Thursday, September 30, 2010

TV Dinner

With Fall, comes pumpkin, apple, and spice flavors, raking leaves, Friday night lights, and new TV. I love this season, for all of those the little things that feel like home (the shallower notions of these homey feelings included). Lots of new additions to the network (big and cable) schedules this fall. Who will make the cut?

Boardwalk Empire (HBO): The period setting and gangster theme both provide for captivating entertainment. Steve Buschemi is also very good in his role as A.C. Treasurer/Town Goon Nucky Thompson. I enjoyed the first episode a lot more than the second, which frankly, got unnecessarily weird. We’ll see which direction episode three takes.

The Event (NBC): C endorsed this pick to fill the void he’s been feeling with Lost gone.  Neither the plot nor the characters of The Event are nearly as engrossing as its predecessor, however. Just in case it gets more interesting, we’ve decided to give the show a fair shake with a six episode trial run before giving it the ax.

Hawaii Five-O (CBS): This pick was actually mine. As long as you accept the formulaic CBS procedural drama context (the CSI and NCIS franchises) and early 80s cheesiness (a la The A Team, Dukes of Hazzard, Magnum, P.I.), this cop serial may just turn out to be a winner. For me, it fills a couple of Lost voids (beautiful Hawaii scenery and at least half of the immortal Jin and Sun in Daniel Dae Kim). Scott Caan, well he’s not winning any Emmys, but his characters always get me – I’m not precisely sure why.

Lonestar (FOX): Well, I gave it one episode (maybe half) before pulling the plug, FOX gave it two. I only set the DVR to record the one, so I guess I wasn’t too surprised when the show was canceled – unlikeable leads (notice how Meredith Gray is much less annoying than she used to be; and as nasty as he is, you always ended up rooting for Tony Soprano) don’t lead to well-rated television.

Detroit 1-8-7 (ABC): [SPOILER] Michael Imperioli is quite impressive as surly detective
Louis Fitch, who in the first episode calms a murderous father who has taken his mother and children hostage and reveals his unrequited love for a colleague. If the rest of the cast keeps up, this will probably turn out to be rookie of the year. Playing on multiple-plot-lines-turn-out-to-be-related and shocker ending (brand-new detective shot suddenly as his wife goes into labor) themes worked well in the pilot, but I hope that the docu-drama style is not overly dependent on plot devices. Oh, and it’s set in Michigan! :)

No Ordinary Family (ABC): I have not seen it yet (it premiered a week later than other new series), but the incessant commercials finally got me, and I DVR’d one episode. I’m not hopeful for any lasting relationship, but I’ll give it a shot. I doubt C will join me.

Blue Bloods (CBS): [SPOILER] Can I tell you a secret? I think Donnie Wahlberg, in addition to his obvious NKOTB cred, has more acting chops than his brother but has never found the right opportunity. Time will tell if this is that opportunity. Surrounded by a cast including Tom Selleck, Will Estes (whom I adored as JJ on American Dreams), and Bridget Moynahan (yup, Tom Brady’s baby mama), the first episode created the appropriate amount of intrigue (was a secret society involved in the murder of a dead brother?) and cop family warm and fuzzies. I have high hopes, but Fridays at 10, not a positive endorsement from the network.

The Whole Truth (ABC): I want to root for Maura Tierney in her cancer comeback role, so I DVRd one episode, but I have not yet felt compelled to watch it, so not a good sign of success for this legal drama.

Running Wilde (FOX): C loves him some Will Arnett, so I can observe him actively trying to adore this show. I’m going to give it a supportive try. But my first reaction – this is no Arrested Development. C counters that AD is not a fair comparison, but I say why not? – entertainment is entertainment; humor is humor. The beauty of Arnett’s Gob Bluthe was that he was surrounded by an equally ridiculous and hilarious cast of Bluthes, including the sane brother in Jason Bateman. That supporting cast is lacking so far in Running Wilde. This may be a C watches on his own.

Not a chance: Outlaw (NBC): Jimmy Smits and a supposed resignation from the Supreme Court for the greater good  – child, please; Undercovers (NBC): The marketing gurus behind the promos seemed to think that noting that this series is from JJ Abrams is enough to make the hard sell; you’re going to have to show me more than a pair of Black Aliases to make me watch.

Not exactly new, but worthy of mention: The Good Wife (CBS): Okay, I’ve yet to actually view this season premiere, but the Good Wife (solely On Demand viewing as background noise on my part-time days thus far) has potential to make it to the DVR queue this season, mostly due to the fact that the issues have some basis in law (not a particularly high bar - no pun intended) - actual legal ethics questions, what do you know?; The Good Guys (FOX): Not to be confused with The Good Wife, this show officially premiered this summer, but it coming back for the fall…Colin Hanks’ straight man proves to be the perfect foil to  Bradley Whitford at his comic best, quite possibly better than (gasp) his Billy Madison appearance as Eric Gordon (just watch the recent Baba O’Riley montage for evidence); Friday Night Lights (NBC): With real football and the Direct TV (we’re cable folks) seasons in progress, I yearn for a little Eric and Tammy Taylor coaching/most supportive fan action.

Imminent break-ups: Desperate Housewives (ABC): I did love Wilhelmina Slater on the departed Ugly Betty, but I don’t think I can take the same Vanessa Williams character – nor the same washed-up storyline – yet again; Monday Night Football (ESPN): Da Bears were on this week, but even an interesting game fails to make amends for the travesty that is the Gruden/Jaws combo (if they mentioned Clay Matthews and that nasty mane again, whilst the aforementioned linebacker continued to do nothing defensively, I was going to throw the television out the window); Chuck (NBC): The title character is no longer as awkward and lovable as he used to be, and it detracts from the show’s charm; Amazing Race (CBS): It’s been a long run - it’s likely our last season - it’s just time.

Fall, the season for weeding the new shows and figuring out which will make the cut - we only have so much time for the more shallow pursuits and need to make time for others, like the dinner quotient of this title…

For some of those fall flavors I mentioned earlier, try roasting this squash combo.  Other yummy tastes for television pairing: Arugula Files’ Heirloom Tomato Grilled Pizza, IEatDC’s Braided Challah, iflipforfood’s Warm Fingerling Potato Salad, or The Carnivore and the Vegetarian’s Gnocchi with Arugula Pesto. For more on the seasonal noshing quotient, maybe some Apple Wine or Eat Make Read’s Savory Cheddar Biscotti. I’m also seeking pumpkin recipes – who’s got em? 

With thoughts on new TV, I'll leave you with my reflections on this summer's v.v. special television spectacle.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Volt's Table 21

After dining at Volt's Table 21 a couple of weekends back for our annual early celebration of our anniversary (we were married around Christmas, and it gets to too harried to celebrate at the proper time), these five things I know to be true: 

(1) Bryan Voltaggio is quite possibly more OCD than me, and that's really saying something.
(2) There is some talent working in this kitchen - I expect to see these rising stars elsewhere soon.

(3) This is the most scientific meal I have ever eaten (or probably ever will). It was an adventure - definitely something to try at least once.

(4) The staff here aims to please (over-the-top service, patience with our questions, and upon my request per a friend's advice, bacon brioche to bring home).

(5) Pictures (C's handiwork - much better than I could do) of a few sampling of the courses tell this story so much better than I can…

1-5 (plus, cocktails, and my "two cents")

6-14 (and parts of 4 & 5)

"the particulars"

"Dippin' Dots" of gazpacho with micro greens and mozzarella pearl drop and olive oil sorbet

Goat cheese ravioli with butternut squash puree, maitake mushroom, and chamomile honey foam

Butter-poached lobster with carrot gnocchi, caramelized fennel, sunchoke puree, and pork rind

Arctic char, maroon carrot puree, and caramelized red onion gelee

Skate wing, with New Zealand potato, "sour cream and onion" (creme fraiche and shallot) accents

Fried roulade of veal sweetbreads with lemon oil, olive puree, and caper powder

Tuscan beets alongside goat cheese mousse, shaved parmesan, and balsamic glaze

Strip steak, Yukon Gold mash, Bacon lardon disk, and lobster mushroom

Goat cheese cheesecake, dulce de leche ice cream, butter finger crisp, and bourbon apple

Meyer lemon curd and powder, creme fraiche shortbread, peach slice, and apricot "fruit roll-up"

Textures of chocolate with rich ganache, candied disk, malted "cocoa powder", and chocolate ice cream

Oh, we also spent the night at Nora Roberts' B&B in nearby Boonsboro (Inn Boonsboro - I didn't know it was Roberts' place at the time). I'd recommend the Inn for the night if you are headed to the T-21 late seating (you'll be there past midnight). Themed rooms and high-tech toilets (I'm still confused; just happy it flushed) are a charming and funny experience.

At my insistence (C, in traditional man fashion, was leaning towards the only non-literary room, the Penthouse), we had the Westley and Buttercup Suite. The Princess Bride is one of my childhood favorites (any VBYCers reading - I still look back so fondly on that particular themed week). I'm smiling just thinking about it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why I'm Going to Rally to Restore Sanity

Because I have a ten-month old son who should be inspired to be an American...

Because no media figure-head with half a wit for a brain should dictate national policy...

Because I want to feel like I have vote in elections, rather than a choice between the lesser of two evils...

Because this country is clamoring for a hope that is slipping away....

(I also had comments on Katy Perry, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Vincent Gray, and Reggie Bush to add, but decided it was in the better interest of this post to rein it in).

I am standing up and proclaiming that I will be following a comedian to our national ampitheatre in order to join him in screaming "be reasonable people" from the rooftops. Look, this isn't about John Stewart (FN) ...Yes, he's planning this rally, but that's not the point. The point is that the majority of Americans (yes, still the majority) tend to identify with a point somewhere in between the extremes. We are this silent majority, disappointed, scared, hopeful, reasonable, and yes, a little desperate.

As John Avlon so eloquently put it in his CNN commentary...

There is a silent majority of Americans who feel politically homeless in today's polarized debates. They are not activists obsessed with politics. But they are no less patriotic than the partisans.
They are active citizens with busy lives. They view government as an attempt to solve problems, not a war between special interests or an hate-fueled ideological debate camp. And too often they are ignored.

And...I'll be bringing the little one too. I want Baby H to experience something historic, something uplifting, something real. I feel it's important for him to be there, so assuming that the scene is not out of hand, yes, I will be the crazy lady dragging her young child into the madness of tens of thousands of folks descending on the Mall. Because I truly believe, in these screwed up times, it's the right thing to do. I'm standing up for what I believe in - I believe that the left and the right both have respectable points, and they need to listen to one another, and, pardon my language, get shit done. It's time to get on with it. I believe this will help.

FN - There's another point to be made somewhere in here as well, and a footnote seems as good a place as any. John Stewart - I think you're great. Every evening, while we wash dishes bottles, prepare dinner and baby food, pay bills, and catch up on  our respective days, C and I take a few minutes to laugh with your show. Your satire is so good because it's so true, and it's a nice release to recognize the reality (i.e., ridiculousness) of so many 'serious' situations. That said, Mr. Stewart, we're not in Kansas anymore - you cannot pretend that you are 'just a comedian'. By taking up this mantle, and thank you for doing so, you are claiming a greater responsibility. I respect you for it, and I expect much of you for it. As WaPo's Howard Kurtz, quoting some other guy, who is quoting some other guy, puts it, "As for the rally, David Carr quotes writer and producer Michael Hirschhorn as saying: 'Stewart and Colbert are awkwardly transitioning from media figures to political figures with an understanding that there may not be that much difference anymore.' "

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reflecting on Restaurant Week: Equinox

I do have to dedicate a little space to first, admitting that this reservation was not entirely blind, and second, gushing a bit about the Equinox staff for so whole-heartedly endorsing my undercover modus operandi. I generally like to dine anonymously – my cover would be rather useless otherwise – but in inquiring as to whether Equinox was participating in Restaurant Week, I started an email chain that eventually led to a reservation under Mark Felt’s name. I don’t know whether Todd or Ellen (Kassoff) Gray, or another member of the staff, tweets on behalf of the restaurant, but whomever it is embraced the Deepthroat theme, and we had a fun DM exchange. Then, when C arrived a bit early, and not knowing that the reservation was under my assumed name, had a confused moment which led to the maitre-d winking and saying, “Oh…Mark Felt”. I’m sorry, but that’s just too cute.

Now, on to the food (said as a clarion call)….

Before digging in to our menu selections, we were treated to an amuse bouche of just about the most amazing ravioli I've ever tasted. Stuffed with a delicate goat sheep's milk cheese (C cannot stand any form or sheep or goat cheese, and he was loving this dish), the corn [and potato] pasta shell was simply amazing, as were the accompaniments of popped corn and lobster chantarelle mushrooms. Bliss. C and I are still talking (and drooling) about it.

Equinox’s “Friends and Family” menu ($30.10 for 3 courses during Restaurant Week, so I’m calling a spade a spade) consisted of two selections for each of the courses.  We took the lot, and switched plates halfway through each course. To start, C took on the chopped salad with figs, pancetta, and what Gray calls a quail egg “hole in a wall” (I use “toad in the hole”, but whatever you like if it tastes good, right?!). I chose the heirloom pepper soup with lump crab, pear, and leek “fondue”.  Both were really nice introductions to the meal, and the themes.  I tend to be a salad person and I do not tend to choose dishes with peppers, but I would have a tough time choosing between these two if faced with the challenge again. Figs and pancetta never go wrong, but the soup was nice surprise, a lovely flavor profile. 

As our entrees were a bit behind, we were served another mezzo of succotash with sweet corn and peppers. Again, succotash is something I do not normally care for, but it was utterly delicious. I'd attribute this to the chef's ability to pair seasonal, local ingredients so well together. This is accomplished while also building meal themes, with the same components creating so many different flavors and textures. For instance, see the multiple uses of corn, figs, and peppers in this particular meal. Top that with the number of ingredients that the Grays grow in their own garden to bring to the Equinox kitchen, and I'm pretty much in awe. 

For proteins, I chose to start with the BBQ Scottish Salmon, served with a salad of roasted corn, basil, and piquillos. C, as per usual, navigated towards the meat, a flat iron steak accompanied by pickled red onions, shitakes, and green peppercorns. Before tasting the fish, I was sure I wouldn't like it. I don't like peppers or barbeque with my fish, but I had decided to expand my horizons, and I do love the richness of Scottish Salmon. Yet again, however, this dish was a completely scrumptious surprise - the flavors meshed so incredibly well that I want to try this at home, but I have doubts as to my abilities to pair ingredients quite like Chef Gray.  C's steak, also delicious, was so perfectly tender and medium rare, that the flavors almost did not matter, but they were quite complimentary - what, can I say - there were no losers here. Repeating the first course theme, not quite sure which dish I enjoyed more, but I am certainly wanting bites of both right about now. 

Dessert was running a little slow. (We discovered that a very large party had arrived unannounced early in the dinner hour, so the kitchen was understandably struggling a bit to keep up). So, what happened? We were served a pair of dessert wines while we waited! Yay! I'm no dessert wine aficionado, but both the Muscoto and the Port we sampled were very tasty - I had to stop after a few sips though, as they were making me quite sleepy before I'd even had my dessert. The server was effusive in his apologies for the delays, but I'm not complaining. This was a great opportunity to try things I would not otherwise. Just before dessert arrived, Chef Gray stopped by the table and C reports back that he was very kind and concerned that we enjoyed our meal (I was in the ladies' room). Shortly thereafter, the chocolate dessert (a crème, with olive oil ice cream, coffee "soil", and hazelnuts) came my way, while C (a vanilla fan) got the vanilla bean panna cotta, served with blackberry sorbet, blueberries, and a cassis froth. I ended up digging into both with purpose - I particularly enjoyed the olive oil ice cream and blackberry sorbet. The frozen confections get high marks.

In the restaurant week world analysis:

Value - pretty darned high. I would pay full price at Equinox any day.

Selection - only two dishes per course, but each was superlative, so not a lot of choice necessary.

Availability - given Equinox did not officially participate in restaurant week, I like to think that reservations are quite limited, but maybe I just like to feel special.

Top scores in all categories in the restaurant week world.  In the real world, I'm going back to Equinox as soon as I get the chance - perhaps a lunch liaison soon.

** Please note that edits have been made regarding the exact ingredients on the ravioli. It takes practice to hone your craft, and I'm still a bit rusty after taking my August blog vacation.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Go Big or Go Home: Carmine's

I recently mentioned that it’s been a rough summer, waistline speaking. Every time I make a concerted effort to get back on track, some event, or series of, sweeps in and ruins my progress. I know – willpower. But when Jill Collins, the mastermind behind Carmine’s local PR campaign, invites you to dine on comped delicious Italian goodies from the DC version of the famous NYC kitchen, what's a girl to do?! There is no such thing as willpower. The lady knows how to market her product, and her product is pretty darned good.

Needless to say, Carmine’s did no wonders for the aforementioned plans to shape up on my caloric consumption habits (I keep wondering how they have a location in the bikini-clad Bahamas, but then I remember how reasonable the prices are for feeding families). When heaping of trays of Eggplant Parmigiana, Linguine with Clams, and Tiramisu come floating your way, again, what’s a girl to do? Look, in the words of Ms. Collins, Carmine’s is not here to win any James Beard awards. It is, however, honest and tasty fare. It's interesting how the timing worked, with this post directly following one about another Italian restaurant, Chicago's Cibo Matto. The two could not be more different, but each has their niche.

Though I was prepared for gargantuan portions of pasta and protein at Carmines, I was not prepared for the refreshing Carmine's salad, their zesty version of an Italian chopped. Good stuff - especially the vibrant roma tomato halves. Immediately thereafter, I found myself again refreshingly surprised, by the Eggplant Parmigiana. This was a unique interpretation of the dish, more of a loaf, with razor thin layers of sauteed eggplant, parmesan, and a robust red sauce - each component flavor held its own in the dish. The best bite of the night.

Let me just say, for future reference, that it may be a good idea to stop here; the salad and eggplant alone would have been enough food for a small army. Plus, these two dishes were both stellar. Our table, however, soldiered on. We ordered two pastas, the rigatoni country style and clams linguine, and an entree, the veal saltimbocca. The pastas were pretty standard, there as fillers, allowing the proteins to shine a little brighter. The rigatoni, I prefer with simple broccoli, garlic, and oil.  Instead of the linguine, I would lean towards a different noodle style, spaghetti and meatballs - again, the protein being the key. The saltimbocca, with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and brown sauce, was great. I also enjoyed the classic veal scallopine that I tried for an earlier lunch.

Desserts were not my favorite, but were not to be missed with the stuffing ourselves meal theme. Carmine's version of tiramisu focuses on whipped cream rather than lady fingers and espresso, likely for purposes of lightening up after an unavoidably filling meal. I liked the chocolate in the bread pudding we tried, but the addition of raisins took me a bit off guard. One, or the other; probably not both. These recipes have stood the test of time in the NYC location though, so if you have folks with sweet tooths in tow, I'm sure your party will find one of the various sugar offerings agreeable (cheesecake, anyone?!).

After all of this food, the total for our party came to approximately thirty-one bucks a person, with leftovers (and a GS-salaried bureaucrat lunch party of the same size dined for $12 a person, with tip, earlier in the week). Not bad. As I noted, Carmine's is not going to be the perfect meal for all occasions and all people, but it does serve its niche, and well. Taking price, cuisine, and ambiance into account, it's a desirable and convenient locale for several types of occasions. Here's a few: business luncheon for the slightly less buttoned-up crowd (lots of private rooms are available) - check;  hungry, picky, and cheap relatives are in town - check; you are downtown with the stroller and light-up shoe crowd - check; afternoon football viewing with a hungry group (TVs in the bar) - check. Also of note, bring your gluten-free, vegan, and allergenic friends too; Carmine's has special menus for each. I guess what I'm saying is that this place will never be a foodie destination; it will, however, serve as a destination for hungry folks looking for a consistency, value, and a tasty meal.

Taste of Chicago: Cibo Matto

Let me start by saying that I will no longer try to hold any notion of foodie supremacy over the carnivore’s head – the man has developed some proper taste buds. Yes, he used to go a place like Bob Evans and order a steak, simply because it was the largest, meatiest item on the menu. But he has evolved. The carnivore’s recent recommendation of Chicago’s Cibo Matto is proof enough of that.

So, with this mantle of foodie equality, comes responsibility…I bring you…our first collective blog post. A he-said, she-said of the best of Cibo Matto. C goes first, because he visited CM first in time, but he's no opening act; he should certainly get top billing in this post.

He (also known as the carnivore, the Manimal, and sometimes simply C) said...

I had the opportunity to recently dine at the Chicago hot-spot Cibo Matto, in The Wit Hotel. As with any dining experience, it is always more enjoyable when you don’t have to worry about the bill, and this client dinner certainly met that expectation.  

The three of us started off with three appetizer courses to whet our palates. We tried the fiore de zucca, a fried squash blossom filled with ricotta with lemongrass pesto sauce on the side.  Although I’m not a cheese lover, the squash blossom was fried perfectly and the ricotta was a nice consistency, at least one that did not offend this cheese-hater.  The pesto was nice, but it was difficult to mix the blossom and sauce, and I didn’t feel like the combination was exactly on point.

The second appetizer was the buffalo mozzarella platter.  Although I stayed away from the cheese itself, the poached lobster and arugula that accompanied it was tasty. My dining companions marveled at the buffalo mozzarella.

Third, I tried the salumi plate, which had a very nice collection of Italian meats. The meats were nicely cured and not overly salty, which makes for a more pleasant experience. The prosciutto was excellent.

Of course, you don't come to Cibo Matto for the appetizers. The piece-de-resistance is the primi course, specifically their homemade pastas. While all are excellent, two are notable.  Our group shared the black spaghetti with crab and the bucatini.  Let me talk about the spaghetti quickly – the noodles are squid ink, and truly excellent. There are some nice bits of crab meat, although not a lot. The cerrano chiles give the dish some added heat. But for all of that, it’s a tad bit salty.  Enjoyable, but salty.

Ah… the bucatini. You can almost see the servers salivating as they bring it to your table. It is truly the best thing at Cibo Matto.  The noodles are delicious on their own – thick, tender round noodles. However, when accompanied by the amazing pancetta, even better.  But the chef goes one better by topping this delicious dish with a quail egg that is broken and mixed table-side. The egg goes on top of the pasta, and as it is mixed in, the hot pasta cooks the egg.  It makes for a simply divine combination, and one that evokes memories of Mario Batali’s rich pastas. It was so good, in fact, that our table ordered two servings – one to accompany our main entrees as well.  Upon delivering our second pasta, our server eyed it wistfully and asked if she could mix the egg in.  We agreed, and she remarked that “every time I bring one of these out, it makes me hungry.”  A good sign indeed.

With that build up, there’s no way the entrees could live up to the bucatini. And frankly, I mainly ate the bucatini for my main course. Our table went fish heavy, opting for the skate, perch, and halibut. All were tasty, but ultimately not memorable.  My perch was poached in olive oil, and was fairly simple, but in season at the time. Again, most of us went after the bucatini – fish I can get anywhere, but delicious pasta is truly rare.

After all that, we had no room for dessert. But with our rather large tab (of course the others had wine), there was no reason for the waiter to complain.  Nor, for that matter, was there any complaint from three very satisfied lawyers.

She said (yes, I know this continues to shock, but Deepthroat is actually a girl)....

Our girls'-night-out crowd started with a pair of shellfish dishes - the diver scallop served with a celery root truffle puree, and the grilled baby octopus served with white beans, pearl onions, and a saffron aioli. Both were delicious, nice introductions to a flavorful meal that would follow. The octopus itself was perfectly cooked, tender and with a nice smoky grilled flavor. The aioli was a nice accent as well - the saffron was a refreshing alternative to a potent olive flavor that is so often the curse of octopus dishes. I also enjoyed the scallop, seared nicely, but the gem of that particular plate was the puree, a lovely, delicate combination of flavors.

C was not kidding when he told me that the star of this show would be the pasta. He recommended we order only pasta (a try every kind type of deal). Well, we had cute dresses on and were headed out for the evening, so we could not endorse that idea, but it is a notion worth keeping in mind. The pastas are definitely the highlight here. We tried the aforementioned bucatini (pretty sure I would still be hearing about it had I dared not to) and the caramelli. The Caramelli, stuffed with house-made ricotta, and served with sauteed asparagus and lemons, managed to perfectly balance being both rich and refreshing. Yummy indeed, and a nice textural journey. The Bucatini, as C may have alluded to, was out of this world. It's precisely what I wanted when we tried out Bibiana, and reflecting back, Bibiana's pastas are (this is not to discount some of their other offerings...i.e., dessert) pleasant, but simply do not stand up when compared to Cibo Matto's pancetta, peppercorn, and duck-egg laced creation. This is what James Beard nominations are made out of folks.

It was difficult to move on from the pasta course, but eventually we had to do so - we rounded out our meal with a couple of entrees, for good measure.  The halibut, accented with flavors of arugula pesto, artichokes, and balsamic vinegar, was nice. If I were looking for a criticism, I would say that the artichoke came on a little heavy, but this would be splitting hairs. It was good; it's just that our meal had already met its climax. The Costolette, a braised short rib served alongside ricotta creamed spinach, however, proved to be a rather perfect finale. The short rib was tender and meaty, and avoided the usual short rib pitfall of being overly greasy. The creamed spinach was another remarkably delicious component of our already amazing meal. If you make the trip here, you have to order something that incorporates CM's ricotta - it's quite an amazing cheese, rich and refined, light and textural - dairy goodness indeed.

After all that, a person should never eat more, but perusing the menu, I still wanted to try dessert. Oh God help me, I wanted to try dessert. I analyzed the spandex percentage of my dress, how sleepy I was feeling given the current intake, and whether I could ditch the Spanks merely to taste the chocolate torta to my lips, but it was not to be. I was simply full to the brim with no room. **Tear** I’m still a little heartbroken about this tragedy, but I had other plans for the night, and dessert would have prevented even an awkward waddle out the place. Some day though, Strawberry Cardamom Panna Cotta, I will find you.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Taste of Chicago: Topolobampo

Let me first set the scene for our Topolobampo dinner...My employer has a semi-annual conference, wherein all of us lawyers from across the country gather to talk about our particular brand of bureaucracy - exciting, right?! You know it! Well, even if the conference is crazy boring (and the Hyatt Regency WiFi is crap - not cool!), I do work with some truly lovely people, some of whom I do not get to see unless we are at this particular conference (in addition to the freaks, but we won't get into that). Several of these truly lovely people joined me for a late dinner reservation at Topolobampo. We were all in a festive mood, and looking forward to a night of enjoying each other's company and good food.

We were seated at a corner table with a view of the dining room, and within sniff distance of the kitchen. After a few minutes perusing the menu, we ordered libations. I found the mojito a tad bit strong (I wanted to remember my meal), so I exchanged it for a classic margarita. In ordering our drinks, we experienced the first of our service hiccups. Our server was extremely serious, almost surly. We asked about the margaritas? "They're good", was her response. Further, she seemed to be annoyed when the members of our party dared to laugh or converse while she presented a dish. Food has become a serious business, I get that, but that doesn't mean you have to take all of the fun out of the experience. And with the preaching of Rick Bayless (the whole "love your food, live what you love, enjoy yourself when eating, drinking, cooking" mantra), I'd like to think he would agree with my assessment.

Another issue presented itself when we started asking about the menu proper. (By this point, I was the annoying girl asking questions - I've never had a problem with being that girl - I would rather have my question answered than worry about annoying someone.) Because not every member of a party has to order a tasting menu at Topolobampo (I liked this fact), only two of us (N and myself) planned to do so. We shared this with our server, and then asked for recommendations on which route to go with tasting menus (one from the recent White House State Dinner - all out gluttony, one with tastes inspired by the restaurant staff's annual trip to Mexico City, and one for the "adventurer"). The server proceeded to tell us that the White House State Dinner was the most expensive option because it had the most expensive ingredients, that the tastes of the Mexico City menu were inspired by their staff trip (no examples, or anything), that the adventurer's menu was "more adventurous". Ya think?! I was not asking her to recite back the menu - I am literate - I was asking for her opinion; evidently, this was a mistake.

Though a little bit of information would have assisted our choice, N and I were not deterred - she chose the White House State Dinner menu (cause she's from LA, and high maintenance like that - I love her!) and I went with the adventurer's menu, because why not?! Other guests of our party tried a smattering of appetizers and entrees from the general menu.

N and I shared, but I only had a bite of one of the other entrees, so mostly, my perspective is from the tasting menus, five courses each. I think the best way of describing what we had would be to lay out the restaurant's presentation of each dish, and then my take. We'll start with N's tasting menu:
Tostadas de Atun:  tostadas layered with sashimi-grade ahi tuna, homemade green chile mayo, ripe avocado, crispy knob onions, Bayless garden microgreens. 
The ultimate chips and guac, with super-fresh ingredients and nice bold flavors. You will find no complaints from me about this particular course.

Ceviche Verde:  Sashimi-grade Hawaiian ahi tuna with Mexican "chimichurri" (cilantro, parsley, roasted garlic, serrano chile, olive oil), fresh-squeezed lime juice, cucumber and jicama. Roasted fennel, fennel pollen, dry Jack chicharron, pinenut crunch.
Ehh...the flavor was a little underwhelming, and the fennel did not fuse with the other flavors. Plus, N, a few margaritas in at this point, insisted on complaining about the jicama but referring to it not with an "H" but with a "J" -  I liked the crunch it added, but N did not care for it. She did, however, keep me giggling.

Mariscos al Mojo "Blanco y Negro":  Pan-roasted Maine lobster and Viking Village day-boat scallops with black-and-white mojo (fermented black garlic, white garlic, olive oil, chipotle, lime). Nichols Farm spinach, puffed quinoa, Bayless Garden chives.

Lobster and scallops, so a nice foundation, but the seafood was not as tender as I would have liked, and again, the flavor was lackluster, even with all of that garlic. It smelled nice though.

"Ribeye" en Mole Negro:  Creekstone Natural seared ribeye with Oaxacan black mole (3 chiles plus 25 other ingredients). Black bean tamalon, wood-grilled green beans, tangy jamaica jewels.
This was probably the dish I was most excited to try, one, because I love mole, and two, because this is freakin'-Rick-Bayless-twenty-eight-ingredient-mole. Now, let me qualify this statement by explaining that I only had one bite of the steak (N enjoyed it) dipped in mole, and the rest of my mole sampling was completed by dipping my finger in it. The mole though, not special. It was tasty in the way that other moles are tasty, but the flavor was not nearly as complex as I would have expected twenty-eight ingredients to be.
Tartaleta de Chocolate con Cajeta:  Crispy custard tart of creamy Mexican chocolate and uncuous cajeta (goat milk caramel). Toasted marshmallows, graham cracker "gravel," goat cheese ice cream and height-of-season local strawberries.

Dessert was a high point for both N and I. The sweet and sour flavor of the goat cheese ice cream balanced out the rich chocolate flavor. The pastry also a nice texture, flaky, yet moist and cakey.
On to my adventurer's menu:

Patita de Puerco, Chorizo, Erizo:  Crispy nugget of homemade chorizo and pig's feet, unctuous slow-poached egg, creamy tequila-infused sea urchin sauce. Dollop of smoked paddlefish roe.
Hands down, the best taste of the night. This dish was what I wished for in the entire meal. Complex, unique, rich, surprising, satisfying. First, the 24-hour sous-vide egg was gelatinous yet gooey, and I mean that in a good way. It perfectly complimented the savory chorizo nugget, which was also incredible - like a Mexican terrine. The flavors of tequila, urchin, and roe perfectly balanced and highlighted the dish. Scrumptious.

Ancas de Rana en Salsa de Frijol Negro:  Lake Okeechobee frog legs with chipotle-black bean sauce and creamy polenta-style tamal infused with red guajillo chile. Nichols Farm snap peas, crispy potato ring, Bayless Garden microgreens.
Do frog legs make this dish "adventurous"? Well, it wasn't the flavors - they were incredibly mild. This reminded me of a basic pot pie - you know what they say about frog legs; tastes like chicken! I just found this entire plate underwhelming and forgettable.

Cachetes de Halibut en Verde:  Garlicky, pan-roasted Alaskan halibut cheeks in herby Tabasco-style "verde" sauce (peas, garlic chives, cilantro, parsley). Yellow fava bean mash, pickled pasilla chiles, River Valley Ranch shiitake mushrooms.
I'd never actually had the pleasure of halibut cheeks before this meal. Honestly, had I not read the description, I would not have been able to tell you these were not simply fillets. The cheeks were tasty, but not distinguishable from countless other presentations of halibut. Perhaps I'm missing something. The verde sauce, again, was a little bland, though the freshness of the ingredients did shine. The component of this dish that I most enjoyed was the fava bean puree - I would definitely take more of that.

Pozole Rojo de Chivo:  Tender, 24-hour braise of Kilgus Boer goat, guajillo chile and pozole corn. Crispy tostaditas, crunchy Napa cabbage, tangy lime, aromatic Mexican oregano.
The goat was not tender, it was chewy. Top that with a not-tasty posole, and this was not my favorite. I ate the cabbage separately because I enjoyed the lime and oregano accents and I did not want to pollute this component with the rest of the dish.

Chocolate, Cerezas y Cerveza:  Dark chocolate cake with dark cherries, Oaxacan chocolate ice cream with Negra Modelo, malty crunch, "drunken" tart cherries.
This was a lovely, rich dessert course full of deep pleasing flavors. Smoky, sweet, and a little spicy. Again, dessert was a success.
Generally speaking, I would say that N's plates were better than mine, but not mind-altering. Both had reverse bell curves with outstanding appetizers, and quite tasty desserts, but had rather blah courses in the middle.

I cannot express to you how much I wanted to love Topolobampo. Yes, my expectations were high, but the problem at hand was not merely disappointment from high expectations. It's quite simply that I did not love it - yes, there was one incredible moment in this meal, but I just was not wowed.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sweet Home Chicago

Tracking our vacation, and my bookend stops in Chicago...

Fri., 5:30 AM - We depart Arlington early as to avoid the bulk of the 270 traffic

Fri., 11:00 AM - We make our much anticipated stop at Cranberry Twp's Primanti Bros. location, whose lovely wait staff allows us to eat on the patio so our puppy can sit with us.

(I purposefully bypassed the Sheetz breakfast sandwich en route - not an easy decision for me as availability of Sheetz is limited within the Beltway - in order preserve the Primanti Bros. calories).

Fri., 2:00 PM - Emergency caffeine stop at Interstate 80/90 Ohio rest stop (though the tank was full, the aforementioned sandwich was taking its sleepiness toll). Also noteworthy, this is not the pair of farthest west Ohio rest stops (both sides of Toll Road) - do NOT stop at either; they are nasty.

Fri., 4:30 PM - Arrival in Michigan

Fri., 7:00 PM - As per usual operating procedure, we head out to the local Elk's Club, or a similar fish-frying bar, to enjoy one of my favorites - lake perch. Cannot get enough.

Sat., 9:00 AM - Kissing baby boy goodbye (first time mom has been away from him for the night), mom and dad head to the Intercontinental Hotel on Michigan Ave. via the South Shore for our dear friends' wedding. By the way, check out the pool - it's the original pool from 1928, when the hotel was built as the Medinah Athletic Club - how cool is that?

Sat., 12:30 PM, to Central time - Arriving in town, we are hungry for a little Midwestern goodness. We head out and take a hungry walk to determine our close-by options. Well, it's Michigan Avenue, so mostly chains. We do, however, locate Bandera (part of the Cali-based Hillstone Restaurant Group), which we loved when we lived in SoCal. It is very yummy yet again. Things to get here: cornbread (also in crouton form in my favorite, the Macho salad), prime rib french dip, and ribs - go big, or home.

Sat., 3:00 PM - Feeling like tourists, we have so much fun on the Chicago Architectural Boat Tour (note - take the tour during the day; it could be hot, but there are bugs at night).

(At some point in time, we also hit up Nordstrom for something we forgot to pack. I locate the most beautiful pair of Calvin Klein shoes - alas, they don’t have them in my size, but Tyson's Corner does! I love Nordstrom!) 

Sat., 7:00 PM - Wedding rehearsal dinner at Wildfire, part of Chicago's very own Lettuce Entertain You chain.

Sat., 11:30 PM- After a couple of bar fails (it's a crowded night out there), we settle in at Eno at the hotel. This works out well, as they have a dessert wine flight. The chocolate flights, however, are a bit of a ripoff.

Sun., 9:00 AM - C has groomsman responsibilities, so I'm left to entertain myself. I grab a granola bar from our wedding welcome bag before heading out for a lovely run along Lake Michigan (so, so nice).

Sun., 1:00 PM - I wander in search of sustenance and locate Eggsperience. It's simple and tasty breakfast fare (I had the mushroom and spinach skillet), and the pancakes are fluffy fabulous-ness.

Sun., 4:00 PM - It's a wedding - we all know what to expect in terms of food - okay, maybe not so much. C alone puts away no less than 50 pieces of sashimi at the cocktail hour sushi bar, and I fail to count how many sliders he has at the burger and fry bar (this is pre-dinner, mind you). Also, for dessert, rice crispie treats on sticks, with chocolate for dipping. For future reference, I encourage this at weddings. In pictures, you can actually see photographic evidence of my stomach expanding in my dress as the night progresses. That, I don't so much encourage at weddings.

Mon., 8:00 AM - An early morning train prevents us from joining the rest of the wedding crowd for brunch (as if we needed more food). I grab a Descartes coffee on the way to the station.

Mon. Afternoon through Sat. morning - We rent an island cottage which leads to some memorable meals, including the aforementioned biscuits and gravy, some perfect summer salads, an all-in family fish fry, and S'Mores pie.

Sat., 3:00 PM - A family reunion feast of pulled pork, some ridiculously good cornbread and honey butter, and desserts to feed about 300 (approximately 60 were in attendance).

Sun. - Reverse version of the previous drive.

Mon., 1:00 PM - I'm back in Chicago. Yup, that's right, I drove home and then flew right back for work.

Mon., 3:00 PM - After getting checked in and taking a run, I attempt to pop into Blackbird for lunch, but they have already stopped serving. Next door, avec is closed for a month or so. Bummer. However, the Blackbird folks have a suggestion in province just around the corner. I try the smoked Arctic Char, served with preserved Meyer lemon and capers (much too salty) and the squash and goat cheese sandwich (not terrible, but a little bland).

Mon., 7:30 PM - Repeatedly attempt to order food while at a Second City show with no success (at one point, I plead with the waiter, "Look, I've got a headache. Can I at least get a piece of bread?"). Unfortunately, when I do not eat, my blood sugar tanks and I get rather grumpy, finding just about nothing funny. By the third act, I have to leave because my stomach is eating itself. We pour into the Old Town location of Adobe Grill, right next door. Honestly, I wish I could tell you what the food tasted like, but I practically swallowed my meal whole - it seemed good. The same night, colleagues hit up Japonais and Sushi Samba, to rave reviews.

Tues., 1:00 PM - In an attempt to preserve as many calories and taste buds for coming Rick Bayless goodness, I skip the Polish sausage I really want and grab a rather run of the mill salad at South Water Kitchen. There are much better options - why did we go here? My fault.

Tues., 7:00 PM - Drinks at the Signature Room in the Hancock Building. I have no idea why I am possessed to order a Bubble Gum Martini, but it's fabulous (and has a clearly high alcohol content).

Tues., 8:45 PM - Finally, FINALLY, my long-awaited Topolobampo reservation becomes a reality. Well, it just wasn't what I expected. More on that tomorrow (I know, I'm like American Idol with the anticipation factor).

Wed., 1:00 PM - Given it's proximity to my hotel, Giordano's becomes my Chicago pizza of choice for this particular journey. I don't know why they call it "stuffed" - it's Chicago deep dish, just like all the others. Lou Malnati's, still my favorite, but no complaints with the Giordano's pie.

Wed., 4:00 PM - Everyone's still tired from the night before, and not up for Graham Elliott, so I cancel my reservation. Glad it wasn't the previous Wednesday - I would have been rather bitter had I missed a presidential dinner (with Oprah, no less!).

Wed., 7:30 PM - Low-key night in Greektown. Greek Islands, specifically, where my gyros platter is also enough for lunch tomorrow.

Wed., 11:00 PM - I really do plan to spend a low-key evening reading in my hotel room, but my friends call from Blue Chicago, reporting that I have to check this bar out. They are right. It's a dive with fantastic music.

Thurs., 7:30 PM - Dinner at Cibo Matto. I cannot rave enough, so yes, that will be another post this week. As I just explained to C, this laptop is getting hot in my lap, and this is already obnoxiously long.

Thurs., 11:30 PM - After discovering that we prefer a quieter setting to the uber-posh Roof at the Wit (it's quite cool, but the vibe has to be your thing), we head back to the Signature Room to grab one last glimpse at the spectacle that is the Chicago skyline.

Fri., 9:00 AM - Bagel at ORD. I'm heading home folks.

Since my trip(s), I've had this gradually increasing feeling I cannot escape. It's magnetic, as if the Great Lakes are my own personal pole. It's likely just nostalgia, but something in the back of my head keeps telling me that I need to return to the Midwest. I do not know why I have this feeling - I have a very happy life here in DC, but Chicago, you left your mark. I cannot put my finger on it, but the "big city", if you will (it was the closest Metropolitan area growing up), really has a grasp on me right now. I know C wants me to forget it and be done with it, but I can't. I am loving me some Chicago right now - I don't know what it is - that the pizza is anything but artisanal, that every street in the city is an honorary way for somebody (I'm fairly certain there's one for Bartman), that Wrigley is the best sports venue in the world, or that dancing the Super Bowl Shuffle is one of my oldest and dearest memories, or maybe, it's that Chicago is cool enough that a White House chief of staff wants to be mayor. I dunno, but Chicago, you feel like sweet home to me. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Baby Talk

Can I just tell you something today, and then a whole lot more tomorrow? Well, I'm going to regardless. My son, he's 9.5 months now, and over the course of the weekend, he started regularly saying "mama"...with meaning attached...yup (**gulp**). He's been a little sick recently, his first major illness. There's been a number of stomach issues, and he's feeling a bit overwhelmed by the whole situation. Who can blame the lil' fella? He's not feeling well, and this vomiting thing is new, and rather uncomfortable. Well, somehow in the midst of his confusion and frustration, baby boy figured out that "mama" was able to make it better if only he would ask (or demand, but he's saying "mama" so I really don't care in what perturbed fashion the word is coming out). Still…my…beating…heart. Not that I'm going to ignore the little man when he's screaming in the middle of the night from his multiple digestive issues, but when he called for mama, well, I scooped him and up and cried. Which may have not been the best idea for a sick little boy, but I digress - he called for his mama! 

Oh, and being egalitarian and all, I should point out that while his dad was suffering through a bout of the same illness, baby boy also mastered the art of the two syllable version of "dada", whilst clearly motioning for his father. This follows up on weeks of "dadadadadada" referring from everything from his foot to cars whizzing by us. Our baby boy is growing up - he's talking, folks! This was a post-worthy weekend for us.

(Yes, this post was titled quite literally. God love ya for sticking with me if you were looking for something else. That something else will happen, and soon.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Whole Enchilada: RSS Summer Summary

You'll notice a recent trend of being out of town, busy with other things while in town, and generally speaking, not properly tending to my blogging duties. All of that leads to falling a bit behind on my Google Reader subscriptions as well. So, now that I've cleared the thousand-plus posts, for your reading pleasure (and possible stock-piling in your very own RSS inbox), a handy summary of the last six weeks or so:

Roger Ebert, I've long adored you - now, you are truly inspirational

What's been up in Top Chef land? The talented, lovely Patrick O'Connell made a visit, and of course, we appropriately got rid of the vestigial organs. But then, things took a turn for the worse. And, if the DC season didn't suck and fail to properly highlight our nation's capitol enough, now we're going to ship out to Singapore?! Lordy, lordy. Perhaps Top Chef All Stars or Top Chef Just Desserts (frankly, I'm kind of excited about it) will make the show Emmy-worthy again. This season was not.

I'm with WaPo's Jane Black and Foodie Tots; I prefer my watermelon with seeds. If you are like me, check out the Ballston Farmer's Market; both varieties are regularly available.

Looks like the gym option in what was intended to be my new work hood is closing - I guess being called back to "headquarters" has its benefits for this bureaucrat.

As exhausted as I am from the summer (that's not how it's supposed to work, is it?!), and as much as I am looking forward to cooking the new season's bounty, Tom Seitsema sure has been tempting me to eat out this fall. That, and all of the NYC transplants (a Jewish deli - it's about time). This again begs the question, where is our Bouchon?

Oh, and lucky for me, the Ballston matriculation continues (Clarendon is getting a bit crowded - heck, even Whitlow's has to build up).

Speaking of Fall (BRING IT!), I'm so looking forward to cooking up squash, pumpkins, and apples. Yummy. Also, fall festivals - one of my absolute favorite things! Falls Church (Sept. 11) and Clarendon (Sept. 25) celebrate theirs soon. Anyone out there have suggestions on a country festival somewhere a bit outside the Beltway (perhaps with a parade?!) in October or November, once the weather really has some bite?

For now, I'm saying goodbye to summer produce with a bang - my Wednesday night equals plum jam, tomato and basil jam, canned peaches (leftovers from a copious amount of pureed and frozen baby food), and pickled red onions. Mrs. Wheelbarrow, have any tips?

Metrocurean, I have so been there. Gotta love our four-legged family members.

Yay - like other much-needed resources, Chick-Fil-A is coming to the District. Though, if you are brave enough to face the GW coeds (oh, and I have many times, even when pregnant), the undergrad food court already has one.

Egads, I knew that all of the lovely Arlington County resources (schools, parks, libraries - they all do sort of rock) came with a price - but 1979, that's my real birth year. For this fiscal conservative, that's a bit disturbing.

Aaannnddd, I expect to get back on the wagon soon with Restaurant Week posts from Equinox (bravo!) and WestEnd Bistro (sorry), visits in Chicago to Topolobampo (how much I wanted to love it) and Cibo Matto (over-the-top delicious), my most recent deconstructed Tyler Florence dinner, and Rioja and Euclid Hall in 24 hours in Denver.