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Thursday
September

29

2005
12:37 AM



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Kalustyan's, New York, New York, tasted on May 8, 2004 — I'm a fan of ethnic markets. Especially when they have a cozy corner where they serve sandwiches, and other treats. And to be honest, the selection at Kalustyan's was great. But so was lunch.

It's not just that I love mid-east peace on a shelf, the selection overall was just fantastic. The market was a warren of little rooms filled with yummy items including: raw Persian shelled pistachios, ginger and almonds, various olive oils, ghee, Israeli pickles, assorted beans, teas, tagines, cheese, green plums, dried persimmon slices, and more. Thinking of cooking middle eastern food? Come here and you will be.

Upstairs at the deli, not only was this gentleman holding court, but he was giving out samples of the yummy goodness behind the deli counter. The falafel was delicious. It was warm, large, and had a super sesame flavor (which I adore). The inside was soft (as it should be), and the outside was crispy fried (also as it should be). Tahina and a spicy mixture were drizzled all over the salad and pickles that accompanied my falafel. On the side I had an order of chickpea salad which was warm and savory with plenty of turmeric (I think) and lots of other regional spices.

Kalustyan's is a huge market, filled to the ceilings with yummy middle-eastern ingredients from all countries, with one corner dedicated to making you great falafel with delicious home-made salads. It doesn't get much better than this.

 

Monday
September

26

2005
12:39 AM



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Artisanal, New York, New York, tasted on May 7, 2004 — Let me get this straight. There's a restaurant in Manhattan that's all about cheese. They have their own mail order cheese business as well as an aesthetically beautiful bistro style restaurant where you can eat all that cheese that they store in their cheese cave. And they specialize in artisanal cheeses and even call themselves Artisanal. Uh... where do I sign up?

As it happens, no signup was necessary. In fact the reservation was relatively easy to get, and we stopped in for an early first dinner. (Note: when we're on these crazy eating trips, we often have at least two dinners.) Artisanal is lovely (almost as beautiful as Balthazar) and done in a bistro style. Usually I don't worry much about decor, but it really did seem like the perfect environment in which to enjoy a whole bunch of yummy cheese.

Cheese is a funny thing as it's mainly made from milk. Much like wine from grapes, it's amazing to realize the sheer complexity and variety of flavors, textures, etc. you get by starting from the same simple ingredients. The tone was set with a cheese item of course, gorgeous and... well... super cheesy... Gougeres. Yum. Artisanal also serves some complementary dishes, so sure enough we started off with Crisp Skate Wing with Blood Orange Grenobloise and Cauliflower. This was a really enjoyable and simple flavor combination and balance. The Oysters with vinegar and lemon were a nice followup.

Steak Tartare with tangy Parmesan tuiles was particularly enjoyable. I'm a sucker for the acidic spectrum of flavors, and all the tart and tanginess in the dish was quite good for me. I was particularly looking forward to the fondue, as you would imagine. There were several varieties, though we got one of the classics. And unfortunately it was slightly underwhelming. I couldn't taste enough of the wine. or enough salt for that matter. It was, however, nice and creamy.

The cheese course however really was the main attraction. And we partook of six different cheeses. They say they have over 250 cheeses all "handcrafted and perfectly ripened". I counted 192 on the separate cheese menu (with it's own spot for notes). But who's counting. :)

In order, starting at just before 3 o'clock on the plate were:

  1. Il Caprino Tartufo, goat's milk cheese from Italy. We couldn't taste the truffle in this one which made it a little bit of a bummer.

  2. Serpa, sheep's milk cheese from Portugal. This was certainly great! It was chewy and creamy at the same time but with a subtle but consistent tanginess.

  3. Montgomery's Cheddar, cow's milk cheese from England. It was a cheddar that had a parmesany consistency and horseradish flavor. Definitely enjoyable.

  4. Affidelice, cow's milk cheese from France. A super creamy triple cream with an almost "aged meat" flavor. Not tangy. Very good.

  5. Aisy Cendre, cow's milk cheese from France. This one started out with a truffley savory deep flavor, but spiked on the finish with a touch of ammonia. It was likely overripe. We'll need to try it again given the good start.

  6. Epoisses, cow's milk cheese from France. A beauty as always.

All in all, I wish there was an Artisanal next door to me. I might eat there every other night. There's something about an almost endless cheese adventure that gives me a sense of security, comfort, and happiness. I realize that may not sound particularly "normal" but I'm comfortable with it.

 

Tuesday
September

20

2005
12:02 AM



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Asiate, New York, New York, tasted on May 7, 2004 — On the one hand I am deeply wedded to the idea of chefs going deep and not flitting about from cuisine to cuisine, or borrowing elements from another cuisine they don't deeply understand to "dress up" their own food and make it "interesting". On the other hand, even though I know better, I often hope against hope that a fusion restaurant will have found a way to combine elements from two cuisines that is deep, original, and coherent. And for some reason, one of the favorite regions to borrow from is Asia. Maybe it's the contrast with typical European ingredients and flavors, and maybe the fad is over (though I don't think so) but so many chefs throw in a sprinkle of Asian dishes/ingredients that it almost  goes unnoticed. And this brings us to Asiate which clearly states its fusion objectives up front - French and Japanese. It's location also makes a statement. A kissing cousin to the high end restaurant row at the Time Warner building in Manhattan (with Per Se and Masa) Asiate has stiff competition.

The building itself is gorgeous. There's also some distractions if you happen to arrive early for lunch or dinner. These include the insanely well stocked WholeFoods  supermarket in the basement, the Williams Sonoma with the aggressively helpful staff, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and the Dean and Deluca serving Doughnut Plant doughnuts in the middle of the Borders bookstore.

Despite all the "fanciness" the staff at Asiate was super welcoming. Right off the bat they saw the camera and encouraged us to take pictures - "take pictures please". Most restaurants don't mind (I've only ever been told not to take pics at two restaurants and one eventually relented). But the waiter at Asiate was even encouraging which was nice. He also saw how we were ordering, lots of dishes to share and immediately understood we were doing a tasting, to which he was amenable. Nice. It's hard to imagine, but some restaurants get nutty when you go off the predictable path. Finally, to set us in the right mood some Nori and Gruyere Gougeres arrived from the kitchen. It was funny as they looked like they might be hard, but they were in fact quite soft. They had a super interesting flavor which was deep with an almost barest bitterness. All told they had some major umami. The Sourdough Roll with Black Seaweed had decent nori flavor. When you ate the roll at a normal or fast pace it tasted like "grilling" on the roll. But when you slowed down and placed the bread at an angle against your tongue you really tasted the seaweed essence of it. It's funny that this should make a difference, but time has proven (at least to me) that slowing down when you eat lets you enjoy the flavors of high quality food in an entirely different way than you might be used to. It's very very important. If you're going to the trouble to eat well, why not slow down and enjoy it.

Next up was the Crab Salad with Green Mango, Pomelo Vinaigrette. I've had this dish before in a different and simpler form. This one was pretty decent, though more "uhngehpatchked" (my grandmother's word for messed with more than it should be). But the dusting of sumac gave this version a unique and interesting tone. The Grilled Prawn and House Made Pasta en Papillote with a Shellfish XO Sauce was met with mixed reaction from me and Alex. Basically the shrimp was too mushy. That said, the sauce was delicate yet had some strong ginger notes which were enjoyable. The noodles had a rustic homemade texture and were very good.

At this point I noticed a theme starting to emerge. Typically I eschew dishes where there's a lot going on. Not because of that fact, but because it's typically an indicator of seeming insecurity on the part of the chef. It's like their inner voice says "the customers won't recognize the value of this perfectly cooked piece of fish so I have to add a whole bunch of crap to it so they think can see all the work that went into it as opposed to tasting how much time we spent making it great." And then of course the extra crap on the plate becomes the crutch as why bother working hard to make the main ingredients superstars when nobody will be able to see them much less taste them given all the other stuff on the plate. And while there were a lot of things on each plate, I felt like the chef was mostly making it work. Daniel Boulud has this particular skill in spades. Even though there were a lot of elements to each dish, for the most part the food was delicate and interesting. The ingredients were harmonious instead of jarring distractions. The mustard seeds and ikura on the Sashimi of Tuna, Avocado, Daikon Radish Salad, and Ponzu Sauce were notable examples of interesting combinations working out well.

After the tuna was Polenta Crusted Scallops, Etuvée of Clams, Seasonal Vegetables, Coconut-Lemongrass Broth. The scallop coated in polenta was super neat. The scallop itself was super juicy and light. The dish was also helped by the coconut broth which on its own made for a delicious soup and was nice in combination with the scallop.

Finally we had the Pan-Roasted Muscovy Duck Breast, Haricots Blancs, Duck Prosciutto, Black Pepper Sauce. And I knew with this dish that amid all the fusion, the chef was able to really feature a main ingredient when it was called for. The duck was no exception. It was clearly the star of the dish with a laser focus. The duck was slightly gamey in a good way. It was juicy and strongly flavored with a seared seared texture and bacony flavors permeating its sausage-like presence. Accompanied by a perfect and light almost fruity jus which was studded with spicy cracked peppercorns, this dish was simply awesome.

Asiate started out with me wondering if it could overcome the standard assumptions someone might make: 1) fusion restaurants rely too much on fusion and not enough on flavor, 2) dishes with lots of elements are usually cover for people not trying hard enough, and 3) where the rent is really high, restaurants spend more time worrying about atmosphere than food. Yet, I found none of those to be the case. While I did find myself a little too low in my banquette to reach the table comfortable, I'll gladly assume it's because I'm just too short as long as I can enjoy that duck dish again.

 

Monday
September

12

2005
1:08 AM



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Aubergine, Anaheim, California, tasted on May 4, 2004 — A trip to Southern California with the kids does not afford many opportunities for higher end dining. That doesn't mean that you can't get high quality low end food, just that you're usually restricted to that end of the spectrum. On this night however we got babysitters. The fact that we were willing to leave our children with a babysitter who we'd never met and was recommended by the hotel sitting service indicates one of two things. Either our cavalier attitude towards the welfare of our children, or our singular focus on getting as many high quality dining experiences as possible. And of course, it's possible it indicated both. Aubergine, located in Anaheim not too far from where we were staying, came highly recommended and that's where we went.

 I really do hate to be late for a reservation. I feel that it's rude. While I've never worked at a restaurant it's clear to me after many years of observing them that trying to keep people moving through the dining room at a leisurely pace while making sure all the seats are filled as often as possible is an incredibly difficult task. It's made all the more difficult when customers are not too concerned about when they arrive (or even if they show up at all). It's even worse when you're the last reservation of the night as you ended up being the long pole for everyone working in the restaurant. Every minute you're late is another minute they have to stay that night. And sure enough we arrived at Aubergine five minutes late. Believe me, even though it was only five minutes I felt bad. We'd been driving around the area trying to find the restaurant and had trouble locating it. And when we walked in the first thing I did was apologize.

Normally I really don't mention service much when I write. And the truth is because I'm willing to put up with almost any level of service if the food is really really good. It's when the food is bad that all of a sudden I start to notice things like service, price, decor, etc. But quality of food is really 95% of what I care about. And yet, the reaction of the hostess to our arrival does bear mention. She listens to my apology and then gives us a super long super snotty look while she looks at her watch and then looks back at us. We even got a couple of lecturing words on being late.

I have to take a moment to ask, what was the point of this? I understand if they wanted to be hardcore and say that we'd missed our opportunity. I might think it an extreme reaction to being five minutes late, but I would understand they were following their rules. But in fact, the seated us and served us. So what was the point of the lecture and shitty look? I think it was just to try and make us feel bad, which as you know is really the way you want to start off a meal. It's not like we weren't contrite about being late. I understand them either serving us or not serving us, but having the hostess trying to make us feel bad seemed unnecessary. And frankly, given how nice everyone else was to us the rest of the evening, I'm going to assume she was an anomaly. A mean-spirited, small-minded anomaly. And to be fair, maybe she was just having a super crappy day. Still, it made an impression. OK. Enough of that. Now on to more important things, like the food.

Things started off with an amuse of Blood Orange and Foie Gras Terrine with Aged Balsamic. This was a fantastic start to the meal. The gelee had a deep caramel focused dark blood orange flavor spiked with three gorgeous stripes of nutty, rich, deeply flavored foie gras. The balsamic had a deep flavor as well but was almost light compared to the blood orange and foie gras flavors. Very nice acids in this dish. I barely even noticed the distracting frisee cause everything else was so good. (Though, while we're on the topic, why does anyone who can make a terrine as wonderful as this one feel the need to "adorn" it with a blob of frisee? I blame customers who think that if they see food that looks spare and simple they think they're getting ripped off.)

A small dish of Crab Salad followed. It was super light with some tones of fresh citrus. Everything was super clean tasting and enjoyable. A nice contrast from the terrine. The other crab we had was also delicious. A perfectly fried Crab Cake which was not the least bit heavy and had a tiny kick on the finish. Our alternative Foie Gras (this time sauteed) was also very enjoyable and well prepared.

After our crab and foie gras courses we moved on to a silky smooth Corn Soup. The lovely sweet flavor of the corn was accented by smoky bacon. Essentially perfect. It helped that there was a small pile of niblets and other additional goodness.

I thought I knew where we were, but then came the Seafood Stew. I often don't view chefs who flit from one culinary tradition to another as adventurous... typically their food comes off as random. However when the seafood stew with its Thai and Southern Indian flavors came out I was surprised but pleased. The spice, cilantro, and coconut flavors were delicate and super present and generally very enjoyable. So who cares that we shifted gears... the dish was excellent.

Steve and Kira aren't big fans of sweet breads. I think it's sort of a traditional aversion to non-traditional meats. And it's not like I'm the offal master so I'm not in a huge position to judge. That said, for whatever reason, I do love well-prepared sweet breads and these were goregeous. Resting on some lovely lima beans, there was a fine grain seasoning on the surface of the sweet breads. The dish was super savory with a super juicy inside as well. Even Kira enjoyed it.

The Rabbit (with its little bones sticking out) was great. It had a smokey flavor permeating the juicy and delicate meat. The foie gras pastilla added extra smoke flavor. The crunchy shell of the pastilla was also enjoyable texture-wise.

The Pork was fine but not super interesting. That said the polenta had a nice cheesy flavor and the bacony cubes were great. It's difficult to find a dish with a nice cheesy starch and cubes of bacon that I'm not going to find a way to enjoy. The Lobster however, was excellent. It had a peppery flavor and was cooked well. Not chewy like some lobster can be. The crunchy vegetables were a nice complement. We were stuffed, but managed to pound our way through some yummy desserts as well.

All in all (weird watch incident aside) we had a pretty great meal at Aubergine. There are a lot of restaurants doing this style of food in the U.S. right now. Haute cuisine with the regional American touch. And frankly, it can be hard to stand out. But Aubergine wormed its way into our hearts in its own quiet way. They didn't have to use any crazy ingredients, or pull any tricks, they just focused on making each dish super high quality with deep flavor. And that's really all anyone can ask for.

It turns out that this is a bit too late (an unfortunate side effect of the delay we've had in posting reviews). Aubergine is being sold, but the owners are opening a new restaurant. Perhaps the owners will bring what we found enjoyable about Aubergine to their new venture.

 

Friday
September

9

2005
12:42 AM



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Domestic Cheese, tasted on August 15, 2005 — I have been accused of being a cheese snob by only listing European cheeses that I really enjoy. I claim ignorance not snobbery, as I simply have not eaten nearly as many cheeses as I'd like in my life. The other day I was engaged in one of my favorite past times - standing at the WholeFoods cheese counter trying as many slices of new cheeses as I could shove into my mouth.

The first was Estrella Farmhouse Reserve. It was sort of a cross between Neapolitan ice cream and havarti, but better than both. :) Sheep, cow, and goat milk havarti like cheese is melded together in three multi-color layers. At first you find the texture novel and the flavor mild. But there is this inescapable kick on the finish that made this particular cheese stand out for me. BTW, I say this despite the woman next to me at the cheese counter who also tasted it and made a condescending face when I said I liked it. It was this faux politeness where she tried to give the impression she was holding back her disagreement, but made a face that said how stupid she thought my opinion was. And then of course her opinion came out anyway as how could she not tell the "truth" about her dislike of the cheese. I hope I never see the judgy cheese lady again. Luckily, the next cheese made me forget about her quickly.

Next was the Quillascut UFO goat cheese. This was super ripe and super enjoyable. It compared to some of the strongest triple creams I've enjoyed from France. It was soft, but not liquidy, and strong without having any ammonia qualities. This was a big cheese that deserved a big wine to go with it. I stupidly only bought a small wedge and should have bought way more.

I'm sure there are plenty of other domestic cheeses that are quite flavorful and tasty, and I'm eager to find them. One cool thing is that these two both come from my home state of Washington. So perhaps, my enjoyment of local cheese will make up for my lack of enjoyment of local wine. I'll try not to complain too loudly as I suffer to find out the answer.

 

Thursday
September

8

2005
12:08 AM



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Vacation is Officially Over, September 8, 2005 — Shockingly, some of you might not have noticed that tastingmenu remained unupdated for the month of August and well past Labor day. And the truth is that I'm not sure my malaise has retreated. I do know that I am determined to try and do something interesting and significant when it comes to expressing opinions about food.

In some ways, not much has changed. I still love to eat. I still love to go out to eat. I still love to share information about great places to eat with friends (and strangers). And yet, I still wonder if there's a way to have an impact beyond this site's barely perceptible micron-sized dimple of a footprint on the way people eat. Maybe it's too much to ask to be able to improve the quality of dining and diners in America through a blog. But that doesn't mean I won't try.

One thing I have done on vacation is read a lot of other people's websites. Mostly non-food-related. And one thing I've found is that the best of them share one key trait - honesty. Brutal, embarrassing, honesty. In a world where people are regularly full of crap, honesty is a rare commodity that is recognized and cherished.

So, while I still feel a little lost, and wonder how long I can keep up this crazy website for, I do have some degree of renewed purpose. I believe two things (for the purposes of this entry):

  1. there are some basic tenets for people who eat and people who make food that if followed can improve our overall culinary existence in this country

  2. there are people all over the world making great food that you should know about, and that I need to eat (the food, not the people)

I'm going to spend the next phase of this site focusing on those two things and we'll see how it goes.

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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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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