Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Extravagant gluttony

Sometimes a few magical words are all that's needed to capture the soul of an event. The meal that I am about to share with you is simply one of the most extravagant and gluttonous that I have ever taken part. And the most extraordinary part of this incredible meal was the spontaneousness of it.

Exhausted from a three day seminar tour, I said goodbye to my colleagues who will march on to yet another city and found myself with five hours of free time to spend in Shanghai before my plane takes off for Chicago. What to do? I was too tired to shop, but too young to go back to the hotel to nap. While waiting for the taxi to take me away from the seminar site, I pulled out the copy of Savour that I had picked up from the airport to flip. Guess which destination city was featured in Savour? Shanghai, of course! What's more, the magazine dedicated a four page center pull-out to one restaurant in particular, Whampoa Club. This is where it gets really weird, because I had just read about this place days ago in a fellow blogger's post as having the most innovative hairy crab tasting in all of Shanghai (November being the prime hairy crab season). So not wanting to fight destiny, I did the most logical thing, I went to Whampoa Club.

The place is huge, taking up an entire floor of an European style building on the main stretch of the bund. The interior is an interesting mix of upscale night club elements (e.g., low lighting, neon colored fiber glass partitions, etc.) with traditional Chinese architectural elements (e.g., carved redwood trims). A cheongsam-clad hostess led me down what seemed like a mile long grand hall to the main dinning room.

Once seated, I immediately ordered the multi-course hairy crab tasting. Time was of the essense when I have so many courses to chew through and a plane to catch in a few hours.

The chef sent out this little skewered ham roll on top of a sliver of fried tofu as amuse bouche. The presentation didn't wow me and since it had no crab elements, I wasn't too interested and only took a small bite. The flavor was not bad, the cucumber inside the ham roll provided a bit of vinegary crunch in contrast with the pleasant saltiness of the ham.

The actual tasting began with a gorgeous combo course. On the left was a drunken crab prepared in the traditional way of immersing raw crab in a seasoned rice wine concoction. I have never been a fan of the drunken method of "cooking." Somehow the alcohol never quite takes away the rawness, but rather imparts a sometimes unpleasant alcoholic after taste. This drunken crab, however, was more than delicious. The rice wine concoction had a lot more going for it than alcohol. The translucent crab meat picked up the saltiness of soy, the sweetness of sugar, the sourness of rice vinegar, and created the most amazing explosion of flavor in the mouth. Also on the plate was a crab/egg custard presented inside an egg shell. It tasted like a well-made egg drop soup that has been elevated to new heights by the addition of a most generous amount of hairy crab roe. It was heavenly.

Next came crab dumplings two ways. Floating in the clear mild broth were three crab dumplings with very delicate transparent skins. Perched on top a mound of stewed radish was a single fried dumpling. As much as I loved the crispiness of the fried dumpling skin, the delicate boiled dumplings took my breath away. The crab meat filling had a texture comparable to that of a soupy xiao long bao and the intoxicating smell unique to crab roe permeated my entire surrounding as I bit into it.

The next course was one I had been looking forward to this whole trip - whole steamed hairy crab (shown at the top). I was so upset that my waitress began to deconstruct the crab as soon as it arrived at my table before I could even protest. God, what did she think she was doing? Getting the crab open the way I like it counts for fifty percent of my enjoyment. I am sure she was more than startled by my "violent" protests because she never returned. :) After claiming my now opened crab back, I took my time cracking open the claws and picking out all the little morsels from the tiniest crevices. Boy, the hairy crab was small compared to the Maryland blue crab of my youth. But the flavor is definitely comparable and completely unlike that of the much rough meat of the larger crab varieties.

I couldn't remember the name of the course that came next. It had a soupy consistency, but was served on a plate, which made it very difficult to eat without a mopping agent such as steamed bun. The flavor was good and focused on the richness of crab roe. But after so many courses of crab roe, I was getting a bit tired.

The next course was shredded semi-dried tofu stir-fried with, you guessed it, crab roe. I have always loved the texture of this type of tofu and the shredding allowed it to better absorb the sauce. But again, I was beginning to experience taste bud fatigue from crab roe overload.

I was disappointed when I saw this last savory course. More crab roe and more dumpling? What happened to the climatic course? Thankfully, my disappointment was not long-lived. As soon as I bit into the pan-friend bun, my mouth was filled with the most delicious aged rice vinegar. How cool! The chef had worked the vinegar into the soupy filling and then pan-fried/steam the bun to achieve the puffy exterior. Brilliant. It was every bit the climatic course I had been waiting for.

Finally, I've made to the dessert course. To the western taste, Chinese dessert is nothing to get excited about. In the words of my best friend, Chinese desserts are all variations of something "gelatinous." It's true, we Chinese love the chewiness of gelatinous substances. I suppose the chef knew that too because his fusion dessert combined a very westernized creme brulee with candied glutenous rice balls filled with red bean paste. The brulee was pleasant, but I wish it had a more prominent sugar crust. The gelatinous rice balls were way too chewy and the candy stripping outside were hard as rock strains and created the an awkward contrast with the soft filling.

Overall, the crab tasting was more than worth it as a once in a life time experience. But like most things in life, too much of a good thing makes it harder to appreciate its goodness. I will not eat crab roe for quite a while I think.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

When food lovers gather

I have spent years getting used to people commenting on how weird I am for being so obsessed with food. They question if it is really normal for someone to be salivating after the next meal while stuffing her face at the table. These type of comments do not damper my excitement for a good chow. My pleasure and passion is entirely private and requires no audience participation. However, it’s hard to deny that there has always being a child within that yearned for the company of those who love the object of my affection as much as I.

As they say, “seek and you shall find” and I finally found my ideal eating companions this past Tuesday at the hot new foodie spot Tasty China. Thanks to Blissful Glutton, the charismatic organizer of the fantastic little gathering, close to ten like-minded spicy food lovers got to hover over about a dozen mouth numbing Sichanese dishes at the hidden away strip mall gem. The food was of a deliciousness level that being Sichanese, I was, for the first time in many years, proud to call what came before us the cuisine of my childhood.

First we were offered a sampling of appetizers, which included the crowd favorite of hot and numbing beef. This was essentially the result of crossing a flavor-imbued braised brisket with a flavor-distilled five-spice jerky. More specifically, the beef seemed to have first gone through a long braising process, which imparted the hot and numbing effect through the addition of a hefty dose of classic five spices and more than hefty doses of dried hot red pepper and Sichuan peppercorn. On top of the braising, the beef was dried and crisped in a fragrant oil to achieve slightly crispy surfaces that crunched between our teeth before giving way to the most delightful flavor combination and chewy texture within.

A parade of other dishes came after the hot and numbing beef. Some were delights from my childhood, like a braised whole fish in a three chili sauce and flash-fried fatty strips of Sichuan beef so tender, it barely required any chewing before dissolving into a little hot and sticky puddle on the tongue. Others were not what I would call classical dishes, but were nonetheless excellent. The most sublime of these was the panko-crusted eggplant shown above. Aside from its gorgeous looks, the texture was incredible. Slightly crispy on the outside from a quick bath in hot oil, the interior was like the center of a hot and savory marshmallow right off the camp fire. Yum!

All in all, Tasty China delivered just the right combination to satisfy our group of food lovers. The tucked away location, non-descript strip mall exterior, dingy interior décor, and fantastic dishes made it the perfect food find worthy of a foodie gathering.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Eating from the sea at Nobu Miami

Nobu has been on my “to try” list for years, but somehow when dinner selection time came around, it was never quite the right choice. During my years in New York, visiting Nobu’s popular branch required too much advance planning and there was too much hype about the dinning scene to make one wonder about the quality of the food, especially after the departure of Morimoto. When I moved to Atlanta, Nobu shifted towards the bottom of my revised dine out list as local spots occupied the top.

When E and I showed up in Miami, we were both craving some fresh sushi. Who knows, maybe the sun and the proximity of the sea inspires such cravings. Where to go? We hadn’t the forethought to have included a sushi destination. Not willing to take a chance on any old sushi spot as we both know what a bad choice could do to us, I suggested the Miami Nobu. After all, a famous institution must hold up to some sort of minimum standard.

Not expecting to be dazzled, we settled into the ultra casual dinning room and started our evening with a glass of fizzy bubbly. Maybe it’s because of our lack of high expectation or maybe it’s because of our seafood deprivation of late, we were complete wowed by what came after.

The first course (shown above) was a straight up tuna tatare. Besides tasting as if it came off the fish merely minutes ago, the pool of tangy yuzu sauce kicked the sides of our mouths into saliva overproduction. What a refreshing way to start!

Next up was a well portioned serving of salmon sashimi with a small micro green salad. Even in my super unprofessional photo, you can see the moist salmon shimmering in the candle light.

The salmon was followed by a sea scallop carpaccio. Neither E nor I are fans of carpaccios, but we managed to eat most of these, which is saying a whole lot. Of course, I omitted mentioning to E, who is adverse to all scallops , that these were creatures of the same kind. It was in this instance as in most, my theory that ignorance is bliss is proven true. We both enjoyed the sweet savory sauce quite a bit.

What came next was my favorite of the evening and the object of my latest obsession - miso-glazed black cod. I envy all those living in Japan for the accessibility to this sinful preparation. Black cod or butterfish, as it is referred to in Japan and Hawaii, is the most decadent offering of the sea world. The taste is surprisingly close to a sumptuous block of fresh warm lard slathered in a miso-soy glaze. I doubt that even the butter-loving grandmas here in the south who think nothing of throwing a pound of butter into their biscuits could conjure up such a sinful concoction. Everytime I eat it, I remind myself that I must ask for it as my last meal before execution.

Next up was the sushi, which was fresh no less, but at this point of the meal, it was merely a cleanser for our overworked palate. Of all that was presented, I loved the uni the most. Its subtle sweetness really made me sorry for what I have been missing here in Atlanta. Hopefully we'll be able to get these fresh on a regular basis in the near future.
Before the clam, we were served a light grilled Kobe fillet. I am not sure why the picture is missing. Perhaps we were too excited to see red meat and wolfed it down before I was able to get a beauty shot. The beef was as sublime as well-cooked kobe tend to be. The marbling turned into a sticky liquid that dripped down our chins.

The clams are not too special. The garlicky broth would have been a great bread dipper if we had any, but at this point we were just as happy that there wasn't any as we were about to burst at the seam.

Finally we were served dessert. I don't ever expect too much in this department when eating in an Asian establishment. The chocolate cake was pleasant, but not surprising. The sake was a good finish, but liquid hardly takes the place of a well put-together dessert. I am glad the fruits were there as they were very fresh, but all I wanted to do at that moment was to go to bed.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A month of food - how to begin

So I've disappeared off the face of the planet (okay, maybe just the blogsphere) for the last month. Am I sorry for having neglected my poor blog as another more conscientious blogger would feel? Well, no! I had a fantastic time away from everything!

For starters, I ate my way across the island of Oahu. How amazing is it to be served some of the best and most ingeniously prepared seafood in a beautiful setting while playing footsie under the table in your flip flops! Ahhh... island life. I have been made weak and lazy by the blue sky and turquoise ocean. Too weak to be back at work again and too lazy to write a large first return post. For now, feast your eyes on a few pictures of one of our dinners. Just to give you an idea of some of the exciting dishes that I got to try, the seared foie in the second picture is stacked on top of a piece of uber fresh tuna that was also lightly seared to achieve an amazingly similar texture to the foie!

Stay tuned, I'll be back with more pictures and better verbiage... when I get myself fully integrated back into my real life.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Fairest of Them All

Pan-fried skate wing with tomato and capers

Where to have dinner was a big decision when we hosted our foodie friends who are used to the best in New York. I had to be especially careful with my restaurant pick considering that I have trumpeted how we have not missed the Manhattan dinning scene since moving to Atlanta. Ok, I confess that I still fly up to the big apple occasionally to try the dozens of new restaurants that opened since my departure and to revisit some old favorites, but Check Spellingoverall, we have been very content with our vibrant dinning venues here and wanted to showcase the finest of them to our friends.

After much deliberation, I settled on Restaurant Eugene. What an amazing choice! Everything from the cozy interior to our Turley old vine Zinfandel to the enormous hamachi appetizer to the crab tower and the skate wing and finally, to the dessert was perfect. If I had to pick one fault, it would have to be the Saturday dinning crowd. It appeared that we were the only table in the entire restaurant under thirty and most diners looked about our parents’ age. I suppose it can’t be helped due the restaurant’s Buckhead location and higher prices. It doesn’t bother me since I am rather oblivious to such considerations when in the presence of good food and drinks. However, our friends picked up the stuffier vibe quickly upon entering the restaurant. It didn’t turn out to be a big deal as I am all about bringing my own atmosphere to my table. After all, nothing can get in the way of sharing a great meal among the best of friends, especially when the wine never stopped flowing.
Sweetbread with creamed corn
Chocolate torte with bing cherries and vanilla ice cream

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Guilty pleasure

I try to stay away from the commercial stuff with ingredients that I can't pronounce as much as possible. But a girl's gotta have a few guilty pleasures. Ketchup is definitely one for me. Since I wasn't fed this stuff growing up, it's most certainly an acquired addiction. I can still remember the first time trying it in my school cafeteria at the ripe old age of 12. I gagged and decided that Americans are stupid for liking such gross condiment on their very bland and soggy fried potato (they were supposed to be fries). I guess my tastes have Americanize since then. Now I crave this stuff in my cocktail sauce, on my eggs, and yes, atop my very homemade spinach quiche. I suppose this reduces my status as a proper foodie in the eyes of many. Or maybe all of you out there also have very unfoodie-like additions that you secretly indulge behind closed doors. For now, I am relieved in my exposure.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A new chapter

I will be a lot more busy in the coming months. There, I've finally said it out loud. I have avoided thinking about how life is going to be when the much heavier work load arrives at my door, but a girl could only put off planning for so long. There is no changing reality. What must be will be. Never being one to surrender happiness, I woke up this morning with renewed determination to live vibrantly and do what I love in my soon to be much limited free time. If it means I have to plan much better, well I will.

First things first, I have to learn how to plan my cooking ahead of time. To practice, I decided to devise a few simple weeknight dishes that I could throw together easily. The first dish that I came up with is a pizza. No, I don't plan to take out. It will take a lot more than work to make me surrender to takeout pizza on a regular basis. This one involves mixing up a quick Parmesan and remano quick bake thin crust. Some homemade pizza sauce from frozen, a good handful of drained spinach, and some Pepperoni. The result is as good to look at as it is to eat. Hmm... Maybe I will learn to love this quick cooking thing. We'll see.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Opposites attract

On days that I sit back and take stock of my life, I am often surprised by how J's spontaneous and somewhat chaotic approach to his stressful life as an entrepreneur has blissfully tempered my sometimes worrisome nature. Such reflections periodically remind me that life's unpredictability could bring very pleasant surprises when one is not so set on living according to set modes.

Apparently this advice is just as applicable, if not more so in food, as in other areas of daily living. For example, while few inexperienced or unadventurous in food would have dreamed up a dessert with a liberate use of sea salt, the combination of big salt flakes and dense chocolate proved to be formidable at the chic A16 in San Francisco.

We went to A16 for pizza, which was, well, good, but not exceptional in my opinion. The crust was a bit thicker and chewier than what I tend to like and the middle got a bit soggy as the pie sat. Perhaps a quick eater wouldn't have had that problem, but a nibbler could only report from her own snail-paced perspective. The sauce on the margarita pizza was, however, delicious with just the right amount of tang.

The most exceptional savory item that we experienced at A16 was the appetizer meatballs. BY Italian meatballs standards, they were rather small at about the size of golf balls. Despite the size, the meatballs packed a tremendous flavor punch. The fresh Italian seasonings of parsley, oregano, and thyme shone through the perfectly viscous tomato sauce generously doused over them. They were as good to look at as they were to eat. Unfortunately, Pictures of the pizzas and meatballs were accidentally deleted while my camera was passed around the table during one of our many dinners later than weekend. I suspect the massive amounts of wine that we hauled back from Sonoma had something to do with it, but oh well, at least a good time was had by all.

After one appetizer and two pizzas, my two lunch companions were about to call it quits, that is until we saw the dense chocolate cake with sea salt and olive oil on the dessert menu. Not being able to curb her curiosity, auntie M ordered the chocolate cake with sea salt and olive oil. Always polite and not wanting anyone to feel like the lone glutton (right), I also thrown in an order for apricot panna cotta. I suspect auntie M partly expected the olive oil and salt to be integrated into the cake batter and baked. When the cake was presented, a proud chcolate cake drizzled with olive oil and flaked with big pieces of sea salt on top, she was stunned. A bit hesitantly, auntie M picked off a small piece to try and her eyes went wide. "This is gooood!" We all went in with our forks at this point. It was indeed good. The very dense and dark chocolate softened and benefited from the smoothness and slightly "greeness" of the extra virgin olive oil. The salt stimulated the savory part of the palate and allowed the tongue to better detect the rather subtle sweetness hidden under the dark chocolate tone. This was a great combination that covered all the basis.

If there is such as thing as a palate cleanser after a heavy dessert, the apricot panna cotta was it. The creamy and light texture and fruity brightness lightened some of that dense chocolate weightiness in the mouth and ended our meal on a lighter note, if that's possible with very full stomachs.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Sometimes a chicken is just a chicken

On my third trip to San Francisco, I finally got to make the requisite pilgrimage to Zuni Café to worship the roast chicken bread salad. Was it everything I had hoped for? All I can say is that sometimes the only thing going against a great thing is its reputation. The fact is that I’ve read about the roast chicken in dozens of publications, heard the British “goddess” Nigella repeatedly gushing about it, and seen it in my prized Zuni Café Cookbook. In my mind, the chicken had attained a taste that no mortal chicken could ever hope to achieve, not even at the Zuni Café. This is not to say that the evening wasn’t incredibly wonderful. It was, as all dinners are among old friends.

A, whom I haven’t seen since college, had recently relocated to SFO and met up with J and I for dinner. We were an hour late for our reservation and had to wait about half an hour before a table could be arranged for us. It was an easy wait at the gorgeous copper bar as conversations flew and Turley’s juvenile zinfandel kept my spirits up. I have to mention how amazed I was to find the fantastic zin sold by the glass. Sometimes it’s just so darn easy to get a case of green envy of the Californians for having some of the freshest foods and the best American wines within arm’s reach.

Once sat, we went right ahead and ordered the chicken so it could be roasted while we enjoyed our appetizers. Having being deprived easy access to super fresh oysters in Atlanta, we welcomed a sampler plate of pacific offerings with open arms and hungry stomachs. The uneven-sized beauties ranged on the palate from briny like the sea to sweet and creamy. All were incredibly fresh and went down ultra smooth.

Considering chef Judy Rodgers' affinity for brining, we selected the house-cured ham to try. From presentation to taste, the ham was bland and rather uninteresting. We also selected the special handmade pasta of the night. The abundant pancetta in the pasta was nicely pan-fried and smoky, but the pasta itself was a bit too doughy and slightly undercooked in the center.

Finally the chicken bread salad was brought to the table. The plating is quite impressive with neat pieces of nicely charred chicken nesting on a base of browned Acme bread and among a fantastically fresh bitter green salad. The salad was dressed in a vinegar heavy dressing, which I loved. The chicken was tender and the bits of charred skin had a nice crunch, but like I said earlier, it was still just a well-roasted chicken. Knowing nothing about it, I would have loved it, but having read so many out-of-this-world reviews, I am not sure if it is deserving of all that.

The dessert menu was simple and I can't remember anything else on it except the tart we chose. It came simply embellished with just an unpretentious scoop of vanilla ice cream and had all the elements one could ask for in a nice fruit tart. The filling had the perfect mouth puckering acidity that sought balance in the creamy ice cream. The crust flaked easily without crumbing and had the integrity to stand up to the gooey fruit center without turning soggy. It was also the right size for three already stuffed diners who can't pass up dessert.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The wine god smiled upon us

The understated pale yellow dinning room expertly worked by soft-spoken staffs hardly seemed deserving of a name like Bacchanalia. There was no riotous, boisterous, or drunken festivity to be seen anywhere. The name only became fitting when we dived into the food, in the company of a nicely chilled bottle of rosé, and experienced that wine-drenched orgy in the mouth. Somewhere out there, Bacchus was smiling upon us.

The evening’s feasting actually began with thumb sized cheese puffs. Unfortunately, we gobbled them up so fast they had no chance to pose for the camera.

Next came this dainty little cup of chilled summer squash soup. The consistency was wonderfully thick, but very sippable. Alone, the soup was a bit on the salty side. But when taken with a nice bite of the hot and dense bread, it was quite delicious.

While others at the table were distracted by the various tempting appetizers such as foie gras torchon and sautéed sweatbread, I had no trouble settling on the blue crab fritter for the third time in a row. In a way, this is very unlike me, whose goal in life is to fill limited dining time and stomach space with the most varied foods. In another way, this is exactly me to all those who know me well. Having grown up in Maryland, when it comes to blue crabs, resistance is futile and all cautions are thrown to the wind. I devour with abandon and offer no apologies. In other word, she is no crab nibbler!

What followed was the much anticipated halibut. After almost a year, E still salivates every time she talks about it. What came looked every bit as georgeous as I remembered. The tri-colored cherry tomatos were painstakenly peeled and gently braised to achieve amazing balance between freshness and flavor. Unfortunately, my fork encountered resistance when it came in contact with the beautifully seared halibut. A few extra minutes of cooking turned what was once light and flaky into dense and slightly chewy.

With a name like pink lady, the Georgia native radish had the grace of a princess. It needed very little and was dressed minimally. The feta cubes were very mild and creamy, perfect little pillows for a princess' throne.

A mint panna cotta was served before the dessert course to cleanse the pallate. There were no surprises, just perfect execution. The panna cotta was the right creaminess, sweetness, and freshness from the mint.

Finally, the adorable peach tiramisu. I am not a big fan of marigue, but the softserve shape is a delightful touch. The tiramisu has no Italy in it at all. It is probably better described as a warm fruit triffle. The focus was very much on the ripe Georgia peach. It didn't wow me, but it also didn't leave me feeling heavy after eating the whole thing.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Anniversary dinner with E -the evil twin

Life is a patchwork of countless moments. Most of these moments are fleeting, perhaps brilliant in passing, but soon fade into oblivion and are never thought of again. Other moments may not arrive with fireworks, but are cherished time and again for they become defining threads of unique embroideries, which, in the end, differentiate one patchwork from another.

In the stream of my life, a moment of the later kind came to pass last year this month. After 25 years of striving to be the best loner that I could possibly be, I was blessed with a long-lost twin who looked nothing like me, but knows my evil thoughts as if she lived in my head. Partners in crime, we’ve taken the city, or more like the world by storm. Forks at the ready, we’ve eaten our way up and down the eastern seaboard, across both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, and along the south China sea in a mere 365 days. With such an impressive record, it seemed only fitting that on the one year anniversary of our fateful meeting, we memorialize that moment by exercising our taste buds at one of the finest establishments that Atlanta has to offer.

We arrived at Quinones at Bacchanalia early in the evening. The cozy dinning room tucked away in a secluded courtyard was quietly bathed in the early evening sun. Near the window, an old couple, dressed as if at church were quietly conversing with a pair of teenagers, who looked less than ready for the eight courses that are about to come their way. We took our seats at a table a few yards away from the foursome and gladly accepted champagne and a bite of foie gras mousse to start the evening’s feasting.

The day’s menu had a few expected treats typical of early summer with a couple of surprises obviously flown in from afar. We selected the wine pairings and then went on to laugh our heads off in our usual fashion about something that I am no longer able to recall.

The first to arrive is a crudo of Hawaiian Ahi Tuna with cucumbers and coriander. The freshness of the tuna came forward immediately and found resonance in the crunchiness of the cucumber. It was paired with a glass of 2004 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling from Alsace. The Riesling had the lively aromatics typical of an Alsacean Riesling and its bright acidity married well with the citrusy tuna marinade. E was so impressed, she declared it the best pairing of the evening.

The next course was hand cut pappardelle with chanterelles, morels, cepes and Italian summer truffles. E and I are both huge fans of truffles and its heady, earthy aroma was unmistakable in this dish. The pasta was beautifully presented and the mushrooms had that almost meaty chewiness that I loved so much. The only draw back was the deepness of the bowl, which made it awkward to leverage the pasta without making a splash. This reminded me of a comment that I had read in Mimi Sheration’s book “Eating My Words,” which criticized modern restaurants for elevating artistic expression above ease during the dinning experience. The pasta course was paired with a Clos de la Vierge Sec, Barrere 2004, from Jurancon. I sensed that the intention was for the wine to echo the earthiness of the mushrooms and truffles. While the wine had a pleasant woodsy nose, on the palate it bloomed into a forest, which left me momentarily unable to taste much else. Since E didn’t have the same reaction, I had to attribute my perception to my recent and very unpleasant affair with a bottle of antibiotics, which gave me splinters from anything oak-aged.

The fish course was the ultimate surprise. We were offered what looked like perfectly lined up little toasties next to a small artful puddle of local patty pan squash with flowers. From presentation to taste, this was by far the winner of the evening. The sturgeon had the texture of very tender pork. The proscuitto imparted just the right amount of savoriness and was slightly crunchy from being lightly pan fried. The squash, oh my god the squash, was insanely tender and creamy from bathing in the subtle butter sauce. Perhaps because I was too taken by the perfect union of sturgeon and squash or perhaps I was still recovering from licking hardwood floor from the previous Barrere, the pairing of Vouvray, Domaine de Clos Nadin, Foreau 2001, from the Loire Valley didn’t leave much of an impression.

The meat course was the predictable treat of spring lamb for this time of year. The lamb was braised with spring onions, sweet peas and pork belly. I, for one, love anything with pork belly, so the dish hit all the right spots and was just hearty enough to satisfy all my desire for savories. The best part of this dish and, for me, the entire evening, was the pairing of the lamb with a Chateauneuf-du-pape, Domaine Usseglio 2003, from the Rhone Valley. The nose had ripe berries and a hit of earth. On the palate the berries were very pronounced with almost a bit of stewed fruit quality. The part that went so well with the lamb was the hint of mint, which is as classic as one can get with lamb.

The dessert courses followed. While they were pretty and delightfully light, they didn’t add too much more to the culinary enjoyment. They did, however, prolong our session at dinner, which as always, involved more laughing than sometimes I think I am able to handle. All I can say is that if I am lucky enough to keep my twin around, and if it’s true what they say about the effects of wine drinking and laughter on longevity, E and I will be a force to reckon with for a long long time to come.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Quest for Fruits

On the last day of a beautiful long weekend filled with outdoor activities, J and I finally managed to anchor ourselves at home to get some work done. The morning went by productively enough with only a few distracted moments during which we caught one another gazing longingly through gaps in the curtains dancing in the pleasant early summer breeze. By the afternoon, our convictions to stay at home started to waver as we found every excuse to visit the balcony and soak in the sun. The home-bound plan completely crumbled around 4 pm when J opened the fridge and declared that we needed to restock our fruit supply because all that’s left are mangos, oranges, and apples. Of course we must, I agreed. After all, we are fruit people who enjoy a great variety.

So at 4:30 pm, we drove out in our beloved sliver bullet, top down and no trunk space, with every intention to load up on lots of fresh fruits and veggies. Whole Foods soon passed on our left. We didn’t stop. After all, there is no sense shopping at a chain when there are abundant freshness for much cheaper at the farmer’s market. Then we passed the farmer market. What’s the point going into a covered market, when local farmers are offering bounties right off the many small highways all around Georgia. So at 5:15 pm, we found ourselves happily going down highway 20 towards Lake Oconee with image of a well-tanned smiling farmer waiting for us right at the lakeside with a huge basket of the early summer’s best picks in hand.

Half way to the lake, we decided to get off the highway and take the road less traveled. What awaited us was a small two lane highway with amazing view of lush grasslands on both sides dotted with lazy grazing cows colored cookies n’ cream. “There are so many of them! I wonder if they make cheese here,” I commented to J. My question was soon answered by a sign proudly claiming “Putnam, the diary capital of Georgia.” When the wind blew in the right direction, the smell of manure was unmistakable and further solidified my view that manure is a main component of the nose in a great majority of Bordeaux.

At 6 pm, two hours into our quest for fresh summer fruits, we saw water, green, calm, and specked with gold from the sun. Circling the Lake for a place to park, we passed a sign pointing to a Ritz on the water. Having seen the lake-facing view of the same Ritz onboard “big mama” being dragged behind E’s daddy’s boat at 30 miles per hour, I assured J that it’s deserving of a visit.

The building is decidedly old school with plenty of mahogany decorating the hall. Despite the less than breezy choice of wood, the view from the plenty of windows facing the lake is bright and soothing. Following the view, we found our way outside looking over the Ritz pool shimmering in the same shade of green as the lake beyond. Slightly elevated from the lake shore and cascading off the far side, the pool appeared to be flowing right into the lake, an illusion that we fully appreciated. Right next to the pool, a casual restaurant sent out tantalizing whiffs of fried seafood to beckon our patronage and we were in no condition to resist. A quick review of the wine list uncovered just the perfect cooling agent, a local Riesling from Persimmon Creek that I had tried and liked in my wine class. The menu was a mesh of bistro favorites and southern seaside grabs - all happy laidback offerings. J went for the ribs and fries, while I, true to my dedication to seafood, opted for the crabcakes and bass. The plates were enormous and the food did not let down the view if only a tad oily, but we are not ones to pick bones when the moment was this perfect. Not much talking went on during dinner, but smiles were seen flashed constantly across the table.

Finally, at 8:30 pm, we found ourselves back on highway 20 heading back to the metropolis that is now our home. In the full-on sunset that was then dyeing our slightly tanned skin an ultra attractive shade of bronze, I turned to J and said “wanna stop by Whole Foods to pick up some watermelon”?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

There is no neither here nor there here

It is puzzling why some restaurants serving so-so food in the most snobbish manner are packed on a Monday night, while lovely establishments offering truly blissful creations in the most cozy settings remain “hidden gems” for ages. Perhaps I am too old fashioned to understand the intricacies surrounding a place that exemplifies the “see and be seen” concept obsessed over by all the restaurateurs. When I step out to dine, all I am looking for is an over-the-top one-night stand with what’s on my plate and in my glass. For entertainment, I don’t usually have to look beyond my table where a “monkey” and/or “rat” is often animatedly retelling something more exciting than a page out of Arabian nights. On really special occasions, a “weasel” joins the circus and we could close down the house.

A true gem of a place is likely stumbled upon rather than sought out. Perhaps it’s because the threshold to dazzle is lowered significantly when one is not anxiously anticipating greatness. Even conscious of that fact, it was hard to discount the wow effect I experienced at Eurasia Bistro last weekend, when the first absent-minded bite of my bass is met by a custardy tenderness that seemed to disappear on my tongue. A closer examination in the candle light revealed a glistening chubby filet with the translucency of mother of pearl. Little bite-size escarole lightly sautéed in butter and a bit of sweet soy perfectly punctuated the richness of the fish.

Who knew a place that I had dismissed time and again for its unfortunate name, which generally signaled a cuisine that is neither here nor there, is capable of delivering a punch that almost knocked my socks off. Sure, it’s still not at the top echelon of culinary institutions, but for a neighborhood place that is never packed, Eurasia is like an understated yet elegant pearl necklace that will make a regular night out a special one.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Restoring faith when bad food happens to good people

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I am by no means a wise one, but I wonder if food poisoning shouldn’t be listed as an exception to that rule. The fact is food poisoning rarely kills, but while it runs its course, few could resist entertaining a couple of suicidal thoughts. And when it’s over, most carry on with some sort of phobia. Whether phobia and suspicion are characteristics of strength, I am not so sure.

Few years have passed since a tainted batch of seafood salad left me curled up on my living room floor, unable to go to bed, which was too far from the bathroom in the tiny New York apartment I then inhabited. The experience traumatized me so much, till this day, I avoid all mayo-centric salads that have not been prepared before my own eyes and try my best to keep unsuspecting love ones away from them. Try as I might, it seems that some lessons in life can’t be taught, but must be lived. After years of listening and ignoring my warnings about mayo-centric salads, J finally encountered his own bad batch this week.

Incapable of keeping anything in his body for an entire night and day, J was ravenously hungry by the next night fall but the thought of most foods turned his stomach into a knot. Troubled by this dilemma, I walked into whole foods searching for inspiration. As usual, the idea for dinner came to me at the seafood counter. Fish, when fresh, has very little smell that would trigger an offertory reaction. The delicate flesh is non-greasy when steamed and capable of taking on stomach-settling flavors such as those imparted by a strong ginger. Most of all, it is super nutritious and just the thing to restore a depleted body. Having my mind set on a steamed fish in a strong ginger broth, I selected a whole crocker to ensure freshness.

Once home, I pulled out the two ingredients that the Chinese have always used to prepare broth for the sick, a big piece of ginger and a bunch of spring onions. The ginger was thinly sliced and tucked either inside the body or into small slits scored on the sides of the fish. The idea was to infuse the flesh with a strong ginger flavor during the quick steaming session and allow formation of a gingery broth. The spring onions were sliced into large diagonal pieces and stuffed into the fish with the extra scattered on top. After an allover application of a simple concoction of salt, pepper, soy sauce, and rice cooking wine, the fish was lowered into a steamer rack placed over an inch of boiling water in a deep pot.

Fifteen minutes later, a bowl was taken to the weak in which the whole crocker rested on a bed of wilted fresh spinach with the gingery broth poured on top. J gave it a quick and suspicious sniff, thought about it for a second, then proceeded to devour three quarters of the offering. While it may be unlikely that he will go back to eating any kind of salad anytime soon, at least the fish has done its job ensuring him that food can also heal.