass of cava).

Earlier in the evening, the bartender had raved about the ahi tuna tartare with cornichons, shallots, lemon, parsley, ponzu, citrus salad, and haricots vert ($14). It sounded fabulous, so I decided to end my appetizer tour with the dish, and the presentation was certainly gorgeous (and the quality of the fish was top-notch). However, it seemed to me that the chef was rather heavy-handed with the ponzu, as the sauce often overpowered the flavor of the tuna (especially near the bottom of the mold, where the fish was sitting in a puddle of the liquid). I’ve had a lot of tuna tartare, and this one was certainly good, but I didn’t think it deserved all of the praise it received.

For dessert, I noticed a bourbon pecan pie on the specials menu, and I had to go for it–after all, I make a mean bourbon pecan pie myself, and I wanted to see how 5 & 10 would stack up against my baking prowess (intense sarcasm intended). Shockingly enough, I really and truly thought that my pecan pie was the superior dessert–this version was rather uninspiring. The Coca-Cola ice cream that came with the pie, however, was one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. Amazing. And I don’t even like ice cream all that much.

Three appetizers, a dessert, two glasses of wine, a beer (a Victory Prima Pils that was on special), tax, and tip added up to $82. The service was very good, and the atmosphere was energetic and casual (except for the primped up sorority girls who got busted for having fake IDs–ah, college). But I walked out of the restaurant with a furrowed brow–was that REALLY the best restaurant in Atlanta?

I applaud the AJC’s food editors for realizing that there exist great culinary possibilities outside of the perimeter (or OTP, as we ATLiens would say–haha). However, it is hard for me to believe that there isn’t a single restaurant in the metro Atlanta area that can beat 5 & 10 in terms of a total dining experience. To say that the best restaurant in Atlanta resides in Athens (which is a good hour and a half outside the city) is, in my mind, to severely denigrate the many great dining options that one can find right downtown.


Thoughts from the South

February 29, 2008
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Last week, I voyaged to Georgia for some job-hunting and some reliving of my college years (note to self: you are NOT 20 anymore).  Since I’ll be moving to Atlanta in about three months, I was excited to start living and learning the culinary scene in and around the city.  Here’s the report:

In Atlanta proper, I didn’t get a chance to do TOO much exploring (since I was staying with my parents in Lawrenceville).  However, I did confirm that the best burger in the city is still at The Vortex.  When I was a teenager, going to the Vortex was a rare treat usually reserved for pre-concert fun (I distinctly meeting a bunch of fellow Sarah McLachlan fans at the midtown location prior to Lilith Fair one year–don’t you dare judge me).  The atmosphere has sort of a kitschy-with-an-attitude kind of vibe, and the food is awesome.  I had a bison burger with swiss and mushrooms, cooked medium rare, and I absolutely inhaled it.  I was tempted to go for the tots, but I remembered that the Vortex was famous for its creamy, bacony potato salad–and I was glad I opted for that particular side item.  So much deliciousness on one plate!  The kicker, though, was that I was able to order a Sweetwater 420 (quite possibly my favorite beer ever) on draft.  Heaven.  Some tourists saw my deliriously happy post-feasting face and said, “You look like you know what’s good here!”  Tee.

In Lawrenceville, it’s easy for a food fiend to be discouraged by the sea of chain restaurants on nearly every corner.  There are some real gems, though, if you have the patience to look for them.  One of my favorites is the Kirin House, a little hole-in-the-wall Japanese place near my parents’ house.  They have some hibachi tables, but I have no idea if their cooked food is any good–I always get sidetracked by the sushi bar.  It’s teeny tiny, with only about 8 seats and one sushi chef, but the fish is incredibly fresh and the “special” rolls are all really tasty, creative, and beautifully presented.  It’s always a highlight of a trip home (along with Chick-fil-a, which is a sacred and yummy Southern tradition)!

In Athens, I’m never sure whether my affinity for certain places has to do more with truly good food or just college nostalgia.  Either way, I ate pretty well while I was visiting my alma mater.  At the Five Star Day Cafe, I had a great breakfast of a “scramble” (eggs with cheese, veggies, and ham), a potato cake with sour cream and corn relish, a chocolate chip muffin, and coffee–all for less than $10.  I enjoyed another great breakfast (and a killer chocolate milkshake) at the Grill, which is a campus landmark.  The only disappointment was Uncle Otto’s, which used to be called Achim’s, where I got a chicken “k-bob” and fries.  It was passable, but it was nowhere near as good as I remembered it–the chicken was dry, the sandwich was oversauced, and the fries didn’t taste delicious and fresh-cut like they once did.  Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess.

I also visited Athens’ culinary pride and joy, 5 & 10.  However, due to the buzz surrounding that particular establishment, it probably deserves its own post.  Look for that sometime within the next couple of days.

All in all, though I’m excited about moving back home, I’m torn in my feelings about the food.  I don’t doubt that there are great places to eat in Atlanta, but after living in DC for three years, I have to admit that I’m pretty spoiled.  Hopefully, with enough persistence, I’ll be able to find the folks who are devoted to making the Atlanta culinary scene as diverse and dynamic as the city itself.


Las Vegas, Part One (of many, I hope)

November 18, 2007
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Whew…Las Vegas is an exhausting city, especially when you’re fortunate enough to eat like I did! Here’s the report from the field…

For lunch on my first day, I went to Burger Bar (in Mandalay Place). In terms of atmosphere, it is virtually indistinguishable from any other sports bar or mall restaurant. While there are a few “set” recipes (such as the Surf ‘N Turf burger, which features Angus beef, lobster, and asparagus), the fun at Burger Bar lies largely in the diner’s ability to customize. I opted for the Kobe beef burger (which was $16), cooked rare and topped with swiss cheese, caramelized onions, and oyster mushrooms (these ranged from about sixty cents to two dollars). I also added a side of sweet potato fries (I believe they were just under $3). The burger was absolutely enormous, and it was more or less tartare-style with just a touch of great-tasting char around the outside. The combination of toppings worked well together and added some dimension, but they didn’t mask the wonderful flavor of the beef. The sweet potato fries were good and crunchy, but they weren’t anything particularly special. I also didn’t eat much of the whole wheat bun I had chosen—next time, I’ll just pass on the carbs and save room for dessert. Service was mediocre (I waited almost 15 minutes for someone to acknowledge my presence at the bar), but the draft beer list was surprisingly varied (most domestic drafts hovered around $5).

Next was dinner at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (in the MGM Grand). The trick is to get a seat at the bar and watch the food being prepared. I was right in the center of the madness, with views of nearly all the kitchen stations, and I enjoyed watching the controlled chaos of such an esteemed kitchen. I indulged in the 9-course tasting menu ($135), and it was absolutely phenomenal. Personal highlights included butter-poached oysters, pumpkin soup with chestnuts and homemade croutons, free-range quail stuffed with foie gras and glazed with acacia honey (served with truffled mashed potatoes that included three huge slices of the exotic mushroom—heavenly), and papaya puree with banana ice cream. Service from my individual waiter was somewhat lackluster (he seemed disappointed that I wanted tap water and only ordered one glass of wine—which, consequently, was $22), but the “supporting cast” of servers assistants did a great job of enhancing my experience. Also, the sommelier stopped by to chat a few times, and he was incredibly gracious and friendly. He even brought over a sample of a rare desert wine for me to try, as he noted that it worked quite well with my final sweet course. Overall, it was a delicious and inventive French culinary experience.

Even though I got a late start on Thursday morning, I knew that my breakfast had to be at Bouchon (in the Venetian). I had heard great things about the bistro and bakery, and I hoped it wouldn’t let me down. When I arrived at about 9 AM, the place was bustling. I took a seat at the bar and waited about 10 minutes for someone to greet me with a menu. I knew immediately what I wanted to order—French toast, a side of sausage, and coffee—and my food was rung in at 9:15. As I caffeinated myself, the minutes ticked away and everyone around me received his or her food. At 9:50 AM, I still had nothing to eat, and I asked the server to check on my food and put it in to-go containers (I had to be at work at 10 AM). Finally, just a few moments before ten, my breakfast appeared from the kitchen and I bolted to my conference. I didn’t take my hunger-stoked anger out on the waitress—after all, it wasn’t her fault, and she kept my coffee full. However, I will be hesitant to return to Bouchon without much more time to spare. That said, the French toast was divine; the brioche was layered with apples and custard, and it had just the right amount of sweetness. The sausage was spicy, house-made, and absolutely out of this world. If the food was that good on the run, I’d absolutely like to taste it while relaxing in the charming atmosphere of the bistro itself.

I knew that I had to venture off the strip for one meal, and I knew exactly where that meal was going to be. So, after work on Thursday, I hailed a cab and told him to rush me to Lotus of Siam (located on East Sahara Avenue). I told my server about my peanut allergy and told him to pick me out an appetizer and an entrée that would represent the best the restaurant had to offer. To start, I had prawns that were wrapped in bacon, fried (in what tasted almost like egg roll batter), and served with sweet and sour sauce. Meaty and full of flavor, I would definitely order them again. For my main course, I had the drunken noodles with sea bass—and oh my gawd, that stuff was incredible. The fish was lightly fried and crispy on the edges, but velvety smooth on the inside. The noodles were tender and intensely flavorful, especially when paired with the peppers and basil leaves that accompanied them. I asked for the dish medium spicy, and it was the perfect amount of heat—it challenged my palate, but it didn’t obscure the wonderful flavor of the delicate fish. After all of that food and two Singha beers (I had forgotten how good they were), I was as full as I’ve been in a while. But any stomach stretching was 110% worth it, as Lotus of Siam was the highlight of my Las Vegas dining.

There you have it–hope that helps any future Vegas-goers! Back to my regularly scheduled diet…


House of Pies, Houston, TX

September 17, 2007
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My dad’s new job takes him to Houston on occasion, and he asked me for recommendations in terms of where to eat. Culinarily speaking, I don’t yet have a lot to say about that part of Texas. However, on my one and only voyage there, I was searching for a notable noshing experience and my boyfriend (who spent some time in the Lone Star State as a lad) said, “You HAVE to go to the House of Pies.” I was intrigued.

The House of Pies is an unassuming, almost Waffle House-esque diner whose tagline is, “A slice of heaven on Earth.” I couldn’t agree more. With reliable munchies (I had a Monte Christo sandwich and a heap of fabulously crunchy tater tots) and 24-hour service (with breakfast available anytime), it would already be a great place to add to the rotation. But there’s more! On the daily menu, there are about 8 fruit pies, 11 cream pies, 3 meringue pies, and 8 specialty pies from which to choose. You can buy them by the slice or by the pie, but one thing is for sure—you will never forget your first bite. When I went with some work colleagues while on a business trip, we tried the Dutch apple (yummy), the Bavarian chocolate banana (even yummier), and the strawberry rhubarb (the yummiest). We all decided that we should have skipped dinner and just eaten pie all night. If only they shipped…

The first time my dad went to Houston, he ignored my wholehearted endorsement and skipped the House of Pies. The second time, however, I wasn’t taking no for an answer and I told him I’d disown him if he didn’t give it a try. Then we had the following telephone exchange:

Dad: Guess where I am.
Betty: I don’t know, where?
Dad: The House of Pies.
Betty: * Delighted and jealous squeal * Do you love love love it? Are you eating tater tots? What kind of pie are you having?!?!
Dad: Yes, yes, Bavarian chocolate banana, and oh my god it is so $%#&*@! good.
Betty: * Stomach rumbling, wondering if her agency’s Houston office needs any help *

If you’re anywhere near Houston, you MUST visit this fine establishment. For those of us who are far far away from the magic, we can still talk about pie, which is probably the greatest fall dessert. What’s your favorite variety? Do you make your crust from scratch (and if so, what’s your secret)? Are there any local establishments that can compare to the House of Pies?


Cyrus: A Sonoma Standout

June 28, 2007
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When planning my weekend in San Francisco—my first time in the city—there were some things that were obvious. I wanted to get a burrito in the Mission District. I wanted to eat at my sister’s neighborhood sushi joint. I wanted to have pasta and chianti in North Beach. What wasn’t obvious, however, was that my finest dining experience in Northern California wouldn’t be in the City by the Bay. Rather, I traveled to Healdsburg with sis and Mr. Barzelay and enjoyed dinner at Cyrus.

Located in a quaint little town square, Cyrus almost seems out of place. It is opulently decorated, almost to the point of unnecessary pretension. The air of affectation continues when, shortly after napkins are placed on laps, a tuxedoed gentleman visits the table with a cart full of caviar and champagne options. It’s enough to make a usually bargain-oriented diner downright nervous.

Luckily, the haughtiness pretty much ended there. Our server was warm and friendly, and she explained how things worked: we could order the Chef’s seven-course tasting menu for $110, or we could custom-build a three course ($68), four course ($80), or five course ($92) meal. There was plenty that intrigued me about the regular menu, and I had recently treated myself to two phenomenal tasting menus, so I opted to create a unique five-course experience. Jeanette and David did the same (and I hope they will share their experiences, as I can only really remember my own).

A few canapés came out first, and they were delicious and delicate. One was a bit of asparagus puree on a small spoon, another was a homemade falafel, and another was some sort of fritter with a wonderful saffron flavor. Next, an amuse bouche of smoked salmon (sadly, I don’t remember the exact presentation). The flavors were very clean, and it was a treat to have another unexpected bite.

Just when we thought our first courses were arriving, we were presented with another amuse (at least, that’s how the servers described it). It was less like an amuse, though, and more like an appetizer—in fact, the “Roasted Asparagus with Fennel and Licorice Coulis” was on the dinner menu in the section marked “Vegetables.” No matter—it was fantastic. The asparagus was perfectly cooked, and the fennel was pickled beneath it and added a great tang. I don’t like licorice at all, but the coulis was a perfect match.

Course number one was “Black Cod with Uni, Zucchini and Green Papaya, Ginger Basil Broth.” Uni is sea urchin “roe,” and it is definitely an acquired taste—it has a very strong flavor, and the texture is akin to runny custard. On top of the sweet, firm cod, it was phenomenal. And even though I didn’t want to stuff myself with bread, I had to break off some crusty goodness and dip it in the wonderful ginger basil broth. Yum.

Next came “Truffled Red Wine Risotto, Parmesan Broth.” I am a risotto fanatic, and I make it at home quite frequently, so I relish any opportunity to taste how the chefs interpret the dish. The Parmesan broth was actually more like a foam, and there was a bit too much of it on the plate. The flavor of the dish was exquisite—very earthy and rich. However, the texture was disappointing; I like my risotto to be creamy, with just a little bite to the Arborio rice, but this version was far too al dente. It almost felt crunchy in my mouth, which I did not enjoy. I was very torn about this particular course, though my companions seemed to love it.

Course number three was “Hoisin Squab with Black Bean Rice Cake and Candied Kumquats.” This dish was absolutely delicious—the bird was perfectly cooked, and the skin was almost caramelized in the hoisin sauce. I enjoyed eating it by itself, but the squab was enhanced even further with a bit of candied kumquat on the fork. The black bean cake was just a touch overdone, but it added a great crunch. If all poultry could be prepared like this, I’d eat it a lot more often.

My final savory course was “Bacon Wrapped Pork Loin with Green Garlic Potato Puree and Chard.” Sadly, the best was not saved for last—this course was pretty disappointing. Part of why I ordered it was to see if (and how) the chef could make pork loin—a fairly lean, bland cut—unique and mouth-watering. The bacon in which the pork loin was wrapped was delicious, and the loin itself was cooked perfectly (which, for me, means slightly underdone), but the dish, as a whole, was lackluster.

Dessert for me was “Three Custards: Mousse of Crème Brulee, Blackberry Almond Pot de Crème, Tarragon Cheesecake.” The crème brulee mousse was out of this world—sweet and creamy, but with a very uncharacteristic lightness that I thoroughly enjoyed. The top layer of sugar wasn’t torched like in traditional crème brulee, but its crunchiness was a welcome finish. The blackberry pot de crème was my least favorite of the three (it was more liquidy than I would have liked), though its color was lovely. The cheesecake by itself was just the slightest bit dry, but it was remedied by dipping it in the accompanying tarragon sauce (which was quite good).

All in all, Cyrus was a lovely experience. Not everything scored a perfect ten, but the full-fledged disappointments were fairly few. I love the flexibility that the menu offers, and I appreciate the nod to individual taste with the ability to dress a meal up or keep it more casual. I’m not sure that a meal at Cyrus on its own merits the drive from San Francisco (like, say, The French Laundry does), but if you’re in the Sonoma area and want to experience fine dining, I would recommend making reservations.


He blinded me with science!

June 13, 2007
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Wylie Dufresne is a polarizing figure, to be sure. His critics lambaste him for being too intellectual, too scientific, too “out there.” His loyal fans defend his madcap kitchen antics, claiming that his avant-garde food is both challenging and tasty. When I visited wd~50 the first Saturday in June, I wasn’t sure on which side of the fence I would land. I was familiar with Chef Dufresne’s biography (he attended the French Culinary Institute in New York, and he worked his way up the food chain—pun intended—in Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant empire), and I was infinitely curious about his devotion to molecular gastronomy. With that knowledge, and with my girlfriend Erica and my love of food in tow, I arrived at 50 Clinton Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The maitre’d escorted us to our table, which was quite close to the kitchen. I immediately began craning my head to see if “the mad scientist” was back there. Those famous sideburns would be visible soon enough—as I learned later, Chef Dufresne is almost always in the kitchen, experimenting, collaborating, and perfecting his craft. Erica and I ordered cocktails and opted for the tasting menu. I took a sip of my vodka concoction and prepared for an interesting evening.

The amuse bouche was described as “Fluke, nigella-raisin, asparagus, arugula blossoms.” I was immediately hesitant, as raisins are one of my least-favorite foods. However, the addition of nigella (which is akin to cumin, from what I could taste) to the puree made it complex, spicy-sweet, and delicious. The clean-tasting fish and crisp asparagus were tasty, and the dish certainly woke up my mouth (and my brain).

The second course: “Shrimp and tarragon macaroons.” When I think about macaroons, my mind usually jumps to the dense, coconut-laden Passover dessert. These? Nothing like that. The consistency actually reminded me of meringue—they practically melted on my tongue. Even better, they tasted like shrimp (which I definitely prefer over coconut)! The tarragon was a little too heavy on two of the three macaroons, but it’s not my favorite herb, so I may just be a tad sensitive.

Next up: “Foie gras in the round.” I was totally blown away by the presentation of this dish. It looked like some kind of kids’ breakfast cereal, with little pellets of foie, a green herb (maybe watercress?), and crisp rice covered in dark chocolate. While the visual was interesting, I didn’t fall head over heels for the taste—the chocolate definitely overpowered the foie. The texture, however, mixed soft and crunchy and liquid and solid quite ingeniously, and I enjoyed that aspect of the course.

For the fourth course, we were served “Sweetbreads, cabbage-kaffir, water chestnuts.” This was probably my favorite course of the evening. The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked, braised before being coated in chamomile flour and deep fried. I was initially concerned that the cabbage-kaffir puree would overpower the dish, but it brought a tart, slightly pickled flavor to the sweetbreads, and it worked very well. The water chestnuts were crunchy and tangy (I believe there was some balsamic vinegar involved in their preparation)—I could have eaten many more of them.

Course number five: “Beef tongue, fried mayo, tomato molasses.” I tried this one both separately (each ingredient on its own) and put together like a high-class sandwich. The verdict? It was fantastic either way. The tongue tasted gently pickled, and I really enjoyed the thinness of the slices—it made the meat seem even more tender. The tomato molasses was smoky and strong. The star of the plate, however, was the fried mayo. When I initially heard about this dish, I balked at the concept, finding it almost revolting (mostly because I’m a “light on the mayonnaise” kind of gal). In actuality, it was rich and creamy on the inside, with just the right amount of crunch in the coating. All I had to do was press the cube lightly against the roof of my mouth, and warm, luscious deliciousness exploded across my taste buds. Who knew a condiment could be so erotic?

Next: “Miso soup, sesame ‘noodles.’” I wish my local Japanese joint served miso like this. I usually find it too salty, but this version had great flavor without too much salinity. The mushrooms added a woody richness, and the sesame tofu paste (which came in a plastic tube and had to be squeezed into the bowl of hot liquid) turned into delicious noodles, far better than the usual squares of limp bean curd that float lifelessly in most renditions. This dish proved that soup isn’t just for cold winter nights—despite the heat outside, I relished every drop of the comforting broth.

For the seventh course, we had “Langoustine, popcorn, hibiscus, endive.” This was probably the low point of the tasting menu for me. The endive was very good, but the rest of the components just didn’t work well together—the langoustine was practically flavorless, the popcorn was incredibly overwhelming (and unappetizing in look and mouth-feel), and the hibiscus was gorgeous but way too sugary. I appreciated the presentation effort, but the flavors were incongruous at best.

Course number eight was “Squab breast, beets, sorrel, coconut pebbles.” Yum! My dining companion, who is not a fan of beets, really disliked this dish. I thought it was great. The squab was tender and full-bodied, and the beets—both on the crust of the meat and as an accompaniment—were out of this world. I didn’t think I would enjoy the coconut pebbles, but they brought a milky lightness to the otherwise dark, lush ingredients. I’ll never look at a pigeon quite the same way again.

Whew, we made it to dessert! The first sweet treat on the tasting menu was “Peach puree, peanut, pandan,” but I was presented with “Yuzu curd, shortbread, spruce yogurt, pistachio” due to my peanut allergy. I don’t know how the peach dessert tasted (it must have been good, since Erica cleaned her plate), but the yuzu was amazing—clean and lemony, the curd was impeccably textured. The shortbread was wonderfully buttery, and the pistachio added a great nutty finish.

The next dessert: “Fried butterscotch pudding, mango, taro, smoked macadamia.” After the pleasant surprise of the fried mayo, I expected to delight in this dessert—and, for the most part, pastry chef Alex Stupak did not disappoint. Aside from the taro ice cream (which I didn’t care for at all), the flavors of this course were unique and harmonious. In this course and the previous, the use of nuts was really spectacular—they really accentuated the overall effect of the desserts.

Finally: “Soft chocolate, avocado, licorice, lime.” I almost didn’t want to eat this course, since it was so breathtaking on the plate—but, it was chocolate, so that thought didn’t stick around too long. Because it was twirled so perfectly, I expected the “ribbon” of chocolate to be harder or more rigid than the menu described (like candy, I suppose). To the contrary, it was soft and smooth and utterly decadent. The lime ice cream (which I saved for last) was cool and refreshing, and the avocado puree added some vibrant color and cut the sweetness of the chocolate a bit.

The service was excellent, and folks seemed to be enjoying their respective jobs. While waiting for the check and chewing on “‘Cool’ black currant jelly,” I tried to ask each member of the staff (we received assistance from a number of individuals) what drew them to wd~50. Some were in culinary school and had done intern stints in the kitchen. Some were attracted to the team-oriented atmosphere. All seemed excited by Chef Dufresne’s gastronomic vision and the customers’ varied reactions to it.

Before departing, I approached the maitre’d and told him what a great time we’d had. He seemed confused. “You’re not leaving yet, are you?” he asked. “We’d love to show you the kitchen and give you an opportunity to meet the chef.” I don’t know if they offer this treat to everyone, or if the fact that I mentioned (when asking permission to take pictures of the food) that I write for a DC food blog played some sort of role, but he didn’t have to ask me twice! We entered the kitchen and stood to the side, hearing about how the space was designed to allow for optimum communication, mobility, and performance. I saw a shelf full of emulsifiers and crazy chemicals that the crew uses to create its delicacies. I even saw a flyer advertising Chef Dufresne’s birthday bash–if we were going to be in town the next day, I probably would have invited myself. Chefs Dufresne and Stupak (among others) were hard at work, but the former was incredibly gracious and friendly (which is not to imply that the latter was unfriendly—he was just on the other side of the kitchen). He thanked us for coming, asked if we enjoyed our meal, and chatted briefly with us about the DC and Manhattan dining scenes. To my great delight, he even posed for a quick photo.

I left wd~50 absolutely elated. Sure, there were a few misses on the menu, but the hits were far more numerous (and quite grand in scope). The experience as a whole was like nothing I’ve ever seen, smelled, tasted, heard, or felt before. It challenged everything I thought I knew about food and its interaction with the senses. It certainly made me think, and it often made me laugh.

Every genius will have haters—talent, drive, and creativity are simultaneously blessings and curses. However, until you experience wd~50 firsthand, you have no idea how fresh, exciting, and innovative a meal can be. Bravo, Chef Dufresne—you can now count me among your many admirers.


Oh, Morimoto!

May 31, 2007
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As a poor public servant, my food reviews are generally relegated to a) what I concoct in my own kitchen, b) affordable neighborhood spots, and c) Restaurant Week specials. Every once in a while, though, I splurge on a true dining experience—and an experience is exactly what I got last week at Morimoto in Philadelphia.

Since it was my first visit to the restaurant, I arrived at 723 Chestnut Street about 45 minutes before my scheduled reservation in order to check out the scene in the lounge. After walking upstairs, I was greeted by a much smaller bar space than I was expecting—but the cocktail menu was full of big flavors. I opted to begin my evening with a cilantro gimlet (Belvedere vodka, fresh cilantro, and simple syrup, served with a wedge of lime). I love cilantro, so it was the perfect drink for me. Actually, it didn’t taste too overpoweringly like the strong herb. However, when I leaned in and inhaled while sipping, the aroma of the cilantro combined with the cool tartness of the vodka to create a delicious sensory experience. I knew it was going to be a good night.

I resisted a second cocktail and made my way back downstairs to the sushi bar, where I settled in for the main event. I had already decided to order the chef’s tasting menu, or omakase (which, in Japanese, means “entrust” or “protect”). The only question was, which one? The price points were $80, $100, and $120, and with every increase came more creativity and higher quality ingredients. I decided to go for the $120 menu—after all, I was in search of an experience. The waitress, Wendy (who was marvelous), also convinced me to order a beverage omakase to compliment my meal. Those came in $45, $65, and $85 varieties, with the latter being very sake-heavy. I chose the middle ground and asked for replacements for the sake, since I’m not a big fan.

Morimoto

The first course consisted of toro (fatty tuna) tartare with fresh wasabi. The toro was combined with scallions and spices and molded spherically in the middle of the plate. A large spoonful of ossetra caviar was placed on top of the toro—absolutely stunning presentation. I was encouraged to put the toro, caviar, and wasabi onto my spoon (and, thus, into my mouth) at the same time. I did so, and it was unbelievable—the sweet taste and soft texture of the toro balanced beautifully with the salty, almost crunchy nuttiness of the caviar. And the fresh wasabi? Well, let’s just say that it was NOTHING like the pungent green paste you see at neighborhood sushi joint. It really enhanced the flavors of the dish. Also included on the plate was a palate cleanser of Yamamoto (wild Japanese mountain peach). With this course, I was served a glass of Moet & Chandon White Star champagne, which was a lovely compliment.

The second course involved three Kumamoto oysters on the half shall, each served with a unique sauce. One was Japanese orange salsa, another was citrus cilantro salsa (kind of like a ceviche marinade), and the last was Thai fish sauce with jalapeno. I didn’t think I’d like the Thai fish sauce, but it ended up being my favorite. None of the sauces were overpowering at all—they contributed just the right amount of flavor to the plump, mouth-watering mollusks. This course was paired with the Morimoto martini (sake, vodka, and Japanese cucumbers). The booze-soaked cukes were yummy, but the cocktail overall had too much sake for my liking, so I discarded it about halfway through.

For the third course, I was presented with live Japanese scallop carpaccio, which was seared with olive and sesame oils, drizzled with yuzu citrus soy, and garnished with shiso, ginger, chive, and Japanese micro cilantro. The scallops were the freshest, sweetest, most tender bivalves I’ve ever consumed. The hot oils cooked the meat just enough to impart some delicate flavor and enhance the already-divine texture. This may have been my favorite dish of the evening—absolutely heavenly, especially when served with a Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc.

The fourth course was Kampachi (striped jack) sashimi served over mixed greens with soy onion dressing, chive oil, and a balsamic reduction, garnished with shaved bonito (skipjack tuna, which is smoked and dried). It was the greatest salad I’ve ever eaten. The sashimi was, needless to say, fresh and fantastic. The fish had strong flavor, which was not a bad thing, and it was amped up even more with the addition of the shaved bonito (which was very fishy and very good). I had heard fairy tales about the soy onion dressing, and I’m happy to report that the stories are true—it is just that good. I am still amazed how something so robust could be so simultaneously refreshing. The wine for this course was tasty, though I must admit that I was so into the food at this point that the pairings sometimes escaped me. I believe it was a Sylvaner from Alsace.

After a brief intermezzo (lemon pepper sorbet, I believe), I was ushered into the fifth course, which was Lobster Epice (Eight Spice Lobster). The lobster was tender and delicious and very spicy (which is a good thing, in my book), and the accompanying crème fraiche was perfect to cool my mouth between bites. Normally I prefer the tail of the lobster, but this one’s claw meat was so sublimely seasoned and cooked that my bias went right out the window. The wine for this course was a pinot noir from the Burgundy region—again, I was so wrapped up in the food that I forgot to take a good look at the label.

Prior to the sixth course, seafood had been the name of the game. Then arrived a plate of pan-seared Kobe beef with grilled abalone mushrooms, dashi/mirin/soy reduction, micro greens, and basil oil. I had never eaten Kobe beef before, but I had watched with envy as countless Iron Chef judges marveled over its flavor and mouth-feel. I am pleased to report that it is everything I thought it would be, and more. In contrast to American aged beef, the generous portion of Kobe was smooth, subtle, velvety, and actually quite sweet. The firm, earthy mushrooms and salty soy reduction were perfect compliments to the meat. As if this course wasn’t perfect enough, the wine was one of my all-time favorites—Montecillo Gran Reserva Rioja (1998). When I told the waitress that I discovered the wine while living in Madrid, she seemed to appreciate the wonderful memories that the bottle brought forth and said, smiling, “Well, let’s pour you a little more of that one, shall we?” Brilliant.

Despite the fact that a feeling of fullness (and tipsiness) was beginning to wash over me, I knew that the seventh course was the sushi course, so I rallied for the most anticipated part of the meal (for me, anyway). One by one, I watched as the chef prepared and delivered my sushi—anago (conger eel), toro (fatty tuna), kasugo (young sea bream), fluke, aoyagi (orange clam), and shima aji (white trevally). Each piece had its own unique taste and texture, and it would be impossible for me to pick a favorite. The glass of Veuve Clicquot champagne that I was served only enhanced the course.

For dessert, I was presented with a bittersweet chocolate torte with white chocolate ginger ice cream and raspberry sauce. To be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed, and this turned out to be my least favorite course. The ginger ice cream surprised me (normally, I am not a fan of ginger, but this rendition was simple, subtle, and delicious), but the cake was average at best. My wine pairing was an Alvada 5-year Madeira, which was way too sweet for my taste. Next time, I’ll ask for a second sushi board and another glass of bubbly.

Obviously, the food was the highlight of the evening, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the exceptional service I received. Everyone—from the hostess to the bartender to the waitress to the food-runners—treated me as if I was the only customer in the restaurant. When I asked if I could take photos* of the dishes, the response was enthusiastically affirmative. When I mentioned that I didn’t want to spend my time writing down details, the manager stepped up to the plate and, at the conclusion of the evening, consulted with the chef and typed up a list of what I had been served. Wendy was friendly and conversational, and she checked on me frequently to make sure I was enjoying each course. However, she didn’t smother me, and she made sure I had enough space to enjoy the experience in my own way.

With opening cocktail, omakase (both food and beverage), tax, and tip (which was admittedly generous), the total came to $269. Yes, I left Morimoto a bit lighter in the wallet, but I was fuller in the stomach and in the spirit. Regardless of whether or not “the man” is in town (I learned that I missed him by one day), I would return in a heartbeat. Arigato, Morimoto!

* Aside from the first and last courses, I only remembered to snap the pictures after I had eaten significant portions of the dishes. Therefore, I decided not to include them in this review—they really wouldn’t do justice to the beauty and delicacy of the presentations.


Viva Espana!

March 30, 2007
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Anyone who knows me knows that I adore Spain. I’ve traveled there twice, the second time being a four-month stint during my junior year of college. I learned a lot, I drank a lot, but most importantly, I ate a lot—and VERY well.

Thankfully, Spanish food was very hot in the United States by the time I returned from abroad, especially tapas-style restaurants. In DC, when I’m feeling nostalgic for the Iberian Peninsula, I head to Jaleo. While it doesn’t quite live up to the grub I got in Spain, it comes nostalgically close. I wholeheartedly recommend the bacon-wrapped dates, the stuffed peppers, and the apple and manchego salad. Yum!

On Sunday night, the owner of Jaleo (among other restaurants), Chef Jose Andres, will be challenging Chef Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. I am really excited about this battle, as it should be pretty interesting to see how Chef Flay’s southwestern flavors stack up against Chef Andres’ Latin influences. I just hope the secret ingredient is something that will push both chefs to their creative limits.

So, in honor of Chef Andres and all the other delights that hail from Spain, here’s a list of some of my favorite culinary experiences from my time in the greatest country in Europe:

Queso manchego—It’s Spain’s most famous cheese for a reason! The mild, semi-hard, sheep’s milk cheese is absolutely delicious when paired with fresh tomatoes or, even better, some sliced Serrano ham.

Paella—I never made it to Valencia (where the dish originated), but I had some incredibly tasty versions at cafeterias and restaurants all over Spain. I prefer the seafood variety, but it’s also very good with chicken and Chorizo sausage. The most important part of paella is the saffron—which, being the most expensive spice in the world, is probably why it is so difficult to find truly authentic paella anywhere else.

Calamari sandwiches—I loved fried squid before I traveled overseas, but I had never had it between two slices of bread. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed the portable version very much! Unfortunately, I wasn’t a big mayonnaise eater at the time, and Spaniards reeeeeally liked to glop it all over their sandwiches (despite any requests to the contrary). So, rather than forego the tasty snack, I learned to like yet another condiment. Yum!

Casa Botin—The Guinness Book of World Records claims that this is the oldest restaurant in the world (it was founded in 1725). Hemingway was a frequent customer. Francisco de Goya allegedly worked there before he was a painter. How could a place with so much history be bad? The cast-iron ovens are centuries old, which is probably why their roast suckling pig is such a sought-after specialty. Since I was attempting to keep kosher at the time, and since I had just survived a three-month ban on beef due to a mad cow epidemic, I ordered what any demure lady would have—a huge slab of cow, poco hecho (basically, raw). It was the most wonderful and succulent piece of meat I’ve ever had.

Rabo de toro—Basically, this is oxtail stew, braised until it is tender and delicious. I’d liken it to pot roast, but it’s even better. The best versions I found were in Andalucia, the southern part of the country (down in Sevilla and Granada).

Criadillas—Or, in English, bull testicles. Yeah. Easily the weirdest thing I tried while living in Spain, but, strangely, not the grossest (that honor goes to blood sausage). The experience is more intense than beef—saltier, and definitely chewier—but not entirely unpleasant. If it hadn’t been cooked with so much garlic, I may have told a different story!

Sidra—Actually, the mildly alcoholic cider was only a part of the amazing experience (though it is pretty darn cool to fill your glass right from the barrel). Our hostel owner took us into the mountainous countryside of San Sebastian, where we found one of many local sidrerias (cider houses). Many hours of revelry, many courses of freshly grilled foods, and MANY fascinating conversations later, I counted myself incredibly fortunate to have taken part in such an interesting tradition.

La Farfalla—I don’t remember how we stumbled upon this restaurant (which is a short walk from the Anton Martin Metro station), but once we saw the butterfly above the door, we were absolutely charmed. Its specialty is Argentinean-style grilled meats, but they also have surprisingly good thin-crust pizzas—in a homey, laid-back atmosphere with friendly service and reasonable prices.

Churros—Nothing caps off a late night/early morning in Madrid quite like some steaming hot churros. Many of my clubbing comrades liked to dip them in the accompanying thick chocolate, but as a donut purist, I simply gobbled up the cinnamon-sugary, soft on the inside, crisp on the outside goodness.

Rioja—I wasn’t a big wine drinker before I traveled abroad, but by the time I left Spain, I was drinking at least a glass or two of rioja every day. Thank goodness it has found its way into favor in the U.S.! I find it to be a very complex wine, but it is also very drinkable—I’d say it has the weight of a merlot (meaning that you can pair it with lighter foods, since it is not overwhelming), but with a lot more character and depth.

Any other Spain fans care to share their faves?


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