Monday, September 28, 2009

A Simple Meal for a New Kitchen

Dinner plans were made and broken in this here fast-movin' town. By that I mean that I was going to have the new gang of what I hope will become Lazy Man's Supper here in the low lands and it got interrupted by some folks working late and other having to get to work early and etcetera, and etcetera. I'm not upset, because I have this suspicion that MB, Sqirrel, Ms. K, JRowr, Meester Haaaaaaaaaahn, and 'lil miss C will come over soon and often for food.

But I needed to cook. You...reader who hasn't been here long and thinks this is about restaurants...scroll back...further...further...there. Yeah, I may spend the rest of my life trying to recreate that dinner. I think Chez, E, Slim, Tim, Mia, and whoever else was there will likely agree...if they can see back through the haze of wine to remember it...that's why we blog, for posterity!

Tangent(well, that one anyway) behind us, I'll move to the food. Which was chicken, and spinach, and mushrooms, and potatoes, and butternut squash, and baguette (which ended up forlorn and unused), and garlic (which did not), and some stuff from West Virginia (Yay unpacking) and some stuff from Maryland (Yay local grocery store). But the plan for the party was multi-course, and my tired tookus was not doing multi-course.

Now I started out blustering (internally, so you're the first to know about it) that I would complete the planned meal, people not actually showing up to eat it be damned.

Then I got 1/3 of the way through the prep and saute for the app. And realized I could put the spinach from the side dish in with it...and do what I was already going to do with the chicken, which involved the potatoes and the squash and some cumin...and then I'd only need one other pot and could get busy with the wine uncorking...

...Seriously? Some of you thought the wine wouldn't happen? Whatever. Moving on.

Do this. Take some red potatoes and some cubed butternut squash, add in some shallots if you're not a moron who forgot to peel and chop them. Toss with some olive oil, cumin, salt, and pepper. Throw in the bottom of a dutch oven (or roasting pan). Set your split chicken breasts on top, dash more oil, pinch more salt, crack more pepper. Lid off, into the oven. 400 degrees. How long? Really? Until it's done.

Sidebar tangent #2. People think there are two types of people...1) those who cook enough to merit purchase of an electric thermometer and 2) those who don't cook enough so there's no need.

Really, there are two types of people... 1) those who cook at all and realize that having ALL of that guesswork taken out whenever you do cook is worth $15 and making sure you keep AAA batteries in the hall closet and 2) those who think that they should just be given a time because that is more convenient. I am one of the former. If you are one of the latter, pray for more federal bailout money for the culinarily challenged.

Altitude affects how long something will take to cook in the same model oven. The same cut of meat can take two different times even if cooked in the same oven at the same temperature one month apart. Even the same brand of oven at the same altitude can fudge your dinner. Ask hardcore bakers, every oven on the planet is different. But a thermometer? That's forever on temp.

Back to the show...well actually, after that tangent there's not much to tell. The mushrooms, onions and garlic were sliced, diced, and minced respectively and then sauted until most of the liquid was released and cooked off. Then some tomato paste was added to the pan and cooked a bit. Then some chicken stock deglazing happened. Then I added in the spinach and cooked it down until there was a little rust colored sauce with my mushrooms and spinach and poured it over the crispy chicken skin on my lovely plate.

I'm sipping on some Gnarly Head Old Vine Zin because it is a grape I love with qualities that invoke a fall evening...as in, it's a big glass of fruity jam that was the $8 manager's special. I love fine dining, and even recreating it in my kitchen from time to time. But a Monday night when it's me and the new blinds I have to install? No, no fine dining. Just good food.

G'nite y'all. More (HappyHappyJoyJoy) soon.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Volt

I'm going to make this very brief, because I think it's important for you all to know this. Excluding family holidays and meals to celebrate amazing life events and achievements, my meal at Volt was the most incredible I've ever eaten in my life. 32 years and counting, with the better part of the past decade including an ever more frenzied search and appreciation for food of the highest quality; meals eaten in Paris with friends and stars, meals eaten in Rio before Fogo was cool, meals eaten in Budapest with the old world looming over me, and meals eaten in the City where the crush of new restaurants folds the pretenders or poorly timed in a heartbeat.

I will not post any pictures of this meal because that wouldn't be fair to the chef, who created the elegant platings and watched over every speck and morsel of food coming out of his kitchen. I think it fair for a meal of this quality that you experience it in person or ask someone who has been there to paint you a picture. It will be worth it, in this circumstance, to have the thousand words rolling off their tongue rather than blithely glancing at a photograph and considering yourself informed...you would not be.

21 courses is a significant amount of food for anyone. And there were some at the chef's table our night who hit the wall at about course sixteen or seventeen. They don't consider the experience any less extraordinary, and I don't think any less of them. This was a mammoth undertaking.

Starting out of the gate with a cocktail of citrus vodka, frangellica, egg white, and a sugar-rimmed glass? That's right, said our friend the Som, we started off with dessert in the form of a Chocolate Cake Cocktail. Never mind, of course, that courses nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one were also more traditional (at least in being solid) desserts. We began...

Three and a half hours rolled by with bass accompanied by Pattypan squash and a saffron risotto, sweetbread in tempura, a chicken wing riff that included freeze dried blue cheese and a celery leaf, and a milk/white/dark chocolate combination that would send an addict off the wagon after 11 of the 12 steps of chocohalism couseling.

There was a beet macaroon dipped in liquid nitrogen. There was foam and don't hate. It wasn't last year, it wasn't passe, and it wasn't unnecessary. Sat on top of the ravioli that sat on top of the sweetest local corn I have ever tasted. Remember, best meal of my life. If this guy wants to put it on my plate, it was necessary.

There was almond dust and walnut crush. I put steak in my mouth and remember wanting more but nothing else.

You might not, but I can't forget the cranberry beans that came with the pan seared pork belly and pancetta. I know, it's not like me to focus on that. Perhaps I was in such a state that I was able to transcend pork. In any case, it was stunning. All of it.

Even the vanilla brioche onto which I spread my foie made me happy. I've referred to the bread as the 'flavor delivery vehicle' in past, relegating certain pieces of a dish to simple conveyance. But not here. You wanted the sweet crunch of that bread, and that bread only, under the luxurious foie. And, God I wanted another sour cherry.

Chick pea gnocchi arrived in the middle courses. I had seen it on the menu and hoped it was one of the items chosen for us that night. The flavor of the cecci and the form of the gnocchi were soft and perfect. They are supposed to be pillows and I was ready to sleep.

The egg was poached. So. Slowly. It had been in the water for an hour by the time it was plated for us with the turnips and the carrot and the shredded black truffle. A mountain of truffle and all I could focus on was the egg. How the white formed solid and how the yolk broke, oh so slowly when you pushed your fork down. Lava far from the heat of the cone, still flowing but not caring about break-neck speed anymore. A sprig of green falling from the carrots and the truffle to add contrast to your mind.

That reminds me. I need to tell you there were no garnishes here. There was nothing on any plate that did not add to the composition of the dish. If it was there because it was green, it was also very important that you have a piece of it when you TASTE the food too. The Chef wanted you to taste that color with that dish. If there was dot of balsamic reduction, make sure it was shared evenly among your three bites of loin of rabbit with the herb crust. He took the time to have that reduction there, you should take the time to taste it.

Neil the Som and Johna took care of us all night long. Greeted by the chef and then a good bit of time with him after the meal made our choice of the 8:30 Chef's Table the right one. He checked in with us throughout the experience as he was working the kitchen. There was never a moment when we were unattended, and no one ever got in the way of our meal. Perfect balance service without overbearing attention. Even the lads on the line would see us craning our necks to see what might be coming next and give us a quick 'rabbit' or 'lamb' heads up. [Thanks to all of you for such a brilliant evening!]

We walked out at the end of the night with the last of the dessert wine and a parting gift of poppy seed cakes so tomorrow morning wouldn't seem so dark even realizing we were eating somewhere other than Volt that day. We babbled about foie and pork belly, and how they fixed a separate dessert for SM on the fly when told of an allergy, and how we must go back again, and wasn't the sweetbread perfect in every way. And we slept and woke up the next morning full of the night before.

I'm going to stop now. I've typed quite a bit. I hope you take time someday to eat here, or somewhere like it. I don't think I want to eat like this often, I don't want to ever lose the wonder of it. And this place created wonder.

Volt on Urbanspoon

Chaps Pit Beef

I love being from a part of the country without its own true barbecue tradition. I'm not from Memphis, or Kansas City. I can love my ribs dry or wet. I'm not from North Carolina or Texas. I can eat pork slathered in vinegar sauce or succulent brisket with sauce spicy and red and only on the side. I'm not from South Carolina where it's all about mustard, or Baltimore where its all about...

...pit cooking. Pit beef. Pit sausage. Pit turkey and ham. Good lord the smoke and the iron at Chaps. That's where you should focus your peepers as soon as your order is placed and you're around the corner waiting to pick it up.

Baltimore's barbecue is pit. And most folks who even know Baltimore has its own barbecue know it's pit beef. Roast beef, 'hon, slow cooked in the pit. Chaps will offer you rare, medium or well on its menu.

Ok, back up. In a day full of Italian, Greek, and German delis, markets, and butchers, SM, Suzu, A.S., and Fetz (Oh, dear Lord, Fetz), Amanda and I needed a break, and we needed to eat. Naturally, after looking at so much soprosetta, prosciutto, bauernwurst, weisswurst, haloumi, mozzarrella, and feta; we needed to eat meat and cheese on bread.

To Chaps we go, to pay homage to Baltimore Pit Beef and get our "Guy's Been Here" on. Yes, we pay attention to such things as Diners...and Drive-Ins...and we all love Dives. Get over it, it's a fun show and I want to eat that food more often then not when I'm on the road.

Suzu'd been there before. So I took her advice and went for the Bull Dog. A hefty hoagie roll stuffed with smoked pork sausage, pit beef (rare here), and 'Merican cheese product.

Hit the condiment bar after you get your tray for pepper relish (hothothotgood), onions, pickles, and HORSERADISH. God there was just a TUB of horseradish and a spoon. All for me (and the other customers). Definitely in love with that.

Sit and eat.

Tried a bite of SM's pit turkey sammich and have to please ask every major brand of deli meat to shut up, stop what they are doing, and go directly to Chaps to find out what smoked turkey SHOULD taste like. Really. Do it now. I'll take a number and wait in line until you have.

The Bull Dog was loaded up with pepper relish, horseradish and raw onion, and it was gooooood. The sausage was coarse ground in what felt like natural casing. Some crushed pepper heat led me to believe Italian hot was the family/species. Rare pit beef on top was smoky and indeed rare. Delicious, moist beef. Cheese melted just enough underneath to hold the sausage/bread together in my hands. Well done on the construction of a sandwich Chaps peeps.

Sides of mac n' cheese (OK, creamy, a little on the 'Oh, it's cheddar" side) and Fries with Gravy. Who knew Bal'mer imitated Pennsylvania that well? Hand cut. Somewhere between a shoestring and a steak fry, and drenched in brown gravy. This is the only time I don't absolutely require crispy to rate fries on the high end of the spectrum. And with a small absolutely overflowing from a standard small to-go container, it's worth the upsell.

Few seats for what I imagine are huge crowds of locals on non-holiday weekends. Five or so picnic tables out back, a few small tables and one large picnic table inside.

Staff knows the menu and the expediter even knows the foodie geek with a camera, barking at the grill station to step back for a minute so I could get a good shot. Not getting in the way of the food, mind you, but definitely worth a hat tip and an extra exclamation point or two in the review.

I'm sure other folks have raved about it already, and I'm late to the party; but Chaps is a brilliant find in a city full of great food.

On a sunny saturday afternoon with a gang of old and new friends out to see a city and taste what it has to offer I can think of few better, or more local, spots to stop and eat than a roadside pit beef shack on a busy four lane north of downtown that doesn't cling to tradition but rather proudly recreates day in and day out Baltimore's offering to the world of barbecue.

Chaps Pit Beef on Urbanspoon