Thursday, August 25, 2005

Pimentos de Padron

pimenton4 In the summertime throughout Spain, at every tapas bar and restaurant, plates of little green peppers cooked quickly in olive oil are on every menu and sometimes—if you’re lucky—will arrive unbidden to your table. Each bite becomes a game of culinary roulette; you never know which little morsel might potentially set your taste buds on fire--most do not, however. Instead, as you pick them up by their little stems and pop them in, your mouth is filled with a savory, intense pepper flavor that transcends the green pepper cousin to which we’re all accustomed. Pimentos de padron are highly addictive (just ask Calvin Trillin) and are meant to be enjoyed hot and unadorned, save for a little coarse salt. They’re never used as an ingredient in other dishes nor are they eaten out of season. They are simply the quintessential summer tapas, exclusive to Spain. Until now. At a farm in New Kent county, Virginia, and available by mail order through Tienda, pimentos de padron are for the very first time grown and sold in the United States. I gasped when I first saw them on the Tienda site and rushed to order a pound immediately. I fired up a pan with some olive oil at once when they arrived two days later in their styrofoam cooler, and as I savored my first bite, I was flooded with memories of long days spent eating scrumptious, new dishes and drinking lovely, crisp, inexpensive wine. Last year, in northern Spain, rain and mist were the default weather pattern (unlike the drought conditions this year), but when the sun broke through the clouds and illuminated the green, green mountains backing the sparkling, blue north Atlantic, nowhere on earth was more magical and more transcendently evocative of summertime. Now, with just a click of my mouse, I can conjure up that feeling of contentment I felt as I sat by the beach in a seaside café, listening to the murmur of a language I barely understood, whenever I want, even in the most prosaic of American kitchens. Pimentos de Padron 1/2 lb. fresh, Virginian pimentos de padron 1 TB. good Spanish olive oil coarse salt, to taste Heat the olive oil over high heat until shimmering and add the pimentos. Toss rapidly with a wooden spoon until lightly browned in spots and puffed. Immediately transfer to a waiting plate and sprinkle with salt. Try to wait until slightly cooled to eat. Be generous; allow your dining companion to have their fair share. You always can order more--while they last. Serves 2 technorati tags: , , , ,

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sticky Rice

Sticky Rice specials Sticky Rice is not a restaurant for the impatient. Or the intolerant. Or the sort of person who starts to lose it watching a table set for six remain empty while waiting at the bar and not being seated for almost 40 minutes. No, no, no. It is not for you, the customer, to fret, or to complain, or to question why; it is for you, the customer, to suck it up and order another martini. Good things come to those who wait. Or do they? Yes and no. The martinis are good and the beer selection is good. The bartender is warm and accommodating, and the giant bucket of tater tots we ordered as an appetizer was fabulous--as all tater tots are, by definition. They're also a significant clue that the funky, eclectic red and black interior with a myriad of upside down rice paper umbrellas hanging from the ceiling isn't the only thing about Sticky Rice that's unconventional. The menu is a gloss on all Asian food, from noodles and satays to sushi and tempura. In between are pop cultural nods, like the afore-mentioned tater tots, and Asian-influenced entrees like umeboshi (a pickled Japanese plum) barbecued pork chops with wasabi mashed potatoes or ponzu (a Japanese citron sauce) tuna with pineapple salsa. We heard a rumor before we came that children eat for free on Thursdays, but if they do, our server couldn't be bothered to mention it or to dig up a children's menu. By the time we were finally seated and the waitress was ready to take our order, we were so light-headed and cranky from lack of nourishment, we forgot to ask about the children and began to order wantonly from the menu presented to us. It's never a good idea to order appetizers and entrees all at once when you're flat-out starving, and predictably, we ended up with a large bill at the end and much more food than we could possibly eat. Much of it was delicious; the barbecued ribs we ordered as an appetizer were tender, sweet and sticky, although too spicy for our children (sadly, we had to eat them all ourselves). They were out of spring rolls so we substituted steamed pot stickers instead and, unfortunately, they were less successful. They arrived underneath a pile of shredded carrot and although there was nothing wrong with them, they were only mildly agreeable and unmemorable. The miso soup was nothing to write home about either and the fact that it arrived lukewarm did nothing to enhance the taste. I ordered the pork satay from the noodle section of the menu and was impressed with the choices offered to go along with it: soba, udon, or rice noodles, and, of course, sticky rice. I chose rice noodles and when my large bowl of pork arrived, it was drenched in a pallid and flavorless brown sauce, accompanied by an ungodly amount of shredded carrot. I remembered this dish from past visits as being spicier, livelier, but what I had in front of me was so bland and boring, it just wasn’t worth eating. Besides, my ravenous husband had ordered an excess of shushi and that suited me just fine. Here, at last, Sticky Rice finally began to shine. We began with the sticky balls, which turned out to be a sort of deep-fried sushi: tuna, crab and rice were stuffed into an inari pocket and topped with fish roe. As you bit down, your teeth encountered a delicate crunch, and then the soft seafood flavors effortlessly melded with the rice and hint of wasabi on your tongue. My daughter valiantly tried to eat all of the kappa maki—cucumber roll—we ordered for her and, although it’s her favorite, was unable to manage even half of the enormous portion. As my husband plowed through the hamachi (yellowtail), umagi (eel), and smoked salmon roll, I concentrated on the crunchy shrimp roll, a combination of tempura shrimp with avocado and carrot rolled up in rice and nori. Although it was reminiscent of the sticky balls, it had a softer chew and more traditional sushi flavor. All of the sushi was well made and served neither too cold nor too hot; I couldn’t find a thing to complain about. The rice was delicately flavored with vinegar, the fish was tender and fresh, and the portions were large and attractively presented. Next time, I’ll stick with the sushi and skip the rest. Aside from the appalling service, I really enjoyed the rambunctious energy of Sticky Rice with its pseudo-Japanese murals and loud music. The crowd was as diverse as its interior; we were easily the oldest customers, although fashion-wise we fell somewhere in the middle of the pierced and tattooed hipsters and the complacently preppy frat boys. Yet, despite our age (and hey, we’re not that old!) and our children, we didn’t feel out of place. Sticky Rice has a genuinely egalitarian vibe. There were other children there with their parents and besides, it was fun to watch the couples lurking oh-too-cool-for-school by the front door while waiting to be seated and know that one day, in the rapidly approaching future, they too would be seated metaphorically in our booth, wondering where the damn children’s menu was. technorati tags: , , , ,

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Dogwood Grille

DOGWOOD GRILLE Fan restaurants come and go, and Dogwood Grille and Spirits opened in an inauspicious spot on Main Street that had seen its share of restaurants close down. Location, location, location, isn't that what they always say? Well, the Richmond restaurant scene continually confounds that old cliché--from Mama Zu's in Oregon Hill to 1 North Belmont Restaurant (a former 7-Eleven), and now, Dogwood Grille (I have a really hard time not putting a "the" in front of that name but I'm resisting). Richmonders have proven that they know their food and they'll show up when it's good. I had a difficult time getting a reservation and finally took an early 6:30 pm cancellation in order to go on a Saturday night (well, I was calling Saturday morning), but since I get hungry early, this was just fine. The only problem with the early reservation--the problem for my dining companion, that is--was that everyone else eating in the restaurant happened to be in their late fifties and early sixties, and we had a brief flashback to our one and only visit together to the Union Square Cafe. I had eagerly anticipated this particular meal, as well as the play across the square we were to see later, and the neither food nor the acting disappointed. The atmosphere at the restaurant was a little Sunday-brunch-with-grandma, however, and the clientele decidedly elderly. My husband couldn't believe he was spending a Saturday night in New York not in the hippest of trendy bistros but in a restaurant that looked like the kind of place where your family took you to celebrate graduation. As I continued to argue against the importance of decor in favor of the importance of the food (which I must mention again, was fabulous), they wheeled in a guy that had to be in his late eighties and propped him up at the table right next to us. I desperately needed a celebrity (even a B-list celebrity) to come in at that very moment and save me, but alas, my husband won the point and never has let me forget it. Part of the problem with the Dogwood Grille (there, I put a "the" in, I just had to) is its lack of design. It's a long narrow space with dark, wooden booths and exposed brick--a typical Fan restaurant interior. The paintings hung about are of diverse styles (although they have two by Jennifer Holloway, one of my favorite artists) of varying quality and aside from the lovely, repetitive orchids arranged across the front window, the room is completely forgettable. The clientele of the moment, therefore, creates the atmosphere of the moment, instead of the restaurant providing a specific ambiance for the clientele. The room felt stuffy and a little bit creaky when we were arrived because everyone there (besides us) was of a certain (older) age. As the evening wore on and the customers became younger, everything became louder--deafeningly louder--and the mood shifted dramatically. I'm going to talk about the food in just a moment, don't worry, but I'd like to address the issue of restaurant interior design first. I don't like to be intimidated when I eat out and generally, a restaurant that demands high heels for me and a jacket for my husband simply is too much bother. That being said, however, I do like a little theater when I go out. I've aired my decidedly ambivalent feelings about Can Can previously, but as far as my feelings about that bang-up French bistro interior complete down to the last little detail: I LOVE it. I also love Millie's 1920'/30's-flavored funkiness and I love Comfort's faux peeling paint. I love the Tuscan-y feel of Bacchus and I even love the retro space-age cliché that is the Galaxy Diner. I'm bored and annoyed however, when I pay $25 for an entree and the owner hasn't even made an effort, besides white tablecloths, to remind me that I'm in a restaurant and not in my own, dull house (actually, my house is very nice but it's also nice to get out of it once in a while). A restaurant should be a change of pace, not just from your own home, but from all the other restaurants around town as well. And yet, and yet! The food is amazing. I started with the grilled Caesar salad and was immediately impressed. Reminiscent of the deconstruction of dishes going in trendy restaurants elsewhere in bigger, more cosmopolitan cities, a half of romaine heart, lightly charred, shared the plate with half of a tomato draped with white anchovies, both of which were propped up on two large, chewy croutons and drizzled attractively with aioli and a reduced balsamic syrup. I was suspicious of the grilled lettuce and was taken aback by how well the smoky flavor enhanced the entire dish. I rapidly dissembled the pieces, cut up the lettuce, and ate it all with gusto, mopping up every bit of the delicious, garlicky, sweet sauce swirled across the bottom of the plate. My husband's appetizer was less spectacular; "Swimps Gone Wild on Tijuana," a name a little too precious for my taste (as were many of the other items on the menu--lounging tuna, for instance?!), failed to deliver the heat or complexity of its name and instead, remained just a few jumbo shrimp in an ordinary tomatillo sauce with black beans. Our entrees made up for this one misstep. My husband ordered the pan-seared duck breast in a light hoisin barbecue sauce (I'll spare you the cute version of the dish's description) that was succulent, gingery, and sweet. Although I've had good duck in Asian restaurants, this dish was far more flavorful and moist, and again, surprised me with a savory punch. I opted for the crab cake special. Two very large crab cakes arrived, so chock full of large lumps of backfin crabmeat, I couldn't for the life of me figure out how they were holding together; there was no discernible binder. They sat in a tangy pool of dill beurre blanc and were topped with an equally tangy, but entirely different béarnaise tartar sauce redolent of tarragon. Dill and tarragon are flavors I previously would have suspected would compete, but in this dish they are unexpectedly complementary. Although both sauces could have been heavy, overpowering the rich flavor of the crabmeat, they were instead light and airy, and both emphasized the herbs instead of the butter or oil. All in all, what's not to like about nearly a pound of crabmeat in two lovely, complementary sauces, with a couple of little potatoes to absorb what's left on the plate when the crab is gone? We only had room for one dessert (remember, I'm not eating on an expense account here; no food can go to waste!) and a good thing that was too. We ordered the carrot cake ice cream sandwich and received two large triangles instead of the expected one. Two layers of frozen carrot cake enclosed a layer of rich, vanilla ice cream. I suspect the ice cream, although delicious, was not made on the premises but the lush carrot cake overrode any finicky considerations in that respect. My only wish would have been to allow the carrot cake to thaw a little so that its characteristic mélange of spices would have been more prominent. My husband felt that each sandwich should have been made to order with fresh cake and ice cream but I disagreed. I don't really see how that would be economically or practically feasible and besides, I don't think what would be essentially carrot cake à la mode is nearly as interesting as Chef David Shannon's take on the familiar ice cream sandwich. The dollop of mascarpone on the side of the plate was a perfect accompaniment and cleverly echoed the traditional cream cheese icing. Dogwood Grille and Spirits takes its food seriously, despite the cutesy prose of its menu, and the owners need to take the ambiance of their restaurant seriously as well. Such creativity in the kitchen demands a similar spirit in the dining room. The service is impeccable—warm and attentive—and it seems a shame that such wonderful elements are shrouded in visual mediocrity and overwhelmed by the din generated by the other diners. I’ll return for the food, of course, although perhaps not as quickly as I would if the atmosphere were more inviting. , , , ,

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Feeding Children; Or, A Lesson in Zen-Like Patience and Fortitude

fried chicken4 It is excruciatingly difficult to feed my children. I make them three square meals a day, and I'm lucky if they eat a third of each. Now, those of you without children or with tiny babies, don't stop reading--you made need this information one day. I swear, I've truly exposed my daughters to a wide variety of foods (like all the books say) yet they still are reluctant to try even the most innocuous looking vegetable, the most benign seeming chicken dish. And although they have tried some real exotica--calamari, chorizos, and manchego cheese in Spain-- that's all they ate there for three solid weeks, and it was only starvation that drove them to eat those foods in the first place. Oh, and the promise of ice cream.* My children's friends, now, they eat up everything I make; I've even acquired the reputation as a "good cook" in elementary school circles (and that's high praise, you know). While those other children eagerly (gratifyingly) gobble it all, my children disdainfully pick and reject, suggesting hot dogs or plain buttered pasta as more appetizing alternatives. I don't want chubby little porkers, but I would like to see just a meal or two that actually disappears inside of a child instead of inside of the garbage can. They will eat a few things (they'd have to, or growing bigger wouldn't be an option) and one of them is Judy Hesser's (Amanda Hesser's mother) oven-fried chicken (here's a link to the recipe). The simplicity of this recipe is astounding. Brine the chicken, shake it with flour and cook it in the oven until done. It takes a bit of cooking (usually an hour and a half to an hour and forty-five minutes) so you have to plan ahead, but that's the only real drawback. Instead of being spattered by burning hot oil and setting off your fire alarm, you can do whatever you want, knowing that hot, tender, crispy "fried" chicken awaits you at dinner time. My only modification is to add an equal amount of sugar along with the salt to the recipe to make it a true brine. Buttery macadamia nut oil, if you have it around, can stand in for the butter the recipe calls for to make it a bit healthier, and you have my word, no one in my family is the wiser. Even with the butter, however, this version of fried chicken is far, far healthier than any you might pick up at a fast food place or grocery store (using organic chicken alone ratchets up the health factor) and far, far tastier--simultaneously crunchy and sticky, with meat that falls right off the bone and into your mouth. It guarantees membership in the Clean Plate Society and allows me to feel what it's like to be a "good cook" in my children's eyes, for one brief, shining moment. *One more piece of advice: while on vacation, especially when traveling in a foreign country with children, lift your ban on bribery. Life away from home is hard enough. , , , ,