Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Restaurant: Calle Ocho

Trips to the upper west side are not a common occurrences for me, particularly just to eat dinner. The menu, however, and a gift certificate burning a whole in my wallet convinced me to head to Calle Ocho to try the unusual twists on recognizable Latin flavors and dishes. The restaurant has a cozy and chic interior by the bar, where many people simply sat around sipping brightly colored drinks and checking out if anyone was checking them out. Once led into the main dining room, you walk out into a huge cavernous space with loud conversations and waiters running all around. You get the feeling like you walked into a slightly off fine dining restaurant that could be in Latin America, but could also be in California or Miami. This odd effect wears off quickly as soon as you get a chance to study the long drink and food menus.

My dining companion and I wanted to try as much food as possible, and both had 3 different drinks each. Of the 3, none really hit the spot for me like the classic Mojito. Every other drink I tried was just way too sweet and girly, with some even rimmed with sugar. Luckily the food distracted me from the drinks enough to forget how sweet they were. We started with a carnitas and pineapple soft taco platter and a combo of four ceviches. The carnitas were sweet and savory, which would be a common theme throughout the meal. The meat was completely shredded, moist and flavorful. Served with different salsas, pickled onions, radish and cilantro, each taco could be made the way the individual liked it and gobbled up in about two or three bites. The ceviche sampler was a mixed bag. Not all the ceviches we wanted could be a part of the sample (the oysters specifically), and another was mysteriously not available (despite it being early in the night). We ended up ordering the Mariscos, Tropical, and Hondureno. We ordered a fourth, but they mistakenly brought two Mariscos. The Hondureno was far and away the best, combining tuna, coconut milk and pickled jalapenos. The Mariscos, which had lobster, shrimp, lemon and lime were amazing, although as expected, you never get enough lobster in the order. Although the ingredients of the Tropical should have wowed me, the combo of shrimp, roast tomato, mango and other citrus was just overwhelming and instead of the tastes melding together, they just all fought each other.

For main courses we shared the Paella and the Corvina. The Paella was huge, and had no shortage of lobster, scallops or shrimp. In fact, it actually came with 1/2 a lobster sitting right on top. You can't really argue with any Paella that starts with 1/2 a lobster, and has just the right combo of spice and savory flavor to warm your stomach. The Corvina was basically a large piece of chilean seabass, mixed vegetables and a delightfully seasoned broth that was surprisingly flavorful. After just one or two bites I couldn't get enough the perfectly cooked fish and vegetables gently mingling in a sauce that to the average observer looked bland and unassuming. I couldn't pinpoint the flavors of the sauce given its Spanish background (and my lack of knowledge about the cuisine), but I definitely plan on returning for further investigation. A nice side addition was the sweet and green plantains. This sweet and savory combo caused fights over who got the last of each, and should always be at the table when dining at Calle Ocho.

Last but not least, we shared a beautifully prepared and tasting dessert of toasted coconut ice cream, placed within a thin chocolate shell and surrounded by a deep red and almost too sweet raspberry sauce. Although decadent, how can anyone not enjoy the combo of coconut, chocolate and raspberry? It made for a great end to a delicious meal of fancy Latin food that might make a trip back uptown worth it.

A reason to go to the Upper West Side

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Restaurant: Grand Central Oyster Bar

Every year around the beginning of June my father and I make plans to head to the Grand Central Oyster Bar because the fresh herring fleet shipment comes in all the way from the Netherlands. The Oyster Bar is a hidden treasure nestled in the revamped subterranean depths of Grand Central and has that unique combination of old New York and modern New York. We always skip the fancier bar and dining room and opt for the regular restaurant. In the past I used to drop in after work for a quick bite at one of the counters, but this was always in the non-herring season.

The excellent chowders and raw oysters are always a draw for me, and up until about 10 years ago would have started my meal. Since that breakthrough day I always get what my dad gets, 2 fresh Dutch herring with the trimmings. At the Oyster Bar this means two boned fillets with finely chopped onion, chives and hard boiled egg. This simple combination of extremely fresh flavorful fish with a little of each trimming makes for something that really is hard to describe. The fish is silky and buttery, almost melting in your mouth with each bite. And, despite the strong flavor of onion, chive and egg, the herring bursts through with a strong distinct flavor that is far from "fishy". Paired with a pint of Heineken, it's the ideal Dutch snack, in the heart of Manhattan. Almost always those first two herring are gone, and we are quickly ordering a third and, sometimes even a fourth. Needless to say it is quite a tradition, and is not something I would recommend eating prior to being in any sort of social situation where someone will be close enough to smell your breath.

Main courses are what you would expect at an old school seafood restaurant. The fish is extremely fresh, perfectly cooked, and the star of any plate, not the accent. Almost every fish, crab, lobster, oyster and clam can be ordered any way you want it from blackened to grilled or fried. Sometimes the simplest preparation is the best way to enjoy fish, and the Oyster Bar does this better than anyone. Usually the only question you need to answer is which type of fish do I want, Mahi Mahi or Dorade to name just a few, and do I want it Cajun or broiled with a spritz of lemon? Either way you can't go wrong. My traditional main course, however, is always fried oysters and french fries. The freshness of the oysters, and the light crispy batter they are fried in make for bite size morsels that taste more like oysters and less like a fried food. The standard thin cut crispy fries are nothing to rave about, but always manage to get finished despite themselves. Simply put, squeeze some lemon on the oysters and skip the ketchup or tartar sauce and just enjoy a basic pleasure in life that everyone should indulge in at least once a year.

I probably shouldn't be telling you this part, but if you ever do make it to the Oyster Bar no meal is complete without exploring a strange oddity of architecture outside the restaurant. Due to the high arches, and marble interior, if you stand in the corners diagonally across from each other and speak into the wall you can talk with the other person like they are whispering in your ear. Despite the distance, you feel like you are having a conversation with them right next to you. Of course there is also the fun of other people not in the know looking at you oddly like you might be crazy or in need of a bathroom.

Real herring, not something in a cream sauce

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Restaurant: Blue Hill

So this is my first post in a while due to busy times at work and a general lack of time due to the summer. I was lucky enough to secure a 7pm table through a family friend on the Friday of my birthday at Blue Hill in the west village. Nestled into a little nook right off Washington Square park, you would never even know that Blue Hill was there unless you looked for it. Missing Blue Hill, however, would really be a shame. The chef Dan Barber's cuisine, mainly based on farm fresh ingredients from their farm on the old Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown, is clean, tasty and of course, small portioned. Sometimes he gets a little carried away with the whole "farm fresh" idea (see the amuse of a radish), but the tastes, and flavor combinations almost always makes your surprised that what you are eating doesn't have more ingredients.

The atmosphere is somehow fancy and rustic at the same time, and tables are packed somewhat tight. Prices are of course on the high end of the spectrum given the demand just to get a table. Luckily the food and quality of ingredients more than make up for the price. Of all the appetizers we sampled, the "This Morning's Farm Egg" was far and away the best. A softly poached farm egg, with mushrooms, greens, and silky smooth herb broth melted together into one delicious bite after another. Each bite included a little bit of egg, some mushroom and the delicious herb broth to create a flavor explosion that you don't expect given the somewhat basic ingredients.

For main courses we shared 3 dishes - seared salmon, grilled hamachi and Hudson valley guinea hen. Also, the requisite sides of sauteed spinach and crispy bok choy were of course included. While the hamachi was nice, and the parsnip delicious, it was not a dish that I will remember months from now. The salmon was very delicate, and worth a second "taste" despite my mom saying no. The real standout, however was the Hudson valley guinea hen. Forgetting all the sides and other elements of the dish, the tenderness of the meat made me for the first time in my life want guinea hen again. Pair the perfectly cooked meat with the carrots, spices and trumpet mushrooms, and you had a dish that sparked magic in every bite.

For dessert, as has become my tradition, the cheese plate made an appearance. It was a wonderful selection of various locally grown cheeses, all with some nice bread. The other desserts we tried were quite a bit more decadent. The steamed cheesecake with dark chocolate, maldon salt and roasted peanuts split the table. I loved the almost pudding like taste of the cheesecake, but did not care for the saltiness from the peanuts. Others, however, loved the sweet and salty taste, and the added depth of the roasted flavor of the peanuts. To each their own I guess! Last we had the chocolate bread pudding, with chocolate sauce and banana ice cream. Personally, I have never been much of a bread pudding fan, but my mom loved it, and she has had quite a lot of bread puddings. I will, however vouch for the banana ice cream, which was delicious.

All in all the meal was excellent. Great service, amazing simple but flavorful dishes executed almost to perfection. The price is steep, so it will be another special occasion until I go back, but in the meantime, best of luck scoring a prime reservation!

The Rockefeller's Would Approve

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Dish: Buffets

My love affair with buffet style food began when I was about 8 years old in Amsterdam. While not old enough to truly "enjoy" the city, it is where I first learned the meaning of the word "buffet" and the phrase "all you can eat". I later discovered that all you can eat was clearly a relative term, since I can eat a lot and others don't know what they are doing when attacking such a large amount of food. Since that glorious moment 18 years ago I have experienced numerous other buffets, some good, some bad, some wedding related. In all I have developed a clear set of rules and ways to judge a buffet. These rules have allowed me to maximize my eating of food so that I can enjoy the full buffet as much as possible.

Recently, I somehow managed to attend two separate all you can eat buffets in a two day period. While my body was not happy with me, each meal was a lot of fun and reminded me why everyone loves a good buffet. The first meal was actually at the highly underrated Diamond Club at Shea Stadium. Before a 1pm game my friend and I sat down to a plethora of eating options. Since it was still early the Diamond Club does the right thing by offering you both breakfast and lunch options. I believe in some far off lands this is known by the catchy phrase of "brunch". While I didn't participate in either, there was an omelet station and a crepe station with each one made to order. The only breakfast I had was a delicious mini bagel and lox with capers and onions. The Jew in me can't resist that at anytime of day, especially for breakfast. My main 2 rules during a buffet are to avoid the breads, pastas and carb heavy dishes, and to make sure you take a little of everything to figure out what is your favorite. As you can see in both of the pictures, I loaded up two big plates trying to figure out what was the best. Most all you can eat buffets will have their standout dishes, and their really disappointing dishes. The roast beef let me down, as did the Cajun catfish, but the pork loin, spicy coleslaw and BBQ pork "wings" were exceptional. Rarely did I go near the vast bread selections, nor did I venture into the mac and cheese land. The Israeli couscous salad, cherry tomato mozzarella and pesto salad, and the roast corn were also worth second trips. The carrots, sugar snap peas and other veggies, as usual, were a bit under seasoned, and the creole rice was very dry. Thanks, however, to my rules, I was able to weed out the so so food items, eat what I liked the most, and still pack it all in to get 4 full plates worth of food...and an ice cream sundae.

The very next day I was at BB Kings Blues Club & Grill in Times Square for a mothers day brunch. While my mom was excited for the Harlem Gospel Choir performance, I was licking my lips staring at the southern style all you could eat buffet. Sadly the choir's performance turned out to be what I enjoyed the most. I should have expected low quality given it was Times Square and tourists are everywhere, but a big part of me really hoped the food would be of high quality because it was comfort food. I again skipped the mac and cheese (I may be the only person to do this) and BBQ hot wings (I didn't want to get it all over my Sunday best) and went right for the fried chicken, fried catfish, grits, candied yams, collard greens, mashed potatoes, and of course the required dressings of gravy, ketchup, and tartar sauce. After the first plate I instantly regretted getting the yams, which were so sickeningly sweet I went through four glasses of water. The grits were delicious, as were the collard greens (pork fat seems to be the key here). The fried chicken had nice flavor, with some sort of subtle sweetness, but it didn't stay crispy in a hot tray sitting out on the buffet line. Many contestants on Top Chef have learned the hard way that heavy batter and fried foods don't do well when they aren't served right away. Interestingly, the fried catfish was my favorite part of the meal. Maybe due to its light thin batter, or that it was really popular, it stayed crispy and delicious to the last bite. I am a little biased, however, because I love catfish. I think I could eat it for dinner 7 days a week. Or maybe I was just really happy to have good catfish after such disappointing Cajun style the day before. Either way, I went back for thirds.

Although one buffet was great, and the other just good, there is something to be said for the fun and excitement of so many different choices and things to taste. There is something to also be said for the American way of all you can eat buffets. Similar to everything else we seem to do, wasting food, and eating too much of it go hand in hand with a standard type of meal that we have. I sometimes wish that places actually limited the number of times you can keep going back up for food, or at the very least require you to finish what is on your plate like the all you can east sushi restaurants. In any case, I will always love a buffet, and you can most likely find me cutting to the front of the line to get the freshest food they put down.

Buffet - French for feeeed me

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Beer of the Week: Bud Light Lime

During my recent celebration of Cinco De Mayo I had the bad luck of trying a new beer, Bud Light Lime, and it raises the new question of where did this trend come from? Miller also has their own lime and salt flavored beer, Miller Chill, and apparently Budweiser seemed to think this was a great idea. Personally, I have not tasted Miller Chill yet, but just the idea makes my stomach churn. While I am not one to argue with putting a lime into a Corona or other light "beach drinking" beer, I don't think chemical lime flavoring in a beer is appealing at all. As someone recently said to me when discussing this alarming trend, "It seems to taste like Windex". I let it go without asking why this person knew what Windex tasted like, and decided to start a crusade against large beer companies attempting to infuse flavor into their beers. What's next, a Bud Light Hot Wing beer because wings and beer go so well together?

Budweiser has clearly missed the point as to why people add limes to beers. It is a subtle, fresh, slightly fruity and acidic way to bring out the natural taste of that particular beer. It is in no way the main taste of the beer, and doesn't linger on your tongue like bad medicine. Corona, Sol, and other commercial beers that you can add a lime to are inherently tasty and enjoyable to drink. Bud Light Lime however tastes like someone tried adding a fake lime flavor to an old skunky Bud Light they found on the bottom of their fridge after a party. It's not like Bud Light is the greatest tasting beer in the world, so why would someone think that adding a lime flavor to an already barely drinkable beer (unless you are playing beer pong) would actually improve the flavor.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 0
Pair With Food: Why waste your time?

Learn more if you enjoy bad beer

Monday, May 5, 2008

Condiment of the Week: Goya Salsita Chipotle Chile

While Goya products tend to get overlooked at supermarkets, they actually provide some of the better Latin and Spanish pre-made and canned goods on the market. One of my favorites are their line of salsita's that include chipotle, ancho, jalepeno and habanero While all of them are quite good, my favorite is the chipotle which has that perfect combo of spicy and smokey that many hot sauces try to create, but rarely succeed. Tabasco, Jim Beam, and others that I've tried have either failed to get the right consistency, focused too much on the smoke, or too much on the heat, forgetting that they need to all work as one. The Goya Chipotle pours out of the bottle well, but does not come off as watered down, and even seemingly has texture to it from the peppers. When you first taste the hot sauce the smoke engulfs your mouth and can overpower weaker flavors very easily. Ideally, because of this type of taste, the sauce should be used sparingly as an accent to foods and dishes that pair well with smokey flavor. Add to much of this sauce, and whatever your eating will taste like it was in the smoke house a day too long. After the smoke flavor goes away the heat suddenly appears in the back of your throat and will catch you completely by surprise. It's very easy to start eating something with the Goya Chipotle and think it isn't hot at all, and then suddenly the heat will catch up with you and make you turn bright red. While not as spicy as habanero or scotch bonnet, the sauce is still jalapeno based, and will get you if you don't watch out. Maybe it's the wooden top, but there is something that I love about the flavors that make up the Goya sauces. It may still be a huge corporate brand, but it's about as authentic of a taste as your going to find in your supermarket "spanish" section.

Favorite Use: A few drops over rice and beans or on top of a taco
Most Unusual Use: Mix with honey mustard for a spicy, sweet and smoky dipping sauce

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Dish: Couscous

Couscous is one of those ingredients that you see often showing up on menus as part of an accent to a dish, or as part of the vegetables and sides options. Very rarely does couscous star on its own, partially because not enough people know what to do with it, or how to leverage its unique flavors and texture. Many people often think that couscous is a grain of some sort because of its small circular shape, but in actuality it is technically a pasta, usually made out of semolina wheat. The Israeli version, which is my favorite, is usually slightly bigger and made from a different type of wheat. Personally, I like the Israeli type because it is bigger and each piece is separated and allows you to get more of the soft texture that is almost like a less rich risotto.

Usually couscous is used similar to rice in Mediterranean and African dishes, with vegetables or meat being placed on top. The sauce gets absorbed by the couscous and makes for a hearty, but easy meal to make at home that is much different from the standard carbohydrates most Americans eat. Think about how often you might eat rice, pasta, bread, or potatoes and how different it would be to quickly make couscous instead. In the U.S. most couscous is actually the instant kind (think Uncle Ben's Rice), but outside the U.S. it is cooked traditionally and with quite a bit of care. My favorite ways to have couscous are usually the simplest. Adding some grilled asparagus and squash, fresh herbs, and olive oil for a cold Israeli couscous salad is a trick I picked up from my mom. Another favorite is adding fried chickpeas or lima beans, scallions and small pieces of tomato with beef to make a warm and savory dish akin to a stew. The key is really just thinking about if you want it warm or cold, and after that what flavors you like. Couscous does better with fresh, simple ingredients, and doesn't need to be overwhelmed with strong flavors, cheeses or sauces.

Give Couscous a Chance...plus it's fun to say aloud!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Beer of the Week: Red Stripe

Jamaican beer, Hoooray Beer! Sadly (or gladly?) advertising for Red Stripe will always stick in my head for its simple yet memorable tagline at the end. The beer itself, similar to other Caribbean beers, is best enjoyed on a hot day at the beach. Despite this tag, Red Stripe has had a bit of a renaissance in popularity and is often found as one of the main import beers at bars alongside Heineken and Amstel Light. Its distinctive bottle shape and logo always stand out in a bar, and I am convinced it is harder to knock over than those flimsy long neck bottles. Best of all, Red Stripe actually tastes surprisingly good considering it is a mass produced lager. It goes down very easily, like most lagers, but the flavor is there from the hops and almost a corn or malty taste (in a good way). Unlike some of its brethren that are meant to be drank sitting on the beach, Red Stripe tries to combine hints of subtle flavor with icy cold easy sipping that should be enjoyed lounging somewhere beautiful. If that somewhere happens to be the part of Jamaica that is right near da beach, boy-eeee, then you should consider yourself blessed.

Number of beers drank in one sitting: 5 (sometimes you just have to give one away)

Pair with food: I personally have only had it when drinking for drinkings sake. It's too light to go with much, but perhaps some fried food just to cut the salt.

Lord Have Mercy It's Beer

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Condiment of the Week: Guacamole

Condiment. Dip. The reason god created tortilla chips. Classifying guacamole is a pretty tough task. Is it something to be used with Mexican food and put on top of burritos? Is it a dip or a condiment? Do you put it on sandwiches like a spread? Perhaps we will never truly know. The important thing, however, is that it exists, and for that I am forever thankful. Good guacamole usually has two important elements going for it, creating it fresh and delicious avocados. The ingredients and texture of guacamole always seem to vary slightly depending on where you buy it or who makes it. One item that should never ever ever be used (I can't stress this enough) is sour cream. It gives guacamole the wrong type of texture and makes it too creamy and mutes the overall flavors that should be bold and jump out at you in harmony. Cilantro, jalapeno, avocado and tomatoes are almost always found in guacamole. After that most recipes tend to differ slightly. Some people add onions and garlic. Others add in lemon and/or lime juice. I've had some that even add small pieces of citrus zest and parsley. The one thing that no guacamole should ever be without is salt. More so than any other food, avocados need salt to really bring out their flavor and sweetness, and it cannot be overlooked when making guacamole. I find restaurant made guacamole's biggest faux pas is the extreme lack of salt and always keep an eye out to see if it's added when made in front of you.

The best texture usually comes from hand mashing the ingredients with a fork (or masher if you want to get technical) although there is something to be said for the "fancy" way of doing it table side in a big stone bowl. Tomatoes don't really add much flavor, but if diced add a nice texture. Personally, I like my other ingredients like garlic, onions, jalapenos and cilantro to be very finally chopped and to keep the avocado chunky. The best guacamole always has that balance of chunky and smooth, allowing you to dip a chip and actually see a piece of avocado within the rest of the dip.

While some may claim they make better guacamole (and to each their own in terms of composition of flavor) I personally, of course, think mine is the best, despite using a lot of ingredients. Although the exact measurements vary, I make my recipe with avocado, cilantro, tomato, garlic, red onion, jalapeno, lime juice, salt & pepper, and Franks Red Hot. Recipes and tastes may vary, but one thing we can all agree on is that you can never have enough guacamole!

Start your own Guac Off

Friday, April 11, 2008

Restaurant: Ramen Setagaya

The two block radius around my apartment in the last few years seems to have become the nexus for ramen soup existence in New York, and I for one can't complain about that. You have your low end no frills Rai Rai Ken, which has been around longer than any other place in the area. You have the high end culinary darling that is the ever expanding Momofuku empire (now with an office right next door to me). Somewhere in the middle (although that is debatable) is Ramen Setagaya. Only two blocks down from Momofuku, I will put this out there right now, it has better more flavorful (and cheaper) ramen than Momofuko. Momofuku, while great, is not a place to go if you just want a ramen fix, it is a place to go for a fun, exciting and delectable meal. Sometimes though, you just want ramen, and to not know if your eating Berkshire Pork or the same pork you find at my local Key Food.

After only waiting a few minutes (the lines used to be around the corner when it first opened) I was seated and it didn't take long to order from the short menu. I ordered the shio ramen with the BBQed pork and an order of seafood gyoza. While you can order regular pork, the grilled pork I felt added a nice charred grill flavor to what was the most exquisite broth I have ever tasted. The broth is considered a salt broth, and while that may not sound good, the amount of salt, and the types of salt (and salty products) used balance well to make for a flavor that is quite unusual and savory. It's not going to blow you away, but there is something to be said for such a simple taste that is done so well and yet so many other places in New York can't reach the same level of flavor. The noodles are also delicious, thin, and cooked al dente. The biggest problem I have with most ramen places is the noodles are always over cooked, and become soggy by the time you are done because they sit in steaming hot broth while you eat. Ramen Setagaya's noodles were firm and held up to the steaming broth the entire meal, much to my delight. The bowl of noodles and broth is topped not only with the pork, but also half a boiled egg, some various flakes of who knows what, and sesame oil marinated bamboo shoots. If you have time to look up from your bowl, check out the crazy TV show they play on repeat - nothing beats Japanese TV!

The gyoza, while very tasty, are nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone has come to expect gyoza when in a Japanese restaurant, and who doesn't love tiny dumplings stuffed with various meats and fish? I should note, however, that the dipping sauce for the gyoza was great, with a nice balance of saltiness from the soy, acid from vinegar, and what seemed to be small pieces of ginger.

All in all this is my new favorite ramen house, and they even have a Monday deal - $12 for ramen and gyoza. They also offer Japanese beer (nothing unusual), and the option to order extra broth, extra noodles, and extra pork. One idea that I don't get is the option to order the noodles and broth separate and dip the noodles into the broth. Seems like a lot of unnecessary effort to me.

Not That Awful Ramen From College

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Restaurant: Angelo & Maxie's

Yes, I know, yet another steakhouse, but I can't help it if steak is popular, but at least this one is near union square and didn't take me to scary places like midtown west. On my trip to Angelo & Maxie's a group of 6 borderline professional eaters including myself were celebrating a recent engagement of a friend. We picked the steakhouse for a couple of reasons - it was steak, it could handle a rather boisterous group of guys, and it wasn't overly expensive. We went in with no pretense of expecting the best steak we had ever had, and we left knowing it was by no means the best steak we ever had.

We had three bottles of wine throughout the meal, but they were all somewhat after thoughts to the actual food. None of them were too expensive, and on average probably came to about $50 a bottle which is not bad at all for any restaurant, let alone a steak house. The bread was actually a pleasant surprise, including a nice selection of rolls, and soft doughy pretzel bread. We all decided to forego appetizers and just concentrate on tons of meat and sides. 2 groups of 2 decided to share the porterhouse for 2, while another person got the 13oz filet mignon with béarnaise sauce. I myself went with the 13oz filet mignon au poivre (a personal favorite when it comes to steak). The sides can be ordered as smalls or larges, and we of course assumed we would need large shoestring fries, onion strings, garlic mashed potatoes, 2 creamed spinach, and fried zucchini sticks. Our waitress suggested, and thank god she did, to split the fries and onion strings into a single large order.

The guys who had the porterhouse seemed very happy with their steaks, and all seemed to eat as quickly as possible to make sure they "got their money worth" in meat. The filet with béarnaise sauce also seemed to make the person next to me happy, although I tasted the sauce and it was extremely lacking in flavor, closer to a tartar sauce than a béarnaise. My steak, while very tasty was a little over cooked, and also lacked that certain flavor that the better steak houses seem to always have with their meat. Maybe it's how they cook it, how they age it, or just the quality of the steak, but I wouldn't even put it in the top five au poivre steaks I've had. While the au poivre part of the steak was good, the sauce itself lacked much flavor, and relied too much on the pepper and high quality cut of meat, and was a total after thought.

Apparently one thing that Angelo & Maxie's prides itself on is its portion size, which I guess would be great, if we had known that in advance. When the sides first started appearing we were a bit shocked. Depending on the steakhouse you will either get small sides, or bigger sides, but nothing like what we got. The same size platter that held the porter house for two contained foot tall piles of fried zucchini, and the other platter was just as tall split in half with fries and onion strings. The bowls of mashed potatoes and creamed spinach were equally huge, and we realized suddenly that we had extremely over ordered. Despite this we did our best to try to clear our plates, taking it up as a challenge. The fries, sadly, were nothing more than filler, but the onion strings were light, crispy and flavorful. Garlic mashed potatoes were just a bit too much garlic for me, and with all the other heavy foods on the table I had as little as possible. The two biggest standouts for the sides were creamed spinach and fried zucchini. We managed to finish both spinach bowls and even argued over who could get the last spoonful. It was rich, but the cream in the dish didn't overwhelm the actual spinach and made for a great classic side. The fried zucchini (arguably the healthiest thing eaten the whole night) was crispy when it first came out, and seemed to use the same batter as the onion crisps which meant you didn't just feel like you were eating fried dough. The horseradish dipping sauce was both cool and tangy, and almost refreshing compared with all the other food. Sadly, by the time we got the bottom of the huge dish the zucchini had become soggy and lost its crispness.

The idea of dessert was almost a joke, as we all sat around wondering how we could possibly go out drinking afterwards, but all in all the meal was a success when we realized that we got all that food for only $500 (including a very hefty tip). Angelo & Maxie's, while not on the same level as the better steak houses in New York, is a good deal, with good enough food and has a fun and easy going vibe to it.

There aren't that many steakhouses near union square...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Beer of the Week: Presidente

Although my first thought when I hear Presidente beer is Fidel, in actuality it's very tasty as far as lighter beers go, and also seems to always get people excited when they see you bring it. Although easier to find than most people think, I rarely see anyone buying it except my friends who hail from the DR and were raised on the stuff. I still remember going over to my friends house back in college for dinner and her mom pulling out Presidente's from the freezer so that they were icy cold. Ever since then I haven't been able to drink them just refrigerator cold, but have to have them icy cold, in an icy glass. Perhaps this is why it is such a popular beer in the DR, where I hear it can get a little warm. The taste always reminds me of Red Stripe, maybe it's just that carribean malt and hops. Either way, you don't drink Presidente because you want to savor each sip, you drink it to remind you of warm summers, and ice cold beer.

Number of beers drank in one sitting: 6 (aka a six pack)

Pair with food: Goes great with the somewhat salty, and hearty Dominican and latin food I've had in the past

Beer fit for a president

Friday, March 28, 2008

Condiment of the Week: Walkerswood Fire Stick Pepper Sauce

I was lucky enough to have a number of different hot sauces, curries and marinades brought back for me from Jamaica, and of the bunch, one of the biggest standouts was the Walkerswood Fire Stick Pepper Sauce. As far as hot sauces go I have always had a fondness for the pepper sauce because it combines multiple types of heat, like peppers, garlic and onions, but also uses some sweetness like brown sugar. This version of the pepper sauce is actually mild, as far as Jamaican hot sauces go, but actually really packs a punch. It is a thick, almost pourable hot sauce, whose heat and flavor spreads slowly through your mouth and over your tongue so you get hit with a slow burn of flavor. The texture is not quite as thick as Srircha, but it's close. I tend to use it mainly for Mexican food, and add only a few carefully placed drops for both heat and texture. It balances nicely with a more liquid standard hot sauce like Frank's.

So good it's sold out!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Restaurant: Hearth

Hearth is one of those restaurants that when it first opened it was very hard to get a table because of all the buzz surrounding its chef and the food. Unlike many restaurants before it, once the buzz died down, Hearth remained a popular place to go not only as a destination restaurant, but for the local east village neighborhood. All this, despite it's relatively high priced and eclectic menu that focuses on local fresh from the green market ingredients. Yes, I realize that this is all the rage now, but Hearth was doing it well before a lot of the newcomers. Even the chef, Marco Canora, comes from this type of background, having been the executive chef at Craft before opening Hearth in 2003. I've had the luck of going to Hearth on a number of occasions and it is the restaurant my family uses in the area for special celebrations and a bit of a splurge on a meal. Even if you don't go to eat, it's a lot of fun to walk by and peer into the kitchen from 1st avenue and watch the chefs work (this does tend to annoy them a little bit, and be careful, they have sharp knives).

Generally the menu, besides stressing fresh seasonal ingredients, also has hints of an Italian flair. It's also great that they keep refilling your bread plate as you go, in case you are worried about not getting enough food. They will always start you off with an amuse of soup in a shot glass and I wish you could order a full bowl. While the menu changes daily, there are some items that are consistent, such as a fish crudo, a tasting menu and a number of different fish and meat dishes as entrees. On my most recent trip there for my mom's birthday we ordered three appetizers - peekytoe crab salad with meyer lemon, a spring salad, and trout crudo with blood oranges. The salad was actually quite nice as far as salads go with radishes, small cubed potatoes, shallots and walnuts. The only drawback was the dressing seemed a little bit salty for my taste, and I always add salt to dishes so that means it was quite salty. The peekytoe crab on it's own would have been great and it tasted incredibly fresh, but the extreme sourness of the meyer lemon overwhelmed the sweetness of the crab. In the past when I've had meyer lemon it's been in sweet things, or as part of a sauce, and I was a bit surprised at how liberally it was used with such a delicate flavor in crab. The lone standout among the appetizers was the crudo, with a buttery like taste that paired well with the cucumber and radish salad and sweet/sour combo of the blood orange.

Before I even talk about the main dishes I must note that the side dish that you cannot miss is the hen of the woods mushrooms. They are incredibly meaty, probably more so than a portabella, are flash fried with no breading and incredibly delicious. I know some people don't like mushrooms, and even I will admit they aren't my favorite, but a meal at Hearth is not complete without this side. As for the main dishes all three were excellent, and I must admit, my dish was the my least favorite of the three.

I ordered the roasted pork loin with celery root, lentils, pork sausage and pears. The lentils were both regular and white lentils, and were nicely mixed with the celery root and small diced caramelized pears as a savory and sweet side. The pork itself was extremely tender and juicy, and went nicely with the large pork sausage link which was loaded with a strong fennel flavor. The whole dish was topped with a reduction of the pork gravy, and had a sweet finish to it, which when paired with the subtle fruit flavor of the pears brought to mind the staple of pork chops and apple sauce. Another entree was a roasted fillet of sturgeon with braised cabbage, pork sausage and chickpeas. The cabbage and sausage were actually layered between two pieces of the fish, and had a strong smoky flavor that unless you paired with the chickpeas could sometimes over power the sturgeon. Overall it was an interesting combo, and the unexpected smoke from the sausage added a little surprise to what could have been a relatively simple, yet delicious dish. Lastly, I tried the olive oil poached salmon. This dish was my favorite. Poaching salmon always leaves it incredibly light and juicy, and it came with mussels and a garlic parsley sauce. The sauce almost tasted like what mussels are normally served with, and this, combined with the airiness of the salmon, made for quite the perfect treat.

Normally we would not miss the dessert menu because the pastry chef is extremely talented, but we had birthday cake waiting at home. We did however indulge in the cheese plate, which is always fun to see the waitress try to recall where the cheese is from and what it tastes like. In case you were curious, our waitress got 11 out of 12, and came back within a minute to let us know the one she forgot. The cheeses themselves were a nice finish, each being served with a different fruit or sugary sweet, and a basket of bread.

While Hearth is expensive, it is a consistently good meal, and gives you your money's worth every time. It's fancy and delicious, but at the same time fits in well with the vibe of the area and can be both a relaxing meal and a great place to impress a date.

Gather round the Hearth

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Beer of the Week: Young's Double Chocolate Stout

While ordering the name of this beer, Young's Double Chocolate Stout, is a mouthful, once you have a taste you can see that it is worth the effort. Similar to Boddingtons, cans of this beer have a nitrous capsule that gives the faux foam that makes it extra creamy and frothy. Although this makes it quite tasty, I much prefer it from a bottle or on tap, but both are hard to find. Often the best way to hunt it down on tap is at Irish or British pubs in the winter, when they have it as a special selection at places like the Telephone Bar & Grill. The beer itself is delicious not for it's creaminess, but rather it's unusual chocolate flavor. A dark Irish stout in every sense of the word, the beer is infused with a dark bitter chocolate flavor that accentuates each sip and makes for a finish that is distinct and much different than any other beer out there. For me, it drinks like a Guinness that has a dark chocolate bar melted into it. If you are one of those people who likes the taste of beers with a fruit finish (cherry wheat for example), but are too embarrassed to get it without being called a girl, then this beer is perfect. The fruitiness is replaced by a deep and savory flavor that pairs well with the dark bitterness of an Irish stout.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 2-3 because it is filling and rich
Pair with Food: It goes great with hearty pub food like fish and chips, french onion soup or a burger.

Chocolate Beer

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Restaurant: Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches

Calling Nicky's a restaurant is using the term very loosely. It is more like a takeout storefront with 3 tables and about 7 or 8 chairs. Clearly, from the name alone, Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches serves Vietnamese style sandwiches. Personally, I have never had these before, but I know what they consist of and they always sounded delicious to me. On a recent Saturday I took a quick trip down to Avenue B to taste test and find out if they were as good as some of the reviews I had read. Interestingly, the negative things I had read, such as "too small", "expensive", "not authentic", are the types of comments that people make who are trying to find something wrong instead of liking what is right about a place. I think that using authenticity as a measuring stick for whether something is good or bad is a very odd way to determine quality. Just cause something is authentic, doesn't mean it is any better than something that is made a little differently.

I almost walked right by Nicky's since it is tucked away right behind a deli, and is very quietly marked as far as awnings go in the city. Upon walking in you could tell it was popular by the phone constantly ringing and the large group of people waiting outside for their orders. Originally, I had only planned on getting the classic Banh Mi Thit which consists of pate, Vietnamese ham and roast ground pork, but after looking at the menu I couldn't resist also ordering the Pork Chop sandwich. Both sandwiches were quite large, and the thick, crunchy French baguette was much better than about 90% of your normal deli rolls. The "classic Vietnamese sandwich" was delicious combining pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro and mayo with the three meats. I have to say, I couldn't actually find the pate, but I am not complaining because the food was delicious and plenty big for lunch. It may not fit the traditional sandwich that you would find in Vietnam (and I don't have any reference) but the the sweetness of the cucumber, combined with the savory meat and pickled carrots really dances on the tongue. Plus I added jalapenos that occasionally surprise you just when you think you are going to get that subtle sweetness in the next bite. Oh, and this was $4.50. I guess if you were in sunset park or Vietnam it might be a dollar, but last I checked even a small place in the east village doesn't exactly have the cheapest rent in the world.

Not surprisingly I forced myself to attack the pork chop sandwich right after I finished the first. Any time you can combine the words pork chop and sandwich, you will probably find me handing money over. In this instance I was thrilled to find the second sandwich even better than the first. The pork, although a little fatty compared to the leaner pork chops I usually eat, was perfectly seasoned and cooked to the point that it's juices had soaked into the bread. The toppings were the same as the first sandwich, with cilantro, cucumber, jalapeno, and pickled carrots. The difference between the first and the second sandwich was that the pork stood up to the strong flavored vegetables much better. While I could taste the cilantro and jalapenos, and still got the pickled sweetness of the carrots and cucumbers, the pork stood out as the dominant flavor of the entire sandwich.

All in all I know I will be back to pick up another sandwich or two from Nicky's, and maybe try their sardine or chicken Banh Mi versions. Next time, however, I think I will stick to one so I can avoid a solid food coma. Then again, $9.50 for two big flavorful sandwiches is hard to argue with...

Pate on a sandwich?

Condiment of the Week: Salsa

Salsa over the last decade and a half has gained such popular national acceptance that people tend to forget how novel of a condiment it was once considered. Plus, as Seinfeld would point out, it's a lot of fun to say. What is great about salsa is that it can vary so much, and be used for so many different things that it is one of the few things that can act as a sauce, a dip, and an ingredient.

I look at salsa as existing in three basic types, the kind you buy in the store that is from a big giant manufacturer, the kind you buy that is freshly made and considered “gourmet”, and the kind you get in restaurants or make yourself that can consist of just about anything and still be loosely defined as salsa.

Among the basic salsa’s, such as Pace, Tostitos, Old El Paso, Newman's Own, and Chi-Chi's, I always gravitate towards the Tostitos. Newman's Own could be considered borderline basic because it has some interesting versions, but I like it for it’s depth of flavor, it’s chunky texture, and a consistently subtle heat. Tostitos tends to be more of a tomato liquid, with big chunks of vegetables, but they get the heat levels right better than any other store bought salsa. Pace, Old El Paso and Chi-Chi's all make me add hot sauce to the medium or hot, and often their “mild” is so bland that it’s like eating an oddly flavored tomato sauce.

It is hard to determine the "best" gourmet salsa, since it is made differently almost everywhere that you find it on sale. Dean & Deluca sells some great gourmet brands, and I’ve found some amazing salsa at farmer stands that make it fresh from their own ingredients. Gourmet salsa usually uses the same ingredients as your basic salsa, except the vegetables are fresh, the cilantro, and other elements are distinct flavors that you could almost pick out with every bite, and the container is never sitting out for days. Gourmet salsa also tends to be much chunkier and like a container of finely chopped ingredients, than the sauce like consistency of the kind you find in your supermarket Mexican section. These types of salsa’s go best with the higher quality tortilla chips. Most people have had these, but rarely buy them. They usually come in some odd looking bag, some grease may have made the front a little see through, and they are very thick, and usually made with corn. You need these strong chips to hold up a big scoop of chunky salsa.

Last, but not least, is the type of salsa that is not sold, but is actually used in a dish and very rarely resembles the typical Mexican salsa us Americans know and love. Adding a citrus or avocado salsa on a dish in 2008 seems practically clichéd since it has become such a standard, but it still needs to be pointed out that this has really only become the norm in the last 10 years or so. I can’t remember growing up ever seeing a mango salsa, or an avocado white bean salsa on top of fish. Heck, my mom now makes a cranberry mango salsa at thanksgiving. The only thing that seems to keep these delicious sauces in the salsa category is they usually have onions, cilantro and some heat, like a jalapeno. And you know what? I love it. Keep up the good work inventive chefs, and come up with another crazy salsa for me to try!

Salsa not Seltzer

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Restaurant: The Smith

When it comes to eating out I have a number of pet peeves, but maybe one of the biggest is people who go to a restaurant with no idea what to expect, or unrealistic expectations. Going to a diner and expecting a 4 star meal with perfect service and delicious fish is a pipe dream. Going to a steak house, and thinking you are going to find a delicate piece of sushi is possible, but then why go to a steak house? It never hurts to get some idea of what to expect from a place before actually stepping in the door so that you won’t be really disappointed and you can judge the meal and experience in the context of what the owners and chef are trying to present.

With that rant out of the way, The Smith is just that type of restaurant that anyone who goes should make sure they know what to expect. I originally described it to someone as a laid back American style pub and I think that this is probably the best description you can give it. Seemingly trying to walk the fine line between fancy cuisine and the NYU college crowd that is right next door, The Smith has some nice touches for a space that used to house a Pizzeria Uno (R.I.P. – Steve you owe me a dollar). A long bar to the right when you walk in often has single diners or couples either cozying up to some unique and tasty drinks, or eating and chatting with the overly friendly bartenders. A large amount of wooden booths and tables go well with the bathroom like tiling of the floor and the dish towel napkins. Decor aside, they annoyingly will not seat you until your entire party has arrived, a policy that always irks me if at least 2 people are already there.

The wine list is relatively inexpensive, and features a “big carafe” which is well worth the money. We ordered a Malbec and discovered that it is the equivalent of almost 2 bottles. The small glasses make it feel like you are drinking a lot, and needless to say don’t drive home if you split the carafe with one other person. Since the restaurant can get very crowded and loud I suggest going earlier rather than later, but then again it is New York and if you want a quiet restaurant, you can go to North Dakota. The simple salad of arugula, shaved fennel, Parmesan with lemon and olive oil was a nice combination of flavors. The peppery arugula balanced surprisingly well with the fennel and savory Parmesan to make for a refreshingly light salad. The other appetizer on the table was a rich garlic butter and oregano plate of shrimp generously splashed with a sweet balsamic vinegar. Although a small portion (it is an appetizer after all) it was deliciously creamy and savory with the sweetness of the cooked garlic and butter playing quite well with the acidic sweetness of the balsamic.

Main courses are a nice range from steaks and pasta, to fish, chicken and vegetarian options. Our table shared the Skate, Vegetable Bibimbap, and Roasted Cod, with sides of brussel sprouts, and of course, spinach. The bibimbap was a bit overly spicy and you could barely taste any of the other vegetables or egg throughout because of the overpowering heat. Good heat accentuates a dish, bad heat, in this case, ruined it and made it just slightly above edible. The fish dishes, luckily, were much better. The skate was tender and meaty, living up to it's name as the poor mans lobster. Paired with the indulgent brown butter sauce and fried capers the contrast of the butter and the pickly capers made for an exquisite finish to each bite. The roasted cod also had a nice contrast, but more so in texture than in flavor. The chunky soft tomato sauce was a mild flavor, as was the chickpeas and almonds, but the crunch of the latter made for a surprisingly pleasant combo when eaten in the same bite. Brussel sprouts, long the vain of my existence, were edible. They seemed like they may have been flash fried, and had some orange zest, which almost masked how disgusting brussel sprouts truly are. Oil was the undoing of the spinach, with just a little too much left on the plate making it good, but not great.

Dessert, although probably not worth saving room for, is meant to be fun and a little different, like everything else at The Smith. The old school ice cream sundae attempts to make a comeback, as does a few other childhood favorites, like what I ordered - birthday cake. That's right, birthday cake. I ordered it just out of pure entertainment value and it comes with a candle and Happy B-day frosted on it. Sadly, the waitress opted to not sing as she brought it over, which was slightly disappointing. The cake itself tasted, well, like the same cake you have at the office for a birthday, or a cheap child's cake when the parents spent all the money on the bad clown and the rental space.

Ok, since this got so long, I would summarize this by saying The Smith is a nice place to head to for an easy going casual dinner with a slight twist, but most likely evolve into a neighborhood spot. Then again, it would also be perfect for a group of 4+ to get together for a fun and lively dinner.

The Smith (Not the one who kills zombies and robots)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Beer of the Week: Tsingtao

Before saying anything about Tsingtao I must point out that I have only had it in two situations during my life. Most times I imbibed in this Chinese beer was when growing up we would order Chinese food from The Cottage. My father would get about 4 or 5 Tsingtao, and then only drink one. After a couple of week I would have a dozen beers accumulated in the fridge. Trust me, nothing says party like free Chinese beer to go with a free house. The other times I drank Tsingtao were always while out having Chinese food, particularly in Chinatown. It always seemed like the right type of beer to order, perhaps because I was trying to show the waiter, yes, I may be ordering the most Americanized version of Chinese food around, but dammit I want that authentic Chinese beer to go with it.

Tsingtao's taste is almost that of a light beer, with a malty flavor and minimal hops. It smells nice, and is a good palate cleanser when eating something spicy or salty. It seems to almost have been made for the American palate, being slightly heavier than a light beer, but not full of so much flavor that it overwhelms the food you are eating. I probably wouldn't drink Tsingtao unless eating Chinese food, or as a really silly choice at a bar. I don't think I've ever seen Tsingtao on tap, and very rarely outside of a Chinese restaurant or bar will you ever find it even offered.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 4
Pair with Food: Anything Chinese is made for this beer, but particularly the heavier spicier dishes. I love it with hot and sour soup, or spicy szechuan dumplings.

The #1 Chinese Beer in America

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Restaurant: Chat N Chew

Chat N Chew is just what the name sounds like, a laid back comfort food type of place where people gather for fun drinks, southern style home cooking with a few twists. The portions are huge, the prices are moderate and it often can feel like it's hidden just off of Union Square. With all the big name places nearby, Chat N Chew caters more to the locals and college students looking for a big meal that reminds them of what it feels like to enjoy mac and cheese, nachos, burgers, and spiked lemonade. One of my friends who grew up in the neighborhood swears by the place, and probably goes at least once every time he is back home. In the past I've gone for brunch and lunch, bet never for dinner. This time around I arrived around 9pm on a Friday night with a friend and while busy, it's never impossible to get a table. While staring at some of the kitchy "authentic" decor we agreed to split a plate of nachos while I went with the meatloaf and mashed potatoes. He got the honey dipped fried chicken with mashed potatoes, also known as "Uncle Red's Addiction". Needless to say, if Uncle Red is addicted to this stuff he must be quite the big fellow.

The nachos were pretty standard, although they did a nice job of not letting the chips get soggy from any of the various toppings. Guacamole, jalapenos and pico de gallo were all include with some sort of southwestern sour cream. The service was almost a little too quick, as our main dishes came out and we were still giving our all to plow through the nachos. Then we were stuck with three giant plates on a table that could only hold two and I thought at one point my plate was actually going to fall into my lap. Eventually we flagged down a bus boy and told him no, we were not going to eat the piece of lettuce and jalapeno that was sitting on the empty plate and we got enough room to enjoy our meal.

While I didn't get a chance to try some of Uncle Red's favorite, I assumed by the lack of any leftovers and my friend refusing to share that the chicken was finger licking good. My meatloaf was very moist with a nice crust along the outside which I always like. It came with a sweet and very thick gravy slathered on top that complimented the meatloaf flavor very well. Personally, however, I could have used a little less gravy on top, because at times I felt I couldn't taste the dish, and only the gravy. The mashed potatoes were good, if not somewhat standard. Leaving the skins on is always a favorite of mine, but I've had so many different mashed potatoes that the only time I really notice them is when they are either extremely bad, or extremely good. These fell in the slightly above average category.

We had to skip dessert, although the coca cola cake sounded good, since we both felt like we need to be rolled out of the restaurant like Violet from Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. Needless to say, if you want some big portions of quality American home cooking with a relaxed vibe and not the most attentive service, swing on by Chat N Chew.

Don't Chat N Chew at the same time, it's rude

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Dish: Sauteed Spinach

The ubiquitous side dish of sauteed spinach is always a favorite of mine. I probably get it from my father who is the only person I know who attempts to order it at any type of restaurant in the world. I think he finally learned his lesson at Japanese restaurants though. Making sauteed spinach is one of the easiest things a home cook can do, and you most often find it in Italian, American, and Bistro type of restaurants. Standard ingredient include olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and that's about it. Some restaurants do different spins on the standard, adding lemon juice, pancetta or bacon and other small additions. I personally think the best versions have 1 key difference: how the garlic is cut. Some places chop up the garlic, some use whole cloves, but the best are the razor thin slices that are almost transparent. Imagine Paulie from Goodfellas slicing the garlic in prison with a razor blade and then putting it in the frying pan with the spinach. The garlic absorbs some olive oil, become soft and sweet, and you don't even realize you are eating a piece of it, yet get the full flavor of it with each bite.

The best side dish of sauteed spinach I've ever had exist at Roberto's in the Bronx. The original Little Italy on Arthur Ave, Roberto's is the best in the area and maybe the best Italian in the city. But that is another blog entry. Their spinach includes olive oil, razor thing slices of garlic, a little salt and pepper, lemon juice, capers, and the secret ingredient - anchovies. I know, most of you just said "yuck" out loud, but anchovies are a great way to add saltiness and a distinct flavor that is not as fishy as most people think. The spinach is in fact not fishy at all, but has a distinct taste that only the anchovies natural saltiness brings out of the spinach. Amazingly, it is extremely easy to recreate this dish at home, and makes a perfect side dish to just about any meal. Any meal that is, except for sushi.

The King of Side Dishes

Monday, February 18, 2008

Condiment of the Week: BBQ Sauce

Nothing makes a grown man's eyes light up like the mention of something barbequed, but most often BBQ sauce is very lacking. Too many BBQ sauces are bland, too thick, or too liquid. While many different styles exist (Kansas City, Memphis, Texas etc.) they all have some things in common. A little bit of heat, a tangy citrus sweetness, and usually a little bit of smokiness. Many people have a recipe that has been handed down for years, but I want to first concentrate on the store bought kind because for many, actually creating home made BBQ sauce is a bit much to ask. Amazingly, many people buy the awful Kraft and supermarket brand BBQ that generally consists of a single flavor (honey, smoke, garlic) and are the consistency of too thick ketchup. I would only use these strictly for a marinade to get BBQ flavor, but never as a dipping sauce or a bashttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifte. While there are some lesser-known brands, my three favorites include Stubb's, Bulls Eye and KC Masterpiece. Of the three, I actually like KC Masterpiece the best. It's easy to find in most stores, and has a nice sweet and smoky flavor with just a touch of heat. Stubb's is a little more spicy and vinegary, but I find it better for marinating and basting than actually using it like a sauce.

The best BBQ sauce usually is the one you make yourself. I remember watching Bobby Flay blind taste test a number of different sauces and could pick out his own home made version without flinching, which I still to this day find very impressive. While Bobby's recipe had a lot more heat and depth of flavor than your standard BBQ, most home made versions include the basics - vinegar, ketchup, water, onion, mustard (in some form) and brown sugar. Depending on how you like your BBQ, sometimes you will also find chipotle, honey and garlic. Personally, the best home made, and probably the best period, BBQ sauce is my friends’ mom's family recipe. Every time I go over for dinner I ask if BBQ sauce will be served, even if it is totally unrelated to the dish. If I could I'd put the sauce on her lasagna and salads, it's just that good. A thinner consistency than store bought, with small lumps of what I think is onion, it has an amazing combo of sweet, spicy and something else that I just can never put my finger on. The vinegar is very subdued, but you catch hints of it depending on what you eat it with. If she could bottle the stuff, I'd invest in that business in a second.

B-B-Q = Heaven

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Beer of the Week: Blue Moon

Blue Moon beer is usually one of those beers you find yourself ordering when scanning what's on tap and deciding you don't want the water that is Bud Light, but don't want that darker, heavier beer like a Newcastle. Usually served with a slice of orange (although I never use it) Blue Moon has a bite to it similar to Hefeweizen. It does an admirable job trying to imitate the Belgian white beers, although it is important to point out that Molson Coors brews Blue Moon, so it's by no means the microbrew that some give it credit for. When pouring a Blue Moon the first thing many may notice is that it is almost a bright orange color, and is quite cloudy due to it's lack of filtration. Upon first sip it has a sharp bite to it, with a medium citrusy taste that is usually like a slightly sour orange. Supposedly coriander is also used in the brewing process, but I have never even tasted a hint of this flavoring, and honestly am glad I haven't. Coriander flavor in a beer? What's next, rosemary? Similar to other unfiltered beers, the head of the beer is usually very tasty, and the oats can sometimes come through. A bar that knows what they are doing will normally serve Blue Moon in a wheat beer glass that is bigger than your standard pint and allows for room to create a thick delicious head at the wider top.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 2-3 (Maybe 1 more in the summer)
Pair with Food: Goes well with citrusy salads and fish

The Blue Side of the Moon

Friday, February 1, 2008

Restaurant: Barrio Chino

Nestled in the cozy and somewhat deserted streets of Orchard and Broome is Barrio Chino, a tightly packed, dimly lit Mexican restaurant that does three things extremely well; tequila and it’s accompanying drinks, LES coolness, and mole sauce. Just the first one alone is worth the trip, but put the three together and you have a place that is always packed, with waits for a table as long as an hour or more during peak times. I have had some good and bad luck getting a table. Once, we scored a table for 6 at 8 on a Wednesday, but other times we had to wait 45 minutes on a Friday night at 8:30, and this most recent trip had to wait 25 minutes at 10:30 at night on a Friday. Needless to say, it’s worth the wait, but expect to do as they tell you and go down the block to the terrible French restaurant and get a glass of wine and wait for your cell to ring.

I almost always order the shot of patron or one of their margaritas. The margs are strong and a little fruity, just the way they should be. The shots of patron come with a delicious spicy tomato juice, almost like a bloody mary, but not as thick as normal tomato juice. It tastes great either sipping a little tequila and sipping the tomato drink, or shooting the tequila, and then the tomato juice. You can't really go wrong, as long as both end up going into your mouth.

The starters vary quite a bit, from your standard, yet delicious Mexican Chicken Soup, to mini tacos made from a variety of different fillings. While I got the achiote and citrus rubbed grilled tilapia taco, the calamari as well as the steak ones also looked amazing. Most are served with a very fresh and juicy avocado salsa and pico de gallo. They are one really big bite, or about 2 or three small bites, and come three to an order, so they make a nice dish to share amongst a group if you get a few different types. I've had "real" fish tacos before in San Diego, and I much prefer this type, since they fish is grilled and relies on strong flavors that add to the basic tilapia taste, rather than deep-frying cod. We also shared an order of guacamole that had a really nice kick to it, and came with thick, crunchy homemade tortilla chips. Like most Mexican places, the guacamole order was small, and we were left with extra chips, but it was nevertheless delicious.

As far as entrees go you can't really go wrong with the steak, enchiladas verdes, the stuffed poblano pepper or the excellent tequila and garlic shrimp. The real standout, however, is the enchiladas mole. As the menu describes (and who am I to question?) the enchiladas are stuffed with chicken and topped with queso fresco (a type of crumbly mild Mexican cheese) and cremo mexicano drizzled over the top of what is probably the best mole in the city. Supposedly the chef's mother passed down this recipe and it is extremely rich and creamy, with the perfect dark chocolate hue. With each bite you get a taste of the dark bittersweet chocolate, spices, and heat that makes a perfect mole sauce. Paired with black beans, the cheese the refreshing cremo mexicano, it makes for one of the best single Mexican dishes you may ever have.

I personally never have any room left for dessert at a Mexican restaurant, and maybe because I'm not a big fan of flan (try saying that aloud), I would much rather prefer to top off the meal with another shot of patron and a margarita. Every time I've walked out of Barrio Chino I've been a good full, not rolling home, but happy, a little drunk, and feeling like I just walked out of a place wondering why the line isn't around the corner for dinner.

Go Out of Your Way for Good Mexican