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.

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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.