Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cooking and eating with gusto - crawfish boil

It's good to have friends. It's infinitely better to have friends who cart back 60 pounds of crawfish from their family farm and invite me over for a spontaneous boil in true convivial Louisiana style.

The subject of the feast were kicking vigorously in their temporary confinement when I arrived at the A's sun-drenched deck. A turkey fryer has been set up a few feet away from the crawfish and were already generating whiffs of the intoxicating spicy low country aroma. C laughed heartily to a guest inquiring whether she kills the crustaceans. "Oh no honey. We don't kill them! We just boiling them"!!! We all fell back in laughter. As always, C's energy and enthusiasm for a good time infected us all in no time and got the party started.
Time passed quickly in merriment. Before we know it, the little things turned bright orange red in the big pot and were transferred to a cooler for more seasoning, which I was asked to add "aggressively." After a few minutes of steaming, we got what we came for - a feast.
For those uninitiated, C gave a hands-on demonstration on proper peeling techniques as well as sucking methods for getting to the tasty brain bits in the head ("with gusto"). (I reserve this space for the lady herself to provide the instructions.) I patted myself on the back for having had the foresight to dress in a red print. This was messy eating at its best and no one should expect to come out unspotted, not unless one intends to have no fun at all. I certainly had fun, having ate for a straight four hours as shells piled up like little mountains in front of me. C and C, the super gracious hosts, never got tired of the boiling, seasoning, and distributing routine. I waddled out of their place to a setting sun, full as a drum and content as the laughing Buddha.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Little bits of tasty things for lunch - Restaurant: Spice Market

A bahm mi from Buford highway is certainly a tasty bargain, but it requires quite a drive from my downtown office and lacks somewhat in the atmosphere department. The bento box at Spice Market, on the other hand, isn't dirty cheap at sixteen dollars, but deserves to be honored as a great lunch bargain. The various nibbles in combination with the setting delivered on taste, presentation, atmosphere, and the possibility of a wine pairing (when one is not expected to return to work or at least to work effectively). And if the above photo doesn't convince you of the value here, they also throw in a great house-made box of ice cream. Now, that's value!

At a recent birthday lunch, I was surprised and impressed by the elaborate ceiling treatment and the live bamboo and orchid details scattered throughout the space. Considering that it is located inside a fairly old building in the area, the decor succeeded at reminding me of some upscale colonial Singaporean venues.

For food, I chose the pork skewer bento box. An actual box did not materialize. Instead, I received a combination of nibbles presented in little plates and bowls on a platter. The abundant sunlight made photo taking somewhat difficult, but certainly enhanced the tropical feeling. My pork skewers on the left were very tender and well seasoned with a hint of sweetness. The only thing missing was a bit of the charcoal grilled street flavor I so adore. The pickled cauliflower in the center were light and refreshing. The miso-based soup included a wonton. It was flavorful, but the wonton wrapper was a tad bit thick for my liking. One the right side, there was the avocado salad with fried onion rings. I liked both for their lightness and contrast with the sour sweet sauce under the avocado. The cod on Malaysian chilli sauce on the bottom right took the honor for being my favorite on the platter. The cut of cod was deceivingly similar to a large scallop, but the texture was very different, being much more fatty, which I love. The cod was lightly seasoned, the right thing to do considering the abundance of umami flavor in the chilli sauce. The color and texture of the sauce resembled that of a tapenade, but the flavor profile was very different. For one, there was the unmistakable chilli padi taste that is very southeast Asia. (This is probably a good place to say that going to Spice Market should not be viewed as a trip to taste authentic Southeast Asian food. For that you might as well save some money and head to Penang on Buford highway, which is where my Singaporean half of the family go when they are in town. Jean Georges, to his credit, doesn't claim to present authentic foods from the region, but rather strives to provide his own takes on foods inspired by those flavors. For one who is not into fusion food, I have to say that his stuff at Spice Market were executed with style and skill. I might as well also add here that I like this place so much better than its model-mobbed sibling in New York. There is something to be said for being able to enjoy ones food in peace sans a scene.

The dessert, as mentioned earlier, came in the form of a pint sized Chinese takeout box. You have a choice between sorbet and ice cream. Let's just say that I can't comprehend why anyone would get sorbet when there is the option of ice cream. I got Vietnamese coffee as my flavor and very much appreciate the pronounced, but not overwhelming coffee flavor tempered with a good dose of condensed milk. Yum.

Spice Market
188 14th St. NE
Atlanta, GA 3030

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Baby pig not safe here - restaurant: CityZen (DC)

I have a love hate relationship with DC. I hate the traffic and streets that refuse to go straight (squares may have been a good idea when horses dominated the roads, but they are terrible for regulating aggressive automobiles). I have a hard time dealing with the grumpy people stuck in traffic, whose collective grumpiness even show on their license plates, which proudly coins the essence of DC as "taxation without representation." One the other hand, I love the gazillion free museums, the sea of spring cherry blossoms around Lincoln memorial, and blue crab season near the Chesapeake bay. These were loves developed during my teenage years living in the area when I had no money to experience the finer things. Now that I have a bit more spare cash, the love side has begun to outweigh the hate side with every good meal in the capital.

CityZen provided the best bite on my recent trip in what is arguably one of the best bargain meals of the year. Tucked behind a wall on one side of the Madarin Oriental Hotel, CityZen wowed with its impressive spacial scale, but warmed with a comfortable elegance. I opt to sit at the bar, having already made up my mind to try the three course bar tasting menu.

The bar was no less impressive. In fact, the architecturally interesting band of fire behind the bar illuminated the bottle display and mesmerized me during much of the meal.
Settling in with a glass of bubbly, I nibbled on a cute mushroom fritter sent out by the chef. Nothing remarkable here, just comforting shroom flavor captured in a fluffy bite.
I went whole hog this night, literally, starting with a crispy tete de cochon. As the server so honestly and eloquently put, this was essentially head cheese deep fried with a thin coating. Since I love the porky pig and all things gelatinous, especially those from pork cheeks, I waited for this plate with great expectation. CityZen not only met my expectations, it exceeded them. The coating was crunchy, but not too thick. The head cheese held together beautifully with bits of the glistening jelly interburst throughout the cheek meat. It was lip-sticking good. Another great element of the dish was the little poached quail egg sitting on top. It had a perfectly runny yoke that ended up coating the already rich bites with an additional layer of richness. I imagine a whole chicken egg yoke would have been too rich, so the quail egg was just perfect.

Had the meal progressed directly to dessert from the rich appetizer, I would have been satisfied. But I said I went whole hog earlier, so the rest of the porky pig was still to come. Boy did it come. Behold the best bite of the evening at the top of the post, a braised shoulder of Kanagy farms shoat with russet potato gnocchi and spring peas and asparagus. I couldn't have conjured up a better dish for pork-loving me even in my dreams. All my favorite elements were present. A nice fatty cut of pork, oh yeah! And it's from a shoat, a baby pig. Sounds cruel, but I am Chinese, we eat baby things and love them. This dish reminded me of one I had at Bouchon in Vegas almost a year ago. But this version tops the Bouchon pork shoulder with the shoat tenderness factor and the very very light gnocchi. It would have been very easy to eat plates of the gnocchi without stopping. Luckily there was the rich shoat shoulder to distract me. Then of course, my favorite veggies. Nothing beats spring peas and asparagus when they are at their peak and they were here. All around, just wonderful.

It's not a proper end unless there was dessert, which I chose to have with a banyul. The server delivered the Pave of Valrhona chocolate sans foam to the bar then proceeded to put it on. I was very tempted to stop him, but held my tongue. Truth be told, I am a little tired of foam. It has this way of distracting from the main event without delivering much impact on its own. In this case, it made the photo come out bad, but did no other harm. It was minty and played nice with the warm chocolate. The whole combination was tasty and well executed. I just wished that Cityzen would break away from the warm Valrhona chocolate cake/tart/pave norm and do something original.

All in all, for fifty dollars, this bar tasting menu was pretty unbeatable at one of the top tables in DC.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Favorite Restaurant Pasta - Agnolotti - Restaurant: La Tavola

If I see agnolotti on the menu, I order it. The trouble is I don't see it often. Overshadowed by the popular ravioli and tortellini, the half moon shaped agnolotti is like the ignored step sister of Italian filled pastas. Maybe for that reason, I particularly want to love it and the version at La Tavola more than justifies my affection.

Wonderfully flexible, La Tavola allows me to order the agnolotti in appetizer size, leaving room for a second appetizer, and of course dessert. The little ones came four in a pack, resembling more of Chinese dumplings than their Italian siblings. The half moon shape provided a balanced ratio of toothsome shell to innards. In this case, the innards composed of a well-seasoned combination of very tender braised beef and veal. The sauce of thyme and butter formed a luxuriously sticky coating, which was cleverly counter balanced by an acidic red wine reduction. the appetizer portion was perfect for satisfying a craving while still leaving me wanting.

I followed up with a second appetizer of mussels steamed with tomatoes, red onions, parsley, oregano, and thyme. The liquid had the right amount of tang and savoriness without overwhelming the taste of the chubby mussels. Amazingly, each mussel stayed in its own shell with no absentee or random floater.

Satisfied but not stuffed, I demanded the homemade ice cream of the day. Not lacking in butter fat content, the generous scoops provided a pleasantly creamy and cool ending to a very enjoyable and relaxing meal.

With a good selection of half bottles to accompanying a not overly indulging meal for two, La Tavola remains one of my favorite places for an unhurried dinner with someone good for a chat.

La Tavola
992 Virginia Ave.
Atlanta, GA 30306