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Tuesday
May

31

2005
6:24 PM



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Autogrill, A1 Autostrade, Firenze-Roma, Italy, tasted on March 25, 2004 — After lunch in Nonantola we had to race down to Rome as our flight left early the next morning for Amsterdam. We stopped at an Italian rest stop. Not Howard Johnsons, but the Autogrill.

It was gross. I probably shouldn't spend an enormous amount of time talking about it, but it really was quite foul. I don't know what was worse, the food from the Burger King (note: I like a bunch of different fast food places) or the significantly overweight Americans standing in line waiting for their BK fix. I'll admit, it's not like the local fare was superb. Though it did have an incredible selection of cheeses and hams as well as better pizza than most cities in the U.S. I'm not trying to preach, but I was still embarassed by the billion calorie dishes that Burger King was hawking and the quadrillion calorie Americans rushing to eat it up. For god's sake, they were in the middle of Italy, and Burger King beckoned. :(

Saturday
May

28

2005
4:04 PM



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Food News, May 28, 2005 — Mark Bittman, New York Times food writer and author of How to Make Everything, a super useful and popular cookbook has a new TV series and book. In the series Bittman challenges top/famous chefs across the country where they both cook the same basic dish in two different styles. The chef does their restaurant version while Bittman does a homemade version. True to his "minimalist" identity his dishes tend to simplify and reduce. And while not identical to their counterparts, they appear to have an elegance about them due to their simple focus and execution. In town promoting the show, Bittman stopped by Lampreia to do one of these demonstrations (though not for the show) with Scott Carsberg, the chef at Lampreia. Hsiao-Ching Chou of the Seattle PI does a great job describing the back and forth between the two as well as delivering the recipes for the two dishes that resulted.

I love the Onion. I'm not sure if this is strictly on topic, but it's pretty good nonetheless. Have you been to the new "Not Quite Perfect McDonalds"?

It's funny (dumb funny not ha-ha funny) how different foods get so trendy. I have always loved a good cupcake. Not the supermarket frozen-in-time cupcakes in their see-through cages by the baked goods, but a fresh cupcake with creamy frosting and moist cake from a bakery. I don't love them any more then I ever have (which was already quite a bit). But given how suddenly so many "boutique" cupcake bakeries have sprouted up you'd think they were a new invention. I suppose it doesn't matter why people are suddenly trying to elevate the cupcake as long as they do. The LA times (free registration required) has the rundown of the best cupcakeries in Los Angeles. The one near my house is called Cupcake Royale in the Verite coffeehouse. The one cupcake I've eaten there was certainly serviceable. Not terrible, but not spectacular. I should reserve judgment until I've eaten a few more. That cupcake did however produce one of my favorite moments ever.

My son enjoying the last remnants of his cupcake.

 

Wednesday
May

25

2005
12:52 AM



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Osteria di Rubbiara, Nonantola, Italy, tasted on March 25, 2004 — While we were planning our trip to Italy, my mom read an article in a magazine about "the best pasta restaurant in the world". Honestly, I've decided I'm bad at judging which restaurants to go to based on recommendations from various websites and publications. My success has been pretty inconsistent in picking which sources to trust and which not to trust. But something about this article told me to go to Osteria di Rubbiara, and I'm glad I did. More than a restaurant, Osteria di Rubbiara is an institution founded in 1862 and continuously run since then by the Pedroni family. Today it's run by father and son, Italo and Giuseppe Pedroni.

Debbie and I arrived on time at the restaurant, but our travelmates were nowhere to be found. Italo, the father, reputed to be a bit of a sourpuss seemd to live up to his reputation. I've forgotten what it was in response to, but his first word to us was "no". With every minute that passed we worried that he would throw our asses out of there as our friends hadn't arrived. Apparently having your cel phone ring in the restaurant is grounds for permanent dismissal. Our friends finally showed up super late blaming mid-day traffic jams. We wouldn't have believed them but Italy is such a weird place. People drive like maniacs, but everyone's late. And if you're worried about getting somewhere on time accidentally, don't worry, at any moment the truck drivers will go on strike and block roads by parking their semis in the middle of highways. This was the excuse our friends used. Needless to say we were just happy that Italo Pedroni tolerated our presence and their lateness. We'd come a long way to try this pasta, and we weren't going to turn around now.

The menu was fixed and the food served family style. Just the way we like it. First up was a heaping tray of Ricotta and Herb Filled Tortelloni. These were beautifully butter, not geasy. The were super light and packed with savory ricotta. They were like puffy light cheese clouds - big but light. And of course, they were gone in a heartbeat.

We got more of Italo's attitude on a couple of fronts. He made a point of serving the men first. When Lauren said she was a vegetarian his response was: "it's not that you can't eat meat, it's that you won't." The pasta was so good that we didn't dare step out of line.

Strighetti with Meat Ragu was our next dish. We got "mountain parmesan" from Casa Selcatica near Berceto on the side. It was still white and creamy even after two years of aging. The ragu sauce was good, not superb, but definitely good. However, the pasta itself (independent of the sauce) was pretty fantastic. It was light, delicate, and butter. Quite simply it was some of the best pasta I've ever had. It was light, present, and flavorful. I'll admit I've never had that kind of an experience before where the pasta itself was so uniquely special that it made such an impression on me. But this pasta did just that.

Next up was a big 'plate-o-meat'. Chicken with golden crispy juicy skin, pork ribs, pork cutlet, and pancetta, were all heaped together. The food was rustic, hearty, juicy, savory, and just yummy. I don't know why we were surprised that they'd deliver such great roasted meat given their reputation for pasta, but we were. Needless to say, our surprise was a pleasant one. In some ways I was even more psyched with the dish full of roast potatoes also adorned with pancetta and it's respective yummy oil. There was a picture up on the wall of some vinegar. Peyman asked Italo about a picture of vinegar on the well. Misunderstanding his question, he went off, retrieved some of the (famous) house vinegar and then returned to drizzle it generously all over our potatoes. I'm embarassed to say that it never would have occurred to me to drizzle balsamic over roast potatoes and bacon, but it came out incredibly. Just tart, and roasted, and fatty (in a good way), and smokey. The potatoes were herby and soft and super.

Some more observations. We got some bread. It was the same dry floury crap that we got in most places in this region of the country. An epiphany I had was that in Italy olive oil is basically like ketchup in America. They put it on everything. And it usually makes things better.

When dinner was over out came an array of homemade liqueurs. These were laid down matter of factly one after another. The included blueberry, walnut, ortiche, archibugio, apricot, and orange. Peyman liked the apricot. Alex liked the orange. Dessert also arrived. The cheese/sponge cake was sweet and dense but light and moist. Most of all it was good. The walnut meringue cookies were super walnuty, crunchy and good. The coconut brownie was extra moist and also quite good. At one point Italo yelled "cafe" out to the kitchen we almost dropped our brownies. It was at this point that I wondered if Italo's attitude was a shtick. Later when we took pictures with him and his son he softened and seemed to me like a sweetheart. I was pretty positive it was all part of the Rubbiara experience.

Speaking of the Rubbiara experience, it wouldn't have been complete if we hadn't tried their complement of house vinegars. I don't think we realized how renowned their vinegars were until we got back to the states with our luggage chock full of them. Their commercial quality vinegar was raisiny, sweet, and sharp. Super good. Their basic (blue) tradizionale vinegar (this and the following ones are regulated by the local regional authority) was 12 years old, and had elements of prune. It was sharp and bright. The gold level was 25 years old and was half way between the two we'd tried but viscous and somehow smoother. There was also the 'Cesare' named after Giuseppe's great great grandfather. Fifty years old and $175 per bottle with only 100 bottles produced per year. I own one and still haven't had the guts to open it and try it with anything.

We walked out of there bags filled with vinegars and liqueurs. But most of all we walked out really happy as the food was truly special and somehow just the right amount. I admit, that when I think about our trip to Italy this is one of the restaurants I miss the most. There was something so natural and simple about the quality of the food that made it an incredibly genuine experience. Having eaten at quite a few restaurants over the past few years, simple and genuine high quality experiences can be few and far between. When you find one, enjoy every minute of it.

 

Tuesday
May

24

2005
12:20 AM



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Food News, May 24, 2005 — I've always wondered about the almost exclusively Japanese/Male domain behind the sushi bar. I thought I'd heard that the (old school) conventional wisdom was that women's hands were too warm to handle the fish. And, though I'm embarrassed to say so, I admit that when I see someone who isn't Japanese behind a sushi bar a small part of my brain (which while small is unfortunately a large percentage of my brain) wonders about the quality and authenticity of the sushi. This is seems even more wrong than judging the quality/authenticity of an ethnic restaurant based on how many of that country's citizens eat there. And I know people do this all the time. I think it's food racism. Likely this particular brand of prejudice is just as accurate as in any other domain. New York magazine writes about Mexican-Americans becoming sushi chefs in New York City.

Mike from Sub Rosa sent us a link to a story all about what music various winemakers listen to. Interesting. Here's Rock the Cellar!

By way of Alex' brother, here's a comparison of New York's Shake Shack to In-N-Out Burger. Next time I'm in New York I will have to try Shake Shack. From the pictures on their website it doesn't look better than In-N-Out but I will reserve judgment.

A Full Belly has a post about David Gallagher's photo diary of the food he ate in China. I have to figure out a way to travel more. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't move to Asia for awhile.

I think Frank Bruni has a stalker.

It's sushi, but you can't eat it.

 

Monday
May

23

2005
12:25 AM



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Vacche Rosse, Caseificio Notari, Reggio Emilia, Italy, tasted on March 24, 2004 — I haven't made it a secret that I shamelessly idolize Jeffrey Steingarten based on his writing. His two books, collections of columns he has written as the Food Critic for Vogue are favorites of mine. Each essay has the perfect mix of delicious food, obsessive focus, honesty, and humor. Almost every one of his stories begins with him wistfully describing the most perfect instance of a particular food he's ever tasted as well as the remote location which happens to be the only place on the planet that this delicacy can be had. Before you know it, he's on a plane traveling to the very location to sample the food he has described as well as understand with obsessive detail how it's made.

In the chapter "Decoding Parmesan" in his book It Must've Been Something I Ate he describes Vacche Rosse, made by Caseificio Notari as a "revelation. It was nearly two years old but tasted like an adolescent - soft, deeply golden, lacking nearly all grain, deliciously fat, and just starting to develop its punti bianchi, the tiny amino-acid crystals. It had a wonderfully sweet, complex flavor that only hinted at what it could become." Needless to say we were in the neighborhood and couldn't go home without hunting down this cheese. Made from the milk of red cows (hence the name Vacche Rosse) this really was one of the best parmesans I'd ever had. You can tell it's from this dairy as their code - 101 - is prominently displayed on the side of any wheel they've produced. The cheese lived up to it's name, and we even got a tour of the factory. Why exactly they trusted us enough to let us roam freely in their aging room, I'll never know. I suppose that they didn't suspect I would build myself into a cheese fortress and eat my way out. And I would have! But lucky for them I'd run out of time and had to settle for several wedges that we snuck through customs on the way home.

BTW, for only $3,222.72 you can have your own (not including shipping).

 

Friday
May

20

2005
12:34 AM



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Trattoria del Tribunale, Parma, Italy, tasted on March 24, 2004 — Walking through the streets of Parma at night we really didn't know where to go for dinner. We stopped in a wine bar but the smoke was so thick we thought we were going to choke. It's so funny to me how a country that's so enlightened about incredible flavorful food, can so aggressively kill their ability to taste any of it by smoking like chimneys. Weird. Anyway, eventually we happened upon a small entry to Trattoria del Tribunale. What we thought was a small restaurant ended up being incredible deep, and having a surprise second floor with multiple dining rooms. Each entry way was an arch made of bricks leading to rooms with exposed rafters and beams.

We sat at our long table and started off with a plate of bread and crackers. We knew better than to expect magic at this point in the meal. And while the rolls were dry and floury, the slightly puffy crackers were very crispy and surprisingly good. "Hey, what's that? Salt? Nice to see you." From our previous experiences you would think that putting salt in your baked goods was against the law.

First up was a salad. This was not just any salad. The Insalata Rustica in Agrodolce was some traditional vegetables lace with warm sautéed ham and onions. This was shockingly good! I loved the warm/cold combination/contrast as well as the (now) salty oily yummy and crispy vegetables. One of the dishes I was most surprised to see in Italy was Anolini in Brodo - dumplings in broth, typically a rich and delicious chicken soup. The consomme had a strong salty (in a good way) flavor and was protecting a large flotilla of squat cheese-filled dumplings

Just after we finished our soup a plate of buttery cheesy fluffy dumplings came by - Tortelli di Erbetta. Yummy. I really enjoyed the Tagliolini al Culatello. This pasta was beautiful to look at and had a range of salty, savory, and bright flavors that I credit mostly to the generosity of the ham chunks throughout the dish. It ended up a touch greasy and I didn't care one bit. Super good.

Next up was Picollo Gnocchi di Patate con Melanzane. These were really nice and firm gnocchi - small gnocchi coated with a velvety cheese sauce studded with chunks of eggplant. We also had a bowl of squash soup. My notes said the waiter said the soup came with Orzo, but it tasted like barley to me. Either way the soup was a good solid effort with only slight sweet undertones. In the interest of full disclosure, a lighter touch with sweeter flavors really is the right balance for my particular palate. And this dish struck a great balance in my opinion.

Super soft veal cheek in tomato sauce - Guancialetti di Vitello alla Diavola - had a slight kick. The meat was falling apart it was so soft and good. At first I thought the veal steak - Nodino di Vitello alla Griglia con Patate - was slightly dry and a touch boring. But right after I'd made my judgment the waiter returned with some olive oil to be distributed liberally over my veal. It made a big difference. It's amazing how one key ingredient can have such an effect on the flavor and texture of the dish. It was neither dry, not boring. But now it was quite delicious, savory, and juicy. Three points for olive oil.

We had two other steaks - Tagliata di Manzo all'Aceto Balsamico which had good texture and decent flavor though it was a touch oily; and Filetto di Manzo alla Griglia which held its own. We also ordered the Involtino di Melanzane Asparagi e Formaggio. This combination of cheese, eggplant, asparagus and other good stuff had a good meaty flavor. But it was served at a psychotically hot temperature making it inedible for a few minutes until it cooled down. We didn't mind munching on the Patate al Forno on the side while it cooled. The potatoes were sweet a tthe start, with soft insides, and excellent crispy outsides.

What better way to wrap up our meal than with some Parmigiano di Collina made by Gennaio Giugno in 2000. The crunchy chunks of cheese almost sparkled. There was also a tiny bitter undertone on the finish.

We were only in Emilia Romagna for a handful of days, but after eating at this simple and delicious restaurant - Trattoria del Tribunale - that we basically wandered into randomly, I couldn't help but wonder how many other restaurants there were in this region that were just as good, but I wouldn't have time to find. I'm thankful that at least I got to eat at this one.

 

Thursday
May

19

2005
11:17 PM



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Il Nabucco Ristorante Pizzeria, Salsomaggiore Terme, Italy, tasted on March 23, 2004 — We're long overdue to wrap up our trip to Italy. So let's make a mad dash to the finish starting with our stop at a spa town in Parma - Salsomagiorre Terme. We were there offseason so many of the hotels and restaurants were empty. But we did manage to find a spot to sleep, and decided to head out for a quick bite to eat. Beggars can't be choosers and we chose Il Nabucco Ristorante Pizzeria. Here's the quick scoop.

Overall it was not a positive experience. The Spaghetti alla Carbonara was gloopy. We got Gnocchi di Zucca Tartufa as well. The squash filling in the gnocchi was a touch sweet and the truffle was too subtle for my taste. I suppose that last fault wasn't surprising given that it wasn't truffle season, but what am I expected to do when truffles are on the menu? Not order them?

We also got a bunch of pizzas: a Napoli with tomatoes, mozzarella, anchovies, and oregano, and an artichoke pizza with artichokes (duh), olives, mozzarella, and grana a scaglie (parmesan style cheese from a different region). The pizzas were not great, but not bad. The crust was thin, and the sauce decent.

There was one highlight, the Culatello di Zibello. It's tough to be unhappy with cured pork, and culatello (yet another regional specialty of Emilia Romagna) is a prime example. This particular one was salty and delicious.

Not exactly a great meal, but at least we had some great culatello.

 

Tuesday
May

17

2005
12:17 AM



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Food News, May 17, 2005Leslie found a new service that lets you make (or maybe gather) your dinner, and then take it home to be eaten throughout the week. She loves it.

Kate at Accidental Hedonist discovers that Swiss cheese is not actually Swiss. What the hell???

A new blog that's all about hamburgers.

OK. This is a really good find. A new candy blog called - strangely enough - Candy Blog. The thing that really made me fall in love with this blog is the perfect description of the new White Chocolate Reese's. First of all, the fact that the author chose to focus on White Chocolate Reese's at all. There's an epidemic of variations of favorite candy bars. White chocolate, dark chocolate, peanut butter lovers, chocolate lovers, etc. And not only does this blog not ignore them, it embraces them. I like that there's no candy snobbery. The author also pointed out that the ratio of chocolate to peanut butter in Reese's miniatures is way better than the big cups. I 100% agree. Bottom line, I wonder if I ever need to write about candy anymore as this blog appears to be nailing the job. Nice.

 

Thursday
May

12

2005
12:38 AM



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Cheese, Seattle, WA, tasted on April 16, 2005 — I have two children. They are four and almost two years old respectively. Before they arrived (and even for a little while after they showed up) I spoke cavalierly about all the values that I would impart to them. And while I'm not abdicating responsibility for them, I quickly realized that they have been their own "people" since the moment they were born (and likely before) and frankly there is very little I can do to convince them to do anything much less "impart my values". In many ways this has been the most evident in their extreme pickiness when it comes to food. I know this is relatively normal for kids of their age but I can't help but look at it as anything but exactly the opposite of what I expected. Except that is when it comes to cheese. My children have gotten mine and my wife's  deep and abiding love of cheese in spades. This, I think, is a good thing.

A few months ago a small cheese shop opened in a nearby Seattle neighborhood - Cheese Platters. I wasn't sure what to expect, but when I visited the shop a few weeks ago the young woman who runs the shop made a couple of recommendations. And frankly, based on the quality of her choices, I'm pretty happy that she (and her shop) are nearby.

The first cheese she offered was White Stilton Pepperton goat cheese. This was a quite good example of a peppery goat cheese with a traditional texture and flavor. But still clean and quite enjoyable. And if this cheese was merely good, the follow on was spectacular. It's called Garrotxa. Another goat's milk cheese, this one from Spain. But frankly it was unlike any goat cheese I have ever eaten. And I wonder (based on the relatively mild descriptions I've been reading on the web) if the Garrotxa I ate wasn't aged quite perfectly. It was creamy and savory, but a more complex and strong flavor snuck up on the mid-palate and a few well-placed sparks flew as the cheese melted on my tongue. This cheese really was fantastic.

My kids liked it too.

 

Wednesday
May

11

2005
12:32 AM



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Mistral, Seattle, WA, tasted on September 25, 2004 — The other night Debbie and I ate at a local Seattle restaurant and realized that we still hadn't posted our description of our last meal there. Rather than wait any longer, that post is here right now. And to be honest, while it's taken awhile, I think it's worth the wait. Eating at Mistral over the last few years has been somewhat of an evolution. And even though we've only been there a handful of times, the evolution of the restaurant is quite clear. To be honest, things started out rocky way back when we first tried to eat at Mistral. That first visit and our second chance visit much later are documented in detail here. But since then we've eaten at Mistral twice, and it's now become a place we like to eat regularly. Let's get to the details.

I hate to characterize restaurants in some broad categorical way, but I do think a high level description of Mistral is not without its usefulness. Mistral is a cozy modern restaurant, tucked away on a downtown Seattle side street. The food is essentially modern French cooking. And strangely enough it reminds me mostly of French meals I had in London, Pied à Terre in particular. Think refined, minimalist French. Definitely not overly sauced like more classical French cooking. Fresh seasonal ingredients. Extensive tasting menus. Mistral offers three different tasting menus - The Market Menu, The Chef's Tasting Menu, and The Mistral Experience. That last one is the most expensive and of course, the most inclusive. So of course, that's what we got.

It had been two years since we'd eaten at Mistral. I hadn't quite remembered the inside, a little dark in a romatic way, quiet, and comfy. Clean lines. We started off with a half bottle of Champagne - Billecart Salmon Brute Rose. It had a lemony touch to it. The amuse followed quickly - Japanese Hamachi Tartare with Cucumber, Yogurt, and Dill. It had simple, clean, tart, and fresh flavors. Kind of a Greek touch to it.

Soup was next. Specifically the Matsutake Mushroom Soup with Seared Sea Scallop and Rosemary "Cloud" (cloud means foam/emulsion). The soup was thick and rich like a yummy mushroom shake. Believe me this is a good thing. The scallop had little bursts of Indian spice as well as little crystal salt spikes on the tongue. The soup was quite delicious, but what followed was I think the emblematic dish of the evening - Pacific Sablefish, Kohlrabi, Chanterelles and Vanilla.

Sablefish is another word for Black Cod. The Vanilla was a nice touch. The grapes were little sweet and sour jewels dotting the landscape. The fish was beautifully cooked with a perfectly crispy top. The brussel sprout cups were also crispy not to mention crunchy and delicious. Yum! I need to give some context for this dish. As I mentioned above, I've almost only tasted fish prepared like this in Europe. And Mistral is definitely the only place that prepares it like this in Seattle. Imagine a cube of perfectly flaky buttery fish bound to a square of crispy skin and dotted with a few select perfectly cooked vegetables. It's just a singular experience and Mistral does it well. The fish that followed, Alaskan Halibut, Lobster and Beansprout "Risotto", was good as well, but as Mary Alice put it, the first was "exciting".

Foie gras was next. Artisan Foie Gras, Passionfruit Jelly, and Crispy Apple. The apples were definitely crispy and extra thin. The foie was decently salty. The passionfruit jelly was super delicious. The foie could have been even crispier but the salt spikes and fruit acidity were a good combination.

The entrees showed up next. Two of us got the Breast of South Moulard Duck, Berber Spice, and Cauliflower, and the other two got the Rack of Oregon Lamb, Organic Chard, and Fingerling Potato Puree. Both the duck and the lamb were quite yummy each with consistently warm savory tones. The extra smooth wide flavor of the respective meat in each dish expands slowly in your mouth and feels uniform across your palate.

We wrapped things up with some good cheese not to mention ice cream and a bit of layered cake. The dessert was refined, deliberate, and good.

Two years ago we felt that if Mistral kept working at it, they could really become a destination we'd want to eat at repeatedly. They have. It's not only that the cuisine is unique in this area, it also happens to be quite good. And when we went back this past week, Mistral didn't disappoint.

Surprisingly, Seattle is not the only place where you can eat Mistral's food. There's now a Mistral Bangkok. Neat.

 

Tuesday
May

10

2005
12:08 AM



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Food Blogs, May 10, 2005 — More food blogs arrive every day. Here's some new ones that seem particularly cool for your enjoyment. (Note, they may only be new to me.)

That should keep you busy for awhile!

 

Monday
May

9

2005
12:05 AM



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Vij's, Vancouver, Canada, tasted on March 17, 2005 — Awhile ago I started getting bummed about the state of food in Seattle. After a bit of back and forth with faithful tastingmenu readers, other bloggers, and various rankings of populations in major cities across the country and the planet, I had to concede that given its size, Seattle is pretty good when it comes to food. That said, I also must point out that when it comes to food I think I'm only really truly happy in a world class city like New York, Tokyo, or London. (I really do love living in Seattle, but it's simply not New York.) The diversity in those cities is pretty much incomparable. But one thought gave me hope. It's a bit of a drive, but if I consider Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver as one large metropolitan area (with a 6 hour drive from the top to the bottom) then I can feel like I am not quite so far away from a wide selection of high quality eating experiences. And Vancouver really does hold its own. Down the road I'll do a proper post on what Vancouver's all about. But in the meantime the main thing to know is that there is one restaurant in Vancouver that is mentioned every time anybody tells me about their experiences eating north of the border - Vij's.

Run by a husband and wife team - Vikram and Meeru - Vij's is quite simply the pre-eminent Indian culinary experience on the west coast. I have long said that when it comes to ethnic food I crave either homey authentic small ethnic hideaways, or I crave super refined but still authentic versions of a specific country's cuisine. Either makes me happy. The latter is pretty rare.  I count Hakkasan in London as one of the best examples I've ever seen of that archetype - refined dim sum and Hakka style Chinese food. Vij's is an excellent example of this archetype as well.

We got there early as they don't take reservations. We sat out by the fountain. Since we got there so early we got seated right after they opened. And while we got some yummy fried Indian snack delivered to the table, the waitresses (and Vikram himself) often take small snacks to the people standing in the nightly line to keep them happy while they wait for a table. Such a small touch, but it's so essential to making Vij's a memorable and welcoming experience. Almost everyone who went to dinner had already been to Vij's. As much as everyone else was looking forward to the meal and experiencing their favorites again, I felt intense pressure to catch up. So naturally, we ordered just about everything on the menu.

The meal passed in a blur. The appetizers included: Beef and Ginger Kebobs in Vij's Masala Curry; Winter Greens Grilled Butternut Squash, and Bacon in Cumin Seed Curry; Quail Cakes with Celeriac Puree; Lemon, Cayenne Pepper Marinated and Grilled Sablefish in Tomato-Yogurt Broth; Braised Goatmeat in Fennel, Kalonji and Indian Thyme Curry; and Grilled and Chickpeas in Green Onion Curry.

And only after that intense array of dishes did the entrees start showing up including: Pomegranate Glazed Specialty Chicken Breast with Coconut Onion Curry and Vegetable Rice Pilaf; Beef Short Ribs in Spicy Cinnamon and Red Wine Curry with Cauliflower and Honey Paranta; Duck Breast and Coconut-Green Chili Rice Pilaf in Lime Leaf Curry; Grilled Pork Tenderloin, Filled with Khoa and Potatoes in Porcini Cream Curry with Spiced Whole Almonds; and finally Wine Marinated Lamb Popsicles in Fenugreek Cream Curry.

I'm not entirely sure how to describe the array of bright, intense, and exciting flavors that oozed out of every nook and cranny of every bite served to us over the evening. The Lamb Popsicles, in many ways the iconic dish  of Vij's. The popsicles are chunks of lamb on a bone that's conveniently empty of meat at one end. The bright yellow sauce is simply unforgettable. A uniquely Indian herby aroma arises from a creamy and super tangy pool of goodness. The meat and sauce combine for the kind of dish that inspires extra effort gnawing at the bone, and surreptitious plate licking. Just about every dish at Vij's was like this. The rice perfectly cooked. The naan buttery, light, and flaky.

As good as the food was, the warm atmosphere, Vikram himself moving from table to table making sure each customer is happy, there were other key details of our visit to Vij's. Rangoli is the cafe/take-home market next door. Many of Vij's dishes (not to mention the spices to cook with) are available there.

There's one other interesting detail, when I snuck a peek at the kitchen I noticed the kitchen staff was all female. I think it's safe to say that if you look at restaurant kitchens almost anywhere in the world the vast majority are staffed almost entirely by men. Seeing women in the kitchen is not rare. But seeing a kitchen staffed with all women definitely is. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Meeru (Vikram's wife) took on the role of managing the kitchen and creating the menus (according to the Vij's website). There are other examples where restaurants run by women staff almost entirely (or entirely) with women. While I won't assert that women in the kitchen necessarily make a difference, I think it's likely that there's a different dynamic in terms of the dynamics between the people making the food. And I do wonder if it's possible to recognize that different dynamic in the food.

Whatever the reason, a deep and passionate commitment to quality, consistency, and exciting flavor is resonant in every bite of every dish you'll have at Vij's. And when it comes to eating out, I really couldn't possibly ask for more.

 

Friday
May

6

2005
12:27 AM



Permalink

 

 

 

Food News, May 6, 2005 — The Chicago Tribune decided to do a blind tasting of a series of coffee liqueurs. Since coffee isn't really my thing I suppose I'll have to take their word for it. Still, it was neat that newcomer Starbucks, yes Starbucks won the tasting. I think it's cool when a big company still can focus on doing things with high quality. In many ways I think it's harder for big companies to deliver quality than small ones.

It's so weird but I'm now getting 1-2 offers per week from various PR folks to review products. It's mostly books, but this week I got an offer to try out a pre-release of a new brand of disposable "tupperware". Freaky. I think I'll pass on that one, though I do always appreciate the offer of free stuff. I think employees of PR firms are taking seminars where they tell them how cheap it is to get bloggers to write about their products. We're not used to getting free stuff.

If you're in New York on May 17th you may want to check out "The Cuisine of Queens and Beyond" a sort of food festival presented by Dish du Jour magazine. Honestly, I have no idea what this magazine is, or what the event is all about. But Debbie thinks Rocco di Spirito is "hooooot", and as he'll be there, I imagine there's others that would like to get a glimpse of him as well. Is he still even cooking? Or does he just go around being good looking. Debbie says: "I don't care."

Passover has been over for a few days now (I needed bread so badly) and Amy at Cooking With Amy did her own Passover post as well as a roundup of a bunch of other Passover posts from various food blogs.

One of our readers, Aaron, pointed us to this comparison of various salts from Slate. Jeffrey Steingarten had a great article about whether salt could really taste any different. The conclusion I've come to is that since salts are chemically identical, dissolved in water there is no way to tell the difference between them. That said, I do think that different salt crystals have different shapes, and before dissolving, I feel the shape can dramatically affect the flavor as the salt crystal hits different spots on your tongue.

We're going to Hawaii for a few days at some point down the road. Is it wrong for me not to be enamored of Hawaiian food? My experience with Hawaiian food is generally large portions of shredded meat (usually pork) and overly sweet flavors. I'm sure this is an unfair generalization, but it's based on my semi-limited experience. The other food I've seen in Hawaii is high-end Japanese restaurants catering to Japanese tourists - authentic but somewhat antiseptic, and "higher end" chains like Roy's. Bottom line, does anyone have any suggestions on where to eat while in Maui? Thanks.

I feel like food scares are somewhat faddish. Then again, you never know what to really listen to. Got Mercury has a mercury calculator to see if all that sushi you're eating is slowly killing you. Though, if you eat that much sushi, how bad a life could it have been?

You know what a wiki is (actually, you very likely might not, so here's a definition). You know what a recipe is. But a wikipe?

 

Wednesday
May

4

2005
12:10 AM



Permalink

 

  

 

 

 
15-lamb belly, green daikon, black bean, chocolate powder.jpg

Click photo to see entire album.

wd~50, New York, NY, tasted on March 5, 2005 — I want to take a short break from our Italy trip and document a couple of more recent meals that really stood out. The first meal is from my second visit to wd~50 in Manhattan. Before we get into the details of this meal, I think a short discourse on the current state of food and innovation is in order.

Here are some things I believe: a) good food requires focus, b) removing variables usually drives creativity and innovation, c) almost always, the best way to have focus and fewer variables means cooking food within a regional/traditional framework that's evolved over decades or centuries. And while I believe A and B are always true, I admit that there are exceptions to C. The exceptions essentially fall into two categories: 99.99% (or more) in this category are random restaurants that claim to have an eclectic mix with a little of everything when in fact they are just all over the place; a tiny fraction (the remainder) are considered the most cutting edge restaurants on the planet. These include: El Bulli, Fat Duck (for which I haven't yet posted my write-up), and wd~50. I have never eaten at the first, but I have eaten at Trio when the Chef was Grant Achatz who I believe was also cooking in this vein.

Staying focused and removing variables without cooking based on a traditional framework is only for the very talented. Because basically it means that a) there's nothing for the chef to rely on in terms of a basic value system. It also means that there's no obvious touchstone for the diner. Or more accurately in the case of these restaurants there are multiple touchstones. With Trio and Fat Duck not only was there a tour of different culinary traditions, but there was cleverness, humor, and sometimes shtick. Most of the time at these meals these elements were innovative, interesting, challenging, and enjoyable. But sometimes I admit they seemed overly clever, and honestly not something I'd really like to eat on a regular basis. The smoke geleé from Trio and the parsnip cereal (basically a box of frosted flakes made from parsnip, and served with a small pitcher of parsnip milk) from Fat Duck are cases in point. These are the exceptions and not the rule, and in both cases I really quite loved my meals at Trio and Fat Duck.

Some people put wd~50 in the same category of innovative cooking as the others. And certainly Wylie Dufresne's cooking is interesting, challenging, innovative, and enjoyable. But I separate him from the others. His innovation is never a lark. It's not that he has no sense of humor, it's just that cleverness isn't the right metric for his food. There are no combinations that seem only interesting to me; instead I'd want to eat each one again. And while you may not recognize the framework from which his food comes, that doesn't mean there isn't one. His food is reductionist and beautiful. Ingredients are combined in new and interesting ways not because they are trendy, uncommon, or clever, but because Dufresne believes they will taste great together. In fact, what I've found is that the "depth of field" in his dishes is relatively narrow, but perfect when in focus. What I mean is, it's always best to carefully assemble forkfuls that have little bits of every item on a plate as the ingredients are so carefully balanced that missing even one can result in a completely different experience. Luckily the number of ingredients on each plate are few, not to mention beautiful to behold. Is every dish a home run? No. But many of them are not only super successful but delivered in such a special and interesting way that they're unforgettable. I'm lucky enough to get to eat in New York 2-3 times a year, but I must confess that I probably think about (and crave) going back to wd~50 more than any restaurant I know of in New York City. And to be clear, I've been to quite a few restaurants in New York City. It's not that I didn't love the meals I had at those other innovative restaurants. I did. It's just that in a select group of restaurants that are trying to do something new, from my experience, the food at wd~50 is unique. Given how much I like to eat out, finding something truly one-of-a-kind is a singular pleasure for me. OK. Onto the meal.

Things started off with Sesame Flat Bread. It was super crispy, and very flavorful in a warm and unobtrusive way. Next up was Duck Breast, Beet Juice, and Olive Soil. It was warm, savory with the beet flavor foundation underneath and then olive on the finish. Definitely yummy. (I'm embarrassed to say that we ripped into this so quickly that I didn't get a picture until most of it was eaten. Oops!)

The next dish was Foie Gras, Grapefruit-Basil Crumble, and Nori Caramel. It was wild. This dish almost defied description. Inky nori caramel, bitter and thin seeps onto the plate from a disc-shaped cavity in center of perfect cylinder of foie gras pate. The key was to eat everything together in one bite to get the effect. The salty croutons and acidic grapefruit combined with the foie and nori filled your mouth with an explosive collection of flavors. Alone the pieces were unremarkable. Together the ingredients were simply exciting!

After the foie explosion we had Rainbow Trout, Pork Belly, Cider Meringue, and Miso Paper. This dish was a touch subtle for me except for the chip with its concentrated shoyu flavor. The meringue was like an apple cloud. I was excited to eat these two dishes, Michael and Anh were not thrilled by them. However, Debbie and Anh's brother agreed with me though.

Then the Beef Tongue, Fried Mayo, and Tomato Molasses arrived. This dish was simply beautiful. The cubes of fried mayo were still hot. Yes, fried mayo. I'm still not exactly sure you fry mayo but I'm glad they did. The tomato molasses had a really deep flavor. The super thin shavings of tongue tasted as great as they looked.

As I recount the meal I'm reminded of just how composed everything feels on every plate. The next dish was no exception - Spanish Mackerel, Smoked Banana, Juniper, and Pickled Parsley. I want to be clear, some might jump to the conclusion that these ingredients were put together here to be different. And there's no doubt that some chefs confuse being different with being interesting. All I can tell you is that it wasn't the difference that I walked away with after eating this dish, it was how the fish was like a awarm tasty tiny pillow that perfectly balanced with all the other flavors and textures in the dish including the crispy crispy puffed rice and the crunchy saba skin.

Next up was Slow Poached Egg, Parmesan Broth, and Tomato. It was certainly neat that the egg was poached for an hour at exactly 176 degrees to get it to this great soft-boiled state. But that's not why I loved this dish. The soup was a gorgeous and crystal clear with the absolute "chewy" essence of parmigiana reggiano. The egg in the soup gets split and leaks thick yolk throughout. The dish ends up being almost some form of almost an eggdrop soup with crunchy bits throughout. This dish was wildly superlative.

After the egg we were treated to Lamb Belly, Green Daikon, Black Bean, and Chocolate Powder. The lamb belly was super fatty and lamby but when combined with the smokey eggplant garlic flavors that came from the rest of the components the dish was simply excellent and well balanced.

Next up was the Braised Short Ribs, Smoked Flatiron Beef, Kimchee Spaetzle, and Papaya. This was one of the best dishes of beef I have ever had... ever. The rectangle of short rib had a crispy outside and a flaky inside and the flavor was fantastic - deep and dark in a good way. The combination with the savoriness of the spaetzle, the sweet tart of the papaya, and the (what I think was) dried kimchee's spicy qualities, was extraordinary. The addition of the flat iron beef took it over the top with its bright savory juiciness. I tore through it as this dish was a whirlwind of flavor. A juicy savory base filled with gentle bright sparks of acid and heat.

Dessert began with Raisin Consommé, Banana, and Rum Ice Cream. Even though Michael had not deigned to try the egg dish, I had to conquer my own fears and try this one filled with raisin. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised that eating the ingredients separately instead of together yielded completely different tastes. The raisins really were not a factor until I ate a spoonful of the consommé alone that tasted raisiny (and as raisins go, it wasn't bad). But before that moment the consommé was like a tangy plum liqueur foundation for the bananas which were unusually bright. Quite good altogether.

The only dish that bore some resemblance to a dish we'd had the last time at wd~50 was the Carrot-Lime Ravioli with Coconut Tapioca. (I must have been so distracted during this meal as I spaced on this picture too, which is a shame because the ravioli were beautiful to behold.) The lime flavor was quite sweet in a good way. Anh loved the coconut tapioca. Altogether the dish was tart, crunchy, and even spicy. These are Anh's favorite qualities in food as well as (I think) in people.

The Tonka Bean Panna Cotta, with Chocolate Sorbet and Basil was like the Good Humor strawberry shortcake on a stick -  but chocolate. The cofee soil didn't bother me or Deb strangely enough. And the apricot added a special quality. Nice.

Winding these down were the Mulled Apple Cider, and the Ginger Cotton Candy. The cotton candy tasted traditional but with a subtle ginger fire on the finish. Michael had never had cotton candy at a restaurant. To close we had a bowl of Chocolate Curried Almonds. These were cold, cinnamony, and calmed down and rounded out our palates.

The combinations of ingredients we had were definitely new and interesting in many cases. Some people find some key experiences in life enjoyable early on and spend their days trying to repeat and perfect those experiences. To some extent I think everyone has some capacity for that. For Debbie I think it's pizza. For me (at least lately) it's Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches. But there are a subset of people in the world (I think) that also enjoy trying new things. And while new experiences only sometimes match up to old favorites, to a certain extent it's the journey itself that's exciting. Luckily, with wd~50 the journey and the destination are rewarding.

If you're not into trying new things, or if you are but have never eaten his food, it might be easy to dismiss it as a bunch of odd combinations. There was a time however when for each of us some ethnic food was an "odd" combination simply because we didn't grow up with it. And at least from my perspective, the food at wd~50 is anything but randomly thrown together. It's delicate, deliberate, composed, and exciting. The balance between the ingredients feels measured to the millimeter to me. And ultimately even though I deeply respect and appreciate the innovation and willingness to try new things, none of these are the why I enjoy eating so much at wd~50. The reason? The food tastes great.

 

Monday
May

2

2005
12:10 AM



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Seven Second Delay, May 2, 2005 — In crafting the exciting food persona that is me, I carefully choose the venues in which I speak outside of this website. The current rule I employ is that I will only be interviewed by people that ask. I draw the line at appearing in articles or programs written or hosted by people who have no interest in me, my eating companions, and this website. After all, we must have standards.

Luckily, Evan Kleiman at KCRW lowered her standards a couple of weeks ago when she interviewed me for her show Good Food. I'm a big fan of radio, and her show seemed great. What I've heard since has made me a regular listener. Despite the fact that her show is broadcast across Southern California, you can (of course) hear it on the internet. The beauty is that (not of course) they make it available via podcast (downloadable MP3 syndicated through RSS). This is cool. Get it here (at the time of this post the "listen" link wasn't up. If it's not there when you click, check again later as it will be up soon).

Evan and her friendly producer were smart enough to not interview me live on her show (who knows what I would say on the air) so there was a two-week delay between the interview at the local NPR studios and the airing of the show. Anyone who's a semi-attentive reader of this site has likely noticed that the delay between when we eat a meal and when it gets documented on this site. The delay has grown longer than a year. This seems bad to me. I feel like the value of the documentation goes down with the big deltas between when we actually ate the meal and when it gets written up.

I have two options for how to correct this, a) quit my job and start blogging full time, b) write less about less than memorable experiences. I've constructed this table to identify the pros and cons of each option:

  Option A
Quit My Job and Blog Full Time
Option B
Write Less about Lesser Food
Pros
  • I could catch up relatively quickly by doing nothing all day but writing about food.
  • Everyone's doing it.
  • I could catch up somewhat quickly.
  • It's common practice in the media to not use as much "ink" (wait, we don't have ink) on lesser subjects.
Cons
  • The whole lack of a salary thing.
  • Who needs health insurance.
  • I could no longer afford to eat out or host this site. This would be ironic.
  • Those sub-par food purveyors don't benefit from the deep and detailed wisdom we have to offer (oh wait, they don't read this site anyway).
  • Unimportant details of my life may be lost forever.

 

As you've probably already concluded, Option A seems a little shortsighted. A real catalyst in the near-term but likely a showstopper for this entire site (and other things I enjoy such as shelter and transportation) at some date in the near future. So Option B is the only realistic possibility, though it has its own tradeoffs.

<RATIONALIZATION>Quality is about focus. And I feel that quality is suffering because I'm insisting on documenting just about every single meal I have out. And I have to wonder how many people really enjoy reading about meals that we didn't completely enjoy. I already don't publish pictures of food I ate that I didn't "like" or "love". It seems a natural progression to post less, or not much at all about those same meals. So, in an attempt to focus focus focus, we're going to spend more time on the good stuff, and less time on the bad stuff. </RATIONALIZATION>

I feel very lucky at how many people appear to check out this blog regularly. I'd really appreciate hearing from you on this issue. The comments link is to the left of this post. Hopefully you feel this is a good evolution of the site, but even if not (and maybe especially if not) I'd like to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

Just in case you missed it, make sure to check out the last post on our meal at San Domenico in Imola, Italy. Definitely not a lesser eating experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

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Tastingmenu is focused on superlative restaurant experiences from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. Tastingmenu is written by Hillel (professional eater) and Dana (up-and-coming professional chef) in Seattle, Washington.


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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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