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Welcome to tastingmenu.com. My repository for thoughts and notes on my eating experiences. Hopefully you'll find something enjoyable, entertaining, or informative. Click here to see where I'm coming from.

 

Saturday, November 29, 2003, 10:51 PM


More calendar business. For awhile I tried to keep an up-to-date calendar of upcoming food events here. Anyone who's been here recently knows that I have failed miserably and not updated this page in months. You deserve better.

Since an exact calendar is not possible (the site is free after all), we're going to take a slightly different approach. From now on this will be a running catalog of annual food-related events. The exact dates won't be listed of course but you should be able to follow the links and find out when things are happening in the coming year. I suggest you look at things early as sometimes events shift from month to month. Feel free to e-mail me if you know of any events not listed. The list should grow over time.

 

Thursday, November 27, 2003, 11:37 AM


I wonder who really wants to read about food on thanksgiving day. For our thanksgiving Alex is attempting to make a Thompson's Turkey, and I'm concocting a dish called "Thanksgiving in 15 seconds". Basically a sweet potato pancake topped with turkey breast and turkey bacon and dressed with a cranberry apple velouté sauce. At least that's the current thinking. I'll fill you in on how it went.

In honor of the holiday (or just because I finally got it done) is a new feature of the site - the eating calendar. Just click "When" in the navigation area at the top of any page. Why does this page need to exist? Well, my friend Kira gets annoyed that on the site we list everything by the date the write-up is published and not by the date we ate there. Though for any pictures posted we do show the actual date of the pictures. Bottom line, she appears to want to have obsessive knowledge of where we've eaten when. So here it is.

The links take you to the write-up for this visit to the restaurant. If there's no link, the write-up hasn't been posted. This way you also get to see how far behind I am as well as what cool restaurant write-ups are coming up.

Note, I also removed the link to search as I can't get it to work since we upgraded the server. I'll keep trying to make it work.

 

Tuesday, November 25, 2003, 11:57 PM


I saw some Zagat-like guide to London restaurants in a bookstore the other day. (My PocketPC ate my notes so unfortunately I won't be able to name it specifically). Much to my dismay it recommended E&O as one of the best restaurants in London. If you used their glowing recommendation as a baseline, then the book should be burned. Judging a restaurant after eating there only once is a  faux pas in professional restaurant critic circles. Luckily I am not a professional and don't need to eat yet another mediocre meal at E&O.

At first the meal made me nervous. E&O (stands for Eastern and Oriental) is located in the Notting Hill area of West London. This is reputed to be a "hip" area with lots of restaurants. Sounds good to me. However, on our way I realized that though we'd already eaten at numerous restaurants, this was our first time in West London. I was immediately nervous that we were somehow discriminating against restaurants in this part of town and wondered whether we were trying a truly representative sample. Unfortunately E&O was not a quality ambassador for the cuisine that West London has to offer.

The first problem is the genre of the cuisine - pan-Asian fusion. This already sets the bar high. Pan-Asian fusion can be a cliche. And these days even Chili's has some Asian ingredients littered throughout their dishes. That said, I love Asian ingredients, so if someone wants to mix them in new and interesting ways for me I'm up for it. However, that's not what E&O - and many other pan-Asian fusion restaurants I've been to - do. What they do is put some Thai and Japanese dishes on the same menu and call it fusion. Separate orders of sushi and satay do not a fusion make.

The meal started off with cold edamame. I like them hot better, but these came with sprinklings of soy, Mirin and a very flakey interesting salt that compensated for the lack of heat. (Edamame always amazes me in that the seasoning goes on the shells which you don't eat. But because it's a finger food just the right amount of salt gets on the actual pods and makes it to your mouth. It's an indirect route but an effective one.)

After the edamame, some chive and prawn dumplings arrived. They were not good. The wrapper was somehow overcooked and undercooked at once - starchy and overly limp. The crab futomaki was boring (with or without its garlic aioli accompaniment). The pad thai was also flavorless with scant chicken (which was a good thing since the chicken was dry and without flavor). The Thai Rare Beef Salad was decent, because there was actually a good amount of flavor in it. Debbie pointed out that it registered as the spiciest dish of the meal coming in at a scorching "mild". (Potato chip manufacturers would call this level of seasoning - "piquante" or the ever confusing "mild and wild".)

Among the dishes we ordered were two Nobu ripoffs. After our less than stellar experience at Nobu London, you might ask why we'd want to get copies. We asked ourselves the same thing afterwards. The seabass new style sashimi just sat there. The kitchen had missed the point of the dish where disciplined timing results in cold fish just getting cooked ever so slightly as it hits the table by hot oil. The Rock Shrimp Tempura was not bad by any stretch but lacked the magic of Nobu's. I classify it somewhere above popcorn shrimp served at airport restaurants.

Bottom line: West London may have a lot to offer, but E&O isn't the place to find it.

After our mediocre lunch we did walk around the Notting Hill area and peruse some of the bookstores. The bulletin board at the local travel bookstore was covered with articles claiming it was the basis for the travel bookstore in the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts movie Notting Hill. For some reason while trying to determine whether this connection to Hollywood was imagined or real on the part of the bookstore owner, I remembered that London's very own food bookstore was nearby - Books for Cooks. In fact, it was across the street. Unfortunately this was not to be the event that made up for our mediocre lunch. The sign on the door said that Books for Cooks was closed for an August holiday and would reopen in September (after our departure). Bummer.

I started thinking after I wrote this about whether I'm writing too much about restaurant experiences that aren't good. After all, if you're looking for somewhere to eat and you see the word "mediocre" in the first paragraph of a restaurant review you're probably flipping to the next restaurant in a hurry and not too worried about missing out on some of my sparkling prose. That said, after thinking about it for a bit, at the very least if the owner of the restaurant in question were ever to read what I wrote then I figure I owe it to them to be as specific as possible.' And besides, you never know what hidden gems of observation and insight from me you'll find even in a write-up of a restaurant that wasn't great. ; ) That said, I'll try my best to make sure that the bulk of my writing is about memorable and enjoyable food and meals. (And I'll do my best to make sure that my experience as opposed to just my writing reflects this ratio as accurately as possible.)

 

Monday, November 24, 2003, 9:57 PM


05-olives.jpgWhen a restaurant is described as the "local foodie temple" in various publications it's probably worth a try. Whether you think of that one-liner as a recommendation for or against a place to eat, it certainly increases the odds that something interesting is happening. London's Pied à Terre earned the aforementioned description, so we decided a visit for dinner was in order.

The long narrow dining room was beautiful and luckily felt more modern than corporate. It was also surprisingly empty. Not sure what London's eating patterns are but it seemed like more people should be there on a Wednesday night. There was an odd couple seated directly across from us who at various times looked like they were on an awkward first date or were about to get engaged to be married and demonstrate their love for each other rather explicitly right at the table. But that's a topic for a another day (and probably another website).

Our display of affection came from the chef and in the form of dishes at our table. Even before we sat down at our table, butter (for upcoming bread) and bowl of beautiful green olives had already been set out for us. It's a small detail but it was nice to know that they were expecting us and that preparations for our arrival began even before we arrived.  The olives were yummy and pretty. On another service related note, Debbie pointed out that she's immediately inclined to like restaurants where they call her "madam". :)

The first dish was a series of little tastes to get us ready for the meal to come. It was an array of four items organized by height including: pea foam, foie gras in filo dough, deep fried quail egg (the announcement of which Debbie greeted with a gasp), and fine tartlett of beef bourgogne. Let's take them one at a time. The pea foam was smooth, more substantial than you would expect, a gorgeous green color, and (in the words of an impression of Orson Wells doing a television ad for frozen peas on his short-lived but funny show - The Critic) "full of green pea-ness". The foie gras in filo dough was absolutely amazing. It was smooth, buttery, crispy on the outside and with an outstanding truffle flavor. I could eat a whole bag of these "snacks". The deep fried quail egg was like a little jewel with a soft yolk inside. I'm a big fan of soft-boiled eggs, and this one was perfect. We didn't get a chance to ask the chef how he did it, but it must have required some delicate handling and careful timing. The beef pastry which in a larger portion might have been heavy was just right given it's tiny smaller-than-bite size.

Just as we were marveling at the opening act, a basked of warm bread arrived. Why more restaurants can't deliver bread warm I don't know. I realize it's not quite as easy as cold bread, but the benefits greatly outweigh the costs as far as I'm concerned. Normally the warmth of the bread is my favorite feature of this "course". But at this meal it wasn't just any bread that showed up but an assortment including onion bacon bread. Why onion bacon bread? Why not onion bacon bread. Of course onions and bacon are wonderful things to combine and bread is a fine canvas on which to combine them. The smell was absolutely fantastic and present. The flavor was subtler. The combination was great. The excitement of the onion bacon combo almost overshadowed the other items in the basket. Almost. The tomato roll was also very yummy. The flavor was not of roasted tomatoes but of concentrated fresh tomatoes. Like tomato paste in a good way. Debbie felt that the combination of diversity and warmth in bread options was a sure sign that they loved their customers, and that the butter was a "gesture of genuine affection".

Next up was Lime Marinated Scallop "Ceviche" with Avocado and Crème Fraice and Sesame Filo. The reappearance of the filo didn't bother me as it was so delicious. It was kind of a small sub-theme of the evening. The citrusy ceviche "marinade" had a surprising depth and the avocado was super complementary. Delicious. What followed was Pepper Seared Tuna with Chive, Crushed Potatoes, Black Olive and Shallot Vinaigrette with Wood Sorrell. In a world of raw tuna cliches, this dish was interesting. The delicious potato salad was a totally a typical texture in combination with the tuna but great. Truly impressive was that lifelong olive hater Debbie liked the dish, olives and everything.

The next course started with Roasted Langoustine Tails with New Season Onions, Crispy Thyme, and Garlic Puree. While not garnering billing in the name, a scallop that was bursting with flavor and juice sat amidst the langoustine in the center of the dish. The garlic puree was a wonderful foundation for the other flavors. This was quite good. Seared and Poached Foie Gras in a Sauternes Consomme followed. The idea and the execution of the consomme was brilliant and light. Debbie loved it. However, by the time it got to me (after Debbie was done enjoying her half of the dish) I'm not sure it was a representative sample as I didn't enjoy it as much as she did. I think the window for eating it was very short given all the different chemical and heat reactions happening in the dish as it arrived at our table.

At one point in the meal the waiter noticed that a fly had made his final resting place my glass of water. I hadn't noticed until the waiter removed and replaced with grace and discretion. Good thing too. Bugs are not on my approved list. I wonder how many times in one's lifetime the waiter doesn't spot the crime scene and people end up drinking the fly.

An odd thing happened when we asked about the next dish - Poulet Noir with Ravioli of Confit Leg, Baby Leeks, and Summer Truffle Veloute. We asked the waiter what "poulet noir" was. Black chicken? He said it was just chicken from the north of France and there was really nothing special about it. I wondered, why mention it on the menu if there's nothing special about it, but luckily that didn't stop me from trying it. It was truly the juiciest chicken I've ever eaten. The slices of truffle were exceedingly generous in quantity. The giroles (which were popular in many London restaurants while we were there in August) and the creamy sauce wrapped the entire dish together in flavor.

Next up was Stuffed Rabbit Saddle with Pommery Mustard Sauce, Caramelised [sic] Onions and Creamed Carrots. This dish was super interesting especially for the impression it made visually. There was a "skin" around the three cylinders of amazing little bits of rabbit that looked like a sausage casing in the low light of the restaurant. The texture didn't shed any light on what the wrapper was made of either because it had this amazing better than sausage-like texture but was clearly organic. I finally had to ask and was told that the rabbit was wrapped in carrot. Cool! The rabbit was surprisingly soft and smooth in texture. The vegetable dice in the middle of the dish was a perfect complement.

This meal was basically Debbie and I making our own tasting menu. I'm not sure if we'd asked the kitchen for smaller portions on this journey of our own creation whether they would have been able to accommodate. I'm almost sure (i neglected to write it down in my notes) that they offered their own tasting menu which probably didn't have as many items as we wanted to try. I've expounded many times on the pitfalls of large portions. And amusingly enough, when the portions are too big, and the dish is still wonderful, it's a cruel pleasure. I eat too much, and don't have room towards the end of the meal. Have no fear, we went forward.

I don't subscribe to many of the precepts that form the basis for accepted modern food journalism in most of the food columns you read in newspapers and magazines. Basically, I'm of the opinion that these "rules" try to give the impression that writing about food can somehow be an objective endeavor. I think that's a crock. That said, it doesn't mean I have no framework at all for evaluation. I just admit it's a reflection of myself. One key to my construct is that if there's a dish gone awry in an otherwise lovely meal, it doesn't really bother me. I don't mean something that was poorly executed as that's really a sign of inconsistency and can be a real problem. I'm talking about dishes that just don't work. Pied à Terre served theirs up next - Pine Sorbet.

As much as I love the words "pre-dessert" the Pine Sorbet was awful. On fire on this particular evening, Debbie summed it up well. "It tastes like an air freshener. Or it tastes like I thought an air freshener would taste except that I've never tasted an air freshener because pine is not for tasting." To be fair, when you're trying new things, missteps are bound to happen. And the apple chutney and apple crisp that adorned the sorbet were delicious. Post script to this incident is that Alex still maintains that pine sorbet can be delicious. Debbie and Alex have agreed to disagree.

Dessert followed "pre-dessert". Roasted Peach with Bellini Puree, Fresh Almonds, and Butterscotch Ice Cream. And Raspberry Sable with Fromage frais Mousse and Wild Berry Sorbet. Yum! And what follows dessert but "post-dessert". More words we love to hear: "with compliments from the pastry chef". What showed up was Guinnes Stout Ice Cream with some chocolate adornments. Neither of us were huge Guinness fans (it's a taste I haven't acquired yet even after weeks in London) but it was clear that anyone who was would have fallen deeply in love with this ice cream.

Pied à Terre was a very very good experience. We walked away from this dinner with big smiles on our faces. People who saw us must have wondered why we were so happy. Dinner at Pied à Terre was the simple answer.

 

Thursday, November 20, 2003, 11:59 PM


In Japan, often when you get some sort of fast food (like better sushi than you can get in 80% of American sushi restaurants) that requires soy sauce, you typically get the soy sauce distributed in a cute little plastic fish. As best as I can tell, the plastic fish is starring in its own web cartoon. Thanks to some of my co-workers for this one.

Courtesy of Deb and Peyman - the most expensive and maybe best sushi in LA? Ginza Sushiko. $250 per person. Well, at least it was until the owner closed up shop to work on the the new Ginza Sushiko and Sake bar in New York City for $500 per person. The new place is scheduled to open in February of 2004.

Not quite as pricey is Zaftig's. My friend Scott says that this deli just outside Boston, MA is supposed to be great. It's now added to the list. Scott's culinary adventures span the coasts as he also recommends we check out Restaurant O in San Francisco's south bay area - Campbell (south of San Jose) to be exact. The Contra Costa Times/Mercury News provides this positive review.

 

Monday, November 17, 2003, 10:39 PM


We decided to go eat lunch at Angela Hartnett at the Connaught. Angela Hartnett delivers "British food with French and Italian influences" in the two dining rooms (Menu and Grill) at the Connaught Hotel in  London. This is a traditional, business lunch, dress up kind of place. The attentive waitstaff, the wood paneling, and the prices all say - old school conservative. The food however does try and bring things into the modern age.

We were wondering if there was some kind of bread basket coming. As Debbie started to get a little impatient not only did a basket filled with variety of yummy breads, rolls, and parmesan breadsticks (where you can actually taste the parmesan - I hate when they give you something called "parmesan" that has only a hint of the flavor) show up. But so did: a plate of creamy French butter, a dish of olive oil, and a plate full of slices of various salamis and cured hams. Score! And to get our appetites whetted a little further some small dishes filled with Cucumber Gazpacho showed up. It was a touch too thin and a touch too cold. But you really got a nice does of cucumbery-ness.

The first dishes we got - Grilled Asparagus with Fried Duck's Egg, Coarse Grain Mustard Dressing and shavings of Parmesan, and Carpaccio of Marinated Swordfish and Tuna with Radish and Shiso Cress, and Ume and Coriander dressing - were very very good. The egg and asparagus combo was excellent though I couldn't help but wish for some truffle to go along with it. I suppose that the Parmesan was trying to fill that role in the dish but my mouth felt strongly that some truffle shavings (in addition to and not instead of the parmesan) would have completed the dish. The carpaccio was a stunning arrangement of paper thin slices of tuna and swordfish arranged in a beautiful symmetrical flower pattern (almost like the Japanese royal family's chrysanthemum icon) and dressed with lots of olive oil which gave the dish a warm flavor interrupted wonderfully only by little bursts of salt and vinegar.

The main dishes were: Pan-Fried Sea Bass with Crab Couscous, Confit Tomatoes, and a Shellfish Vinaigrette; and Caramelised Gressingham Duck Breast with Glazed Peaches and Scottish Giroles. The sea bass was pan0fried beautifully. It was funny but the dish only came together where I had a bit of the tomatoes on the spoon along with the fish. Otherwise it wasn't as good. The duck was good, but we weren't able to find the "Glazed Peaches". There were these slices of something starchy and pale underneath the duck. We thought they were potatoes. Two successive waiters came to our table to try and point out to us where the peaches were. One theorized that they were little bits sprinkled between the mushrooms. Another asserted that the peaches were interwoven with the potatoes. Nobody denied that at least some of what was under the duck was potato, yet there was no mention of it on the menu. I believe one of two things happened: a) there was a screwup on the menu or in the kitchen and there wasn't anything with the atomic sign for peach anywhere on the plate, or b) the chef performed some kitchen magic so that the sliced peaches looked, smelled, and tasted like potatoes. Good potatoes. But not peaches. I've seen duck that tastes like steak, why not peaches that taste like potatoes. Either way, the dish would have been better if we'd actually tasted some form of peachiness (it's kind of what sold us on the dish as we read its description on the menu), which unfortunately we didn't.

Dessert included Strawberries and Cream with a Vanilla Sablé, and a 'Guanja Chocolate and Amaretto Semi-Freddo. Dessert hit a lovely note. And even though there were some highlights, and a couple of moments, lunch was still not super. Somehow through the technical proficiency, not enough character and soul came through in the dishes. Things were just  there. The moments that did exist during the meal, while quite nice (especially that carpaccio) were disconnected. It's obvious Angela Hartnett is working hard to try and deliver a great experience. Maybe in time she will find her voice.

 

Sunday, November 16, 2003, 11:02 PM


01-rasasamudra.jpgAccording to Encarta, the United States has a population of 290,342,550. Eighty-two percent of that population speak only English. India's population is 1,049,700,118 - over three times the number of people living in the United States. There are 112 mother tongues recognized by the government of India. Each have at least 10,000 speakers. Diversity is at scale in India.

Now consider the diversity of food in the United States. Barbecue, New England seafood, tex-mex, California cuisine, southwestern, and Creole to name a few. How many different styles of cooking would you guess exist in India with three times as many people and scores of languages? And yet, how do most Americans think about food from India (those who even eat Indian food)? (Actually, as far as I can tell, in 1999 it was fewer than 9.8% of Americans according to Taylor Nelson Sofres Intersearch and American Demographics.) My take is that those folks who eat at Indian restaurants think about it as one uniform genre of food. It's not. Not even close.

In fact, according to an expert quoted in an article in the Oxford Companion to Food, Indian "caste and religious restrictions have been largely responsible for preventing the emergence of anything like a national Indian diet." In fact, in her own university there were ten different kitchen and dining room pairings including: European, Non-vegetarian Hindu, Non-vegetarian Malayele-Hindu, Tamil-Telugu Christian, Syrian Christian, Brahmin, Thiyya, Nayar, Non-Brahmin Vegetarian, and Cosmopolitan. And this doesn't include all the regional varieties you can imagine exist.

Take for example food from the Kerala region of India. This southern state itself contains much diversity in terms of language, religion, and cuisine. Additionally, it's long narrow shape has significant coastline which brings us to Keralan seafood, the specialty of Rasa Samudra, Das Sreedharan's third London restaurant. From the Kerala region himself he'd already opened two very successful vegetarian restaurants named Rasa (the Sanskrit word for "taste"). Rasa Samudra (taste of the ocean) was the first Indian seafood restaurant in the UK. And it's where we found ourselves for dinner. Lucky us.

Not one of the dishes we ate was something that I'd eaten before at my many visits to Indian restaurants in the US, UK, and Japan. But the meal was interesting, delicious, and given how friendly everyone was, felt like home (even though my home couldn't be further from the southwestern coastline of India).

"Pre-meal snacks." Those are the three words our hostess said at the beginning of our meal, and there are very few three word combinations that I like hearing better than "pre-meal snacks". As Debbie pointed out, they weren't referring to appetizers. All the better as I love those too! Almost immediately a bowl full of various crunchy crackery items showed up on our table. These included a huge, beautiful, and extraordinarily crunchy achappam (the flower like item sitting atop all the other snacks). Also there were pappadums with extra good texture and flavor. Light. Even better than those were the seven super delicious and flavorful chutneys and pickles that showed up next to them. The menu said one of them would be a mango chutney, but none showed up. When we asked why, we were told that it was because there were no fresh green mangoes. No compromises. Good answer. The variations we did get included, garlic, shrimp, red pepper, mint, lemon, and others. The red pepper was sweet and almost a tiny bit smoky. We also got the ever-elusive onion chutney (the only Indian restaurants I've ever had it at were in Boston, every other one gives me a weird look and acts like they've never heard of it) - made from scratch at our request with a mortar and pestle. This was super smooth unlike the ones I'd had before. Fantastic. Debbie hates onions but loved this onion chutney.

Next up was Chemmeen Karumuru. An amazing dish with prawns and shallots flavored with curry leaves and green chilis. This dish was frankly amazing. Light, spicy, crunchy, colorful, beautiful. This dish was perfect with its crunchy curry leaves. Next up was Bannana Boli - plantain fritters with black sesame seeds served with a peanut chutney. These were slightly and perfectly fried. Das Sreedharan himself then came out and made us an appam pancake from a 100 year old pan. Das made it clear that the food came out better coming out of this utensil than a new non-stick pan. We didn't argue. The appam was a delicious Indian-style crepe that was perfect for mopping up all the yummy sauces that didn't make it into our mouths as we cleaned our plates. I fantasized during the meal that I had a bottomless stack of these sitting next to me as I ate my meal. Every time I finished one, another would appear magically under it, all fresh, hot, and steaming.

Next up was Uzhunnappam - an aromatic bread made from rice, roasted coconut, shallots, and cumin seeds. It was amazing and bubbly. Deb loved the crunchy leaves on this bread. This was followed by Konju Manga Curry - king prawns, with turmeric, chilies, green mango, and coconut. It was sweet, buttery, and almost a little like a Thai curry. Maybe my limited exposure to really different Indian food is what leads me to make the association. I might have a narrow set of associations when it comes to coconut curries. This one however was really amazing. It was mild and spicy at the same time. Very delicious.

This was followed by Crab Varuthathu. I'd never had crab at an Indian restaurant. It was good but didn't blow me away. That said, I was glad I tried it. It was a mound of golden orange hued shredded crab with chunks of delicious onions, littered with yummy black sesame seeds.

Das has five restaurants in London. When we at there he had two cookbooks out - Fresh Flavours of India (Amazon UK), and The New Tastes of India - and a third to be published soon. His office sits above Rasa Samudra (a restaurant where he can't eat many of the items on the menu as he's a vegetarian). All this began 12 years ago when he came to London to study he despaired the state of Indian food in the UK and missed his mother's home cooking. I asked him if he could cook like home at a restaurant. He said it was all about care and love. (I think he really means this. When we mentioned that Debbie might be traveling to India and asked for recommendations of where to eat, he said we should eat at his mother's house. Now that's care and love.) This wasn't the only almost spiritual answer he gave to my questions. When I asked him how he was able to scale the quality at his restaurants when he could only be in one place at a time, he said that picking the right people and having faith was how he did it. Whatever his methods, I found it difficult to argue with the results. The food was absolutely exciting and interesting. It felt like home (not mine, but someone's). And it made me want to go back again and again. This was one of only two restaurants in London at which we dined at twice. (The other was Hakkasan.) Enough said.

 

Saturday, November 15, 2003, 11:51 PM


Administrivia. I decided to make the thumbnails embedded in the writeups on the main page bigger. The pictures are cool... why make them so small?

 

Friday, November 14, 2003, 11:59 PM


You can't get a decent Italian dinner in Seattle, but you can eat sushi off of a (sort of) naked woman. This article has a poll. The pro-naked sushi folks are ahead - slightly. This article has what seems like the most authentic report of the experience. Seattle's not the only place people try this: New York, and Manchester England, to name a couple. Ok I think that's enough nyataimori stories for some time.

 

Wednesday, November 12, 2003, 8:13 PM


02-seafood.jpgWindsor Castle located 45 mintes outside London is not the only attraction in Windsor - Legoland is also located right nearby. I was prepared for a day of overpriced amusement park food. Who knew that Legoland would provide a whirlwind of culinary delights from across the planet. First up was a trip to visit some of our good friends who have their summer home in Legoland. Barbecuing some ribs from one of the local artisinal pig farmers was a real treat. Next up was visiting some of the cafes at Legoland's port. The open air and fresh seafood was a wonderful combination. Even though we had a full lunch, nothing could keep us from enjoying some wonderful Turkish kebabs from the stand right down the street. Later in the day we headed over to the local tapas establishment. The gambas al ajillo were delicious. Nothing follows delicious shrimp bathed in garlic and olive oil better than some Highland Malt - the local craft breweries best brew. Afterwards we took a drive out in to Legoland's country to visit the local slice of Dutch dairy farmland. The Dutch Parrano cheese generated from the prized milk of these (rather stiff) cows is among the best I've tasted in a long time. Finally we made a trip to some of the local cafes and brasseries for some wonderful desserts. All in all a gastronomic afternoon painted from food's primary colors and interlocking rectangles of flavors.

 

Monday, November 10, 2003, 5:05 PM


We had a quick tapas lunch in Windsor at La Tasca tapas restaurant. While they're located in Windsor, they have many branches in London, and all over the UK. Not super high quality tapas, but we were in Windsor England after all. And besides, you can't go wrong eating small plates loaded with cured Spanish ham. The rest of the selections were sort of ok: garlic bread with melted cheese; manchego cheese and tomatoes; tomatoes with goat cheese; shrimp in garlic olive oil; and nice sized meatballs. I think I need to go to Spain.

 

Thursday, November 6, 2003, 10:17 PM


A friend, Michael, forwarded this link from Slate on finding ways to get treated right when you visit your favorite winery.

The Boston Globe provides a recipe for scallion pancakes.

What would you do with 60,000 left over bottles of wine? New York Times (free registration required).

Truffles in Vegas? Yes, yes, and yes. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times (free registration required).

 

Tuesday, November 4, 2003, 10:50 PM


07-chivedumplings.jpgAnother Roee recommendation, he claimed in his pre-London trip e-mail to me that Hakkasan (an effort by the creators of Wagamama - renowned London noodle bar chain) served the best dim sum he'd ever eaten. This definitely piqued my interest. Dim sum after all is one of the cuisines of the world (like sushi and tapas) that conforms to the tasting menu "philosophy". Lots of  little bites. Lots of diversity. Small portions. Lots of opportunity.

Additionally, what does it mean to have amazing dim sum? I've eaten dim sum up and down the west coast from San Francisco to Vancouver. It's a region where a significant population of Chinese-Americans has made for a rich selection of dim sum options, the best really being between Vancouver and Richmond, British Columbia. There's also an inexplicable hole in Seattle where no really good dim sum is to be had. Have I ever had the "best" dim sum? I'm not even entirely sure I've had authentic dim sum as I haven't traveled to China (Hong Kong specifically) where I think I would get quite the survey. With this question hanging over my head the family went to Hakkasan for dim sum brunch.

Things got off to an auspicious start as we walked up to Hakkasan in the middle of almost 100 degree sweltering heat, realized the restaurant might be too "hip" to have brought kids, and pondered how to get all four of us and the double stroller down 40 steps into the restaurant. Then the maitre'd greeted us and told us the air conditioning system had just broken down. No worries, we were there for dim sum. Sweltering heat and crying children be damned. Give us dumplings.

And dumplings we were given. First of all, this was not a "cart" place. Most dim sum restaurants I've been to have women (I've never once seen a man do it in the 50+ times I've eaten dim sum) maneuvering carts loaded with little containers of various dumpling items from table to table hawking their wares. It's part of the fun. Hakkasan did dim sum to order. I was nervous that part of the fun was gone, but there's a logic to their approach which I'll get to later. Things started off with Sesame Prawn Toast. This is a hard one to explain. In most restaurants, the prawn toast is a lump of steamed minced shrimp grafted on to a piece of grilled toast. This was essentially the same thing, and yet completely different. It was like a new underwater creature had been created, where the grilled toast seamlessly fused with the minced shrimp, and the entire affair is covered by a beautiful crispy skin encrusted with as many sesame seeds as would fit on top. The whole thing was like some kind of dim sum bruschetta. The "word" sesamelicious came to mind. The four pieces were served with mounds of deep-fried nori and enoki mushrooms. (My two year old, the incredibly picky eater, shoved the mushrooms in his face by the handful. I think I could batter and deep fry a shoe and he would eat it.) This was followed by a perfectly steamed set of pork and shrimp shumai.

Next up were two specials. The first was a delicate steamed bun filled with a mixture of minced prawn and chicken, and then topped with a steamed scallop. The staff won me over when they came and asked us to make sure to let them know what they thought of this particular special as it was brand new. I'm there to deeply enjoy the food, and they want my opinion. That's called closing the loop with the customer, and making me feel like my dining was not just for me, but a public service for all their future diners. And the service I performed was to tell them their new creation was absolutely delicious. And it was. The contrasting textures of the minced meat, the scallop, and the delicate porous steamed bun were wonderful together. The second special was a series of shrimp puffs - shrimp in deep-fried flakey pastry-like crescent shaped wrappers.

At this point in the meal something weird happened. The waiter came over and asked me not to take any photos. This happened on another occasion in London and I was able to negotiate my way through it by promising to only photograph my food and within the vicinity of my table. Apparently the management was concerned that some of the other patrons might be uncomfortable appearing in my photographs. Since my assurances that none of them were attractive enough to photograph did nothing to allay management's fears, I agreed to the constraint of photographing my food and my (attractive) dinner companion. At Hakkasan however my haggling failed.

How could they not be thrilled to have a patron so into the food that they take pictures of it since the taste only lasts so long? My enthusiasm for their food was apparently not a factor in Hakkasan's management's policy (which our waiter kindly reminded me several times was the source of the regulation). I was now faced with a dilemma. Do I pull out the "card"? The card in question is the tastingmenu.com business card that a bunch of us had made up. It gives me the title of "Editor" whatever that means, but clearly makes me out to be a member of the gastronomic press - which I suppose after over a year of doing this I now sort of kind of am (though I have still yet to join the Association of Food Journalists). I've discussed the "faux pas" of revealing yourself as a restaurant critic in the past, and won't go into it again. Suffice to say, we'd eaten the bulk of our food, and my mind was already made up as to how I felt about Hakkasan. So either I alienate myself from the official food press, or I forge ahead to make sure you get pictures of every delicious morsel. I optimized around you dear reader. I pulled out the "card" and told the waiter I was sure it would be ok with the manager if I photographed the food. And sure enough, it was. Getting to take pictures of delicious dim sum may not seem like a huge victory against the establishment, but it was certainly fun. Anyway, back to the food.

It's lucky that they did change their "policy" for me, as the best dumpling of the bunch was about to arrive. (I think it also made for the best photograph of the meal.) It was the Chinese Chive Dumpling with Minced Prawn and Crabmeat. This was the most beautiful piece of dim sum I have ever seen in my life. I have seen pictures of incredible constructions and arrangements. This was not that. This was a work of art in its natural state. No show. Just beautiful food. It almost pained me to eat it. Almost. When I realized that the taste matched the beauty my morning was complete. I too had now had the best dim sum I've ever had. And now I understood what it meant as well. The noodle wrapper was perfectly steamed. The minced seafood inside had a wonderful texture and flavor, and the chives while trapped, frozen in time inside the translucent dumpling wrapper somehow tasted absolutely fresh, crisp, and chopped not seconds ago. How did they do this? I have no idea. My children reaching the end of their fuse meant that I would have to wait until my next visit to ask the chef.

I still don't know to what degree the food is authentic (not because it isn't but just because I personally am ignorant), but I also know that it did not seem "out there", or  contain out-of-character ingredients (like foie gras which is delicious but...), or seem overly "done up". It was just incredibly high quality ingredients, superb attention to detail, and served at it's precise moment of readiness (hence the lack of carts). This was dim sum elevated. I think the attention to detail was the aspect that was the most responsible for the superior experience but the quality ingredients, and wonderful combinations were culprits as well. It was as if every dumpling had a gold stamp spelling out the word "quality" tucked carefully away somewhere on its flat bottom surface.

The rest of the meal consisted of repeats of some of our favorites. The sauces they gave us included the traditional soy, and an hot sesame oil mixture. There was also a chili garlic sauce with an ever-so-slight chunky texture that was simply delicious. Spicy, savory, yummy. I also noticed later during our meal there were other families with children there as well. This was nice, and I think is part of Sunday being family day at most restaurants in London. Nice. Bottom line, I finally have had world-class dim sum. I had to go to London to get it and I have Hakkasan to thank for it. Thank you Hakkasan.


 
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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