Sunday, December 13, 2009

eat!, hilton head island, s.c., dec. 8

while we were in hilton head earlier this month, we went to a restaurant by a food network chef. one reason we went is because he was supposed to open a restaurant in st. pete, to great fanfare, but in the process, we reported that most everything he claimed on his resume was a lie. word was his business relationships were already shaky at that point, and eventually the project was scrapped. but then a very similar project opened in hilton head.

i wrote a story about it for the paper. i was going to blog in more detail about the food, but scrapped it when real life took over. (see previous post.)

anyway, we thought most of the food was pretty good. here is link to my story in the times.

meeko, 1995-2009

it started out under a lawn mower south of miami.

my herald colleague bill van smith was about to mow his lawn. before starting the mower, he heard something from underneath. so he looked. there was a stray cat nursing three new-born kittens.

it was the summer of 1995. well, it was miami, so it was always summer. it was june. pam and i had just bought a house, and one of the reasons i was looking forward to owning instead of renting was that there would be no extra charges on the mortgage for having pets. it was a big deal for us at the time to pay the extra fees and deposits for razzle, the cat that we already had, so as long as we were renting, we couldn't take on a second.

so when bvs said he couldn't keep the kittens because he already had too many cats, we said we'd take one. sight unseen. bvs decided to give us the black and white one with the white-tipped tail and the peace sign on his forehead. so when the kitten was old enough, bvs brought him in and gave me the kitten and $40 to get him snipped when he was old enough. i told him we'd take care of that, but he insisted.

so that night i took home a cat that would become a huge part of our lives for the next decade and a half. and $40. best deal i ever made.

when it came to naming him, we waited to see what would fit his personality. and he had so much of that. we were struck by the mask-like markings on his face. disney's pocahontas was in theaters at the time, and while we weren't crazy about the movie, her scampish raccoon was named meeko. he sort of looked like a raccoon. it sounded good. it stuck. (years later, our niece was at the house. she was young enough that i really didn't understand anything she said. but when we told her the cat's name was meeko, her face lit up and as clear as anything, she said, "MEEKO!" )

a big reason we wanted a second cat was because we thought that our cat razzle, who was 6 or 7 at the time, would like having another cat around. her pet. we were wrong. there was a lot of growling and hissing for the first couple of weeks. meeko wanted to play. razzle didn't. ultimately, they came to a truce. i don't know if they ever really liked each other, but they tolerated each other.

meeko was amazing. when we brought him home, we weren't sure if he was a long hair or a short hair. all his white hair seems long and fluffed, while his black hair was short and shiny. and he was round as a tennis ball with a tail.

he did not stay tiny.

he quickly graduated to juvenile-sized. he was long, tall, strong and lean. and as big as he was, his legs and ears seemed disproportionately huge, which we were told meant he wasn't done growing.

it was true.

eventually, he hit 19 pounds. and for a long time, it seemed like he was 19 pounds of solid muscle. his black hair eventually caught up with the white hair, giving him a beautiful coat, a muscular build, an expressive face and a lot of attitude. he knew how good looking he was. it wasn't unusual to catch him sitting there, looking in the mirror. well, ok, it was unusual. but it wasn't something that surprised us when we saw it anymore after the first few times.

at our house in deerfield, we had to be careful what room we put him in if we needed him to be locked up. the house had lever-style door knobs, and if the door opened out, we couldn't leave him there. because as soon as he was tall enough, he figured out how to reach up, pull the lever down and push.

we lost razzle shortly after moving to clearwater, and when we decided to bring in a new cat, we picked up najah. she was about 6 months old, fluffy and full of energy. she wanted to play. meeko didn't. and so we learned about a whole different kind of circle of life. when we brought home jazmine a couple of years ago, meeko all but rolled his eyes and said "here we go again."

but with a houseful of cats, he became an elder statesman. at times when we was obviously not feeling well, the girls would defer to him, leave him alone, wait in line behind him. and when he was feeling better, all bets were off. he was fair game to be chased and jumped on. it got to the point that one way to tell how meeko was feeling was to see how the girls were treating him.

while our other cats seem to gravitate to either me or pam, meeko was truly "our" cat. he didn't have a favorite. he loved us both. if the two of us were sitting, watching tv, he would sit on one of our laps, then after a while, get up and go to the other. and it wasn't always a matter of who had food.

i had a million nicknames for meeko. bubba. buddy, chico. meeko-chico, panda cat. meek-meek. he ignored them all equally. i always figured that since he was from miami, he just spoke spanish. but i talked to him all the time. i think he understood.

we lost meeko friday night. there a several scenarios that could have played out that would have had us not be home at the time. but we were. and as awful as it was, it would be immeasurably worse right now had we not been. i can make arguments that i didn't see it coming or that we've seen it coming for two years. he had been sick, but he seemed to be doing well lately. he climbed to the top of his tree on friday morning to take his pills. he jumped up to sit in my lap on friday afternoon. and then a little after 11 p.m., he was gone.

as far as i'm concerned, razzle is showing him around the new digs, and telling him what territory she has staked out, and where she'll let him go. and deep down, they like each other, and that all those times where she tried to eat him when he was little, she was just kidding.


(pam put together a short video tribute click here to go to her blog to watch it.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

hominy grill, charleston, s.c., dec. 7

so, rachael ray went to hominy grill on $40 a day. anthony bourdain went there on no reservations. adam richman went there on man vs food. so when we were within two hours of charleston, we made a point of hitting it for lunch.

after i made plans to go there, i learned that chef robert stehling won best chef-south from james beard in 2008. which make
s it funny that it took three tv shows to get me there. the best chef thing is usually all it takes.

anyway, rachael had the catfish. bourdain had the shrimp and grits. and adam went for breakfast and had the big nasty, a fried chicken bisc

didn't want catfish. i made shrimp and grits at the hotel one monday night. and while i would have liked to try the big nasty, we didn't get there until after noon. so, no dice.

nce we found a parking space on the second pass, we went in. nice townhome-y kind of place. very southern look. all the specials and desserts were up on chalkboards. i like that.

we started off with the picnic sampler. it had some pimento cheese, some country ham, some beet-soaked boiled eggs and okra pickles. i hat okra, but hadn't had it pickled, so i tried it. it was fine. the pimento was very garlick-y. i don't know that i had ever had country ham before, but had heard and read about it so much that i was looking forward to it. i heard it compared favorably to prosciutto and serrano. i don't know about that, but it was good. my favorite thing,
though, was cleaning up. after the toasts were gone, there was a little of everything left over. the pimento cheese was in a butter lettuce leaf, so i picked it up, added the rest of the ham and the
last quarter of egg and had it like a low country lettuce wrap.

then i had the low country purloo. i'm sure there's a really long, interesting story on what the heck purloo means, but here is what i determined: seemed like jambalaya to me. and no, i don't know what the heck jambalaya means, either. is was a rice stew with sausage and ham, and on top were chicken wings and cornmeal-crusted fried shrimp. i liked it. all the components were good. they worked well together. while there was plenty for lunch, i thought it was kind of expensive for how much there was. i wondered if the prices were at that point before it was on all the tv shows.

oh, and i had a side of fried cheese grits. they were actually in a light batter. very creamy and tasty. love grits, tho. i'm easy.

i had actually considered having the fried green tomato blt instead of the purloo. that sounded like a really good idea. but i wanted to try more than a sandwich.

after that, we consulted the chalkboards for dessert and asked our waitress for suggestions. she said that all three of the cakes were served at her wedding. and she also said that the chocolate pudding was the "best in the world." so we got that. none of the cakes appealed to me, so we also got the buttermilk pie. i wasn't sure what buttermilk pie was, but the waitress told me it was a lot like chess pie. um, oh. didn't have the heart to tell her i had no idea what chess pie is. it was lemon-custardy. i'll take it. was the pudding the best in the world? well, i haven't had all the others, so i don't know. it was really thick, chocolatey and nicely not-too-sweet. it was more mousse-y than pudding-y. that is officially not a complaint. apparently, the pudding has been featured on food network's best thing i ever ate, where someone -- our waitress thought maybe bobby flay -- had declared it his fave. i can see it. it was good.

love to go back for breakfast sometime to try the big nasty. i don't see ever being in charleston at breakfast time, tho. we'll see.

-- so, i mentioned that bourdain had the shrimp and grits. that is a signature here, and normally i like to order the signature stuff, but we avoided the shrimp and grits because i had made it at the hotel the night before. we always buy grits when we go through south carolina, and since our hotel in hilton head has a kitchen, i make shrimp and grits. this is this year's attempt. looks good. tasted fine. but something was missing. i realized this morning that it was tabasco. i thought i packed it, but i guess i forgot. oh well.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

about those beef cheeks ...

everyone was curious as to why i needed beef cheeks a couple weeks ago. well, here it is. on the left are michael symon's beef cheek pierogi.

on the right are david chang's pork buns, made with roasted pork belly. for the sake of the photography, i wish the one on the front corner wasn't broken, but, oh well.

i did a story for the paper that started off as a review of new cookbooks by symon and chang. but in the end, it was more like a personal challenge. i got to recreate two dishes that i had when i went to their restaurants.

i want to go back to both places, but until i do, looks like i have it covered.

you can read the story here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

the ravenous pig, winter park, oct. 17

i don't remember how ravenous pig got on my radar, but somehow it did, and i have been wanting to go there more than a year. i know it has been more than a year, because while i don't remember how it got on my radar, i know roughly when. it was while i was campaigning for votes in a recipe contest, with a triply porcine-monikered dish. i don't know if you all remember how that turned out. i'll omit details.

anyway, through one circumstance to the next, it hadn't happened. recently, there was a period of three saturdays in a row that i had a reservation, only to have to cancel it at the last minute for one crazy reason or another. drove me nuts.

so when my brother doug turned 40, and had no big plans, i thought it was the perfect opportunity.

ravenous pig bills itself as an american gastropub. a gastropub is, loosely d
efined, a place that serves beer and a lot of pork, typically cured. thus the pig in the name, one might assume. and there are a lot of ways to serve pork, so that works out. but when we looked at the menu, pam made an interesting observation:

"there's not much pork."

there really wasn't. other than two appetizers (a prosciutto tasting plate and a charcuterie plate), the only pork on the menu was some bacon on the scallop dish and some chorizo oil. so that was a little weird. but forgivable.

it is a "chef-driven" restaurant, which largely means that the menu is small and full of whatever the chef felt like cooking that day, which could be based on what was available at the market, or what he was in the mood for. which is fine. i have learned that in general, i want to eat what the chef wants to cook.

our waitress gave us the company line on the fact that they tried to be as local and seasonal and sustainable as possible, and tried to source as much of everything they use from as close as possible. she said it in a lot more words than that, but she managed to do it without sounding preachy, which was impressive, because that speech usually comes a
cross as preachy. and, if there is doubt, that last sentence was a compliment.

there was a thing, tho. it's a good speech, but a lot of that is contradicted on the menu. the source of many of the meats are listed, and they aren't too close to home. the pork is from iowa, the flounder from carolina, the shrimp from belize, the duck from indiana, the mussels from washington, salmon from scotland, foie gras from new york (the sustainability crowd will love that). i don't have a problem with them serving things from those places. and most of those places talks about sustainability and stewardship on their sites, so they are really spiffy companies, i'm sure. and most of that stuff isn't available in florida (well, except the shrimp, certainly). it just seemed like talk aimed at someone not paying too much attention. or not quite thought all the way through. it was just a little weird.

i'm sure most of the vegetables were local. and seasonal. and stuff. in fact, the corn so
up named zellwood as the source. i went to the zellwood sweet corn festival many times as a kid.

so, all of that is semantics. how was the food?

well, i liked everything i had. and i'd like to go back to try everything i didn't.

we started off with the gruyere biscuits because i heard they were famous for those. they were good, but i liked the pretzels better. they came with a really nice whole-grain mustard and a cheese sauce of taleggio and port. hmmmm. now i look at the menu and it says porter, not port. porter is a beer, and makes more sense with cheese and pretzels. but i thought the waitress said port, and i thought after i tasted it that it tasted red wine-y, in an interesting way. maybe it was just in my head at that point. either way, i liked it.

so, to start, there are lobster tacos on the menu. i like lobster. i like tacos. no brainer. the lobster was tempura fried, very lightly, which is a perfect way to prepare lobster for a taco. they had a nice cabbage slaw and avocado creme. the tortillas were billed as soft corn. i'm a tortilla snob, even though the ones i make are terrible. these were soft, but if they were corn, they were cut with a lot of flour, because they didn't taste corny at all. they had a vague corn-ish texture. they were perfectly tasty, but i thought a strong corn flavor would go well with lobster, and that wasn't there. i am being overly critical. they were lobster tacos. they were delicious.

other first courses: pam had the shrimp and grits, which really tasty. the shrimp were really good. and the grits. the red ring around the grits is chorizo oil. nice. stacie had the late summer zellwood corn soup, which was very tasty. the waitress said that they made this soup from the last of the corn crop, when it is really sweet, and the get all the creamy goodness out of the cob. it paid off. that was some good corn soup. it was topped with some dungeness crab (um, also not local), but the corn was the star. doug had the lobster tacos, which were exactly like mine.

for an entree, let's see if i can find my save string ... there was duck on the menu, so i got duck. it was a nicely grilled breast on top of caramelized fall root vegetables. the vegetables were celery root, carrot, turnip and rutabaga, unless i am forgetting some. it was topped with pine nuts and had a currant agrodolce (sweet-sour sauce). really, really good. every element. but i have another semantic nit: the menu says fregola, which is an odd-shaped tiny pasta. this had israeli couscous. i love israeli couscous. so it was good. but it said fregola. this was not fregola.

other entrees: pam had the butternut squash ravioli. dom will be happy to hear that pam said it wasn't as good as the butternut gnocchi she had at bella brava a week earlier. stacie had the flounder. a nice looking piece of fish sitting on top of "short rib stracotta," which is a term i had not heard before. it means it was cooked twice, we were told. i didn't try the fish, but the short ribs were amazing. doug had the burger, for which they are somewhat famous around orlando. i had some of the truffle fries. they were nicely pungent.

for dessert, i got the waffle. it was very interesting, and not very sweet, which was very cool. the waffle was made from a beer batter and topped with a creme fraiche ice cream. there was a malt syrup and a berry jam. and i took no exception to the menu listing. which i feel i need to note at this point.

other desserts: pam got the "pig tails," which is clearly a signature thing. they were sort of like a churro/beignet/doughnut thing, twisted to look like pig tails. very appropriate. and served with a warm chocolate sauce. that led pam to point out that when i made beignets a couple weeks ago, i failed to make a warm chocolate sauce. sigh. stacie had the carrot cake, which was two mini cakes served with a cinnamon milkshake. doug had the apple tart, which doesn't always come with birthday wishes written all over it, we presume.

i feel like i spent a lot of time on this post talking about things that didn't matter. they don't claim everything is local. "gastropub" can mean whatever they say it means. fregola and israeli couscous are certainly good stand-ins for each other. there was probably some amount of corn flour in the tortillas. the bottom line was we ate everything they put in front of us. and liked it.

oh, and a stupid-cool thing: we went on oct. 17, which was the day after doug's birthday, but it was the one-year anniversary of the big announcement on the rachael ray show. so it seemed an appropriate place to be.

Ravenous Pig on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 16, 2009

cafe 14101, clearwater, oct. 11,

so, it has been just short of forever since my last post. but, i mean those macarons? seriously? i could read that post for years. that was gold.

anyway, there are three things i almost wrote about since t
he last post. does that count? no? well i'll tell you what they were:

-- i gave up meat for three weeks. it was an attempt to lose weight. in three weeks, all i really lost was any recollection why i thought giving up meat was a good idea. that, and my sunny disposition.

-- three saturdays in a row, i
was thwarted in my attempt to go to orlando to go to ravenous pig. i have come to accept that it doesn't really exist, and therefore cannot be gone to.

-- i have been wanting to write about bella brava, my pal dom's new gig. i have been in several times and loved it each. but i figured i would wait until she had the new menu out before i blogged on it. it is out now, so it'll happen soon.

so, what am i writing about now, then?

well, we had dinner at our place on sunday night. and it was a ton of fun. our pals melanie and josh were in town, so we invited a bunch of the old crew from our days of hanging out at work and being all colleague-y. and as luck would have it, barry and carrie were in town, so they were invited and i told no one they were coming. well, i told pam. because i had to explain all the chairs. but no one else knew, and that made for a fun surprise when they came in.

so, in devising the
menu, i started with a list of things that i have been wanting to make. then i realized that they didn't make sense together. so then i decided to make them make sense together. i did this with ... gasp! ... i theme (murmur murmur murmur).

i am a former huge fan of the epcot food and wine festival, but as the prices involved in it have gone up, my interest level has gone down. and thus, i had a theme:

the we're not going to the epcot food and wine festival this year dinner.

it actually totally worked. i'll go course by course on what i made, why and how. highlights.

amuse: there were supposed to be two. the first was a spoon of roasted beets and horseradish creme fraiche. if mel is around, i feel like there have to be beets. often when she is not, too, actually. anyway, i wanted to do something different with them. usually, there is a goat cheese element. so i switched that out. when i was growing up, beets and horseradish were an easter staple, so i mixed it with a little creme fraiche, which is sour cream-like in texture and has a tangy flavor similar to the goat cheese. except for the fact that i grew up with something that had similar profiles, i totally made this up.

i planned to make crispy hominy with chili and lime, too, which
i intended to rip off from michael's genuine in miami. had it there and loved it. seemed easy enough. opened a can of hominy and dumped in the hot oil. about five minutes later, no crispy, no golden-brown-deliciousness. hmmmm, i thought. then the #)*#*(#%^%^$( kernels started popping. i swore several times, then turned off the fryer and scratched it off the menu.

soup (spain): a couple years ago, i was at world market in orlando and saw these cool mini soup bowls. "those are chinese tea cups," pam said. nuh-uh. i mean, maybe, but not once i bought them. they were mini soup bowls. i wanted 48 so i could have service for 12, 4 per person. but the store only had 36. so i bought that many, and decided, well, 3 per person. then i needed to make boards to serve them on. so, i started that as soon as i knew we were doing this dinner. then i needed to find more bowls because there were going to be 16 people. found some at an oriental market.

so, as far as the soups go, i wanted to do all cold soups because i figured that would be easier to serve. plus, it has been hot. initially, i was going to make one of them the hot potato-cold potato from alinea, which incorporates a vischyssoise. and the others i picked were a watermelon gazpacho and ajo blanco, which is an almond soup. then i realized that two were spanish and one was french, and that seemed dumb. so i punted on the potato. i have been wanting to make something with piquillo peppers, so i used those as the base of a pepper bisque. to add a cold element to that, i made a granita of sherry and dropped it in at the last minute.

i made the boards to accommodate something in addition to the bowls, and made a manchego biscuit to accompany. seemed to work well.

pasta (italy): in 2003, pam and i went to l.a. and had lunch at spago. pam had a sweet corn agnolotti, which is like a little pasta pillow stuffed with corn. i loved it and have been wanting to make it ever since, but never had the right event. hellllllllo the we're not going to the epcot fest dinner, where i get to make whatever i want! i made pasta from my pal mario's babbo cookbook, tho i added more egg. i imagine his xl eggs are xl-er than mine. or something. then i made a filling of grits cooked in cream, sweet corn, mascarpone and thyme. my agnolotti-making skill was not flawless, but they looked ok. and tasted good. i just sauteed them in butter and served them with a small crab cake and a fennel salad. i liked this dish a lot. well, conceptually, anyway. i didn't taste it until it was cold. but i have leftovers in the freezer, so i'll know for sure this weekend.

initially, i wanted to toss lobster into the saute, but ev
erytime i plan to use lobster, i end up punting. its a budget buster. i keep reading how cheap it is these days. not here. so i did crab cakes.

mole (mexico): so, i have made mole a lot. it always goes over well, but i was definitely not looking to make it this time. but when i asked mel what she wanted me to make, it was the first thing she said. so ok. then i tried to figure a different way to do it. i usually make rick bayless' red mole, but he was just on top chef masters, and in the final episode made a black mole, and talked about how impossible it was. which was all i needed to hear. a lot of the people coming over watched tcm, so i figured that would make it cool. i made the mole the weekend before the party, and it took all day. it involved tearing apart a lot of chilis, frying them, and burning their seeds. you're supposed to just about burn a lot of the parts, and in the end, come up with something that doesn't taste burnt. in the end, mine tasted burnt. and i was upset. i was working out the timing as to whether i could make another batch of red. so i went to bed, and something weird happened. the next day, it tasted mellower. then the next day a little mellower still. then on the third day, it tasted good. emergency averted.

i struggled with what to serve it with for weeks. at first, i wanted to make arepas, which are a central american thing, and something i used to have in miami a lot and liked. but they are central american, and it seemed weird to serve them with the very mexican mole. so i tried to find a mexican equivalent, and learned that gorditas were very similar. then i just needed to pick a meat. i wanted to do something a little different, and considered short ribs, oxtails (i loved the idea of calling them oaxacan oxtails), or beef cheeks. but eventually, i decided that pork shoulder was the thing you would most likely find with these components in mexico, and it's easy to find. done.

the thing i messed up was the tortillas. i think i didn't add enough water to the corn flour. or something. they were supposed to poof to the point you cut them open and stuff them with the fillings. mine poofed not at all. in fact, they may have de-poofed. so i put everything on top. like, an open-face gordita. just like i always intended. i didn't love the tortilla, but i thought the finished plate looked awesome. thanks to jeremy for cutting the banana leaves.

dessert (everywhere): for dessert, i was intent on using my cool crate and barrel online clearance find, which is a four-part glass plate. i tried to get one thing from all the countries i had hit on earlier, but that didn't really work. i wanted to do a cheese dessert, and made a crepe filled with port-poached pear and triple creme cheese. i had some dried lavender in the pantry, so i made a lavender-scented panna cotta, and tried to make a ginger confit, but ended up with some awesome ginger honey instead. one of my favorite simple desserts is at ohana at disney, and its pineapple with caramel. i did a little different by grilling spears of pineapple and adding rum to the caramel. i meant to salt the caramel, but forgot. finally, i made a frozen mexican hot chocolate. basically, chocolate ice cream with a lot of cinnamon and a little chili pepper. worked out well.

i get asked about my interest in a restaurant a lot, and i have none because i know better than to think i can do it, but this was pretty cool, because it kinda felt like a restaurant. it was fun churning the stuff out, and having everything prepped just right to be able to do it reasonably fast. it was a rush. it was awesome having everything in place, then get help from pam, jeremy and kristen at the last second. made me feel like i knew what i was doing.

i wish everyone could have come. but technically, i only have enough stuff to serve 12 at a time. and somehow, we did 16. i'm still not totally sure how.

Monday, August 24, 2009

bouchon macarons

first, let's clear up one thing: is it macaron or macaroon?

answer: yes.

my pal kristen has been telling me about the manna-like confections from bouchon bakery* forever. the first time she told me about them, extolling them with all the passion that someone would have for their all-time favorite puppy, all i could do is listen and think, "the dessicated coconut styrofoam balls? seriously? i mean i think thomas keller is a genius and all, but why is he even messing with that crap?"

to myself i said this. to kristen, i nodded and smiled.

fast forward to my last trip to nyc, and kristen says, "youHAVEtogotobouchonandgetaparisanmacaron!!!!!!!!" i nodded, and deep down, thought it was possible i might. just to see what the fuss was. i went to bouchon, and looked for them, didn't see any and got an almond-raspberry croiss
ant instead. and i was ok with that, because i still didn't really want the coconut thing.

so, anyway, kristen is very good about baking for the office on the event of anyone's birthday, and i have benefited from that fact more than once. so i try to make sure her birthday is properly noted with baked goods. and when she brought up the macarons again a couple of months ago, i decided that was what she was getting for her birthday. i have keller's bouchon cookbook, and they are in there.

cooking keller kind of intimidates me. not because its hard, but because it is so precise. i like to look at a recipe and figure out how to adapt it to something i would make. but cooking keller, i feel compelled to go to the letter, because, sort of, what's the point of trying to recreate something on that level if you don't do it as intended?

reading the recipe, i learned a key fact: this cookie doesn't even have coconut in it. i'm not sure why they have
such similar names. they are not remotely similar. what this is is a sandwich cookie. two almond-meringue cookies, with a slather of buttercream in the middle.

i'm not going step by step with this, but here are some highlights:

shopping: with the exception of almond flour, the ingredient list was all stuff i have in the house at any given time. the only shortcut i took was i used vanilla extract instead of beans. i have extract, and it's good extract, so i didn't see any reason to buy almost $30 worth of vanilla beans. had to go to whole foods for the almond flour, thus it was not cheap either, but not too bad.

set up: before you do any actual cooking, the recipe tells you to cut four pieces of parchment to fit your shee
t pans and draw 18 circles on each. the idea is you turn over the paper, and can see the circles through, then you use the circles as a template for the cookies. i did this on one sheet of paper and immediately realized, well, i can see through the paper, so i can just put this one under another sheet and fill in the circles, then slide the template out and use it again on the next one. this move was so brilliant and saved so much time, i'm stunned that i didn't wait until after i had drawn all the sheets to think of it.

cookies. the recipe was foolproof. went stunningly fast. even piping the cookies was simple, tho some admittedly looked like huge commas instead of rounds. oh well. i was unconvinced when i piped them that they were coming out right. they looked flat. but when they baked they poofed up and looked perfect. oh, and the recipe said it would make 3 dozen finished cookies (72 cookies that you needed two of to make a sandwich.) i got 96. so 4 dozen. i swear, to the letter i made this recipe. i NEVER end up with more than i'm supposed to get. never.

filling: this perplexed me for awhile. the recipe calls for four eggs. i have made buttercream before, but only a simple kind that is butter and sugar. i knew that real buttercream called for egg, but i really thought they called for just egg whites. this said egg. i thought that the whole game was getting the volume from the beaten egg white, then adding the butter and sugar. but it said just eggs. so i beat them until they gained some volume and were very creamy. also, the sugar was supposed to go in in the form of a 248-degree syrup, and that was the only cooking the eggs would get. i am totally willing to eat raw egg, but i won't serve it to the general populace, so i watched the temperature of the eggs as i added the syrup. sure enough, the temperature got to over 150 degrees, so i shrugged and started add
ing the butter. the finished product tasted almost custard-y. which is not surprising considering the egg in there. but i am remain unconvinced that it wasn't supposed to just be egg white.

assembly: went very fast. the book says to pipe the cream onto a cookie, but i decided to get real. since it was just going to get smooshed under another cookie, i spooned it on. i was generous with the filling, and despite the fact that i had an extra dozen to make, i still only used half the filling. weird.

result: i never end up with a final product that looks like the picture in the book. these looked like the picture in the book! i mean, totally. and they tasted awesome, too. next time i am near a bouchon, i definitely want to get one, too see how true to the real thing i was. but there is a photo of mine at the top. and click here to see a photo of the macarons at bouchon. go ahead. i'll wait. ... see?

as far as macaron vs. macaroon, the cookbook says macaroon, and the bouchon web site says macaron. so i have no idea.

anyway, i will make these again, and probably play with different flavors.

* bouchon bakery, for those that don't know, is a bakery under the banner of thomas keller, he of the french laundry. there are bouchon bistro and bakeries in yountville, calif., new york city and las vegas. if you don't know about thomas keller or the french laundry, you don't really listen when i talk, do you? but you can catch up with my history with chef keller with these links: french laundry blog post, bouchon blog post, stalking with laura times story.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

counting crows concert

got to go see counting crows in concert at ruth eckerd hall on monday night. i like so many of their songs so much that it is virtually impossible for them to play everything i want to hear, but monday's show was a lot of fun. i did a review on one of the blogs at the paper. check it out.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

alinea, the video

i swear my next post will be about something else.

so, i didn't shoot this video, but it is an excellent video of the table-plated dessert we had ("chocolate"). i only found it because chef achatz sent out a link on twitter today. i love 2009.

they had some of the same lighting issues that i did, but they scored a seat with the lamp in the back. it makes for a little backlighting, but at least there is lighting. funny thing is, i think i know where the person who shot this was sitting, just based on the angles. oh well.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

alinea, chicago, july 18 (postscript)

final thoughts on alinea. i promise:

* so, here are my top seven dishes from the meal. i know i said 10, but that's when i thought there had been 24 courses. 10 of 22 seems silly to me right now in a way that, say, 7 of 22 does not. plus, it's my list. they are not necessarily in any particular order. but might be.

-- black truffle explosion
-- bubble gum
-- chocolate
-- wagyu beef
-- hot potato, cold potato
-- blue crab
-- mustard

* dinner took 4 1/2 hours. that's a personal record. we had nothing better to do anyway.

* in fact, dinner took longer than the time between lunch and dinner. now it just seems silly.

* i am rarely awestruck by someone's mere presence, but i was a little taken aback in meeting grant achatz. (that and wine-buzzed, so i didn't really say anything, in a rare fit of good sense.) i find him to be remarkable on a number of levels. i will not get into the whole story, but click here to read the new yorker story about him. it is inspiring. it was awesome to watch him create right at our table, tho. and i hope i get a chance to see him do a demo or something sometime.

* possibly my favorite point of the night was when our waiter asked us what we did in the industry. i always wonder what conversations at other tables must sound like, because we get a question along that line so many places. i love the fact that our banter makes it seem to people in the food industry that we are too. we're just geeks, we assured him. our role in the industry: observer from as close as they'll let us get.

* favorite quote: about 3/4 through dinner, jeremy bowers says, "i think i have survivor's guilt." i knew exactly what he meant, because i think that is a good description of how i felt at french laundry.

* if i could go back and do the blog over, i would have riffed on seuss in the soft shell crab description instead of lucy in the sky. i think i could have been much more effective with seuss. oh well.

* after reading the posts, my pal laura, a professional eater, had a salient question: "was it delicious?" answer: almost all of it. i loved many things, and i didn't dislike any of the food. and i understood all of it. there were surprises, but nothing confounding. i have had food at far more traditional places that was far less comprehendible.

* this was my first extensive experience with "molecular gastronomy," and the rap is that it is soulless. maybe some places, but not here.

* i thought it was funny that there was no real indication on the front of the building as to what the building was. that makes four of the country's top restaurants that i have been to that kind of hide themselves. charlie trotter's just has a little plaque on a wall that doesn't face the street, chez panisse has a wood-carved sign that was covered in vines when we went there, and french laundry has a sign, but i missed it like 4 times before we found it. so if you want to have a world class restaurant, apparently the best strategy is to hide at all costs.

* the chocolate course where chef achatz and his sous turned our dessert into a table-sized work of abstract art was really cool because i felt like i had been in on that since the idea was hatched. a few months ago, he posted an open question on twitter ( that was something like, "what if the food was served right on the table without plates?" which spurred discussion. then a couple weeks ago i saw they were starting it on a trial basis and that they were working out the kinks and trying to be able to do it larger scale. i didn't know if there was even a reason to hope that we'd get the treatment, so i didn't think about it. but when they cleared the table and asked some of us to move, i was pretty sure i knew what was going on. it was so cool, but such a time commitment from such important people to the operation, i can see why there are issues with how many guests get the experience. i loved it though, and am very grateful.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

alinea, chicago, july 18 (part 2)

(we now return to the alinea meal already in progress.)

(when we left the last blog post, our team of intrepid eaters had just completed the first wave of savory dishes. we now pick up with the first wave of desserts.)

(remember, click on photos to make them bigger. i made them small for fear of running out of internet.)

mustard, passionfruit, allspice: a small disc is placed in front of us, upon which sits another disc with a pin sticking out of it. we are instructed to pick up the pin, put the disc in our mouths and let it melt on our tongues. then were are asked to guess what the flavor is. just as it started melting on my tongue and the burning started, we are told it is mustard ice cream.

bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme: this is one of the dishes i had targeted in the cookbook as one i'd like to make. the bacon is dehydrated, the apple turned into strands of fruit roll-up and twisted around the bacon as it hangs from its bow. in my version, there will probably be more butterscotch.

sweet potato, bourbon, brown sugar, smoldering cinnamon: the cinnamon is like the popsicle stick for a sweet potato ice cream-y thing. mine was falling off the stick, but i managed.i'm a trooper like that.

that concluded the first phase of dessert. now we restart the meal with phase 2 of the savories. the coolest concept ever.

hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter: this is another i targeted from the book that i want to make. you've got a small paraffin bowl filled with cold potato soup. piercing the side of the bowl is a pick which suspends over the soup a small cube of parmesan, a small cube of butter, and a hot potato ball with a slice of black truffle sitting atop it. the idea is you pull the pick out of the side of the bowl, the hot potato, truffle, butter and cheese drop into the soup and you slurp it down. that is fine engineering. very tasty. i'm not making any paraffin bowls, but i'll make this dish.

yuba, shrimp, miso, togarashi: so, you can't prove that i just went back to wikipedia to find out what yuba is. wait, its tofu skin? really? huh. well, this dish sort of looked like a pen in an ink well. a long stick of yuba -- which is tofu skin, btw -- sticking up out of the miso-sauce filled blotter. the yuba stick was wrapped with a long, thing strip of sweet shrimp. outta sight.

white asparagus, arugula, white pepper, honey: this dish came to the table plated in a large cylinder inside its bowl. the idea was to pick up the clear cylinder and let the composed elements of the soup fall together. i didn't take a picture until after the cylinder was lifted. my bad. the table got pretty quiet during this course. there was much reverence.

foie gras, peach, fennel, shiso: we were handed a bowl about the size of a baseball with a little bit of peach soup in it, and a fork straddled across with a few bits of foie on it. perfect.

lilac, scallop, shellfish, honeydew: i wasn't sure i got the lilac, but i loved the celery. i'm allergic to most melons, so i was nervous while eating the honeydew, but it was fine.

wagyu beef, powdered a1, potato, chips: at french laundry, rommie was nearly in tears over the wagyu course. at alinea, almost all of us were. at french laundry, when i was down to about one bite of the wagyu, rommie asked "are you sad that its almost gone?" and when i was eating the wagyu at alinea, i kept hearing him say that in my head, because i was. it was a beautifully cooked, remarkably tender chunk of beef. on the side was a small bar with powder in it that was a dehydrated and powdered version of a1 steak sauce, using the ingredients found in the original recipe for the steak sauce. not the current version, we were assured. anchovy, tamarind, raisin and clove. wow. i have no idea what was in the potato cube, but i kept finding myself cutting that in half, too, to make it last longer.

this was also the course in which the vase came into play. the course was meant to evoke the feeling of a cookout. but the beef was cooked sous vide, which means it was sealed in a bag and put in water at a temperature that was the target for the final temperature of the meat. no smoke at all. so some liquid was poured into the vase, and smoke billowed out over the table. it was cool and had the vague scent of a bbq. a lot of fun. you can watch below.

now, on to phase 2 of desserts.

transparency of raspberry, yogurt: i broke mine. it was still good. basically the best fruit rollup ever, and it was crisp. you were supposed to pick it up by the clip, but i must have grazed the fan of raspberry instead and it shattered. i picked up the pieces. it was still good. i didn't get a good photo of it. in this dessert trio photo, it is the coral-fan looking thing on the left.

bubble gum, long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche:
how many favorites am i allowed to have? because this was one. w
e are presented a clear plastic tube with three colors in it. we are told to pick up the tube and suck out the contents all at once and chew. it was like being hit in the mouth with a bubble gum milkshake. when i got home, the first thing i did was look to see if this was in the cookbook. if not to make it, just to figure out what was in there. i suspect the biggest layer carried most of the flavor and texture, and i suspect that was where the creme fraiche was, and that it was full of tapioca. anything else is just guessing. actually, that much was just guessing. it is in the middle, on the plate, in the photo.

watermelon, lime, nasturtium:
a shot glass with a little globe inside. you drink back the globe, it shatters in your mouth and next thing you know you just swallowed a watermelon. again, i ignored allergy to try that, to no ill effect. it is on the right in the photo above.

rhubarb, goat milk, onion, lavender air: first, they bring you a pillow. you need a nap, but that isn't what its for. no, the pillow is filled with lavender-scented air. then your plate is brought to the table and placed on top of the pillow. this begins the process by which the lavender air is pushed out of the pillow and surrounds your plate while you eat the dessert. if i was just reading this, i would be thinking "that is sooo stupid." it was not. plus, there was cotton candy.

chocolate, blueberry, tobacco, maple: ok, sit back. we are told to move our chairs to make room on either side of the table. jeremy and i suspect we know what is coming. the table is completely cleared. silicone mats are brought out, and we are asked to help roll them out to cover the table. then a bunch of plates holding various ingredients are brought to the table. then chef grant achatz and a sous come to the table, standing on opposite sides, and start painting the table with the ingredients of the dessert. there is a blueberry sauce at the base. there are globules of berry. there are globules of maple, derived from boiling the wood, i think. there is a tobacco-flavored cream. there are shards of chocolate. then there are two mounds of chocolate malt ice cream that are placed on the table and shattered, the pieces falling where they may. then we shake hands with the chef and pick up our spoons. every element of the dessert was fabulous on its own, and like other dishes, you could combine the elements in any number of ways to give you something totally unique in each bite. this part of the experience doesn't happen for everyone. because of the time and the logistics, most people get this dessert plated. it was a real treat to get the table plating, and we were immensely grateful for it. it was singularly spectacular.

pound cake, strawberry, lemon, vanilla bean: our final taste of the night, it was exactly what it sounds like, with the bean serving like a lollipop stick. when we were done with the cake, we dropped the beans into our coffee while we finished the evening by doing hard math, probably a little too loud. perfect.

the team of servers were amazing. everything was there when or before we needed it. explanations were complete and funny. great care was taken to foresee needs and meet them. it was just out of control.

it had been suggested to me that i might skip the wine pairings for a variety of reasons. and while i am sure they were excellent wines, i wish i had. in the past when i've done pairings, i usually felt like it was too much wine, and in this case, i definitely felt like i had too much, and i didn't even finish all of them. also, most other times i have done pairings, i found a wine that i really liked and wanted to try to find, even if i have never actually been successful doing that. (except once, at the french laundry, when i had acutally bought a wine i liked before we had it at dinner. still one of my crowning achie
vements.) i talked to jeremy, whose opinion on wine i trust, and he liked the them. he thought they were well paired with their courses and he was glad he did it. so it could just be me. anyway, there was nothing that i loved, and the bottom-line part of me would have enjoyed the meal even exponentially more if it had not included the cost of the wine. now i know.

and that is good information to have. because while i have walked away from other crazy-cool dining experiences thinking that a return trip was prohibitive and/or unnecessary, i don't feel that way about alinea. i can totally see going back. i
mean, i'm not buying plane tickets or anything, but i can see it.

coming tomorrow: the postscript