Saturday, April 30, 2005

Shu Mai

Siew Mai, originally uploaded by framboise.

Richmond's Full Kee Restaurant

The Full Kee Restaurant on Horsepen, just off of Broad, is an infrequent pleasure. Although the food is generally top-notch, it has, unfortunately, prices to match. Dim sum though, is a treat I feel compelled to indulge in once in a while despite the price. And dim sum is only available at the Full Kee. Since Asian food is generally considered cheap take-out food, I’ve wondered if I harbor some unacknowledged (until now) bias against paying a lot for non-European food when I wouldn’t think twice about it in, say, the Dogwood Grill or Millie’s. After all, I don’t expect them to charge diner prices, do I? Nevertheless, I can’t seem to squelch my resentment when I get the bill at the Full Kee—it always reminds me of the many amazing meals I’ve had at the Oriental Garden in New York that are half (literally) the price. In fact, the food at the Oriental Garden is far superior to the Full Kee—but wait a minute, I digress. This isn’t a review of great restaurants I wish I could visit but a review of the one I went to last Saturday. One reason I love dim sum is because the waiters bring it around to you on little carts. You can eyeball everything available, choose what you want, and eat it immediately. Talk about instant gratification! For those of us attention-deficient diners, this is the ideal setting for a feast. The first cart to come around only had two dishes I liked on it—fortunately, they were my all time favorites: sticky rice and turnip cake. The sticky rice is wrapped in lotus leaves that you unwrap carefully with chopsticks in case of errant steam. Inside the packet, the sticky rice itself surrounds a savory concoction of ground chicken, little Chinese sausages and tiny shrimp. I knew something was wrong when no steam escaped from my little packet. The sticky rice this particular Saturday was cold, with the rice firmly adhered to the lotus leaves in a gluey mass. Although sorely disappointed, I inhaled the lukewarm filling and gamely tried to peel the rice away from leaves. My turnip cake too was cold and grainy, instead of hot and creamy. I didn’t try to eat more than a few bites of this dish and looked anxiously around for another cart with a functioning steam element. Although disappointed, I was not daunted. Within a few minutes, a waitress pushed by with more little bamboo steamer baskets full of dumplings. These are the backbone of dim sum and they did not disappoint. We chose from an array of pork and shrimp dumplings and standouts included both shrimp and chive dumplings and shu mai dumplings. Although the Full Kee chive dumplings suffered in comparison to the truly outstanding Oriental Garden ones, they were still good, bursting with chives and shrimp in a delicate rice noodle wrapper. I thought the shrimp was unnecessary though and distracted from the delicious chive filling. The shrimp fared far better in the tiny spring rolls we chose that tasted deliciously fresh from both the sea and the deep fryer. In shu mai dumplings, minced pork and shrimp are mixed to form a meatball that’s wrapped in a gently pleated wonton wrapper. These were perfect, small and savory and effortlessly edible. In fact, I ate all three of them. The danger of dim sum is ordering too much. At the Full Kee this leads to profound sticker shock when the bill arrives. Even preparing ahead of time for it only partially mitigates that shock. It’s hard to get too upset however when you’re slow and addled by extreme eating. The Full Kee is, frankly, the only game in town when it comes to dim sum, and despite their price-gouging, they do a good job. Ultimately though, the style of food itself is the real standout. The Full Kee will satisfy your craving, but for truly amazing (and cheap!) dim sum, you’ll have to travel to Chinatown.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Spanikopita Soothes the Soul (and the Stomach . . .)

basil2 After a grueling two weeks enduring a low-level stomach virus, I'm finally thinking about food again in a positive way. It was a strange illness--eating actually made me feel better, but of course, I didn't want to. I solved the problem by making a big pan of spanikopita (recipe to follow) and more or less living off of that (chicken salad helped too). My children were allowed to graze free-range: hot dogs, cereal for dinner, buttered pasta, I gave them whatever was the least amount of work. My husband was in Spain for the last week, so I could only slough off my domestic duties while everyone was at school. No fun. My spanikopita recipe is a close version of Mollie Katzen's from the New Moosewood Cookbook:
2 Tb. olive oil 1 large onion, chopped 1 tsp. coarse salt 1 Tb. chopped fresh basil 1 Tb.chopped fresh oregano 2 Tb. chopped fresh dill 3 packages thawed, frozen chopped spinach, drained and squeezed* 4 cloves garlic, minced 3 Tb. flour 1 lb. feta cheese, crumbled 1 cup cottage cheese (I prefer large curd, if available) 1/4-1/2 tsp. black pepper 2 sticks (1/2 lb.) unsalted butter, melted 1 lb. filo, thawed according to package directions *Or you can torture yourself and do it the hard way: wash , de-stem and coarsely chop two 10 oz. packages of savoy spinach. Add to onions and garlic and stir until wilted. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Brush 9x13-inch baking pan with butter. Heat oil in large sauce pan or Dutch oven. Add onions and garlic and saute until soft. Add spinach and stir until heated thoroughly. Add flour, stir, and cook over medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in fresh herbs and salt. Mix in feta and cottage cheese, adding black pepper to taste. Add more salt if needed. Place a sheet of filo in prepared pan, letting the edges climb the side of the pan. Brush with butter and add another sheet, remembering to give the underside of the sheet that overhangs the pan a quick swipe with the butter each time. Repeat until you have a stack of 8 sheets. Add half of the filling in evenly spaced dollops and then spread so that it fills to the edges of the pan. Cover with 6-8 more sheets (this will be your middle filo layer) and add remaining filling on top. Finish with another 6-8 buttered sheets. Brush remaining butter on top and tuck in the edges. Bake 50 minutes or until golden. Let cool 5-10 minutes before cutting. Serves 6 generously, 8 more conservatively. If you happen to make it, let me know what you think.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Flank Steak Does Not Go Well With Cereal

cookbook2 Last night's dinner wasn't exactly an unqualified success. I tried the new flank steak recipe in this Cook's Illustrated (they haven't posted it on their website yet), and although it was good, it just didn't knock my socks off as I've come to expect from this consistently reliable (redundant, I know, but these recipes work, baby) if you're not a subscriber to their website, fork over the twenty bucks for unlimited access to culinary success*) publication. As opposed to the typical marinade of herbs, vinegar or lemon juice, and oil, CI called for a wet rub of garlic, shallots, rosemary, and olive oil. I remembered to do the steak the night before (miraculously) so I expected a really pungeantsteak, redolent of garlic and rosemary. Instead, the flavor wasflat, with little penetration to the interior of the meat. I much prefer Steven Raichlen's outstanding marinade on p. 54 of Barbecue! Bible : Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades, Bastes, Butters, and Glazes which does call for 1/4 cup of lemon juice. CI claims the acid in a marinade makes the beef gray and mushy, but--oh, no, no, no--I beg to differ. Or maybe I don't care about a little mushiness if it means fabulous flavor-packed meat. At any rate, that's the way I wished I gone. I whipped up pureed cauliflower and roasted green beans to go along with the steak and was a lot more successful with these reliable side dishes. The cauliflower is simply a South Beach Diet innovation. Although the South Beach people offer it as an alternative to mashed potatoes ( Surprise South Beach Mashed 'Potatoes'), I think it really stands on it own. I steam up a bag of frozen cauliflower for about 10-15 minutes or until very tender, and then puree the now steamed cauliflower in the food processor with about a tablespoon of butter (or, more healthily, Brown and Brummel spread), 1/4 c. milk and lots of salt and pepper until smooth, creamy, and delicious. Roasted green beans are even easier: toss your beans with about a tablespoon of good olive oil and some coarse salt, spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet, then bake for about 8 minutes in a 500 degree oven, turning once. Transfer to a serving dish and toss with a tablespoon or two of grated parmesan (with thanks to Ann Hodgman's book, One Bite Won't Kill You. Of course, my children only ate the green beans and a little steak. And complained loudly when they were denied breakfast cereal to round out the meal. *I am neither compensated nor bribed by Cooks Illustrated or any of their associates. None of the links I include constitute advertising, and although they do mostly constitute endorsement, contextually, I might just be dissing them.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Can Can's Horrible Service; or Why A Great Wine List Can't Make Up For An Empty Glass

wine2 As a former waitress, I am simultaneously the most forgiving and the most demanding of customers. I understand the vagaries of bartenders, cooks, and busboys, and will make every allowance when the service gets a little rocky. I am ruthless however, when I think my server is incompetent or lazy--or both. I still can't punish a server financially--15% is the most insulting amount I'll leave (I could be wrong you know, about the laziness or incompetance, even though I'm probably not). I once strode out of a British restaurant, leaving only the change from my bill, after being simutaneously ignored and sneered at by my waiter for the duration of my stay. And I've felt guilty about it ever since even though a British waiter doesn't even expect more than that. He probably would have been even more contemptuous of me for over-tipping. But I digress. The service at Can Can is truly horrible--agonizingly slow with no apologies. Nevertheless, I'm convinced it isn't actually the waitstaff's fault. Somehow, I think the management has put into place a particularly inept system for getting food and drinks to the table. There seemed to be a whole lot of waiters and waitresses rushing around, so it couldn't be overloaded sections--our waitress was friendly and polite, if a bit distracted. The physical space is large--do they have too far to go from bar to kitchen and to table? I'm not sure. Perhaps it's some sort of communication breakdown between the three sections of the restaurant. I'm not the only one who's experienced bad service; it seems to be a universal complaint. Hopefully, these are growing pains. I really do like the staff and the vibe and above all, the food. My husband was less taken with the crowd of customers, but then he has a fear of pink shirts and khakis. I'm generally too busy drinking and eating in restaurants to notice the other people around me. My recommendation is qualified, obvously, but I plan a repeat visit in a few months and I'll let you know what I think. Oh, and by the way, the wine list really is pretty fabulous--as far as French wines go, that is.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Can Can in Carytown

cancancaryst.jpg Although I went to Chopsticks Thai Diner (Chopsticks' newest incarnation) last night, I'd like to talk about Can Can across the street instead. It is, of course, the restaurant everyone in Richmond is talking about and on the surface, it's pretty spectacular. It occupies an enormous space (the old Tiffany's Bridal Shop spot in Carycourt), and the attempt to recreate a French bistro is pretty spot-on except for the lack of grime and tobacco residue that seasons all of the real bistros I've been to in France. In many ways it reminds me of the Paris hotel in Las Vegas--fabulous food for the masses in a setting not unlike Busch Gardens (for grown-ups, that is). In Vegas though, they do try to recreate that Parisien grubbiness with some fancy faux-finish aging (and they almost pull it off too, if you squint your eyes and/or drink three or four martinis while ignoring the incessant ringing of the slot machines). Can Can is brand-, spanking new and they keep the lights up all night to prove it. This is unfortunate, since as that oppressive light grates along your neural pathways, you're reminded not so much of the fabulous Fifties in Paris as you are of a Red Lobster anywhere in the Eighties. I can't even begin to speculate why they keep it so bright in there. My bistro days are not as recent as I'd like them to be, but I don't remember a pervasive warehouse ambience throughout the restaurants of France. That being said, the food lived up to the expectations such expensive interior design inspires. I went on a Wednesday night, and was startled to see pork belly as that night's weekly special. Pork belly sounds decidely down-market; visions of pre-Depression era speculators waving scraps of paper as the futures market soars by way of Bugs Bunny and his Loony Tunes pals would normally tap dance through my head. I'd been fortunate enough, however, recently to have heard Lynn Rosetto Kasper of The Splendid Table wax poetic with one of her callers on the subject. In fact so inspired was I, I actually contemplated mail-ordering some but was put off by the (exorbitant) price. And I wasn't disapointed. Pork belly is the cut of meat from which bacon comes--it's just not smoked. At Can Can, it was slowly braised so that the meat was falling away from the unbelievabley unctuous FAT. My small yet extravagantly rich portion was so tender, so sensuous, and so sinful; the meat merely acted as a vehicle to convey melting pork fat to your mouth. This is a dish that violates every dietary rule you've ever heard of (I think even Dr. Atkins, if he were still around, might blanch at this one), and a dish you simply must try if you're ever passing Can Can on a Wednesday and lucky enough to get a table. Tomorrow . . . HORRIBLE SERVICE; or Why A Great Wine List Can't Make Up For An Empty Glass.