Thursday, April 30, 2009

Highlight #169: Slightly ugly food - Restaurant: Terra Terroir

Most of the time when someone suggests a restaurant to try here in Atlanta, I have at least heard of it. But not this time. G and A wanted to meet up on Terra Terroir's back patio and I drew a blank. A google search pulled up a restaurant in Brookheaven, an area I don't venture into very often.

When we drove to the address, we found a stripe mall with no back patio worthy property in sight. I did, however, spot the restaurant sign next to a Raid Aid.

After checking in, we were indeed led to a sizable back patio complete with a waterfall as a centerpiece. It was quite the stunning setting considering the facade. How they managed to do this on the backside of a stripe mall is quite intriguing.

The patio was not entirely full on this warm Friday evening, but it still took about a sold fifteen minutes for us to get our first drink. That pace of service continued throughout the night and no one at the other tables seemed to notice, so maybe it's just me and my quickened heart beat from my sped up work schedule.

G and A weren't that hungry, so we shared only a single appetizer. When the above grilled mushroom was dropped off without a word of explanation quite a while after ordering, I almost didn't recognize it. It was, well, slightly ugly in the dark gray sauce. We had no individual plates for our own portions, so resorted to hacking up the large caps on the main plate. It was not a pretty scene, but the taste was surprisingly okay. A little acidic and sweet from balsamic vinegar and a little musky in a good mushroomy way.

A heard that their buffalo meatloaf is the most popular item on the menu, so us girls decided to share it. Again, it arrived very unadorned, but actually photoed much better with my camera's flash than it looked in person in the fading light. The loaf was super loose and began to fall apart as soon as we tried to cut it. The flavor was mild but pleasantly seasoned with just a hint of sweetness. For a meatloaf it was very light to eat and we finished everything. However, I couldn't identify any distinct buffalo or beef flavor.

We were recommended the bread pudding as dessert. This was really meh. I can't recall anything about the taste other than that it was somewhat warm when served.

J was on a chocolate roll, so we also ordered this cake, which was a bit dry.

Terra Terroir
3974 Peachtree Rd.
Atlanta, 30319

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Highlight #168: dough v. dough - Restaurant: Varasano

Wanna take a guess first which one came from Varasano and which from Fritti?

Dirty from Dirty South Wine did and he was half right. I say half because I sort of mixed things up. The first of the whole pies is from Varasano, while it is the second of the upskirt shots that is the result of V's hot oven.

So let's examine each of these shots closely, shall we? As mentioned above, the first shot is that of V's pie, specifically, it is that of his most popular Nana's. Quite attractive, I must say. There appears to be a very good balance of cheese to sauce and, of course, there are those seductive char marks on the rim. Judging from the irregular shape and the slightly thicker crust, the style is rustic.

In comparison, here is Fritti's pie. I apologize for not picking a simpler version that shows the crust more. This is our regular joint, so the husband gets to pick what he wants and he likes a good balance of veggie on his pie. Luckily, the fresh arugula is tossed on post baking, so doesn't really affect the moisture level in the crust. From what's shown, you can still see that the dough is pulled thinner and more evenly here. It's also less aggressively charred.

The underside shot of Fritti's pie confirms that the new (well not so new anymore) pizza man had solved the soggy bottom problem of old. The thin crust shows handsomely darkened bubbles from the brick oven. The taste benefits from the brick contact in that the dough is at the same time yielding and crunchy. While some have voiced that the sauce is a bit sweet here, I quite enjoy the mild flavor, which on our pie counters the bite of the arugula.

I had heard reports about V's pie being soggy at the center, but this shot shows that is also not a problem here anymore. Unlike Fritti's more evenly colored bottom, the V pie shows a splattering of charred spots. The crust also looks to have been fired at a higher temperature and seem somewhat drier than the Fritti pie's bottom. The taste matches the visual observations. The crust is indeed drier than that of Fritti's pie in a more chewy and stretchy way. While I of all people really enjoy a good chew, it was a bit too much as I had to pull the crust away from my mouth while biting down on it. The sauce is not at all sweet, but more assertively salty. I like salt, but also appreciate a little more sweetness for balance. The cheese is obviously of high quality, so there is no bone to pick there.

At the end of the day, pizza preference is a very personal thing. While both pies are what this city can be proud of, I am more partial to the softer dough and less aggressively fired version at my neighborhood place, Fritti.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Highlight #167: Popped over for popovers - Restaurant: BLT Steak

Everyone who's heard of BLT knows about the free popover, which is really why I come over here to eat. But this trip was prompted by J, not me. You see, J is not a steak all the time kind of guy. But once in a while, the craving hits, and when it does, he NEEDS a fix. This time he said, why don't we try something new (normally we head to Rathbun Steak). So to BLT Steak we went.

Service here is worthy of a good steakhouse and comparable to Bone's, which I hold as the golden standard for the best and most consistent service in this town. The servers at BLT were warm, but not aggressive, always attentive, but never hovering. It's an art, this service thing. When it works, it's a beautiful thing.

The popovers came out pipping hot and did not disappoint. You may think that for them to be so big, they'd be hollow in the middle, but that is not at all the case. These are dense things. Each one is hefty enough for breakfast but it's easy to eat a whole one. J did just that before the appetizer. Seriously, how the man manages to not have an ounce of extra fat on him, I will never know.
A dish of seared scallops was on the daily special menu. I love scallops and haven't had any in awhile, so this was the obvious choice. The scallops were naturally sweet and not cooked too done. Enough butter went into the polenta to achieve the very creamy and luxurious mouth feel. But something was missing, maybe a little salt and pepper. It just was short a little oomph to get the dish to the highest level.

J's steak was nothing short of beautiful in looks, perfectly charred and crusty. Medium rare as orders, there was no bone to pick with this one. Although, I have to say that Rathbun Steak's ribeye still edges this out by a hair, if only because of the more aggressive salting and the fattier, therefore, juicier pieces near the bone (I always ask the husband to share those pieces and, like a good spouse, he always obliges. )

J was in charge of sides this time and he quickly fell for the specials of risotto and fiddlehead fern. As if cream was not enough, the risotto was also completely covered in cheese. For that, nothing bad can be said about it, except, again, for the slight lack of salt. Salt, however, was not a problem with the fiddlehead fern, which seemed to have robbed the other dishes for it.

J had been in a chocolate phase, so we ordered the dense flour less dessert, which tasted of wonderful high quality chocolate. The meringue was made with skill, fluffy and lightly toasty. Not being the biggest chocolate dessert fan, I was happy.

BLT Steak
Downtown W

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Highlight #166: The noodle that never ends - Restaurant: Noodle Loft (Beijing)

I was determined to make it here while in Beijing for the "single noodle bowl" So on our second day in the city, with three hours of sleep and between meetings, I made it with a few other hungry souls.

They weren't kidding when the said "single noodle." There is only one noodle that curls around and around in the bowl. Being the short girl, I am really not the right model for this, but you get the idea.
Before I jump ahead to the noodles, let me first say a few words about the other dishes here because they were really excellent, even though the noodles are the draw. We were recommended a potato salad, which sounded odd because it was described as being slightly pickled. Indeed, the pickling was clearly evident in both the color and the slight tangy taste. The pickling also completely changed the character of the potato. Instead of tasting starchy or creamy as in many western salads, the thin potato stripes were crunchy and refreshing. This was truly an appetite inducing starter.
When traveling in China, one complaint I hear a lot from guys who are used to eating large pieces of meat is that there aren't enough meat in the Chinese diet, at least not the kind that you can get to without working hard (as in getting the meat off little bones). So to help supplement their meat deprived diet, I ordered a plate of little meatballs. Tender on the inside and crunchy on the outside, these were addictive to pop into the mouth. The sauce reminded me of salted caramel with a hit of soy sauce. The combination may sound odd, but it turned out very good.

I also ordered a dish that's my grandpa's favorite and comes in two parts. The wet part was a meat stew base that dangled from a mini hot pot over a lit canister to keep it boiling. The dry part consisted of these pretzel like pieces that can be eaten as is or dumped into the pot.

Our preference was into the pot. The key to eating this is to remember fishing out the the pretzel pieces before they got completely soggy when they are softened on the outside but still crunchy within. Plenty of other goodies also floated in the pot including battered and fried rib bits and various veggies.

As for the noodles, there were at least a dozen basic shapes to choose from, which are made fresh from dough balls after one orders. The available shapes include the single noodle seen above, free hand knife carved stripes, little ears rolled out using chopsticks, hand pulled, hand twisted from mung bean dough, and a lot of other possibilities. Each bowl is 12 Chinese yuan, which coverts to about $1.75. That's a deal in any book.

Once the shape has been decided, one can either go watch the noodle being made in the open kitchen smack in the center of the room or contemplate the various sauces, ranging from the more basic soy-based to fried meat sauce to tomato and egg sauce. The last one sounds strange, but apparently works very well with the meat sauce.

Here is an already mixed bowl of mung bean hand twists, which won the overall highest score at our table. Because of the bean addition, the noodles took on a different texture, which is more absorbent than a regular flour-based noodle, but still resilient. We mixed in both the basic soy sauce and the fried meat sauce that yielded excellent results.

For the free hand carved ones we went with an aged vinegar combination. These stripes were ultra slippery in texture thanks to the very smooth surfaces created by the sharp knife action. Because I enjoy the chew, these were always up there for me in term of how much fun they are to eat. But they don't quite absorb the sauce as much, so one must mix in condiments with a heavy hand.

The single noodle was an experience to play with, but very hard to eat. We spent lot of time just trying to get a section from the tangled up strand. It also absorbed the least amount of sauce because it virtually had no pores for anything to cling to. I am glad that we tried it, but probably won't get it again based on taste.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Highlight #165: Not a looker, but tastes great - Restaurant: Old Vinings Inn

I have seriously neglected this blog in the last week and half. But when every long day this week has been spent writing a brief and citing cases, it's very hard to squeeze out extra time for more writing. So before I get to more on Shanghai and Beijing, which requires much more effort, I'll just put in a word for the Old Vinings Inn.

J and I popped by for a very late brunch last week because Canoe, which J originally wanted to go to was not open on Saturday. I have only eaten here once before at night, when the old house was under the cover of darkness. In bright day light, it's really showing its age. Everything creaked a little inside and the bathroom fixture looked seriously dated.

I was starving at 2pm and immediately got hooked on the meatloaf. Expecting a more traditional ketchup topped loaf, the onion gravy drenched mass of food totally took me by surprise. It didn't look all that great in its shades of brown. But looks can be deceiving. This turned out to be one darn good meatloaf, admittedly very different from the traditional. The loaf itself was very loose, which provided just the right soaking forum for the tasty gravy. Just slightly sweet, the onion note of the gravy is very strong, but in a desirable way. I fed some to J to ensure that the we'd both smell the same later.

Old Vinings Inn
3011 Paces Mill Road
Atlanta, GA 30339

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Highlight 164: More than Chinese food in Shanghai - Restaurant: Komaya

Chinese are adventurous eaters and as such are rewarded with interesting eats from around the world. With the sizable Japanese expat crowd in Shanghai came some pretty authentic Japanese izakaya eats. Take this salmon soft bone bowl, it probably would have been shunned by diners at most main stream American Japanese places, but in Shanghai, the dinner crowd ordered up with gusto. This is a textual dish. Most who enjoy it find the crunchy chew addictive.

Having spent less than a week together this month, J and I were in the mood for a bit of celebrating, just for being in the same city. So he ordered one of his favorite fun-drinking sake, the "man mountain." The name always makes me laugh. Here, they are serious about sake service. Check out this cool contraption! It gets an ice core inserted in the middle to keep the sake cool throughout.

The sake steamed clams are quite refreshing, thanks to the abundance of shredded ginger.

These sweet shrimps are just awesome. So fresh, they were still moving at the table. The waitress waited for us to pull off the head, which she then took back to the kitchen for grilling. Later we got to savor the charred heads with our sukiyaki.

Here is the sukiyaki already divided into individual bowls. The meat is super tender and the broth very flavorful.

Because the owner knows our friend, we received a bonus dish of puffed salmon skins. Very crunchy and salty like grease less cracklings.

We ordered more than one yakitori, but most were devoured quickly and didn't stick around for photos. The pork skewer I managed to rescue from J was awesome. Very very juicy and fatty. :)

The large squid was cooked well, so every piece managed to stay tender.

The last thing served was my favorite, a large chicken meat ball. It's nice to eat eggs that are so orange at the yoke again. The pale yellow American pasteurized variety simply cannot match in flavor. Nothing beats the meatball broken into pieces and dipped in the egg yoke and washed down with good sake.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Highlight 163: the ultimate street eat - Yang's Fried Dumplings

If you followed Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservation to Shanghai, then you have seen Yang's Fried Dumplings. But Bourdain is hardly the one who discovered this hole in the wall. It has been a major draw for hundreds of tourists many years before the arrival of the bad boy chef.

There is nothing glamorous about this place. A few steps down from the walking street, a group of workers scoped and wrapped a seasoned pork paste into wrappers that they stretched on the fly from little balls of dough at lightening speed.

When there are enough to fill a heavy cast iron pan, the buns are packed tightly into hot oil and put on a large flame to fry. When the bottom is sufficiently browned, one of the cook splashes a few cups of water onto the buns and put on a lid.

A short steaming produces these hot buns that are sold by the kilo.

One can either take the buns to go or eat in. The few downstairs tables are always packed, but for the ones in the know, there is a much roomier upstairs dining area up a set of very narrow, very old, and very steep wooden stairs. On each table is a small teapot containing a very potent aged vinegar that is perfect with the buns, once you figure out how to eat without splashing everyone sitting with you. This is a tough task since the buns are much bigger and heavier than the regular soup buns and the fried bottom does not yield to the chopsticks, making it very hard to get a good grip. I was lucky to have worn black as my group of five splashed more than three times and we are all born chopstick users. :)

While not billed as soup buns, these have plenty of juices on the inside thanks to the abundance of lard and meat jelly in the filling. The porkiness tasted exceedingly wonderful with the tempered tanginess of the dark vinegar. But most of all, I love the wrapper as I am a dough girl. Crunchy and charred, the bottom shows strong contrast to the fluffy and slightly chewy top. It's as enjoyable texturally as it is tasty dipped in the vinegar. Despite the tourists, this hole in the wall is always a worthwhile stop in this ever changing city.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Highlight 162: More elegant eats (Shanghai)

Besides the street style eats, Shanghai is also full of white table clothes establishments. Some are more style over substance, but there are many that are indeed very good. Jade garden is one of the later. It specializes in Shanghainese dishes and do them very well.

We started our dinner with our friend's favorite cold dish - a soy abalone. I am not really a fan of soy imitation products, but this one was very likable. Primarily it's a dish one eats for the very interesting toothsome texture.

The classic preserved vegetable was surprisingly mild compared to the too-salty ones often found in grocery stores. The soy base had a hint of sweetness that really worked well with the slight fermented flavor.

The smoke goose was very lean, but not pasty. The roasting process must have been very well controlled to produce the tender mouth feel.

The stewed beef with daikon looked much lighter and leaner than the versions I've eaten before, which is probably a reflection of the current trend for healthier dishes. Unfortunately, the overall taste was also less intense and luxurious.

The stewed soy tofu on the other hand was absolutely wonderful. Each large ball of almost liquidy tofu was breaded and lightly fried before its introduction to the hot pot. As such, the hot tofu balls had a slightly chewy skin that, when broken, released hot pools of flavorful tofu liquid. Without a warning label, this is mighty dangerous but very delicious stuff.

We chose the prized seasonal river "rock" fish. This is one of the few river fishes that do not have that distinct fishy or muddy smell. Rather, the flesh was of a pristine white and very very refreshing in taste.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get a photo of the crab rice while it was still in the lotus leaf wrapping. The server was simply too fast in dividing up the portions. Let me tell you, this stuff was down right outrageous. Each grain of rice was so imbued with flavor, it burst in the mouth to release the most intense crab essence. The abundance of crab pieces also had plenty of bright orange roe clinging to them and rewarded our effort to get to the meat with each mouthful.

Of course, we had to get the soup buns at every Shanghainese meal. These were of the thinner skin type that is pretty much the norm now.
I took this close up to show this superb example of a thin skinned soup bun. Translucent, the thin, but resilient skin was see through under the light and revealed the plentiful soup inside. The filling did not disappoint either. Plenty porky and mighty savory, it rendered the aged vinegar served on the side completely unnecessary.

Dessert was my friend's favorite custard buns. Custard buns can be found everywhere in Shanghai, but my friend claims these his favorite and I can see why. The bun was so full of the intensely eggy stuff, it threatened to split open under the lightest pressure. The custard ranged from liquidy in the middle to a very smooth paste towards the bun skin. Hot from the steamer, these were as good as custard buns get.

I have so many more meals to cover, it will take a long time before I can catch up. Hopefully I can manage to get a few out this week, but the amount of work that I have piled up may completely destroy that plan. I'll try my best, but no promises...