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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.

 

Thursday, April 29, 2004, 8:57 AM

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I've posted links before that discuss Amazon's "Search Inside the Book" feature before. Basically they have digitized thousands of books and let you search across their content, not just the information on the outside cover (title, author, subject, etc.). Cookbooks are particularly affected by this feature (as are all reference books). It's been a few months, and the Los Angeles Times (free registration required) gauges reactions from cookbook authors.

Speaking of technology and food (two of my three favorite things), Wired has an article about how "earth-friendly" breeding is creating the food of the future. Frankenfood no longer. Maybe.

I need to spend more time writing about my dream here, but basically I'd like more restaurants that serve home cooking. According to the Boston Globe, this is one of them.

 

 

Tuesday, April 27, 2004, 12:04 AM

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Lai Wah Heen, Toronto, Canada, November 24, 2003 — Awhile ago I made a trip for a family event in Canada. With not much time to spend in

Toronto, I made a list of restaurants that looked decent. A stop at Gryfe's bagels was mandatory. But due to the timing of the trip and all the family obligations, all that was left was a quick lunch on Monday. I'd heard good things - very good things - about Lai Wah Heen - dim sum at Toronto's Metropolitan Hotel. So that's where I went for lunch.

Here's what was tried:  Crystal Butterfly - Dumpling Filled with Shrimp and Scallop; Ugly Duckling - Deep Fried Taro Root Paste filled with Shredded Duck and Chicken accompanied with Plum Sauce; Bumble Bee - Deep-Fried Crab Claw coated with a layer of Calamari Mousse, flavored with Cured Ham and Almond; Crystal Shrimp Dumpling (Ha Gao); Siu Mai of Pork, Shrimp, and Scallop; Lai Wah Bok Choy Dumpling; Steamed Mini Bun Stuffed wiih Crab Meat and Minced Pork served with Ginger Juice and Vinegar; Pan-Seared Crystal Purse stuffed with Tofu, Assorted Peas, and Vegetables; and Beef Tenderloin and Pickled Vegetables in Rice Roll (Beef Chow Fun). That was quite a bit! But after all, it's dim sum - lots of small tastes.

Lai Wah Heen was obviously a high end restaurant. Super attentive service. Formal dining room. And beautiful presentation. I mean beautiful. The Ugly Duckling dim sum was not only not ugly, it came out as a gorgeous deep-fried duck. It was cool looking. The bumble-bee also was very cool. The Crystal Butterfly looked more like a stingray than a butterfly. But visuals alone aren't enough to make a restaurant I'm dying to go back to. The dim sum was good. It may even be the best in Toronto. But it wasn't great. The flavors weren't crisp or exciting. The textures were decent. But without really inspiring flavors, Lai Wah Heen was not what I was hoping for. If you do go, order a bunch of the specials off the first dim sum page of the menu. They were expensive, but that's where we got the cool looking and most interesting stuff.

One other note. When I told Alex about this place, he told me there's a city in China - Xian - that has cool looking dim sum including dumplings in the shapes of dragons, walnuts, and birds. Xian is also the home of the famous terracotta army.

 

 

Friday, April 23, 2004, 1:16 AM

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Atkins Salad Dressing, April 23, 2004 — The Atkins diet is completely out of control. Atkins himself died (maybe partially from a heart condition) and yet people still are eschewing carbs. Bakeries are screwed (and fighting back). And the reason it's so popular is because at least on a short term basis, it works. I've done it myself. I'm not saying it works for the reasons it says it does (as Debbie points out, it's tough to snack when all you can eat is hamburgers and bacon). I'm not saying it's healthy (at a certain point it just feels yucky to pour all that grease down your gullet). And I'm not saying that it's logical. (Really? I can't eat as many vegetables as I want? That's insane!)

That said, there's no denying the popularity. The stewards of the Atkins franchise are geniuses. Subway and others now feature Atkins approved entrees. Supermarkets feature endcaps filled with low carb yuck. And I even recently saw a low carb "superstore" pop up near where I work.

But recently I happened upon a low carb salad dressing made by the nice folks at Walden Farms. They make a variety of salad dressings, condiments, dips, sauces, and the like. Their latest innovation is several variations of "Carbohydrate Free, Calorie Free, Sugar Free, Fat Free, and Cholesterol Free" salad dressing. I got "Buttermilk Ranch". Much as I often do when happening upon a can of Caffeine Free Diet Coke I wonder what the hell is actually left in this stuff? Here are the ingredients:

 

"triple filtered purified water, white vinegar, cellulose gel, oat fiber, salt, natural
flavors, onion powder, garlic powder, cultured buttermilk powder, sour cream
flavoring
, titanium dioxide, lemon juice, white pepper, xantham gum, lactic acid,
parsley, cayenne pepper, sodium benzoate (to preserve freshness), sucralose"

 

Ah, good old xantham gum. That's a familiar friend. But two items caught my eye: (bold mine) cellulose gel, and sour cream flavoring. Isn't cellulose what trees are made of? Aren't trees undigestible by human beings? Is that the trick? Give us food made of materials that we can't digest so they pass through our system. I'd call it empty calories, but those are missing from this dressing as well. This is basically the same trick Olestra uses. They configure the fat in such a way that we can't digest it. Maybe I'm more grossed out by the idea of "cellulose gel" than I should be. After all it didn't kill the rats. The idea of tricking me into eating and enjoying something I can't digest (and therefore mess up my body with) is pretty clever. Then again, I'm just guessing. I have no idea whether our bodies can digest this crap. And as for "sour cream flavoring" it just makes me wonder... what's that made of? If it was made from sour cream wouldn't they just say "sour cream". What's sour cream flavoring code for? All I know is that it's also found in Taco flavored Doritos.

The folks who make this stuff consider it to "represent a breakthrough in the Salad Dressing Category" because it "ENABLES CONSUMERS TO EAT ALL THEY WANT CALORIE FREE!". (All caps theirs. They're very excited about it.)

And finally, while I'm standing firm about not eating bugs, I did taste this concoction. I know you may question the logic of not eating something found in nature, but being willing to ingest this weird combination of chemical nothingess (and of course of sour cream flavoring). I can't explain it, it's just me. (Please accept me for who I am.) My best description of the way the dressing tasted is: butter milk ranch flavored, unnaturally silky smooth, melted vinyl-based, fluff.

I tasted this stuff so you'll never have to. You're welcome.

 

 

Thursday, April 22, 2004, 11:52 PM

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Courtesy of my friend Scott we now know about a self-proclaimed halvah superstore on the web. While I love this sweet granular feeling sugar-sesame confection as much as the next person, isn't the word superstore getting tossed about a little bit casually?

He also sent me another web page about nyataimori. And while I love nyataimori as much as the next person, but I think we've covered that topic already.

Anyone really into wine knows by now that corks are so passé. The New York Times can catch you up on the details of screwtops. (Free registration required.)

Terrines are cool. Basically it's like making lasagna with anything. One of the most memorable I had was a caprese terrine I had at Dahlia Lounge. I love caprese salad, and as simple as it seems, it's hard to get it really perfect. This was not only delicious but interesting. Next time I see Tom Douglas (which is surprisingly often given that we don't know each other) I will need to remember to ask him how he did it. The LA Times has an article on how to make some vegetable terrines. (Free registration required.) And shockingly it has some nice pictures that you can even enlarge!

 

 

Wednesday, April 21, 2004, 11:58 PM

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727 Pine, Seattle, WA, November 19, 2003 — There is a problem with hotel restaurants. Most decent sized hotels need to have a restaurant. They don't necessarily need to have a successful restaurant. Hotels often subsidize restaurants that are hosted on their property. They do this because they need som

ewhere for guests to eat breakfast, and get room service. In this fashion a restaurant may or may not be good, but the process of natural selection doesn't apply as the hotel keeps the restaurant alive, whether it deserves it or not. Now some hotel restaurants I'm sure have different economic arrangements than I describe above. And some hotel restaurants deserve our patronage  regardless of whether they have a deal with the hotel they're in. That said, I am still always a little extra nervous when going to a hotel restaurant.

With that bias, we went to 727 Pine, the restaurant ensconced in Seattle's Grand Hyatt hotel. The interior was cavernous and a little corporate but not terrible. The huge mirrors on the wall were cool. Things started off with a pair of soups. These included Pear soup with Spiced Crème Fraiche and Poached Pears; and Wild Mushroom Soup with Seared Day Boat Scallops. The pear soup was mild. The mushroom soup was pedestrian. These were followed by Warm Spinach and Endive Salad with Apple Smoked Bacon and Potato and Dijon Vinaigrette. The salad was "eh". Where was the bacon? Barely in my salad. The temperature was good though. Things hadn't started well. But we did have a nice bottle of wine. The 2001 Pride Mountain Vineyards Merlot was wonderful. I am not typically a merlot fan finding it often thin and bitter to my taste. But this had a caramel aroma and big flavor. Yummy.

Next up was Smoked Ahi Tuna with Wild Mushrooms and Roasted Tomato and Onions. The tuna had some odd flavors. We also had Citrus Cured Salmon with Apple and Celery "Cole Slaw" and Crème Fraiche; and Poached Lobster Salad and Toasted Brioche with Grapefruit Oil and Oranges. The salmon was citrusy and nice. The "cole slaw" was very very good. A bright spot. The lobster however was rubbery.

Things weren't heading in a positive direction, but then the waiter described the next dish with four words I love to hear - "gift from the chef". It was Brown Sugar and Lime Cured Salmon, Sweet Potato Chip, Watercress Microgreens, and Lime Sherry Vinaigrette. I know it's silly, but a small flavorful surprise can do so much to set the tone to a meal. The dish itself was a touch heavy on the dressing but very nice to look at. One more seafood dish came - Day Boat Scallops, Carnaroli Risotto, Pacific Shellfish, Tomato and Saffron Broth. The risotto was very nice with the tomato broth. It had beautiful contrasting colors. THe scallops however were not great. They were not seared enough.

Things wrapped up with: 10 ounce Snake River Farms Ribeye - nothing special; Roasted Heirloom Squash - sweet and interesting; Handmade Pasta with Parmesan and Sage - stuck together with an odd huge thin slab-like hunk of parmesan; Braised Washington Chanterelles - tasted boiled; and fries that were limp.

Not special.

727 Pine was slightly better than the typical high end hotel restaurants but on the whole it was unremarkable. Bland. A bummer. I think Peyman described it best: "everything was the same. I don't even know what I ate and it certainly wasn't worth the price - $45 per person." 727 Pine didn't do a lot to change my impression of restaurant hotels. I wonder how so many people eat there without noticing the lack of soul, flavor, life. Sometimes I want to ask people, why they pay so much for food that they don't take the time to taste. If they did they would notice that not only wasn't it worth the price, but it wasn't worth their time. Life is short. I realize I may sound overly negative about 727 Pine. It certainly wasn't a terrible restaurant. But when restaurants that move you exist, cookie-cutter, uninspired, trend-following, plates of food just get depressing after awhile. Maybe if I ate out less, I'd like these middle-of-the-road places more... ...probably not.

 

 

Tuesday, April 20, 2004, 12:23 AM

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The Restaurant, April 19, 2004 — Mark Burnett (creator of Survivor and The Apprentice) premiered his second season of "The Restaurant" tonight. I love TV, I love reality shows, and I love food and restaurant. So you'd think this show would be made for me. And the truth is that it is. I enjoyed the first season, and I was excited for the second season. But as many things as I enjoy about the program also annoy the crap out of me.

In the first season where Rocco DiSpirito got his New York city Italian restaurant up and running I suffered through painfully obvious product placements, unbelievably self-righteous and annoying staff, silly planned "spontaneous" events (how did they know to have cameras on both ends of a sudden angry phone call?). And yet the most annoying thing of all was that the food didn't look very good. I guess I don't really care if Mama made the meatballs or not. The food just didn't look super interesting. It looked corporate. I guess it's not fair to guess what food will taste like based on seeing it on TV, but they put themselves on TV, not me.

And despite it all, I still kind of liked the show. Tonight's premier of the second season tipped the balance even more perilously towards me not watching the show anymore. The fun thing about reality shows is that they bear some resemblance to reality. The story in the first episode (and the storyline shaping up for the season) is so pat, and so convenient that it's impossible to understand how these guys agreed to do it. Basically the premise is that the restaurant, while busy, is losing money. And Jeffrey Chodorow, big-time restaurant financier, comes in and throws his weight around to get the restaurant back on track. Rocco's feelings are hurt. The staff gossips. Momma wanders around seemingly aimlessly. Rocco sulks some more. And Rocco's chef de cuisine, Tony, plays both sides as Rocco has conveniently decided to a) bring in some random Italian chef for a couple of weeks to take over the kitchen and treat Tony like his bitch, and b) yell at Tony for something seemingly minor. No scripted show on television has this many characters all conveniently scheming against each other and willing to do it on camera. Chodorow craps all over Rocco in front of his team of experts/sycophants while the cameras roll and staff eavesdrops.

It's all just too good to be true. That said, how would you script something like this? These people aren't professional actors, and they don't seem like they're acting. Maybe they all just love mugging for the camera. Have they concluded that fame is worth more than making sure they are employable when Rocco's eventually goes under? I guess getting a job won't be a problem for Chodorow who owns 21 other restaurants, or DiSpirito, but what about the yucky staff? And what do we have to look forward to in the coming weeks? Chodorow's intern who is the son of Chodorow's close friends. It's not enough that the guy starts off by saying that he assumes that he and Rocco won't get along, but in order to make the audience hate him even more, the guy is only there because Mommy and Daddy asked a friend for a favor. It's all just too good to be true. Who knows, maybe these people are all nice, professional, and not dopey. But you would have a hard time telling from watching this "reality" show.

And at least after watching the first show, the food still looks mass-produced and uninspired. With thousands of restaurants in New York city that I'm dying to try, why would I go to Rocco's? I can live without being on TV. But I couldn't live with myself if I knowingly wasted a meal in New York City on a restaurant (that after I cross-checked reviews from CitySearch - poorly written, lacking in detail, and NewYorkMetro.com - well written, lots of detail) I suspected would be a disappointment. I bet by the time I make it to the point on my list where I would try Rocco's 22, it will be long gone. In fairness, I've heard that Rocco's other restaurant - Union Pacific was quite good. Maybe the TV cameras are not only warping the quality of the people, but the quality of the food as well. For now I'll rely on others to let me know.

In terms of restaurant reality shows I really like, Opening Soon on the Fine Living network. (Yes, I'm comfortable enough with myself to admit I watch the Fine Living network sometimes.) Each week they follow a restaurant from conception to opening night. There isn't a lot of yelling and fighting, but the people seem sincere, and the food often looks like something I'd like to eat.

 

Sunday, April 18, 2004, 10:08 PM

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I'll admit that I haven't spent enough time eating in Paris. For now I'll just have to read about it.

Another impeccably detailed, interesting, and erudite article from A la Carte on "seasoning to taste". Don't miss this. It includes microscopic pictures of salt crystals. Cool!

The Food Network is putting a new series of Iron Chef episodes - Iron Chef America. Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, and Mario Batali challenge Hiroyuki Sakai and Masaharu Morimoto. The American chefs always seems so underpowered on TV compared to the Japanese guys, but it should be fun.

 

 

Thursday, April 15, 2004, 10:00 PM

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Buddha Ruksa, Seattle, WA, November 15, 2003 — I am in love with Thailand even though I've never been there. I plan to go as soon as I can get a chance. Hopefully next year. And I suspect that even given the best Thai food I've eaten in my life (mostly the U.S. and one place in Japan), I haven't even begun to eat the best Thai food in the world. And it's not that Thai food in the U.S. is bad, it's just that I suspect it hasn't matured to where Thai restaurants are serving dishes that optimize around authenticity vs. American expectations. And the truth is that until I get to Thailand and actually eat some authentic Thai food, I'm really just guessing.

Buddha Ruksa is a Seattle Thai place that looked promising. We started off with Miang Kum - a great Thai appetizer that you construct yourself. It was good but not special. We also got some Fried Fresh Squash. This was super crispy and the addition of corn made it interesting and special. We also had Crab Wonton. Debbie liked it though it was not my thing.

The beef satay was juicy, thick, and flavorful. Delicious. The chicken satay was good as well. It's amazing that something as seemingly simple as satay can vary so much from restaurant to restaurant. It just shows how difficult it is to make something consistently great. The fried Prawns in a Blanket were crispy, crunchy, yummy.

Ordering a grilled New York Steak at a Thai restaurant is going to be interesting. It had a Thai name - Nueya Yang (which we hoped meant interesting flavorful Thai steak, but probably meant American Steak) - so we went for it. It came with a spicy sauce that was quite good, but unfortunately the meat was a touch overcooked and ended up a bit dry. The sauce helped though. The Tom Yum Goong - hot and sour shrimp soup - was thin.

I'd never seen Garlic Fried Rice at a Thai restaurant so we ordered it. It was actually super good. There should have been tons more of it. The Prawn Pad Thai had a nice sweet and sour flavor. We wrapped things up with Ginger Tofu, Ginger Salmon, and Spicy Eggplant. DebDu thought the fried entrees were interesting but got soggy relatively quickly.

Buddha Ruksa had cool decor, and looked refined. They also offered some interesting things on the menu. But in the end the dishes flavors weren't as refined as the look and feel. The food just wasn't always consistent. And while there were new things to try, nothing jumped out and made an impression. The final oddity was the tray of fortune cookies that arrived at our table with the bill. Weird.

 

 

Wednesday, April 14, 2004, 6:51 AM

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I always wonder why web publications about food don't have more better photography. Often when they have a print edition, pictures are featured prominently. But when the article gets posted on the web the pictures either get tiny or disappear altogether. Not the case in this article about Chicago from the New York Times. (Free registration required.)

Also from the Times, desert truffles. Who knew?

Uni (Sea Urchin) is slowly becoming more popular in the United States. I'll admit it took awhile to get on board, and I recently had my first really wonderful uni dish. And apparently, uni from an American company is among the best on the planet. (Free registration required.)

Courtesy of The Food Section, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a new working farm and restaurant in New York.

Courtesy of Sauté Wednesday, fisherman are finding a tuna niche with lower mercury.

 

 

Tuesday, April 13, 2004, 12:11 AM

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02-Purple SweeTart.jpgSweeTarts and Sour Candy,  — When I was a little kid, my parents used to take us on an interminable drive to Toronto, Canada a few times a year to visit our grandparents and our cousins. The drive from Boston was over 10 hours, and to this day I hate long car trips. That said, my grandmother introduced me to the most wonderful candy I'd ever eaten - SweeTarts. These were small tablets, slightly bigger than large aspirin. The came in five flavors - green (lime?), yellow (lemon?), orange (orange?), pink (cherry?), purple (grape?). The official Nestle SweeTarts webpage (different than the official Nestle SweeTarts website) says these are basically the flavors (with two modifications) but I'm not sure they really know. I always refer to them by their colors. Some people love chocolate. Some people love sugar. I love sour.

I'm still known to just eat a wedge of lemon (or better yet a lime which isn't as sweet). Nothing makes me salivate like the thought of something super sour. And while by today's sour candy standards SweeTarts aren't super sour, back in the 1970's when I first had them they were the best you could get. Since their advent the SweeTarts franchise has been bought twice and undergone some minor, but mostly negative transformations. Their flavor is basically that of compressed Pixy Stix powder (also made by Nestle). Biting into one starts the process of turning it back into the powder from whence it came. They have a slight chalkiness which in this case is a good thing. The sour flavor is sharp. Each SweeTart has a slightly different level of sourness that is likely a function of the additional flavor included in each. I suppose it's supposed to approximate some sort of fruit. But in fact it feels like a chemical impression of what fruit flavor candy is supposed to taste like concentrated into (what I imagine to be) a Retsyn-like liquid where one potent drop gives the entire SweeTart tablet its distinct flavor. And though Debbie vehemently denies it, they all do indeed taste different. We've done one blind taste test and I must admit I had a harder time identifying them than I care to admit. That said, I still I can definitely pass a test that proves they taste different (which was her original challenge). Blindfolded if you give me two different SweetTarts, tell me what they are, and ask me to tell you which is which, I can do it. No problem.

The original product was made by Sunline brands and introduced in 1963. Since then Sunline was bought by Rowntree, which was then bought by Nestle. Back in the 1970's (and I think through the 80's as well) these sour candies came in gold foil packs. You could also get them in purple and pink foil once-in-awhile. Somewhere along the line the original foil packs were discontinued, and today's predominant roll form was introduced. There was an overlap in their existence, but I haven't seen the foil packs for years. It's too bad as the roll version has bigger actual SweeTarts - roughly twice the mass of the originals by my best guess. I think these are actually too big, but they're still essentially good. They also have gotten slightly harder than the originals in my opinion. You can get the original size still today in the overpriced boxes of SweeTarts they buy at the movies, but these also seem harder to me than the originals. At least they're the right size though. The original size is also available in the mini-packs you can get around Halloween time. They come three to a pack and are visual approximations of the original foil packs even though they're white with one color. The package color has no correlation with the candies inside unlike the original pink and purple foil packs with their all pink or purple contents.

Additional innovations include  the addition of the the blue (tropical punch?) SweeTart in the early 90's, and the just recent (this past year) transformation of the green SweeTart from 'lime' to 'green apple'. I'll admit that I first was horrified by the addition of the blue flavor was offensive. I thought it was overpowered and pandering to what the company thought people would like. Nobody asked me after all and I'm a friggin' SweeTart expert. OK. Sorry for my indignation. I think overtime they actually toned down the volume of the blue flavor. Either that or I just got used to it. A blue 'blueberry' would have been a better in my opinion. Tropical just doesn't fit. Even worse somehow is the recent transformation of the green SweeTart. I'll admit that it certainly wasn't my favorite color, but one of my favorites, the pink, has somehow been transformed by the green. Not only does the green taste like an overpowering candy green apple approximation, but so does the pink. This really sucks. Both of these new flavors (and the third accidental transformation) suffer from too much 'fruit' flavor balanced against the sour goodness. SweeTarts are good because the star is the sour. The additional flavor is just some context, a stage if you will. The Nestle folks don't really understand the essence of what makes SweeTarts good. All their focus groups can't substitute for deep an unabiding understanding of what a perfect SweeTart experience should be.

Since I'm being open about my obsession I suppose I should really come completely clean. Jeffrey Steingarten talks in his books about adults who secretly eat candy. I am one of them. Always some candy in my pocket, or in my car, or in the drawer of my desk. I love it. I also appear to have a touch of OCD when it comes to SweeTarts in particular. There is a pecking order in basic order of preference when it comes to eating them. First blue, then green, yellow, orange, pink, and finally purple. These also happen to be the right order when it comes to the color spectrum. In truth, after all of Nestle's modifications, my personal order of preference is now green, yellow, pink, blue, orange, purple. But I'm a sucker for tradition, so I still eat them in the original order. I admit this is a little sick, but it fits in with my secret candy eating persona. I sometimes wonder if Nestle does tests where they have people stackrank which colors they like the best. Why do I want a pack full of greens and yellows when i'd like mostly orange and purple with a few others thrown in for diversity's sake.

And finally, there are sequels to SweeTarts. Giant SweeTarts - if the current for is too big, these are way too big; Giant Chewy SweeTarts - kind of odd, usually show up with a somewhat stale texture, I buy them once a year anyway (they now have a variation that changes colors); Chewy SweeTarts Minis - much less of the large chewy ones, and not very flavorful; SweeTarts Gummy Bugs - I'm typically not a fan of all things 'Gummy' but these are surprisingly good, bug-shaped, and slightly sour/fruity; and of course the various holiday and movie tie-in SweeTarts. Valentine's Day SweeTarts Hearts, Easter Bunny shaped SweeTarts, etc. Strangely enough the odd shapes of these special editions I think actually make for a better texture and a smoother surface.

If the preceding set are sequels, then these next candies are spinoffs. Think the Jeffersons from All in the Family. The first to appear was Spree. These come in the original five SweeTarts colors. These are basically white sour discs with fruit candy shells. They're quite good. They also come in a lesser chewy variety. These were followed by Shock Tarts (not to mention Shock tart minis). These have a super sour mottled looking pastel outside made of coated in some superhuman sour material. The inside are made of the chewy material that Nestle reuses in all these chewy sour candies. The super sour unfortunately lasts very briefly, and the resulting candy has a weird granular texture. Like candy concrete. I can feel it putting holes in my teeth. The Shock Tarts Minis are smaller and worse. They have even less of the super sour, which is really the only reason to get them. Shock Tarts are also put out under Nestle's Wonka sub-brand. This sad collection of candy would make Roald Dahl roll over in his grave. I hope his estate is getting a lot of money.

On the rare occasion I get Shock Tarts I suck on them for a few seconds and spit out the resulting candy inside. Gross, but necessary. (If you think I'm weird, my friend Steve gets Peanut M&Ms, eats the chocolate and spits the peanut out into a used Altoids container that he calls a 'nutoon'. If you ask him why he doesn't just get the plain M&Ms he'll tell you that he likes the chocolate to shell ratio better in the Peanut M&Ms even though he doesn't like the actual peanuts. Still think I'm the weird one?) I also recently saw what I thought was a Shock Tart package but was in fact rebranded as Extra Sour SweeTarts. They tasted somehow better to me. I don't know if it was a mirage or not. This bears further investigation.

Bottom line. There are newer much more sour candies that have surfaced over the years. And frankly I am unimpressed and frankly disappointed by the poor moves that have happened under Nestle's stewardship of the candy. That said, I still am addicted. I can't get by without them. They're like sour energy pills. And no matter what other sour candies I try, I always come back to SweeTarts. If you think I'm crazy now, I'll seal the deal by letting you know that I intend to send this write-up to the Nestle company to let them know how unhappy I am with the direction they've taken. I'm offering my consulting services to help them get this candy back on track. Classic SweeTarts anyone? I'll take my payment in the form of free candy and some foil packs from the archive.

Special thanks to the unofficial SweeTarts website for historical notes. It hasn't been updated in awhile, but the mail page is entertaining.

 

 

Friday, April 9, 2004, 12:02 AM

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Is your sushi frozen? Do you care? (Free registration required.)

A friend from work has a great website called CellarTracker. I don't spend a huge amount of time talking about wine on this site. It's not because I don't like wine. I do. A little too much in fact if my burgeoning collection is any indication. But I just don't feel deep there yet and Alex has not made good on his promise to start the wine section of this site. That said, CellarTracker has a great amount of content and utility to offer, albeit from a different perspective than our site here. Basically it's a service that lets you enter all your wine into a database and track your inventory, consumption history, tasting notes, etc. But the cool part is that much of the information is shared among all the users of the site. In this fashion CellarTracker is really a rapidly growing wine enthusiast community. And it's updated with new features all the time. Very cool!

 

 

Thursday, April 8, 2004, 12:59 AM

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13-Sake Miso Marinated Butterfish.jpgBlue Ginger, Wellesley, MA, November 12, 2003Ming Tsai is the celebrity chef often seen on the Food Network or its sister network, Fine Living. I don't care to admit how much time I spend watching both of those networks as the amount of time is beyond socially acceptable. That said, Ming's show, Ming's Quest, is better than you'd expect for a cooking show about fusing Asian and western flavors and techniques. His restaurant, Blue Ginger, in the affluent Boston suburb of Wellesley, MA.

The idea of Asian fusion cooking is enormously appealing to me. I love authentic Asian food, but I also love the individual ingredients applied in interesting and novel ways. Unfortunately most Asian fusion restaurants I've been to are disappointing. They are either an odd amalgam of mediocre Asian dishes on one side of the menu, and unimpressive Western dishes on the other, or they're weird combinations of Western dishes with out-of-place Eastern ingredients used to make them "interesting" - Asian Caesar Salad. These restaurants use ethnic ingredients as window dressing for their uninteresting food, instead of really expressing the ingredients in ways that feel honest. With this history we decide to go to Blue Ginger. I'm not sure that Ming Tsai would appreciate being categorized as Asian fusion, or categorized at all. But on his own website he refers to his "signature East-West dishes".

Things started off with Shrimp and Manouri Feta Rangoon with Fresh Water Chestnut Tzatziki and Grilled Quail Satay with Green Papaya Salad and Peanut Lime Sauce. The rangoon was good but got delicious once you added the fresh water chestnut tzatziki and the cilantro sauce. The quail satay was fantastic. It was special. These were followed by Lobster Coconut Bisque with Roasted Pumpkin Flan and Cremini and Shrimp Salad. The soup was certainly fine. However, it was a little pedestrian - nice, but not hugely refined or special.

Next up were Foie Gras Shiitake Shumai in Sauternes Shallot Broth. This was a neat idea. The broth was like a hearty but light onion soup. The dumplings however, were a touch mushy. After this we got New Style Surf and Turf - Ahi tuna and Beef Tenderloin with Ponzu Pickled Shallots. This was a variation on the Nobu "New Style Sashimi" dish. And despite (or because of) its obvious heritage, it was delicious. What's not to love about raw beef and tuna drizzled with hot oil. We also got an order of Shiitake Leek Spring Rolls with Three Chili Dipping Sauce. This was crunchy, yummy, and had lots of different flavors swirling around in my mouth. And if that wasn't enough, we ordered one additionally appetizer, the Asian Duck Confit and Kaboacha Squash-Leek Risotto with Mushroom Nage. I know this may sound a little flip, but the risotto was soft, the duck was soft, everything was just too soft for my taste.

While we tried to focus on smaller plates, we did order a couple of entrees just for diversity's sake. And typically we expect those not to be as good. First was Sake Miso Marinated Alaskan Butterfish with Wasabi Oil, Soy Syrup, and Vegetarian Soba Noodle Sushi. This entree upset our expectations in a good way. This was absolutely wonderful. It was buttery, smooth, light fish. The wonderful sauces had deep sweet flavors and the wasabi made the dish complete with its sharpness. We also ordered the Indonesian Curry Pasta with Crispy Coconut Shrimp, Rock Shrimp, Asian Vegetables and Chopped Peanuts. It was funny. This dish was actually quite delicious but quite over-sauced. And the sauce itself had an almost sandy texture. The portion was a little large also, but that's my issue typically. Most diners unfortunately expect huge portions. Steve was so eager to try the shrimp dish before everyone else at the table he left careful instructions for our waitress on the disposable tablecloth at his place setting.

Dessert was quite good including Bittersweet Chocolate Cake, Sesame Nougat Ice Cream, and Roasted Sesame Wafer with Chocolate Ganache. This was as delicious as it sounded. The Sorbet Sampler - Concord Grape, Apricot, and Coconut, with Warm Dried Apricot Fruit Compote was also excellent. Light, sweet, yummy.

And at the end of the meal, this was one of the most enjoyable Asian fusion meals I've ever had. The combinations were novel and interesting. But they weren't lacking in depth. It felt like they had really captured the heart of the ingredients and presented them in great combinations. At some point I'd really like to explore more of the menu and really familiarize with all the star dishes at Blue Ginger.

 

Tuesday, April 6, 2004, 11:18 PM

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A Passover Seder is kind of like Jewish thanksgiving. An enormous meal that goes on for hours. Unfortunately no football or bread. Instead of bread, there's unleavened bread (bread where the dough has not been allowed to rise) - a.k.a. matzah - which builds "bricks" in your stomach. So if the meal wasn't heavy enough, the matzah helps seal the deal. There's no replacement for football.

Imagine my surprise when the end of our delicious meal (prepared expertly by my brother-in-law Gil with help from my parents) was punctuated with a dessert that was made without flour, but still delicious and even rejuvenating. It was the perfect punctuation to a great meal. Specifically a simple mango sorbet served in mango shells and drenched in raspberry coulis. The raspberry sauce was originally drizzled but I snuck quite a bit extra. It was super super delicious. Light, sweet, tangy, soothing. I may need to eat this nightly. Recipes courtesy of Epicurious.

Here's what we did for Passover last year.

 

Monday, April 5, 2004, 12:04 AM

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Celebrity chef news roundup today.

Ainsley Harriott, British chef/personality will be shooting and airing a "cookery" series in South Africa.

Martin Yan will be appearing on cruises in China. Trapped with thousands of hungry tourists he will be forced to cook for each and every one of them. The web never ceases to amaze me. Poking around for Martin Yan revealed this.

Emeril Lagasse taught a teenager how to win a cooking contest without ever meeting him. I like that he won by improvising a way to save his dish gone wrong.

Apparently eating out in Scotland is not a thoroughly positive experience. Even Gordon Ramsay's attempt to improve things failed.

Who am I to say that celebrity chefs shouldn't have a chance at making money? But something seems "off" about seeing their names on frozen dinners. It's not like the food is going to taste as good as it does at their restaurants. I understand expanding their brand. But there's also a concern of diluting it. I guess I shouldn't comment until I try the actual dinners. Who knows. Maybe they're great.

Passover starts tonight. Here's a connection to today's theme.

 

Thursday, April 1, 2004, 11:51 PM

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25-Try It.jpgDomenic's, Waltham, MA, November 12, 2003 — After college, I stayed for a time in my college town — Waltham, Massachusetts. Lacking any actual skills despite my expensive college education I worked at random jobs trying to figure out what to do with my life. For awhile I worked at a copy shop (you can call me Sir Speedy - actually... please don't). The copy shop was slowly being run into the ground as a business, so the employees ended up with less and less to do each day. That meant plenty of time for lunch. Luckily there was never a question of what to eat. Next door was a small Italian bakery called Domenic's. Almost every day I would go to Domenic's, get a stromboli, some arancini rice balls with little bits of pork in them, and a Clearly Canadian soda. (Remember that? I'm not sure if it was just a Northeast phenomenon. It was colorless fruit soda in cool bottles. But I digress.) The stromboli were these incredible baked items filled with meat, cheese, and tomato sauce. They were served steaming hot, and had this incredible balance both in terms of robust flavor as well as texture. The arancini, were more subtle but still delicious. For years after I moved away I thought often about Domenic's and their incredible home-cooked food.

And while I'd been back to Boston several times since moving away I'd never gone back. I was determined that on this trip I would get a chance to eat there. I started to wonder whether Domenic's could be as good as I remembered, or whether I'd mythologized my food experience there because it was a discovery I made when I was just starting out on my own. Either way I was determined to see what was left of my memory. Coming from Seattle just exacerbated my longing. Salumi is an excellent Italian sandwich shop in Seattle, and I really do love the food there. It's very good. Aside from the easy public relations boost Salumi gets as its proprietor is Armandino Batali, father of celebrity chef Mario Batali, Salumi mainly benefits from the fact that it has this entire city (and entire state for that matter) to itself. There are at  least dozens of Italian bakeries and sandwhich shops on the East Coast that are in the same league as Salumi. But on the east coast, they are often taken for granted. More on this later.

I walked into Domenic's just before the lunch rush with gray skies hanging over Waltham and local folks hanging out in front of their storefront. I went there with a mission to pick up a couple of sandwiches for us to take out. But I ended up spending over an hour trying various dishes, and bringing back an enormous amount of food. This is not hard to do given the wide selection of delicious Italian homestyle items. The decor is unassuming. A simple green awning hangs over the front of the bakery. The inside is spartan with yellow  walls  decorated with pictures of family members from the bakery's early years as well as signs relating to the food. Sizes of takeout containers are announced by affixing the containers themselves to the wall. Prices are announced via printed signs clipped to the glass fronts of food tables arranged around the front of the bakery. Much of the food is on display behind this glass. The bakery feels right. You couldn't create this kind of atmosphere if you tried. And even if you've never been there, walking in makes you feel like your home.

03-Arancini.jpgI started off by ordering a sub. Large Ham and Provolone with Lettuce, Onion, Hots, Oil, and Spices. As they made this I started looking for some of my old favorites. The arancini were there but the stromboli were no longer on the menu. The arancini are Rice Balls with Ham, Salami, Prosciutto, Eggs, and Mozarella. These deep fried beauties have an almost crusty outside and are filled with a risotto like concoction studded with various small and delicious pork chunks. They are little balls of pure goodness. The flavor is subtle so they're a good thing to start off with as the flavors coming from the back of the bakery get progressively brighter and stronger as you go.

The sub was absolutely delicious. Like so many other instances in the world, back to basics serves it well. The freshness of the ingredients conspires to give you a sandwich that's bursting with flavor and freshness ensconced in a crusty yummy cave of bread. The crunch from the lettuce and onion, the almost sweet baseline of the meat, and the spark from the hots, salt, and pepper are all part of what makes it great. The fresh roll, baked in house of course, is almost creamy in its flavor and is the perfect home for all the fresh ingredients. It's so simple, and so good. The other classic Italian sub we got was the meatball sub. Also deceptively simple, it can be incredibly easy to screw up. You can get too fancy with seasoning the meatballs, the bread can get soggy if there's too much sauce, etc. It's a delicate operation and timing is key. The fact that we were eating everything takeout didn't make it easier. But it worked nonetheless. Just the right amount of sauce, and great bread guaranteed that the sandwich was juicy, not soggy. The meatballs themselves had clear accents of garlic and herbs. But they were in perfect balance, still supporting players to the meat itself. They didn't dominate. The sub was excellent.

Domenic's opened in 1979 by Domenic Maione as a bakery. Over the years various non-strictly bakery items were added. While Domenic passed away his son Ciro runs the establishment today. Ciro's mom, Enza, still works there, baking, and helping out. It was Ciro who started doing food beyond the basics back when he was in high school. And today Domenic's includes items like Ravioli alla Vanessa - Ricotta cheese ravioli with cream sauce with fire roasted peppers, prosciutto, and peas.  This was absolutely excellent. Simple, savory, fresh, and delicious. Why countless Italian restaurants in the U.S. can't keep it simple and fresh like this pasta I don't know. The gnocchi with simple tomato sauce followed the same principles with the same delicious results.

17-Bread.jpgCiro is not just assembling ingredients and placing them on his bread, he is baking and cooking up a storm in the kitchen of his bakery. The individual ingredients that make up his dishes are all being given equal care and tenderness. Racks are lined with cooling big doughy rolls, with floury soft crusty outsides and soft chewy airy insides. Huge pots of freshly made sauce stand in the kitchen ready to be consumed. Some of this sauce made it onto our gnocchi. It was essentially perfect. It had tons of flavor and was so smooth and sweet. Silky. Eggplant and broccoli are cooking in various pans destined for a variety of dishes. High quality ham is being sliced extra thin for sandwiches. Beautiful marinated tomatoes are not made from pre-dried tomatoes, Ciro starts with fresh and dries them himself. The poor design of the baking oven at Domenic's has resulted in a pilot light that's simply too big. It's a lucky mistake as it's the heat generated by the pilot, that is just low and steady enough to dry the fresh tomatoes on premises. These oven-dried tomatoes are then marinated for a week to soak up the olive oil and flavor that makes them what they are. Ciro offers me a sample as he would for any interested, enthusiastic, and soon-to-be regular customer. The flavor is oozing from the tomato. It's bright, tart, sweet, spicy, and exciting. Any sandwich this ends up on lights up with flavor. This particular one didn't quite make it as far as a sandwich.

29-Cannoli.jpgDon't think savory items are the only fare at Domenic's. Plenty of sweets grace the menu. The star (for me anyway) are the beautiful and delicious cannolis. The perfect thick cream filling, the crunchy shells, and the powdered sugar all make for a wonderful combination. You can't help but smile after you take a bite of one of these beauties. There are also various pastries and cookies lining the glass units around the bakery. Also excellent.

I don't know whether I embellished my memory of Domenic's. But I know that when I returned, roughly 12 years since I'd last been there, not only did it live up to my memory, but it exceeded it. I think back then I didn't really discriminate as much between food that was great and food that wasn't. I definitely knew I loved Domenic's back then, but there was lots of food I ate on a regular basis that was mediocre. And for some reason back then I never asked myself the question of why I'd waste another moment eating something mediocre when a gem like Domenic's was nearby. And now today, having spent quite a bit more time focused on food than I used to, it's clear that while I really enjoyed Domenic's, I didn't really know just how good I had it. And the truth is that I think that the residents of Waltham, and of metro Boston nearby, have no idea what they have in Domenic's. I think the Waltham locals mostly take it for granted. (No doubt there's a few fans who understand how special the dedication to flavor and authenticity is, but I bet this is not true for most Walthamites.) And I bet that the people who live in nearby Boston, don't even know it exists. When I was talking to Ciro he confided at one point that he was really only using a third of his capacity to in terms of the items he was putting on the menu. Imagining a menu three times the size makes my head spin and my mouth water. Maybe the folks in the area will start frequenting Domenic's even more so that Ciro can start expanding his menu and treat us to more delicious food. I know that whenever I'm in town, that's what I'll be doing.


 
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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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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