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 bas 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