May 31, 2010

Cafe Roux: A New Cajun Option (For Now)

Restaurant: Cafe Roux
Location: 11554 Ash Street, Leawood, KS (Town Center Plaza)
Food: Cajun classics with an upscale flair
Service: Pleasant, not special
Price: Unexpectedly reasonable for a classy place
Rating: two  napkins

It's a little difficult to find good Cajun food north of the Mason-Dixon. Most cities have one or two decent Cajun restaurants but not a plethora of choices. Kansas City is no different (see this Fat City link back on Fat Tuesday in which a local chef laughs at the selection here in town). Recently, though, my friend Tyson, a fellow New Orleans food lover, surprised me with a new option as we were texting back and forth, trying to figure out where to go on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend : Cafe Roux at Town Center. Game over. Reservations at 8:00.

Would Cafe Roux have a better run than the likes of The Red Vine? Based on the size of the "crowd" when we arrived, the outlook is not good, as the ol' eight ball says. But it was a beautiful Saturday night on what may be the biggest grilling weekend of the entire year. So perhaps these factors coupled with our tardiness (seated at 8:30 - is that late?) made Cafe Roux's business (or lack thereof) appear to be less successful than it normally is. Whatever the case, it was nearly deserted. I was worried.



After much deliberation about where to sit (too much freedom!), we went with a street-side outdoor table. A great choice. The echo-y, climate controlled, sparkling clean dining room just didn't seem appropriate for our Cajun affair. True, the streets at Town Center are about clean enough to eat off of - certainly not the endearingly grungy southern bayou setup you find at Jazz and most other Cajun-themed joints - but the slight humidity and fresh air helped. So did the food.

The menu was quite small, but contained just enough of the classics to please those of us who knew what we had come for.  As we pondered what to order, I hailed a spicy martini (Cajun-tini?), made simply with Absolut Peppar and vermouth, garnished with an ingenious skewer of two green olives stuffed with pickled jalapenos. I enjoyed it so much, I look forward to purchasing the ingredients needed to make my own and consuming them the rest of the summer. Elizabeth got some nutty concoction containing every kind of juice Dole makes and a spritz of some type of booze. I skeptically tried a bit and found it to be just as I had expected - spiked fruit punch. No thanks. (But undoubtedly refreshing.)

For dinner we settled on splitting several things, ordering up the crawfish boil, crawfish etouffee and "green" redfish. We each added a $3 cup of gumbo, too, as a starter, which was brought to the table accompanied by four mini baguettes, perfect for mopping up sauces the rest of the night. The gumbo was the shining star of the evening... hot, moderately spicy, and rich but not too thick. There was rice included in the bowl but not too much, which allows the soup's flavors to shine and speaks to the chef's opinion of his dish. As I picture my return to Cafe Roux, I debate whether I might go for a bowl, a side of grits, and just mop it all up with the delicious french bread. A more delicious and affordable dinner would be hard to come by anywhere.

The crawfish boil was as should be expected. Simply boiled four to five inch long crawfish came in a big bowl with some large, skin-on boiled potatoes and half cobs of corn, all swimming in a murky natural jus.

The flavors were all there. This was the classic crawfish boil, lacking nothing. It may have been slightly more enjoyable served by some guy named Boudreaux out of a smoldering pot behind his withered swamp shed in the hazy heat of a N'awlins night, but that's about the only improvement I can think of. Salty juice went streaming down my hands and writs each time I cracked another open from the bountiful portion we were served, and I enjoyed slurping and sucking at the shells in attempts to extract as much flavor as possible from the meaty tail and juicy head. A key to the potatoes: I made sure to split mine open in the broth, like a matzoh ball, so they'd soak up as much moisture and flavor as possible. The corn, too, benefited from the naturally briny cooking liquid, needing no extra salt or butter.

The etouffee was slightly fancier than those I've had before. It was apparently heavy on the tomatoes - bright red in color and containing a noticeable tang from the acidity. The texture of the etouffee, too, was fancy, in a delightful way. Etouffees I've had before have all been somewhat thick and creamy from the richness of the butter-laden roux. This one was a little chunkier - less congealed - and its celery, peppers and onion still had a little bite to them, which was nice. The texture was a plus in this version of one of my favorites in the genre. The crawfish content in the dish was plentify, too, which was a huge plus. Often, the crawfish in an etoufee can be impossible to locate. Cafe Roux clearly takes pride in their generous allotment.

The "green" redfish, perhaps, would have been better had I not eaten it last. I think that during the time I spent dismantling crawfish from the boil, it lost its delicacy. The hearty fish seemed a tad overcooked - pretty dang solid and hard to cut with a fork's edge. And the bed of rice sweetened naturally with the corn's cream had lost its temperature in the breezy evening air, seeming more like a leftover dish straight out of the fridge than a nice seafood accompaniment. I could easily tell, though, that had this been my entree of choice, it would have been perfectly satisfying eaten piping hot, straight out of the kitchen. The ample sweet corn kernel salad mounded on top of the meat added a pleasant juiciness and complimentary sweetness to the dish, bringing all the flavors together. I'd guess that the vast majority of patrons who order the "green" redfish would be perfectly happy with it. 

Were I able to go back in time (or perhaps on my next trip), the shrimp and grits would be a sure bet for me. I'm anxious to try their version which, at $16, was one of the (surprisingly) pricier options on the menu. That speaks to Cafe Roux's prices overall, though, which I found to be incredibly reasonable, given the relatively upscale atmosphere (compared to Jazz) and gourmet bent of the menu.

No regrets, though. We loaded up on some tasty classics that satisfied a hunger in my belly not satiated since our trip to New Orleans almost a year ago. In summary: Cafe Roux was Johnson-County-does-Cajun, and pretty good at that. I'd certainly recommend it and I look forward to going back and sampling the menu further.

Rating: two napkins
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Cafe Roux on Urbanspoon

Steak Night

We try to limit the amount of red meat we eat, for health reasons. Truth be told, Elizabeth is prone to high cholesterol, so that, coupled with the things you hear so often these days about the treatment and conditions of cattle raised on the large farms that supply the vast majority of the meat we buy at our uber-convenient mega grocers, leads us to try to cut our intake down to once a week or less.

But every now and then, the craving for a great steak comes calling, and there's no avoiding it. The only choice is to satiate the hunger. So Friday night, with a three day weekend in front of us and impeccable grilling weather at our disposal, we did just that.



Whole Foods supplied us with two small filets, which we chose for their leanness in comparison to other, possibly more flavorful cuts like strips or ribeyes. The menu we brought together was Filet Mignon with Mushrooms and Sauce Pinot Noir, cauliflower puree and sauteed broccolini with garlic. The result was a relatively simple meal that packed in all the flavors for which our appetites had been screaming. (Cook's note - the wine used for the Sauce Pinot Noir is best to eat with dinner, but pop open a Smokestack Series like the Tank 7 we had, to delight your palette as you taste-test your way through the cooking process. You'll be glad you did.)


For the Cauliflower Puree:

Ingredients
1 head cauliflower, 2 to 2 1/2 pounds
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


Preparation
Pull the leaves off the cauliflower and cut out the core in a kind of cone-shaped section. Then pull the florets off the head with your fingers, using a knife when you need to. Break or cut the florets into smaller, regular pieces (about 1 1/2 inch) and put them in the steamer insert. Bring about 1 inch of water to a boil in the steamer pot, add the insert, cover, and cook for about 15 minutes, or until you can poke a paring knife into the stems and you can feel that there's still a little texture there. (Tooth, it's called.) Stir the cauliflower well a few times while it's steaming so that it cooks evenly.

Dump about half of the cauliflower into a food processor. Measure out 3/4 cup of the steaming liquid, and pour in about 1/4 cup; purée until smooth. Now dump the rest of the cauliflower on top, add about 1/3 of the remaining liquid, and purée again. You'll need to stop and scrape and stir the purée a few times; add more liquid as you need to, but with the understanding that you really want to add as little liquid as you can get away with (I accidentally threw out the cooking water, so we substituted with buttermilk with tremendous results). With the motor running, process in the butter, salt, and pepper through the feed tube. Taste for seasoning and serve hot. (You can reheat over low heat in the same pan if you're not eating immediately.)

Ted Allen's Cook's Note:
Cauliflower is an excellent canvas for other flavors. I like things spicy and I love mustard, so I sometimes add a tablespoon of Colman's, the amazing English mustard powder, to this purée;. You might also add curry powder, grated Parmigiano, crumbled blue cheese, or a chopped fresh herbsd

For the Broccolini


1 1/2 lbs. broccolini
1/4 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
salt & black pepper to taste
(we also added red pepper flakes for a little added spice and flavor)


Boil the broccolini in a pot of salted water until crisp-tender (about five minutes). Drain.
Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Sautee half of the garlic until golden brown (about 30 seconds). Add half of the broccolini and sautee until heated through (you can actually cook the heck out of it - until the florets start to char - and it tastes even better). Remove from pan and repeat with the rest of the oil, garlic and broccolini.




For the Steaks, Mushroom and Sauce


Two 8 oz filets
Kosher Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 bacon strips (we omitted)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 pound assorted mushrooms
1 tbsp freshly chopped garlic
2 sprigs rosemary
2 cups pinot noir (we used Coppola's Rosso blended table wine which has great body that works well for cooking. Sometimes, finicky, light pinot noirs will turn out flavorless and make for a weak sauce, even when reduced)
2 tbsp prepared demi glace (Whole Foods didn't have any. We substituted beef broth which is not the same at all, but adds a different flavor and body to the sauce that is needed)
2 tbsp unsalted butter (increase this even more if you want a thicker, richer sauce and don't mind the calories. It's not necessary that you do, in order to achieve a tasty sauce, though.)


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Season both sides of the meat generously with salt and pepper. In a large, heavy OVEN PROOF skillet, heat the oil over medium high heat, until almost smoking. Place the steaks in the hot pan and cook until well seared on side 1, about 3 minutes. Turn the steaks over. There should be a nice crust on top. Add the mushrooms, garlic and rosemary. Transfer the pan to the oven. Roast for 10-12 minutes, until steaks are med-rare. 

Remove the steaks, mushrooms and rosemary to a platter; cover to keep warm. Return the pan to the stove over medium-high heat. Deglaze with the wine, scraping up all the yummy bits in the bottom of the pan. Mix in the demi glace, stirring to combine. Put the steaks and mushrooms back in the pan and coat with the sauce. Finish with the butter to make it rich.


(Note - we didn't want to heat up our oven, so we used our large toaster oven for this. To do so, after searing the steaks, we sautted the mushrooms, garlic and rosemary, which picked up the flavor from the meat and left their own flavor on the pan. We remove those ingredients and then poured in the wine and broth, letting it deglaze and reduce for several minutes. We placed the steaks and mushroom mixture in our toaster pan and then added the slightly-reduced wine sauce, then roasted everything together - this produced a great result.)


I've written about the cauliflower puree before. It's a great alternative to mashed potatoes if you're looking for something healthier and different. The broccolini, too, is a great twist on something you may (hopefully) already eat a lot but maybe doesn't have the cache you're looking for on steak night. When cooked correctly, their stems are sweet and crisp. The char on the florets is a salty, unexpected flavor contrast. And the kick of flavor and spice from the garlic and crushed pepper takes it to another level. Best of all, this rich wine sauce, pared with the earthy mushrooms and the fresh rosemary tastes like real steakhouse affair. If your steaks always seem to taste too much like your own cooking and not as special as you'd hope, give this recipe a try. I'm confident you'll surprise yourself in a good way.




May 23, 2010

Sung Son Sings A Delicious Song

Restaurant: Sung Son a Vietnamese Bistro
Food: Traditional Vietnamese + Buffet
Service: Extra polite, but almost too stand-offish
Price: $12.95 buffet or entrees from $7 - $18
Rating: one napkin

Sometimes, picking a place for dinner can be a frustrating and time-consuming endeavor. The goal of choosing the right spot, with the right atmosphere and right food for your mood and appetite is a task I probably (definitely) put more effort into than a normal person.

So when we were turned away at Korma Sutra the other night, arriving just a few minutes too late, a feeling of doom swept over me. Our carefully planned, thoroughly thought-out restaurant selection was abruptly rendered obsolete. But just as I thought the restaurant-choosing process was about to start over from square one, a celestial ray of light shone down on the simple doorway directly across the street, illuminating a path to dinnertime bliss. A siren's song beckoned us from Sung Son Vietnamese Bistro directly across the street. Relenting to fate with a shrug and a grin, we allowed ourselves to be sucked in through the doorway to a starkly empty (but nicely decorated) dining room.



Elizabeth had been there before but this was my first time. So without assurance from previous visits, I was a little scared by two things that struck me immediately upon entry: the aforementioned emptiness, and the buffet carts set up at the west end of the room, continuously heating food for apparitional customers. An unappreciated lineup of prepared, warmed foods begs the disconcerting question of "what's so wrong with this stuff that no one's eating it?" Turns out my fears were premature. Though we didn't eat at the buffet, we enjoyed an overall pleasant experience, and were also joined by a flock of other diners who came in shortly after us.

Elizabeth and I opted for a seat in the south side of the dining room (away from the buffet) and ordered off the menu. The restaurant is surprisingly large, tastefully decorated with white curtains and white tablecloths with a sealed concrete floor and exposed concrete walls, which lent much more character to the place than the institutional sheetrock and carpet many Asian restaurants employ. I liked the feel of Sung Son.

After promptly served ice water and a few minutes of menu-perusing, we made our selections: spring rolls to start, a Vietnamese scallion crepe as entree one and a simple shrimp and rice dish for entree two, both of which we split evenly.

We enjoyed the spring rolls just fine, which came filled with rice vermicelli, little cubes of fried tofu, lettuce, shredded carrot and mint. They were fresh - slightly sticky to the touch and moist on the inside. Few things are worse than a spring roll that's been sitting in the open air long enough for its rice paper wrapper to stiffen and its crunchy vegetables to become tepid and limp. The peanut sauce was average, which means good. Plenty of real peanut taste, but lots of sweetness, too. Maybe a little too sweet, but not enough to stop be from aggressively swathing out the bowl with my spring rolls each time I prepped a bite.

Relying on the ubiquity of restaurant menus online failed me on this trip, however. Sung Son does not appear to have a website or their menu posted anywhere online. And I failed to take down the names of our entrees. So I apologize for not having better details on the entrees we were served:

The crepe selection jumped out at us because we hadn't seen Vietnamese crepes on many local menus and the last time we'd had one was at The Slanted Door in San Francisco when we were on our honeymoon. This one reminded us very much of the one from our previous experience. The crepe is not like a French crepe. Rather than seeming to be made from a doughy batter, its flavor and consistency is more like that of an almost paper-thin omelette. More eggy; less like a pancake, and savory. Alongside the crepe, which is filled with a mixture of softly cooked mung beans (much like a yellow lentil in flavor and texture - quite good), came a huge pile of mint leaves and sprigs of cilantro, plus iceberg lettuce. In our ravenous haste, we failed to load the crepe with any of these additional accoutrements, still enjoying it thoroughly. The eggy, starchy Vietnamese pancake taco thingy was a nice, mild side to our more substantial shrimp and rice dish.

...Speaking of which, this large helping of well-cooked, medium-sized shrimp came on a heaping pile of steamed rice with little sweet fried crunchies of some sort and topped with chopped scallions. On the side were sweet sliced carrots, cucumbers and lettuce. The shrimp had been coated with an ultra thin batter and stir fried - juicy on the inside with a little crunchy shell on the outside. In small bowl with both of the entrees came a spicy, pinkish-orange chili sauce I'd not had before. It tasted almost like simple syrup with flecks of red chilies and maybe a little ginger infused in it. As a topping for both the shrimp and the crepe, it was a nice sugary compliment.

Thanks to the chili sauce, there was a good amount of sweetness among the dishes - again, probably more than I would have preferred - but when I finally set my utensils down and pondered my overall opinion of the meal while wiping my mouth clean, I came to the conclusion that the food I'd just consumed was far beyond satisfactory. It was tasty.

Several days later, as I write this, I find myself not necessarily dying to return, but definitely planning to hear the song of Sung Son again call my name. Sung Son is a solid addition to the Asian food scene in KC and a relatively classy addition to an area of town that is in dire need of relatively classy establishments. If you need a change of pace from your normal Vietnamese dishes, give Sung Son a try.

Rating: one napkin
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Sung Son a Vietnamese Bistro on Urbanspoon

Banh Mi For Me

Happy Gillis turned me on to banh mis, which are basically just Vietnamese sandwiches of meat or tofu topped with sweetened crunchy vegetables. Theirs features delicious pork meatballs, which are unwaveringly juicy and undoubtedly high in fat. So when Elizabeth and I stumbled upon a recipe for a marinated tofu banh mi, we decided to substitute the tofu (not quite as satisfying as real meat in our collective opinion) with lean white chicken meat. ...It was a great move! And to make this sandwich into a hearty dinnertime meal, we coupled it with chef David Chang's famous Momofuku Ssam Bar Brussels sprouts with rice crispies (from Food and Wine). Here are the recipes:



Our Chicken Banh Mis 
(cooking light's version)
Ingredients
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken tenderloins
2 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
2 tsp finely grated peeled fresh ginger
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
1 1/4 cups (3-inches) matchstick-cut carrot
1 cup sliced shiitake mushroom caps
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 julienned green onion
1 cucumber peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
2 tbsp canola oil
2 sandwich baguettes
1/2 cup fresh cilantro sprigs
1 jalapeno pepper, thinly sliced
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp sriracha




Preparation

Combine soy sauce and ginger in a baking dish. Add chicken. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator overnight. 

Combine vinegar, sugar and salt in a medium bowl, stirring until sugar and salt dissolve. Add carrot and next four ingredients (through cucumber); toss well. Let stand 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour carrot mixture through a sieve; drain thoroughly.

Heat oil in a grill pan over medium-high heat. Remove chicken from marinade; discard marinade. Sautee four minutes on each side, or until golden and cooked through.

Halve and toast bread. Meanwhile, in a small bown, combine mayo and sriracha. Stir well until mixture is well combined and a consistent orange color.

Remove toasted bread. Spread desired amount of mayo mixture on the bread halves. Top with chicken, then carrot mixture, cilantro and jalapeno slices. Top with other slice of bread.


David Chang's Spicy Brussels Sprouts with Mint from Momofuku Ssam Bar
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup Rice Krispies 
1/4 tsp togarashi or cayenne pepper (I actually use a dollop of sambal oelek which is totally different, but does a nice job of adding spice and chili flavor)
Kosher salt
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
2 tbsp water
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 small red chile, minced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 tbsp chopped mint
4 cups roasted or broiled brussels sprouts (about 2 pounds), halved lengthwise (I actually have boiled them before and that works fine, too, though they can turn out a  little too mushy if you overdo it.)

Directions
In a large skillet, heat 1 tbsp of the oil until shimmering. Add the Rice Krispies and sambal (or togarashi or cayenne) and cook over high heat, stirring, until browned, about 30 seconds. Season with salt. Transfer to a plate and wipe out the skillet.

In a small bowl, combine the fish sauce, water, sugar, rice vinegar, lime juice, garlic and chile and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the cilantro and mint.

Add the remaining 1 tbsp of oil to the skillet and heat until nearly smoking. Add the brussels sprouts; cook over high heat, stirring, until charred in spots and heated through, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bwol and toss with the vinaigrette. Just before serving, sprinkle the Rice Krispies on top and serve right away.




May 19, 2010

Sbarro sign at kci reads "Fresh Otalian Cooking" while pizzas sit under heat lamps below. Who are you kidding, Sbarro? (mobile post)

May 16, 2010

Three Mongoloids Pillage Genghis Khan

Restaurant: Genghis Khan Mongolian Grill
Location: 3906 Bell St., KC MO
Food: Traditional Mongolian Barbecue
Service: Simple & Friendly
Atmosphere: Lively, homey, entertaining
Price: Average for buffet, but a little high for my liking
Rating: one napkin

Let me start by saying I went to Genghis Khan a few years ago and left mostly unimpressed. I remember thinking my dish turned out to be unexpectedly bland, yet it cost more than I'd expected. I knew I was probably to blame for this more than anything, though. After all, at a Mongolian grill, the diner assembles his/her own bowl of ingredients. It's only the cooking that's left up to the restaurant's staff. So when my friend Andrew asked if we had a Mongolian Barbecue in Kansas City while we were trying to think of dinner ideas Saturday night, a light bulb went off in my head. It was time to return and give this place a fair shake.

Located at 39th and Bell, just south of d'Bronx, I found the dining room more inviting and cozy than I remembered it. The exposed brick walls and aged hard wood floors were exceedingly cozy and inviting. The perpetual searing and steaming of meat and veggies on the flat-topped grill dispersed an invisible fog of warmth and inviting aroma that filled our chests and piqued our dormant appetites.



The friendly hostess promised us our wait would be short despite a full dining room, and she was right. After allowing me just enough time to walk back outside and capture a couple photos of the front of the building, we were seated in a booth at the back of the restaurant, which probably would have been where I'd have chosen if I was given my pick from the whole place. Great spot. The window on my left looked out over the insanely busy parking lot behind the restaurant, and to my right were the rest of the diners, happy, raucously conversing and laughing. It had that sense of universal contentment throughout.

In no time we were back out of our seats and loading woefully small bowls with our raw ingredients. I was slightly disappointed that so many were over-cooled and frozen, but it was better than the (health code violating) alternative of an overly warm buffet line. So just a minor infraction. Into my bowl I hurriedly piled sliced mushrooms, cabbage, jalapeno, cilantro, carrots, bean sprouts, water chestnuts and thin slices of celery. I was positively thrilled with the veggie choices on hand.

On top of the veg I piled delightfully yellow egg noodles - a modest portion though my egg noodle-crazy appetite screamed at me to double, nay triple the amount I first took. On top of the noodles I added thinly sliced raw pork and delicious looking bright white squid segments from the protein selections, and if you like squid don't miss out. I loved having it in my dish.

Following the recipe for a spicy sauce, I ladled into my bowl a base of liquids including, but not limited, to soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar water, ginger water, garlic and some kind of chili paste. Truthfully, I can't remember what-all was involved, but the ingredients are listed for the convenience of confused diners on the sneeze guard above the bowls. [I remembered that on my last trip, the sauce component was where I thought I had failed... my dish had turned out bland and dry, Confused by the myriad of sauce choices in front of me and not cognizant of the recipe listed literally right under my nose, I limited my selection to a single inadequate ladle of soy sauce. More experienced in Asian cooking now ("experienced" used lightly here), this omission of flavored liquids seems preposterous and somewhat embarrassing.]

The final ingredient choice to diners after saucing is that of egg or no. I elected to add it - an essential to stir fry of any kind in my mind.

Then I stood back and what the two grill masters quickly but expertly sautee my ingredients to perfection. Truly, their method of quick-searing and then spreading out the ingredients to ensure meats are in direct contact with the grill so as to cook through, is carried out with a good amount of skill. I was beyond eager to dig in when they handed my steaming bowl of flat top bbq back to me.

A quick stop to the dessert and sides table in the middle of the floor for a crab rangoon and fried spring roll and then we ceased communication in lieu of face down, hog-to-trough style food inhalation. I may not have even used my fork. It's hard to remember.

What I do remember is that I'd nailed the sauce and ingredients. The whole dish was fiendishly salty and spicy. The squid was nicely chewy, but not overcooked tot the point of rubberiness. The pork had picked up a lot of flavor from the sauces and packed more color and flavor than I'd expected. The water chestnuts and celery added a woody, nutty crunch I loved, almost like croutons in a lettuce salad. My noodles were incredibly fresh tasting, also chewy but rich and soft, too. Altogether, a fantastic plateful of ingredients bursting and popping off each other with flavor and texture differences that played like a fireworks show in my mouth.

We'd hit the nail on the head, here. The right restaurant for the type of appetite and mood we all had at that moment in time.

The one and only serious drawback I'd point out about Genghis Khan was the buffet factor. I mentioned the slightly frozen ingredients earlier, which gave me the slightest impression the ingredients were not quite as fresh as they could have been. But more than that, the price of buffets annoys me. It's completely understandable that, given the amount of sport eating in which their regular customers engage, per-head pricing needs to be high to ensure a profit. But I was satisfied with one plate of food. Didn't even need to consider returning for more. Yet I left feeling like I'd paid for more than what I ate.

The dichotomy there annoys me thusly, 1) I paid for more than I got, and 2) bad mental imagery related to the phrase "all you can eat" inevitably runs through my mind in relation to buffets. ...Memories of painful, sickening regret after over-indulging on luke-warm slices of greasy pizza, softened, dried chicken fingers tasting of hot stainless steel containers, ranch dressing mingling with black cherry jello and melting chocolate ice cream in a freshly washed cafeteria cup, still warm and wet from the dishwasher, smelling of industrial-strength Sysco detergent. These are the buffet memories lingering in my psyche from childhood experiences at the likes of Valentino's Pizza, Bonanza and Sirloin Stockade. I just can't shake 'em.

So, take away my neurotic willies related to buffets, lower the price a smidge (I'd pay $10 for one plate happily instead of $15 for all I can eat), and keep the ingredients from becoming frostbitten and this place has some serious appeal. Great atmosphere, fun for all kinds of diners, groups to dates, simple but good service and delicious plates of happiness. We came, we saw, we conquered.

Rating: one napkin
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Genghis Khan Mongolian Grill on Urbanspoon

May 15, 2010

Mother's Day Quiche, Extra Mothers

This Mother's Day, after a trip to Manhattan to see my mom, we returned home and prepared for our first experience hosting a Mother's Day brunch. Four mothers were in attendance: my mother-in-law, her mother-in-law (Elizabeth's grandma), Elizabeth's aunt and a friend of Elizabeth's mom. All wonderful women. We were honored to have them.

Our choice of cuisine to pay proper homage? Quiche seemed right. Nothing too fancy, but certainly a classy dish and one with a distinct motherly quality (quiche is a type of pie, after all).



Of course, we'd never made quiche before, so we had our work cut out for us.

It was a dual between a duo of quiches, in fact. Elizabeth's mushroom and shallot quiche with fontina and my crab quiche with herbs and gruyere. Elizabeth also knocked out her beautiful and delicious mixed macerated berries. Here's what we did (thanks to epicurious.com for the quiche recipes):

Mushroom and Fontina Quiche

Ingredients 

1 refrigerated pie crust (half of 15-ounce package) 
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter 
2/3 cup chopped shallots (about 3 medium) 
5 cups sliced assorted mushrooms (such as chanterelle, stemmed shiitake, oyster, crimini, and button; 12 to 14 ounces), large mushrooms halved 
4 large eggs 
2/3 cup half and half 
1/3 cup whole milk 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmeg 
1 1/2 cups (packed) coarsely grated Fontina cheese (about 7 ounces), divided (we spent a LOT on fontina. You could get away with less expensive grocery store swiss cheese, though)

Preheat oven to 450°F. Unroll crust completely. Press firmly onto bottom and up sides of 9-inch-diameter deep-dish glass pie dish. Bake until light golden brown, pressing on sides of crust with back of spoon if crust begins to slide down sides of dish, about 17 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325°F.

Meanwhile, melt butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallots; sauté until beginning to soften, about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms; sprinkle with salt and pepper and sauté until mushrooms are tender and beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Transfer to plate; spread out to cool slightly.

Whisk eggs, half and half, milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg in large bowl to blend. Stir in 1 cup Fontina cheese and sautéed mushrooms. Pour filling into crust. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese over quiche.

Bake quiche until puffed, golden brown, and just set in center, about 45 minutes. Cool 30 minutes. Cut into wedges.



Crab Quiche
For pastry1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water
[NOTE: we skipped the homemade crust on this one and used refrigerated pre-made pie crust. Proud? No. Happy with the time savings? Yes. I'd do it again.]


For filling1 (1-lb) king crab leg, thawed if frozen, or 1/2 lb lump crabmeat, picked over (I went the canned crabmeat route as I've heard crab legs bought fresh in KC, if frozen in transit from the ocean, can be mealy, mushy and a huge waste of money.)
4 large eggs2 cups heavy cream (I used half and half instead and this turned out to be a good call)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro (I omitted this since cilantro is such a polarizing ingredient.)
1/2 teaspoon seafood seasoning such as Paul Prudhomme's (a reviewer of this recipe says to use Old Bay instead, so I did.)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 oz coarsely grated Monterey Jack cheese (1/2 cup) (I omitted this)
2 oz coarsely grated Swiss cheese (1/2 cup) (I replaced both cheeses with good, expensive gruyere. Yes, it was good, but it didn't have a flavor distinct enough to justify the price. Go with less expensive grocery store swiss.)

Whisk together eggs, cream, herbs, seafood seasoning, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, then stir in cheeses and crabmeat.

Pour into prebaked crust and bake until filling puffs and is no longer wobbly in center when quiche is gently shaken, 40 to 50 minutes. Cool in pie plate on rack 15 minutes.

Both of our quiches turned out wonderful. The mushroom and shallot had a lot of girth from all the mushrooms. It was filling, salty...satisfying. My crab quiche was a great contrast. Its sweet crab flavor was distinctive and distinguished at once. The bottom of the crust was a little soggy, as can often happen with quiche. We did not solve this age-old quiche conundrum. But the rich ingredients made for a luxurious meal that our guests either loved or acted like they loved.

Elizabeth's Macerated Berries
Ingredients
1 cup blackberries
1 cup blueberries
1 cup raspberries
Sugar to taste (we use approx. 2 tablespoons)
Approx. 1 tablespoon Gran Marnier

Preparation
Rinse berries in cold water and add to bowl. Add sugar and Gran Marnier. Stir to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow to sit in fridge for 30 minutes. Mix again prior to serving. Serve cold.

Thanks to Elizabeth's mom, Leslie, who supplied the coffee and its accompanying cream.

Thanks, also, to my mom - who always finds sneaky ways to care for me, even now as I approach 30 years of age - for sending us back to KC with a loaf of her delicious blueberry bread. It held over the guests for the hour they had to wait as our quiche finished baking and then cooled down to be served.

As rewarding as it was to cook this food for our guests, and to successfully cook quiche for our first time, the overwhelming sense of reward we experienced came from seeing how happy these wonderful mothers all were, sitting and comfortably chatting with each other while they ate.  It was a beautiful Mother's Day for us. Happy Mother's Day Maggie, Frances, Paula, Leslie and Mary. Thanks for being such great moms.

May 6, 2010

Big Mac Veggie Burger

I arrived home tonight with only a little time for dinner and little on-hand with which to work.

My mind quickly thought of the veggie burger patties we had in the freezer (thanks, Costco), but one wasn't going to be enough. The bread bag had one legit slice of bread and two heels. I yanked them out, plus two veg patties and threw them all in the toaster oven.

Meanwhile, I grabbed the mayo and hit it with several dashes of Chipotle Tabasco - one of my favorite hot sauces ever. Out came the bread and I slathered on the chipotle-tabasco-mayo sauce.

Grabbed some of the red leaf lettuce from the fridge, stacked everything up and next thing I knew, I had a tasty veggie burger big mac in my hands. Huge, quite filling, zesty and, ultimately, quite satisfying.


...okay, so the photo doesn't make it look so hot. But trust me, it was great!

May 2, 2010

Finally Went to Vietnam

Restaurant: Vietnam Cafe
Location: 522 Campbell St, KC MO
Food: Good, cheap pho and other Vietnamese classics
Service: Brisk, friendly
Atmosphere: A step up from typical KC Asian restaurant
Price: Cheap! Fill up for fast food prices.
Rating: One napkin


When it comes to Asian takeout, we all have our favorites. Recently I was chided for proclaiming that I was faithful to Saigon 39 in Westport, though, and it ended up finally pushing me out of my comfort zone.

When I asked my challenger for a better recommendation, he gave me the answer I was expecting to hear - the place that so many people have now told me is the best in town but I hadn't considered seriously enough to try - Vietnam Cafe in Columbus Park.So, after staying late at work one night last week, and knowing I was on my own for dinner, I decided to hit this place up for takeout on the way home.



After a quick perusal of reviews and recommendations on Yelp, the Pitch and other sites, I decided on some kind of soup. Someone had brought the spicy beef back from a lunch break recently and it looked delicious, so I made it my pick.

The friendly gal who answered the phone took my order promptly and hung up - didn't even ask my name. So I hastily buzzed over to be sure no one else was given my soup by accident before I could retrieve it. I've heard this joint gets very busy during the lunch rush and on weekends but lucky for me there were only a few diners there when I arrived. The dining room had a pleasant feel to it and the folks sitting there eating were smiling and laughing. They looked like regulars, very comfortable with the setting, almost like it was their own dining room. I like that.

I also like that you see so many Asian people eating here. There is a growing pocket of Asian families living in Columbus Park and the river market area now, evidenced by the handful of Asian grocers that have popped up in the area over the last few years. And just like any big city where ethnic groups settle together, everyone benefits from the establishments they form to cater to their own traditions... like great, authentic restaurants.

As I paid my cash and picked up my takeout containers, I was shocked by their weight. These were full dishes and I'd only paid $6.50 plus tax! The cloudy brown broth smelled scrumptious and had a slight amount of bright orange oil in it from the beef that provided its flavor.

I assembled the dish by first placing a heap of rice noodles in the bottom of my bowl - thick and slightly chewy, soon to be saturated with the flavors of my beef broth. I then layered on the thinly sliced beef, a huge slice of Fresno pepper (red jalapeno), the sliced veggies - cabbage, carrot and more, dropped in a big sprig of cilantro, and poured on the broth to cover it all. My box o' ingredients also came with a massive branch of purple-stemmed Thai basil that filled the room with a wonderful fresh scent. I decided that I didn't need it in my dish but was impressed that it was provided. Given its size, they must have grown it themselves, perhaps on the restaurant premises.

So how was it? Hot, satisfying, only slightly spicy, and fresh, through and through. Still, overall, I'd have to say pretty average. That's not a bad thing when it comes to Pho, I just wasn't completely blown away, the way I was told I would. Would I drive the extra distance to get this over my usual at Saigon 39? Probably not. But I'll certainly return for a cheap lunch on a regular basis now, since it's close to the office and there are groups who make the jaunt almost every day.

The food is good, the prices are great, the atmosphere is actually pretty decent... all in all a solid pick. Glad I went.

Rating: one napkin
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Vietnam Cafe on Urbanspoon

May 1, 2010

Bichelmeyer Doesn't Sound Mexican... But It Surely Is

Restaurant: Bichelmeyer Meats (Carniceria Bichelmeyer)
Location: 704 Cheyenne Avenue, KCK 66105

Food: Full service butcher shop, but I came for the tacos (they also serve hot tamales)
Service: Tell 'em what kind of tacos you want, they hand you the tacos. Nice folks.
Atmosphere: Meaty
Price: $1.50 tacos
Rating: One napkin

Been doing some taco research online recently and to my surprise I've learned that a butcher shop in KCK with a name that sounds anything but Mexican serves some highly regarded, authentic Mexican tacos. Fresh off my recent trip to Cancun Fiesta Fresh where I found the street tacos satisfying and totally delicious, I decided to take a quick trip to Bichelmeyer for a comparison.



Bichelmeyer is located just north of the river on Cheyenne Ave in KCK (if you know where Quick's BBQ is, it's directly across the street). Tacos are not their main business. Bichelmeyer is a butcher shop, not a restaurant. The incidental table and chairs on hand for taco eaters don't change that fact.

A Saturday-only affair, the taco counter is hardly noticeable upon entry and may not even be manned at all times. Rest assured, though, fresh corn tortillas, warm pork and shredded beef and diced onion, cilantro, salsa and guacamole sauce are standing by at-the-ready.

Both Elizabeth and I went for one of each. The pork, I believe, was adobada, reddish in color, clearly marinated in chiles. Mine was tender and crazy-flavorful. The diced onion and cilantro on top added just a little contrast and the thin avocado sauce cooled it off nicely. In seconds it was gone, inhaled by the vortex that was my digestive system.

The shredded beef (barbacoa) was exceedingly tender. In fact, we both found it to be a little too wet, perhaps having sat in its own juices too long. It had broken down into somewhat of a soft, beefy mush, too uniform in texture. Drained only slightly or perhaps not shredded quite so fine, it would have been outstanding with the red salsa I drizzled over top, again accompanied by diced onion and cilantro.

Once consumed, the takeaway was that we had definitely just eaten flavorful, cheap, authentic street food. Healthy it was not. Manicured by a chef, neither. No, these were straight-up street tacos - a little raunchy but filled with good flavor. Executed with a little more attention to detail, they'd have been great.

Forced to choose, I'd give the edge to Cancun Fiesta Fresh, but they were nearly identical in preparation and flavor. CCF gets an edge in that their taco preparation is the focus of their business, and that comes through in what you eat.

Rating: one napkin
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[Pictured above is a boy who spent the entire 30 minutes we were there shouting, "Hot tamales! Get some hot tamales!" The staff jokingly griped at him to stop which only encouraged him to keep it up for continued effect. He was entertaining himself during a boring afternoon with the act of annoyance, something we've all done at that age. It was a funny little slice of life.]
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