Dec 31, 2009

Book Review: Jay Rayner's The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner

For the last few years, my favorite TV show has been Top Chef. So when I saw they were going to air a version of Top Chef called Top Chef Masters, featuring iconic, award-winning chefs competing against each other and being judged by equally well-established food critics... I couldn't set the DVR fast enough.

Oddly, while the chefs' performances didn't help them live up to the hype, I found the critics were definitely worth their salt. It was fun listening to them eloquently shower compliments on the great dishes and humorously, almost disdainfully rip on the bad ones - almost seeming to relish the opportunity to put these seasoned chefs-cum-mega restaurateurs in their place when it became obvious their time spent rubbing elbows with the rich and famous had degraded their skills in the kitchen.

One of the judge critics was Jay Rayner, of The Observer, an experienced critic and - maybe  more importantly - a Brit... one of a group of people who've dispalyed an inborn talent for dry-witted criticism.

After enjoying his performance on TCM, I decided to give his latest book a try: The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner. It's a quick read that takes its readers on a journey they could only experience through the eyes of a renowned, experienced restaurant critic.

Rayner starts out explaining his goal: to find the perfect meal. He has a problem, though, which is the paradoxical plight of all well-established food critics, having two parts: 1) that because of his recognition in the industry, he is no longer in a position to fairly judge whether the cuisine he is served is indicative of the food typically served there, and 2) because of the cushy expense account that covers the cost of his meals, his appreciation for the foods he eats is stunted because he did not, in fact, pay for it.

While relenting that there wasn't much of anything he could do to change the fact that he would be recognized nearly everywhere he went, Rayner makes the bold decision to pay his own money at each restaurant along the way. Nothing, he says, makes us measure the happiness we have gained from our purchases quite like handing over the credit card to a grinning cashier, clerk or waiter. I'm cheap. I hate spending money. So I couldn't agree more.

The stories of dinners eaten, the settings in which and company with which they are consumed, are recounted through a game of global leap frog. Rayner begins in Las Vegas and describes the history of the city and its culinary transformation. From the home of the two dollar buffet to what is now one of the most extravagant culinary centers of the world, the restaurant scene in Las Vegas, he says, is no different from the rest of the glitz and glam. Yes, there is great food to be eaten, but not the perfect meal. The restaurants and their offerings are more about the show (and, thus, the price) than what one normally seeks in dinner.

Next stop is odd to me, as I've never heard anything about it in terms of being one of the top food destinations of the world: Moscow. Rayner is a descendent or Russian Jews so he winds up here with a quest to answer whether deep within him, his soul is yearning for the foods of his heritage. The answer: no. In fact, he doesn't enjoy much of anything he eats while in Moscow, and at this point in the book, I find myself wondering whether this trip to Moscow was fueled by other motives, not explained to the reader. Moscow apparently has little to offer the scene of the world's best food, which isn't a surprise, so why'd he go there?

The third stop, Dubai, is equally fishy for several reasons. First, Dubai is the new Las Vegas. It's an entertainment Mecca in the middle of nowhere. Its focus is more on the extravagant than true quality (and to be honest, it hasn’t even developed a food focus near what Vegas has so far). Secondly, due to predominant religious views in that area, there are strict preparation guidelines regarding meat which completely cripple the restaurants in what is, to many people, the most important element of a special meal. Third, due to its remote location, everything must be flown in which doesn't necessarily disable its restaurants from serving the freshest meats, fruits and vegetables, but does present barriers which one would think must somehow manifest themselves in the end-result. So after the Dubai chapter, I'm firmly believing there are ulterior motives behind the locations he visits in search of the perfect meal. Considering Rayner's fame and ambition, I smell multi-tasking. And I feel a little ripped off.

In Tokyo, things take an exciting turn and we hear stories of exclusive, impossible to find, tiny restaurants to which he is given reservations through his widespread industry connections. Live seafood is plucked from containers by a skilled chef, cooking for the whole dining room, prepared immaculately, or not at all, and wolfed down in moment after moment of unprecedented bliss. Rayner seems to have enjoyed Tokyo the most - though not without some discomfort. I recommend reading this chapter alone, if not the whole book. The rest of the story pales in comparison to his trip to Tokyo.

New York comes next, and reading this section made me grow weary of Rayner's entire viewpoint on the subject of his profession. The chapter becomes almost a list in which he recounts all of the critically acclaimed restaurants and chefs there, rather than the food itself. Through the whole chapter, I felt as though an immature, eager-to-impress prima donna was name dropping. Dufresne, Vonrichten, Ramsay... Per Se, Bernardin, The Waverly. No doubt these are some of the most 'important' chefs and restaurants in the world, but here Rayner's outlook on food has clearly diverged from mine in that to him, the perfect meal should be expected to come from the most opulent, regaled restaurants in the biggest, fanciest food cities in the world. To me, the perfect dining experience needs to be something that is either sought out or serendipitously stumbled upon. There should be some measure of destiny... stars aligning. The perfect dish served in the perfect setting, addressing your psyche... perfectly.

London is his last stop and by the time I reached this chapter, I was as disinterested as it felt like he was. The story proved a sham - this was not a true quest for the perfect meal, just a smattering of reviews and stories from a year of his career mashed together.

In the end, I still found the book worth reading. The stories of extravagant meals, exposure of overpriced restaurants and trips to faraway destinations were a lot of fun. My advice in reading it, however, is not to take its title literally. Read it as a short memoir as opposed to a literal quest. With this approach, I think you'll find enjoyment from the book and avoid feeling as duped as I did.

Dec 7, 2009

The Anti-Comfort Food

As soon as I typed it, I realized that the title for this posting would convey the wrong meaning, but I'll keep it and try to explain.

Here's the deal: Thanksgiving always sends me through a cyclical mental process of comfort food desire and then comfort food phobia. Approaching Thanksgiving, like anyone, I start salivating just thinking about the traditional meal - the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes... that uni-colored amalgam of protein and carbs commonly smothered in a blanket of gravy. When the table is set, I go at it. No holding back. One rule - eat until you can't eat anymore. And since both my family and Elizabeth's spend Thanksgiving in Kansas City, somehow I do this for both lunch and dinner on the same day.

I skip breakfast in the morning to save room for lunch. After gorging at lunch, a quick few games of ping pong in my grandpa's basement loosen up some room at the top of my GI tract and suddenly I need pie.

A quick stop back at the house to walk our dog and prep the brussels sprouts for "T2", and off we go again.

Something about drinking a glass of wine while we linger in the kitchen and take in the smells of thanksgiving dinner must boost my metabolism, because only a few short hours after feeling like I would never eat again, I think I'm ravenous and load up another plate. Down the hatch!

The next morning I awake, like the rest of the world, from the depths of an unfathomable food coma and my whacked out food equilibrium is positively screaming for the opposite of comfort food. The anti-comfort food. For me, that means things like crisp vegetables, an abundance of spice (thai chili-spice, not cinnamon-spice) and umami. I want flavors I did not grow up eating. I want Asian food!

Here's one of my favorite Asian recipes from Food and Wine, which we made shortly after our Thanksgiving binge. Whip out the chopsticks to work out your dexterity and top this delicious, salty plate with as much spicy sambal oelek as you can stand. You'll feel like you really worked for this meal, which is a nice change from the previous day's gluttonous display.

Chicken Stir-Fry with Asparagus and Cashews

1/2 cup raw cashews
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup chicken stock or low-sodium broth
1 pound asparagus, sliced on the diagonal, 1 inch thick
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup chopped basil
1/4 cup chopped chives
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°. Spread the cashews in a pie plate and toast in the oven for about 8 minutes, until they are nicely browned and fragrant. Let cool.
In a medium bowl, toss the chicken with 1 tablespoon of the fish sauce. In a wok or large skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the chicken in an even layer and cook over high heat, turning once, until browned and just cooked throughout, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken to a clean bowl.
Pour the chicken stock into the wok and bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits. Add the asparagus slices, cover and cook over moderate heat until they are crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the asparagus to the bowl along with the chicken.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of fish sauce to the wok along with the oyster sauce, lime juice and cayenne pepper. Simmer until the sauce is reduced to 1/3 cup, about 2 minutes. Return the chicken pieces and sliced asparagus to the wok and toss to heat through. Remove the wok from the heat and stir in the cashews, basil and chives. Season the stir-fry with black pepper and serve right away (my note: ...with enough sambal on top to push you out of your comfort zone).

Steamed rice.

One Serving 369 cal, 17 gm fat, 2.8 gm sat fat, 9 gm carb, 2.4 gm fiber.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Nov 23, 2009

R Bar Has Ups and Downs

It's not often that I'm as excited about a restaurant opening as I was when I heard about R Bar. Few people seem to have heard of it so far. It's hidden down in the west bottoms across from the Golden Ox, near Kemper; an area I'm hoping will become revived in a more soulful way than was P&L.

Stoking my excitement, owner Joy Jacobs brought in Alex Pope, former Executive Sous Chef from The American, one of this area's most heralded restaurants, to run the kitchen. I'd been to The American and found some of the high-end menu's items to be rather unsuccessful (like a horrendously salty pumpkin gelee), but others to be exciting and decadent.

What I found at R Bar was a promising, but somewhat perplexing restaurant, showing some of the service issues that new restaurants almost always do. I left R Bar utterly conflicted about how to rate and describe it to others.

From the building's outdoor facade to the inside's decor, it was everything, visually, I was hoping it would be. Cozy, rustic, and a little Western in personality. Fitting, considering the West Bottoms' heritage as a massive, successful cattle stockyard in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The interior was designed by the same designer who put together one of my favorite bars in town - Harry's Country Club in the River Market. If you know Harry's, which looks like Johnny Cash as a bar, R Bar is more like Johnny Cash shaking hands with Cary Grant; Western-meets-early rock n roll, with an added dash of class.

The floors are hard wood and that old hexagonal white tile that has so much character. A beautiful, huge wood bar is offset with shiny bottles and mirrors that sparkle in the otherwise low-lit room. The star of the decor, though, is the giant metal letter R on the North wall, lit with small bulbs. A cool touch which, conincidentally, reminds me of my first apartment - a loft in the River Market - because very similarly, I had a giant letter N on my exposed brick wall. I'd found it at the Asner scrapyard there in the bottoms, and lined it with Christmas lights (wonder if that's where the R came from). For sentimental reasons, R Bar gains a half-napkin upgrade with that feature alone, whether fair or not.

If intimacy is critical to your dining experience, there are four booths in the back of the restaurant you may like. Otherwise, you're out of luck, because 95% of the rest of the seats are the bar and the tables that run along the north wall, where diners sit elbow-to-elbow and sharing conversation is common. Twice during our dinner we chatted with our friendly neighbors about the food but were then annoyed that we couldn't tune them out as they blathered about everyone they knew and exactly how much money they had and where they got it.

Having underestimated R Bar's popularity, we unwisely arrived with no reservation, and after a brief wait were lucky to grab two open seats at the bar. The drink menu is martini-heavy. Not being a big fan of martinis, but wanting to experience one of their signature drinks, I ordered the Corpse Reviver No. 2. The fact that I was still a little hung over from festivities the night before may have led me to this cocktail made with gin, cointreau, lillet blonde, fresh lemon juice and then a tiny drop of absinthe. It was crisp and citrusy, but I didn't need another.

On to dinner we went. Everything on the menu sounded good and deciding proved a difficult adventure, so we were delighted when the free appetizer was delivered. Not an amuse bouche, but a true starter-sized funnel cake, topped with an orange (from paprika) goat cheese sauce. We heard the materialistic neighbors scoff that it had been lambasted in some local critic's review, but we enjoyed it. Could have stood another 25 seconds in the fryer, as it was a tad too soft, but tasty nonetheless.

A light salad next: romaine with savory, smooth bacon vinaigrette, soft, sweet roasted pears and orange rectangles of crunchy butternut squash. Couldn't have been better. A great start.

Next up was the cassoulet slaw, and that's when things took a weird turn. I know cassoulet to be a classic, hearty French dish of beans and salty meats. I always pictured it being like a French version of pork n beans, classier and more complex in flavor than the simple canned American chow. However, Chef Pope takes some rather unexpected liberties with his interpretation. This dish is 90% slaw and 10% cassoulet... if you can consider a simple bean puree to be cassoulet. The off-white cannellini shmear was topped with the heaviest, most over-dressed slaw I'd ever eaten. Its creamy dressing was a promising sounding truffle creme fraiche, but it overpowered the other flavors involved and was an awful combination with the cannellini bean puree; the two earthy flavors together were muddy. Yuck. Moreover, there was just too much creaminess involved. The creme fraiche turned the cabbage into a globby blob, so the whole composition smacked of regurgitation on the tongue. The sage sausage was barely noticeable, and if there was any confit chicken, it was exceedingly well hidden. Overall, a real stinker of a dish that made me wonder what the chef thought he liked about it.

Wiping the "what the heck was that" look off our faces (and drowning it with some delicious yet inexpensive Leaping Lizard 2007 Chardonnay), we moved on to our entree. A seasonal, plump breast of turkey came presented naked as a baby's bottom on a celery root puree and pad of stuffing, with bay leaf gravy and pickled grapes. The odd look of the plain turkey breast was, if not flat-out gross, confusing. Some parsley or even just the gravy and black pepper over top would have made it more comfortable to look at. I have to admit, though, it was easily the most moist turkey breast I'd ever eaten. I had to use my phone's flash light to inspect the inside to convince myself it wasn't undercooked - and it wasn't - so it was truly delicious.

A square, crusty cake of stuffing lay in the gravy, under the turkey, looking almost like carpet padding, but no one ever said stuffing was supposed to look good. I'm not sure of the cooking method, but I believe the stuffing, once cut into its square slice, was perhaps pan fried. It had a much needed courseness that offset the moist bird and creamy puree and gravy just right.

The star, though, was the celery root puree. I am currently obsessed with the stuff. There's a big hairy celery root sitting in my cupboard right now, waiting for me to locate a good recipe that I think will allow me to produce a similar puree of my own. If you haven't had celery root puree, think of mashed potatoes, but instead of the background flavor being that of, well, dirt - like you get with mashed potatoes - CRP leaves a more complex, cleaner flavor on the palette. It was so good, yet so simple, I was dizzy eating it and screaming , internally, for more. MORE!

A garnish of a few split grapes were necessary for cutting the rich, savory components of the dish, but not as successful as I'd hoped. The fact that they were allegedly "pickled" was silly. Grapes have a tight, non-pourous skin and it didn't seem as though their flavor or texture had been affected by the pickling process at all. They were merely halved grapes that fell short of their duty in the composition.

Our other entree was a more enjoyable mushroom tart - a beautiful crust with cheese filling and dark, caramelized shiitake mushrooms on top. It was wonderfully simple in comparison to the other dishes, making the turkey and cassoulet seem over-thought and silly. Had I eaten salad and this entree, only, I'd have beena little disappointed with the portion, but I suppose it was reasonable. (I'd have needed dessert, though.)

When this meal was over, I was almost relieved. The food was a little too much of a roller coaster for me that night, but with such a fantastic vibe, had I not already done so much partying that weekend I could have sat there for another hour and half, splitting a second bottle of wine and enjoying the live music and  atmosphere.

Given the pedigree of the chef and the fun ingredients used throughout the menu, I'm actually eager to return to R Bar. It may have a couple bombs on its menu now, but I think there's some greatness there, too. And I want to see what the spring menu will entail.

But for now, I'll have to think of it as a three napkin restaurant with a two napkin rating, because the fantastic atmosphere fell victim to that god-awful cassoulet mess. I hope Chef Pope keeps editing.

Rating: two napkins

R Bar and Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Nov 21, 2009

Blanc Addiction

Sometimes I go on a kick of eating at the same restaurant many times over the course of a few months. As someone who enjoys reviewing area restaurant both new and old, this can be a guilty pleasure... I always feel a responsibility to try restaurants I haven't visited yet. But I just can't get Blanc Burgers + Bottles off my brain!  This is how I know it's a truly outstanding restaurant.

On a recent Saturday night, finally coming down from a period of busy weekends out with friends and family for our birthdays among other things, we had nothing planned come 7 o'clock. The night, and our dinner plans, were a destiny of our own choice and it took no debate, no consternation, no time... to decide on Blanc.

Blanc is a small burger joint in the heart of Westport - 419 Westport Road, to be exact. The decor upholds the name; a white bar top with white bar chairs and white liquor cabinets greets patrons upon entering, as does a fantastic beer selection. Nicely organized by beer type, there are lots of beers from which to choose, including Boulevard's smokestack series, which is tremendous fun for pairing with food like gourmet hamburgers.

On our trip, the polite hostess unfortunately forgot about us until about the time we were down to the last sip of our beers (Left Hand Milk Stout for me - creamy and soothing) but more than compensated for the slip by generously offering to purchase an appetizer for us! We morphed that into two more free beers (strong ones - Unibroue's La Fin du Monde, 9% ABV) to pair with our dinner.

The last thing I need in my diet is more red meat - I try to limit my intake to once a week but go over that allotment often - but it's hard to resist when you're at a hamburger joint. If one does venture out of the cow zone, there are several options available. The pork burger is very tasty and I do recommend it. But I think that was a one-and-done thing for me. It's the red meat that's so exceptional here.

Beef burgers are made with a combination of premium, yet fatty, meats including Tenderloin, Ribeye and NY Strip (the best parts of any cow!). They're thick yet tender. One can tell the meat is not only top quality, but handled properly and by that I mean not handled too much at all.

On this trip, however, we went back to the fabulous Bison burger. Generally speaking, bison is a lean red meat. Somehow I think they choose very rich pieces of bison to grind into this burger, though, because it's just as juicy and tender as the cow-beef burgers. Not a hint of gaminess to it, either, just succulent and delicious. Topped with pepperjack cheese, deliciously sweet peppadew pepper jam, butter lettuce, onion and mayo, it's amazing. But with the perfectly over-medium fried egg built into the equation that our waiter so skillfully recommended, it's an absolute killer.

Burgers come with a sweet, homemade pickle on the side. I never used to be a fan of sweet pickles, but have completely changed my tune after a few of these. It's a great contrast of texture and flavor with the rich burger, with its crunch and zing.

The other available sides, the ones you pay for, add to the phenomenon that brings this place back to mind so frequently. The beer batter on the Boulevard Pale Ale onion rings is that smoother, crunchier batter... a casing completely encompassing the sweet, thick-cut onions rather than a bread crumb dusting that flakes off and coats your fingers when you pick one up. Perfect. For those looking for the utmost in high fashion grub, there are the superb truffle fries. The earthy, unctuous potato sticks can be smelled throughout the restaurant, giving the whole place an air of mystery and richness that lets you know it's more than just a greasy spoon.

True gourmands downplay the use of condiments, especially ketchup. I happen to love Heinz 57 and French's yellow mustard on burgers, fries and rings, but they're unnecessary at Blanc. Diners receive small portions of ketchup and aioli with their orders, but don't go asking for the server to bring you a bottle of ketchup. If you do, you're not paying attention to the quality of the food you're consuming. Burgers all come topped with thoughtful house-made condiments and the sides are so impeccably made, they just shouldn't be soaked in anything before they reach your mouth.

I struggled mightily with what rating to give Blanc. For what it is - the coolest burger spot in town - the menu and quality of food is nothing short of perfect. The vibe is great. The service is good enough not to stand in its way. But my mental tussle revolved around my feeling that there are so few comfortable places to sit in this little place. Overall, Blanc's square-footage is very limited and the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room makes it so that the majority of the seats in the house seem to have just barely been squeezed in. This layout does something to me psychologically... it makes me think of Blanc as a first stop on a weekend night out. It could never be the crown jewel my evening. But while that criticism may have deducted a napkin from many restaurants, I cannot fault Blanc for it.

Blanc's a burger joint. Burger joints, by nature, are meant to be in-and-out (or literally "In-N-Out"). But Blanc has a great combination of excitement within a reasonably comfortable setting. It's the perfect jumping-off spot for a great night out on the town. It was created with a singular vision in mind and delivers 100% on that vision. I love it, and for these reasons, Blanc is a four napkin restaurant.

Rating: four napkins

Blanc Burgers + Bottles (Westport) on Urbanspoon

Nov 17, 2009

The Pizza Bar - Just Another P&L Bar

The few people I know who were able to make it to Vinino, the Italian restaurant that occupied one of the primo spaces across from the Sprint Center when P&L first “launched”, said that they actually liked the food. It just wasn’t the right type of restaurant for that location. Too fancy-shmancy. Too close to the loud buzz of the raucous sports and concert crowds at McFadden’s, Raglan Road, PBR, and the like. 

Taking a page from its P&L success stories, Cordish closed Vinino and transformed it into The Pizza Bar. Walking in, I was expecting something more in the vein of its predecessor, but Pizza Bar is not dressy affair. It’s just a jumbo-sized pizzeria, replete with a few bars, video games and TV’s on every wall. On the Saturday afternoon when we made our trip, it was nearly a ghost town. Only one or two other small tables of patrons occupied the cavernous restaurant. The scantily clad hostess was lazily hanging out at one of the bars, paying no attention to the front of the house. When the manager on duty noticed we were standing there, unattended and slightly bewildered, I saw her eyes roll in frustration at the poor service she knew her team was exhibiting. We seated ourselves at her request.

Our server was a bench-warmer. He didn’t care about us or whether we were having a good experience. No smiles, slow service (though we were his only table), drinks never refilled… nothing to offer.

We ordered half our pizza with their meatballs (cut into thick slices) and the other half with Scimeca’s Italian sausage, peppers and onions. There are no choices of size – if you order a pizza, you get a rather large (16”, perhaps) pie with thin crust. The crust wasn’t bad,.. it was somewhere between “nothing special” and “not great”. But I was expecting a lot more from this single-minded establishment. When pizza makes up half of your menu, you ought to have something more impressive than this crust up your sleeve. 

I don’t care whether a pizza is healthy or not, but the amount of yellow grease standing on top of the cheese was off-putting, both visually and digestively speaking. I blame the excessive grease on head pizza pie-man, Salvatore DiFatta’s method of using raw sausage on the pizza, rather than pre-cooked sausage. All the fat and juices from the sausage end up sitting on top of the pizza when it comes out of the oven and onto your table. It doesn’t taste good, it just tastes like grease.

Our experience at The Pizza Bar was nothing short of terrible. I’m sure I could enjoy the place for what it is – a roomy sports bar with decent pizza – after taking in a game and a few beers at the Sprint Center. But as a restaurant, this place has nothing to offer. Don’t make a special trip down to the tough-to-stomach P&L district just to try The Pizza Bar.

Rating: zero napkins
Pizza Bar on Urbanspoon

Nov 8, 2009

A Stab at Shrimp Etouffee

I keep a list of indulgent seasonal meals to make on the weekends, when I allow myself to eat something unhealthy I disallow during the week. It's something fun to look forward to, keeps me motivated to cook new things and keeps me from forgetting good ideas when they come to mind.

One of the first items I knocked off that list this fall was this shrimp etouffee. I'm a huge fan of New Orleans cuisine. I love the spice, the meats used, like crawfish, shrimp, sausage and chicken, love the flavorful trinity of vegetables used and the richness these meals share in common that feels so right in the colder months. While the recipe I followed tasted pretty good, I can't give it a full endorsement after having made it. Here's why...

Classic New Orleans cuisine, dishes like gumbo and etouffee, all require a special base of perfectly cooked ingredients in order to achieve the right overall flavor and texture. There are lots of recipes out there that are hacks - sometimes involving the use of canned cream of mushroom or celery soup to shortcut the traditional roux, which can take quite some time to get right. This recipe was not one of those recipes that looks for a shortcut... I specifically made sure that it didn't before I made it. The problem was that it didn't explain how long to wait for the roux to reach the desired color and flavor. And it provided too high a ratio of flour to butter. After researching other recipes after making this one, I realized it called for about a quarter cup more flour than it needed... which explains the slightly floury taste and excessive thickness of the end result I achieved.

The other issue I experienced was really my fault, which was that I used a pot that didn't have a wide enough base. Too little hot surface area equated to undercooked veggies and, thus, too little of their flavor incorporated into the etouffee and at the same time having too much crunch.

All things considered, it still was pretty darn tasty, but I'm going to look for different recipes. Also going to look into getting crawfish, which makes the BEST etouffee. Here's the recipe I used, from Emeril Lagasse on


  • 4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 cups chopped yellow onions
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup chopped green bell peppers
  • 1/2 cup chopped red bell peppers
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Pinch cayenne
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons Essence, recipe follows
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons dry sherry, or dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
  • 2 teaspoons fresh chopped thyme
  • 1 1/2 pounds shrimp, peeled
  • 3 tablespoons chopped green onions
  • 4 cups steamed long grain white rice
In a large pot, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the flour to make a roux and cook to peanut butter color. Add the onions, celery, bell peppers, salt, pepper, and cayenne, and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the water and stir well. Add the Essence, and bay leaves, and reduce the heat to medium. Add the tomatoes, sherry, parsley, and thyme, and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens, about 4 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook just until they curl and turn pink, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the green onions and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Remove and discard the bay leaves.

Nov 7, 2009

Row House: It's Capitol!

Almost literally in the shadow of our state's capitol building in Topeka is a fantastic little gem in a beautiful, historic building: Row House Restaurant.

Tonight's birthday dinner was amazing:

Salad - Poppy Seed Vinaigrette, Baby Greens, Feta, Plums, Spiced Pecans
Soup -  Creamy Roasted Cauliflower
Vegetarian Entree - Butternut Squash and Asiago Risotto with Asparagus
Entree 2 - Roasted Chicken Breast, Spinach and Artichoke Cream, Smashed Garbanzo Beans
Entree 3 - Bacon Wrapped Beef Tenderloin, Bourbon Sauce, Roasted Veggie Polenta, String Beans
Dessert 1 -  Cappuccino Chocolate Creme Brulee
Dessert 2 -  Pumpkin Cheese Cake
Dessert 3 -  Peach and Blackberry Crumble

...the company even better. Thanks, Mom and Dad! Love you guys.


Rating: three napkins

Rowhouse Restuarant on Urbanspoon

Oklahoma Joe's: KC's Four Napkin Gas Station Barbecue

In a posting a little while back, I mentioned a forthcoming soliloquy on barbecue. Ironically, it turns out that soliloquy is being delivered with my first four napkin review.

I am happy to live in a city that is widely regarded as the barbecue Mecca of the world. Sure, there are other regions that naively claim stakes to this title – your Texas’s, your Carolinas, your Tennessees (specifically Memphis) – but there can only be one true King of Barbecue, and that King is Kansas City. After all, we host the American Royal – the annual festival held in celebration of barbecue, where the best of the best are crowned each year! I don't debate this topic. KC is the barbecue capital.

With that out of the way, I move on to the second point of the soliloquy: barbecue and grilling are completely different things and should be regarded as such. Example: when the numbskulls on The Hills unwittingly claim they’re having a “barbecue” at their Malibu beach houses, they’re just grilling. To quote the authority of all authorities – the internet, and specifically Wikipedia – “…practitioners consider barbecue to include only indirect methods of cooking over hardwood smoke, with the more direct methods to be called 'grilling'". If you ever question whether you are, in fact, grilling or doing barbecue, ask yourself these questions: 1) am I using a smoker? and 2) Will a dry rub or barbecue sauce be used? You are only doing barbecue if you answer "yes" to both of these questions.

Now having established both the capital of barbecue as well as its correct definition, I’ll point out that there are several restaurants in Kansas City that do barbecue very well. Most are little shacks tucked away in discreet nooks of the city, but upscale variations are also found downtown, on the plaza and out south. And they all serve the exact same plates of food regardless of how it may be presented (though each claims their own slight variation makes their food the best).

However. Within the last decade, a leader has emerged... a place that draws ridiculous crowds every weekend of the year, and every week day during lunch. This is a place that embodies the no-frills atmosphere I love in a barbecue restaurant (it's literally located in a gas station), meaning it stakes its reputation solely on the quality of its delicious. smoked. meats.

This place not only has a massive Midwest following, it’s received some serious national accolades, my favorite among them being listed as number 13 on Anthony Bourdain’s column for Men’s Health Magazine: 13 Places to Eat Before You Die. Bourdain, who I’ve written about before and of whom I’m a big fan, has eaten the best of everything, from hyper delicacies at the world’s top rated restaurants (many of them also on this list) to wildly fantastic street foods and specialties at famed local joints across the globe.

Of all the places he’s been, and of all the foods he loves, he chose Oklahoma Joe’s barbecue in Kansas City, Kansas, for the final spot on his enviable list of must-eats.

Normally I wouldn’t take the opinion of one New York-based chef so seriously... certainly not on the subject of barbecue, and especially not one who spent most of his career cooking at a French Brasserie. But having watched all his shows and read the book he wrote about his career as a chef and the restaurant industry, I respect his viewpoint. When I saw Bourdain speak at The Midland downtown about a year ago, someone in the audience asked him where he was going to eat that night. He replied (paraphrasing), “I’m flying out of town so I won’t be eating here.” (pause and disappointment from the crowd…) “But if I did eat anywhere in Kansas City tonight, it’d be at Oklahoma Joe’s.” (eruption of applause from the OK Joe’s fans in the house!!!)

Okay, enough guffawing over its national media attention. Let me tell you what sets Oklahoma Joe’s apart from the rest with three simple words that encompass all that's important in barbecue: flavorful, tender meat.

On the topic of flavor: obviously the meat has to shine, but what gives barbecued meat such great flavor is smoke. Whether mesquite or hickory (mesquite being my favorite by far), that smoky flavor must completely permeate your food. On a slice of brisket, you should be able to see a bright pink ring that comes from the penetration of smoke into the meat. You always get this at Oklahoma Joe's. Moreover, when you smell your food, it should absolutely reek of that smoke. Heck, the restaurant itself should have smoke visibly hanging in the air, and you should be able to smell it if you're anywhere within a quarter mile radius of the place. I'm not joking! And if you get your 'cue as takeout, the bag of food and any finger that touches it should smell like it was soaked in a bath of mesquite. Your hair, the morning after eating barbecue, should smell like mesquite. That's how important the smoke is, and Oklahoma Joe's delivers on every one of these criteria.

Tenderness is paramount to the experience of eating barbecue. Rib meat should be falling off the bones - literally sliding off cleanly when you wrap your lips around that first meaty bone. Brisket and pulled pork should essentially melt in your mouth. To me, the tenderness of the meat at Oklahoma Joe's is what creates the clear separation between it and all other barbecue. Whether Gates, Arthur Bryant's, Jack Stack or some other tiny shack, I've had ribs that weren't smoked long enough and wouldn't separate from the bone, resulting in a texture similar to an overcooked pork chop. Not good. I've had "crunchy" slices of brisket that tasted like cheap, metallic hamburger. But I've eaten at Oklahoma Joe's more than any of these other places and have never - not once - had anything that wasn't incredibly tender.

Meat. Barbecued meat should not be gristly or have huge chunks of fat in it. I can't use the word "lean" because there is plenty of fat in some of these meats, and there should be. But it needs to be evenly distributed. The low and slow cooking process makes the fat in a good, clean piece of pork butt melt away. You will never eat at a barbecue place that doesn't serve some fatty meat, but I've had inedible, fatty burnt ends at Gates and Jack Stack, stringy brisket from Arthur Bryant's, Danny Edwards, Smokehouse and Winslow's, and discarded huge chunks of fat-ridden pulled pork at others before. Don't get me wrong - I like all these places for one reason or another (well, not Winslow's), but they just don't measure up to OKJ's where you always get bite after bite of perfect, delicious meat.

For my money, the best choice in barbecue is pulled pork. I love it all, even chicken. And brisket is a close second. But in barbecue, pork is king and I personally enjoy the satisfaction of demolishing a massive sandwich to the sticky interaction with ribs. I must admit, in a departure with Kansas City 'cue customs, I enjoy a pulled pork sandwich Carolina style - meaning that spicy coleslaw is piled on top of the pork, in the sandwich, giving it a cooling, contrasting crunch that, for some reason, does more for me than pickles alone can.

The experience of starting in on one of these sandwiches at Oklahoma Joe's induces gluttonous euphoria. Noticing a juicy chunk of pork tumble from the overflowing bun and fall on the plate causes pleasure sensors to light up in my brain.This food is a drug and I'm happily addicted.

And like the worst addicts, I fully intend to share my love of this drug with as many people as possible. It always disappoints me when I see KC Masterpiece on grocery store shelves, or when my company caters meetings for clients from across the country with bbq from the wrong restaurant. Because these aren't the best representations of Kansas City barbecue. That's why, when my wife and I were planning our wedding rehearsal dinner, what to eat was the easiest of all the decisions we had to make. Oklahoma Joe's wowed our out of town guests and thrilled those who were already fans. It does the same for me every time I bite into a Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich, still, and always will. That's why Oklahoma Joe's is a KC Napkins four napkin restaurant.

Rating: four napkins

Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue (Kansas City) on Urbanspoon

Nov 4, 2009

Momofuku Ssam Copycat: Banh Mi & Brussels Sprouts

Copied David Chang's Brussels Sprouts from Momofuku Ssam tonight (sans rice crispies) thanks to the recipe from Food & Wine. They were fantastic - even with my inferior skills!

They were used as the side for our Banh Mi burgers - also good! (Shown at right before garnished with cilantro and jalapenos.) Note - go ahead and grill the beef instead of cooking it in a pan. Pan fried ground beef just doesn't cut it for me.

Oct 31, 2009

The steamed buns (pork belly) at momofuku ssam were as good as advertised. Brussels sprouts, honeycrisp apples w/ kimchi just as good. Fun place in NYC. (mobile post)

Oct 25, 2009

A Little Blue over Blue Koi

Let me start by saying that there's a lot that I like about Blue Koi. What's unfortunate is that the food isn't foremost among them.

What draws me to Blue Koi are all the things that go into its atmosphere... It's close to my house, has a cozy, smallish dining room filled with a varied group of patrons and art from local artists featured on the walls. The service is amiable on average, above average when the owner is in. It's dark and, even when busy, the buzz of sound and activity from customers chatting, chefs cooking and servers serving only gives you and your companion(s) assuredness that you can speak freely without the people at the tables close-by  listening to the intimate details of your conversation.

In my history with Blue Koi, I've eaten several things on the menu. The Chinese Pot Roast (if I had a Chinese mom, this would taste like her pot roast) and Seafood Noodle Soup (a huge bowl full of noodles, squid, scallops, mussels, shrimp and more) are very decent... to the point that they would be my recommendations. And the dumplings are great, but nothing special compared to any other dumpling you can get in town, including at Po's just a few doors down (east).

On this trip we did enjoy the pork dumplings, pan fried, though a little too lightly fried this time, evidenced by the picture above in which you can see glistening, translucent skins and very little crispy brownness from flash-frying. A full portion is 8 dumplings, which is nice and filling (portions are another plus I concede to Blue Koi).

For dinner on this occasion I chose the braised pork with shiitake mushrooms wanting a savory, hearty dish. And it was, indeed, hearty - a good portion of well cooked rice came warm, and topped with a generous mound of large chunks of tender, nicely cooked pork and plenty of shiitake mushrooms, lots of sliced scallions and a garnish of artfully sliced cucumber. It looked great. But that's where the "greatness" ended, because here again, Blue Koi committed its perpetual misstep as far as my tastes go: too sweet!

I've encountered this recurring problem with other Blue Koi entrees such as the shrimp (chicken or tofu) with black bean sauce,  shrimp (chicken or tofu) with Chinese curry sauce and ants on a tree. In each case, the ingredients were cooked well, served warm and with a nice overall appearance, but were slovenly covered in gooey, sugary, sweet sauces.

Admittedly, I'm a salty guy who likes salty food, and I've found Chinese sauces sometimes do fall on the sweeter side of the spectrum of Asian cooking. But I'd be surprised if other Blue Koi patrons didn't agree that too many of the dishes on this menu are sweeter than they should be.

Oh, and before I forget, one other word of caution: most dishes at Blue Koi are served with the customer's choice of rice, noodles or as a soup. I love noodles. Especially Asian noodles - soba, udon, rice vermicelli, Lo Mein... but the thick noodles Blue Koi's entrees come with are the gummiest variety of noodle I have ever encountered (probably made gummier by the glucose-rich sauce in which they're served). So stick with rice or soup.

One can definitely enjoy a night out at Blue Koi. Good atmosphere and good service keep me coming back again and again. Just do what you can to avoid falling victim of their "sweet spot" and you should be okay.

Rating: one napkin

Blue Koi on Urbanspoon

Oct 22, 2009

Free State Brewery Memories

"I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood."

Whenever I have the pleasure of going to Free State Brewery in Lawrence, I'm always reminded of these images of John Brown that I've seen before at the state Capitol... and have a good chuckle to myself. He was such a fiery, intense guy (clearly). But what's so funny to me is the juxtaposition of the larger-than-life, violent figure you see here and the crowd of good times-loving neo-hippies that hang out in front of the restaurant. As if playing the role of extras in a nostalgic scene from a movie with an invisible cameraman, these bikers, hipsters and townies represent the very essence of Lawrence - diverse, easy going, friendly. Fittingly, so does Free State.

We were already "drunk" on the beautiful fall air and memories of our college days when my wife and I walked in a few Saturdays ago. We'd chosen to come back to town as a anniversary gift to ourselves and had enjoyed every minute of walking around campus and up and down Mass. I was actually glad there was a wait for tables (even during mid-afternoon, seemingly later than the typical lunch rush), because it gave us a chance to belly up to the bar and chug some of Free State's fantastic brew. 

The Octoberfest (left) was sublime... rich and smooth. You can read a lot more about it by clicking BEER on their website, but they describe it as being very malty and I think that's what I liked so much about it. Not bitter, not too dark, not too light. I'd say you can really tell this stuff was crafted for the ultimate sense of beer-induced enjoyment and consuming in mass quantities at the famous German festival by the same name. 

Equally delicious was the Oatmeal Stout (right). A deep amber brown and with a nice amount of carbonation (more than Boulevard's Dry Stout, which I also enjoy), I don't know a more PC way to say this, but you really feel like a man when you've got one of these pints in your hand.

On to the food: a great appetizer choice if you're ravenous, as we were, is the artichoke dip.  Served with wedges of thick cut wheat bread with melted Parmesan cheese, it's incredibly filling. The dip is fluffy like whipped cream cheese (that's pretty much what it is) that has garlic and artichokes in it. No spinach in this app and I like it that way. Despite the generous serving of toast triangles, there's plenty of dip, allowing you to slather on as much as you want and enjoy each bite to the fullest.

With our food we also enjoyed the Wheat State Golden. Lighter than the previous two, it was crisp and refreshing, but also light on the hops, making it  a great pairing with the variety of flavors in our meal.

As an homage to early dates in our fledgling relationship, we decided to order... we had to order... the Basil Ciabatta Sandwich. Yeah, everyone's got a sandwich like this on their menu - roasted red pepper, goat cheese and pesto on ciabatta. But it's better here. Exceptional. The red pepper is meaty and sweat with that earthy, charred flavor in the background. The cheese and pesto, too, add richness and girth to this vegetarian fistful of enjoyment. It's light enough to be rejuvenating but filling enough to satisfy. We split the sandwich and split a simple house salad and loved every bite.

The menu at Free State is huge, with lots of fantastic choices I'm dying to go back and try. Would have jumped all over the chicken and crawfish gumbo that was on special that day but we knew the artichoke dip was already going above and beyond the duty of "appetizing" so we held off. ...Which is good. Something for which to return.

Another reason to return: refilling our Growler! On the way out of the restaurant, we dropped an extra $10 on a 64 ounce jug of Octoberfest (available for only a short while in the fall). $10 and change the first time you purchase a growler (some beers may be a little pricier), and about $7 for refills, this little guy is a great way to take the libations home with you since Free State's bottling operation hasn't taken off yet (coming soon, though!).

It's hard to rate Free State with any amount of objectivity. Admittedly, I'm in love with it as much for the memories it brings me as for its food or beer. But I'm not pulling your leg when I say the food I've had there has been solid. Fresh, tasty recipes... I'm confident they wouldn't serve anything there they didn't truly feel was executed to a their high standards. And the beer is, without question, incredible. You'll see what I mean when distribution of the bottles starts up and you try it for yourself if you're not lucky enough to have it at the restaurant in Lawrence before then. Either way, write me a comment and let me know what you think, when you do.

Rating: two stars

Free State Brewing Co on Urbanspoon
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