Saturday, October 27, 2007

The best kind of birthday gifts - wonderful edible nibbles

October is a complicated time around these parts. It's a time to remember a great loss, a loved one much missed. But the month always manages to end on a wonderful note, because, well, I turn a year older this month. And love pours in through my mailbox all month long, in edible forms of course. :)

First to show up was a bag of Garrett's potent popcorn mix from Chicago. Cheddar cheese and caramel may not sound like the dream combination. But Garrett has turned it into an art form. Lightly salty, deeply cheesy, and punched up with a good dose of sweetness. Yum!

Next came a little wooden crate of John & Kira's chocolate covered figs from Philadelphia. These little guys keep a wonderful secret. underneath the Valrhona chocolate robe and the thin fig skin reside a big ball of ganache filling. Silky and smooth. I love little surprises!

Then came my new obsession, Fran's caramels. The precious little gems waltzed into my life via two day air from Seattle and instantly took over my heart. Studded with a little pinch of gray or smoked sea salt, each caramel delivers the ultimate burst of savory, creamy, and sweet. I have no idea why, but every time I take a nibble, I feel as if I am smelling crispy autumn sea air on a cliff with a buttered rum in hand.

Last but most definitely not least, came the love of my life. I may covet the caramels, I may become infatuated with tiny figs, but I will always always LOVE the macarons. This year, these cute representatives came wrapped in what else, but the prettiest boxes covered in polka dots (another obsession). L. A. Burdick in New Hampshire actually calls these Luxembourgers. No matter, they are what they are, delicate little macarons (not macaroons) in my favorite autumn flavors of pumpkin, cinnamon, and of course chocolate for good measure. About the size of a silver dollar, the cinnamon puff quickly became my favorite for how it disappears on the tongue like a tiny piece of cloud, cloud that tastes like the holidays - of cinnamon, cream, and warmth.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Best bites this year (Part II)

4. Grilled ostrich fillet at Five Flies in Cape Town, South Africa - Before I even get to the food, I am compelled to tell you a little about the restaurant. A deceivingly small white-washed building off a quiet street in the heart of Cape Town is home to Five Flies. Immediately upon stepping inside the heavy wooden door, I could feel something special in the air. The unusually high ceiling and wide-planked dark wood floor betray the building's past life as an exclusive colonial club. Many entrance ways open into the foyer, but none so directly as to reveal the rooms and alleys within. One entrance led us to a set of stairs on the side of a beautiful courtyard. A few well-linened tables for two glowed romantically in the candle light under trees that seem to reach, in my memory, all the way to the clearing at the roof of the building. We had a drink at an old school mahogany bar upstairs, while a tall and handsome bartender with ocean blue eyes told small jokes.

Our table was in a private room at a corner of the downstairs dinning room. We had the choice to pick our own courses to construct a three course menu for less than $30. It's a beautiful thing when the dollar is actually strong against the local currency. I didn't come half a world away to eat T-bone, so ostrich seemed like a natural choice. What was presented to me was a revelation. The lean fillet had been expertly grill to a perfect medium rare. Each bite was tender, but greaseless so unlike a steak. Some pan-fried mushrooms tucked under the fillet provided a bit of earthiness to match the pleasant gaminess of the ostrich. The exclamation mark was the pool of port jus. It was assertive without being overpowering. The plate was a harmonious marriage of local ingredients that enhanced each other when eaten together.

5. Pan seared scallops on curried lentils with blueberry glaze at Helene Darroze in Paris - Helene Darroze was the second three stared Michelin restaurant I've eaten at. Actually, it's technically the first, since Le Meurice had yet to receive its third star when I visited last year. Both restaurants offered some of the best and most unique bites I've ever had. It is truly a wonderful coincidence that both also gained their final golden star together in the red book this year.

While Le Meurice extrudes elegant old world refinement like Cathrine Deneuve lounging in a soft cashmere sweater, Helene Darroze shines with a modern edginess akin to Vanessa Paradis walking the red carpet in one of her unusual Chanel couture. This scallops dish exemplified the confidence that is so sexy about Darroze as a brilliant female chef. The flavor combinations were new and different, but well-calculated to balance each other. Backing that up with precise cooking that took the scallops to just off the raw edge, the lentils to just over crunchy, and the blueberry glaze to just thin enough to drizzle smoothly, Darroze created a plate that was a master piece to feast the eyes as well as the palate.

6. Sometimes the best food on earth is the homey fare lovingly prepared in my own orange kitchen and shared with friends. I made this prime rib roast last Christmas after days of marinating and fed it to the teethed members of E's family while little Luke watched us longingly from his boaster seat. Maybe this year, he could gnaw on something I make.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Best bites this year (Part I)

October finds me a year older. Being the strange cookie that I am, I still look forward to turning the page on the calendar year after year. I also enjoy spending some alone time to reflect on the days gone by. Food often plays a major part during that reflection as they are intertwined with my memories of happy times, sad times, and all the times in between.

This year, I found myself revering in the wonderful memories of the terrific tastes that have hit my palate, many of them undocumented on this blog due to my laziness. I thought it would be fun to put together a best bites list to show off all my unused photos. This best bites list is not in any order because, well, I don't keep things in order in my mind. It is also because I am incredibly lazy during my free time. I intend to list three bites at a time. I'll stop when the good eats run out.

1. Pretzel bar from the Chocolate Bar in nyc
The photo above shows the loaded shelf inside the tiny store. The folks there have concocted a dizzying range of nostalgic bars with creative artsy wrappers. My absolute favorite is the pretzel bar, a beautiful combination of salty and crunchy pretzel bites encased in rich dark chocolate.

2. Grilled Hamachi cheek from Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta
What separates a truly talented chef from the mere mortal is the chef's ability to show restraint when faced with great ingredients. In this case, Chef Linton Hopkins prescribed light grilling that brought out the natural creaminess of the hamachi cheek. The yuzu-based dipping sauce added just a bit of fruity acidity to cut through the fattiness.

3. Pan-fried hairy crab soup dumpling from the Whampoa Club in Shanghai
Chef Justin Leung ingeniously hid the aged dark rice vinegar inside the pork dumpling, creating a soup dumpling of sort. The sticky porky mixture oozed out in dramatic fashion with my first bite to flavor the thick sauce laden with the most robust hairy crab roe underneath. For those who know how much hairy crab roe cost in Shanghai and how much cholesterol it contains, the decadence of this dish is astounding and exemplifies the spirit of old Shanghai.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Where the little fishes are plump (New York restaurant: Otto)

If the phrase "Anchovy pizza" conjures up images of hairy brown creatures swimming in little pools of oil on a Domino's pie, you, my friend, have been denied one of the greatest taste pleasures your mouth could ever hope to experience. One remedy for this deficiency would involve a trip to Otto, Mario Batali's cozy pizzeria in New York, preferably for brunch. Without the loud evening wine bar scene, the terracotta/red hued interior, bathed in sunlight from the large windows, extrudes warmth and happiness, the perfect atmosphere for a lazy Sunday brunch.

I am not going to tell you that Otto makes the best pizza in New York, at least not the style of pizza that defines New York. Otto's version exhibits more characters of Italy than those of its resident city. The crust is crisp thin, incapable of the New York fold. It is, however, well charred and serves as the perfect non-distracting vessel for the bright flavors on top. The Otto tomato sauce is distinctly fresh tasting. The vibrant color alone is enough to get me salivating, but it's the sharp acidity that really cuts into and balances the richness of the cheeses.

While a plain cheese pie is a wonder on its own, the anchovy version takes the taste sensation to another level. The plump Italian anchovies adorning the Otto pie come preserved in good olive oil. They bear no resemblance to those tinned hairy bits of the same name found in the canned food aisle of your local supermarket. The heat of the brick oven turns the chubby little guys to an almost melty texture inside, so when your teeth break the fire-crisped skin, the creamy flesh squirt out and deposits a good dose of warm salty juice on your tongue. Ahh... Heaven!
Of course, you can't go to Otto without also trying the excellent gelatos. Get the option that allows you three flavors in one chilled goblet. My favorite is the caramel. Otto doesn't make the salted caramel version that I lust for in my dreams, but I do ask for a bit of good sea salt to put on it myself. The combination is sublime, if not quite out of this world like the salted caramel scoop from Berthillon in Paris. The most unique flavor at Otto has to be the olive oil. It pretty much tastes like wonderful olive oil in sweet and frozen form. Hard to imagine, I know, but incredible nonetheless.