January 31, 2007

The Shins will not change your life

(Or so Bob Boilen says)

Farrah Olivia, however, will.

We managed to sneak an 8:15 Restaurant Week dinner reservation at this brand new Alexandria restaurant. Farrah is a tiny place with simple decor - one wall is eggplant-colored with sage green trees painted on it, the other two walls are full-length windows which you can gaze at the loveliness of the fast food joint across the street.

I'll start off with my few complaints- the dining tables were very small and close together. The menu for restaurant week was confusing, as a few of the items said "additional $8", as opposed to a normal RW menu that clearly list the choices for the three courses. There was no dessert course listed on the main menu, but there was a cheese course. We had a moment of worry that cheese would be replacing dessert for RW, but thankfully dessert was included, they just brought out the menu later. Phew.

Our first surprise was the bread - one slice of raisin walnut and of sourdough for each of us. None of this "and one extra for the table" crap that you so often get, and then it comes to fisticuffs over that last piece of bread. With said bread came a palette of spread choices: pumpkin butter, refried tomato spread, black pepper honey butter, and bok choy spread. The pumpkin was like pumpkin pie filling, only fresher and not as sickeningly sweet, the refried tomato was delicious, but nothing different than a sun-dried tomato spread would be. The bok choy spread was a little chalky, but not too bad. My favorite was the honey butter though - in tasting it, you first tasted the rich creamy butter with a hint of sweetness, and then the KICK of pepper and honey hit you at the end.

The second surprise was an amuse bouche! We each got a smidgen of angel hair pasta with lobster, white truffle oil and a perfect schmear of beet juice. The truffle oil gave it that amazing umami thing that truffles do, and it was the perfect appetite-whetter for what was to come.

My starter was described as a Parmesan cream with cinnamon scent. Usually, cheese soup grosses me out a bit, but I was too intrigued to pass it up. It was absolutely life-changing. First - it was served in an elegant bowl shaped like the hurricane symbol (I do love me some swanky presentation). The soup was rich and flavorful, yet light, almost as if egg whites had been folded into it, and the cinnamon swirl did a perfect job of cutting the richness of the cheese.

For my entree, I had anise-rubbed salmon served with yucca "couscous." As much as licorice isn't my favorite flavor, the amount of anise on the salmon was perfect - just enough spice to liven things up, but not sickening. The fish itself was tender, not overdone, and CREAMY. According to Washingtonian, this creaminess is courtesy of the salmon being cooked in caul fat, a technique renowned for increasing the juiciness of meat. And the faux couscous was an excellent complement to the luscious salmon - crunchy because of the yucca and nicely paired with some minced tomatoes.

For dessert, I opted for the "Spice": a wild fig & cassis cake with maple caviar. It looked a lot like tiramisu in presentation, which only increased my love for the dish. The cake was very thin, covered with at least an inch of mascarpone, and served with a teeny dish of mustard ice cream on the side. All of the flavors complemented each other wonderfully - even the mustard, which I normally dislike!

To be fair, I really love the North African/Mediterranean cooking style that Chef Morou Outtara favors. But this meal was....absolutely incredible. F'amazing, even. Sadly, Farrah Olivia is classified as a FIVE dollar sign restaurant...so I may not be back for awhile. But if any of you find a bajillion dollar bill on the street, you should go there IMMEDIATELY. If it doesn't change your life, I'll make you cupcakes.

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January 29, 2007

Convey to me the sushi please!

In light of my recent conversation with skip, I will attempt to be prodigious rather than overly verbose with my postings. As a quick reference point, I am the aforementioned Russian co-worker of skip's. As I was recently browsing tasting menu I noticed a page discussing the philosophy of the site's adventurous eater, and an interesting claim was made. The author claimed that main courses are pure evil because no matter how astoundingly good a dish may be, that thrill deteriorates and is subject to the law of diminishing returns with every bite. I quickly realized just how appealing this makes a cuisine which is already one of my very favorites, sushi. I warn, east restaurant, is not for the sushi snob because it is not an ultra serious place for sushi, yet it provides a fun atmosphere and eating experience and the sushi is a great buy if you consider bang for the buck. This place is extra special because the downstairs has a sushi conveyor belt, as opposed to the upstairs which includes traditional Japanese seating as well as Karaoke. The sushi chef's are stationed in the middle of the restaurant, and the sushi, upon completion is put on a small plate and sent out on the conveyor belt which winds it's way around to all the tables. The plates on the conveyor belt are of varying colors and patterns, each being a different price, indicated on the price guide posted at every table. At the end of your meal, the plates are collected and your bill is tallied! There are a few good things to know about this place, you can ask for a menu which contains a greater selection than on the conveyor belt which is than brought to your table on the same colorful plates, this is a GREAT date place ( read..low lights, music, great conversation starter), the drink deals are great ( try the sake lime/apple, or the huge mug-o-beer), my favorites are the pepper shrimp roll, mackerel ( saba), and asari jiru ( clam soup)

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Cheap/Tasty - Butternut Squash Chili

In winter's depths last week, I thought it high time to try out some chili. I went to the usual suspects, epicurious, Southern Living, Cook's, etc., and found only two recipes that looked promising: a beef-and-butternut squash chili from Southern Living and a traditional chili con carne from Gourmet. Feeling adventurous, I went with the former.

Honestly I don't think I've ever prepared a recipe that called for so many canned goods, and considering I made a double batch, my poor decrepit can opener had to grind through (yes, grind) seven cans of tomatoes, 'chili with vegetarian,' and broth. The thought of the creamy, dreamy butternut squash got me through the miserable sound of my dying can opener.

The recipe was incredibly straightforward to prepare, but I ran into problems in the supermarket finding the ingredients. After going through three or four markets looking for canned 'chili beans,' I eventually settled on Hormel chili with vegetarian beans. Afterward, my roommate put forth the suggestion of canned kidney beans, but by then I had decided to go with my gut.

And I was rewarded. Except for an unfortunate blandness, which was remedied by last minute adjustments, the chili rocked. The sweetness of the squash played beautifully with the spices and the texture proved a compliment to the mix.

It was versatile, too. I served it alone, topped with cheese and sour cream. My favorite, though, was mixing it up with rice. Hearty and filling. And, according to Southern Living, the chili is full of vitamins B, C, as well as zinc and beta-carotene. (!)

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Special thanks to me for the photo. It isn't pretty, but it's good stuff.

January 28, 2007

No, it was more like a beefy Loufah

At about 1 a.m. a month ago, Greg my Russian co-worker declared that we were going out to dinner. Since I'd brought my lunch, as per usual, I was not immediately excited. We talked about it and eventually decided that the best thing to do with our mandatory 60-minute 3 a.m. "lunch" break was to go down to K-Town (Korea Town). I was skeptical. When I think Korean, I think raw meat bucket a la Lost In Translation. Greg and Eric assured me it wasn't like that at all and followed that up by asking me if I liked spicy things. Another negative mark. I explained that I liked spicy things fine enough, but not spicy for the sake of spicy. Kimchi (a spicy Asian cabbage), as I knew it, wasn't just a little spicy. It was melt-your-face spicy, and that wasn't what I wanted at 3 a.m.

They convinced me I wouldn't be sorry, and we ran to Greg's car. Gahm Mi Oak was moderately populated, medium-lighted and full of tasteful Asian decor. Everybody but us was Asian (that's usually a good sign). I had planned on deferring to the other two, since they know Korean, but I ended up choosing a pork pancake. Greg ordered us a meat platter with scallions and a communal-type rice bowl called bibimbap, as well as a bottle of soju (basically Korean vodka, though not as strong - 20% alcohol by volume).

Shortly thereafter, we got a round of complimentary side dishes, including a surprisingly fresh and mild kimchi, long green peppers with mung bean paste, and a watery, gross, cloudy beef broth. Eric raved about the kimchi, and I agreed. The crunch is similar to a watery celery and the spice level between mild and moderate Indian food, with a heavy taste of ginger, garlic and chili. All the same, though, I wouldn't have wanted to eat a whole bowl of it. The green pepper, which I was trying to avoid, was also much milder than I'd expected, but I only ate the bottom part (before the seed area). The mung bean paste was salty and ... munghy.

Oh the meat platter. It landed on the table and I was shocked by the pile of of greyish-white tripe (it has something to do with bovine stomach lining), and Greg joyfully pointed out cow tongue. What is the rest? I asked. He was confused. I clarified, wanting to know what else beside tripe and tongue was on the plate. Just regular beef. That was a relief. I've been enamored with the idea of tripe since I first started getting excited about food. An editor at one of the placed I've worked whose opinion I hold in high regard likened tripe (which he said with a disgusted look) to tasting like wet dog with a cottony mouthfeel. You could just keep chewing forever. Not appealing, but still. I tried the tripe, which was described by Eric as middling, and it was incredibly chewy (more like a loufah than cotton) but the taste was essentially more bovine than canine. I chewed on it for a while and then gagged it down. I only had one piece of it. It tasted like essence of beef. The texture was pretty rough, though.

The tongue wasn't memorable. Tough, I think. Beefy. And the 'regular' beef was forgettable.

The pork pancake was positively delightful; quite similar to a potato pancake with pork and all sorts of vegetables. It was further improved with the addition of kimchi.

And the bibimbap was also great; all of these things were perfect for a first time Korean eater. I'd get the same things if I went back (when I go back).

Finally, the soju. We started off with a shot. Ours was distilled from sweet potatoes, barley, wheat, tapioca, and some other stuff. It tasted slightly sweet with a light vodka mouthfeel. They drank most of the rest. Since it was the middle of the night and we still had 4 hours left, I didn't care to drink any more than that.

And we made it back in one hour and five minutes. Not bad for a meal of that size and scope.

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Special thanks to
Chewy Chua, Lynn in Tokyo, and Quasimondo, respectively, for the pictures.

January 22, 2007

We now return to our...um, food.

So, it's been a while since I posted, as I've been acclimating myself to new surroundings - OSAKA-freakin'-JAPAN.

Yup. And trust me, my food adventures have continued. But! As I've compiled nigh-unto 2.5 months in good ol' Nippon, there's a lot of food to be discussed. For your (and my, because otherwise I'll have issues remembering how many things there are) benefit, a brief snapshot-y, list-y type thing for discussion and introduction, to be expounded upon at length at a later date.

Things of Excellence:

• Osaka street food is delicious, e.g. takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and these DELICIOUS pancake-type sandwich-y things filled with vanilla pudding/custard.

• Cup Noodles can in NO WAY COMPARE to real ramen.

• Festivals at temples produce amazing snacks. I'd like to see carnivals in the U.S. up their game appropriately.

• Conveyor-belt sushi ("Kaiten-zushi") is cheaper, fast, and tastier than a lot of sushi I've had in Northern Virginia. 28 pieces of freshly-made nigiri sushi for $15 USD? Unheard of.


• Chu-hai. Made from Shochu and soda, with flavorings like lychee, plum, grape, lime...it's the perfect beer replacement, since beer here is on the poor side.

• On a similar note, liquor is shockingly cheap. Example: 750ml of Absolut? About $14 USD.

• Oh, you crazy Japanese people. Your snack food verges on the surreal. I've never had so many varieties of Pocky at my disposal. And might I add, the honey and milk Pocky are totally my favorite.

• All varieties of seafood live up to reputation (extraordinary quality and freshness)

Things that make me So Very, Very Sad:

• So far as I can tell, cheese here is a travesty. Someone mail me some Parrano and Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam, dammit.

• "Authentic Ethnic Food" restaurants are like urban legends.

• You call this a supermarket?

• This...this isn't butter. Holy crap, it doesn't even melt at room temperature if left out for an hour!

• So, that was a little bland. Have any kimchee? Red peppers? SRIRACHA?? Please?


That's not everything of course, but as a primer, it'll do. I'll be back to rant/rave soon!

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January 20, 2007

A dark, sumptuous drink for midwinter

We've never really written about wine before, so I may as well start tonight. This one was a sure winner.

I received this delightful 2003 Diamond Claret from the Food Arts Illy Galleria event last fall and finally opened it last week.

The smooth tannins and delicious blend surprised and delighted me. Deep red cherry and plum flavors on top of anise and ... other spices ... make this Bordeaux-style blend rock.

Trader Joe's has a 2004 Coppola Claret for, if I'm not mistaken, under $15. I'll be trying it out, and if I could find a fireplace, you'd find me drinking next to it.

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Special thanks to my old camera for the picture.

January 16, 2007

Gourmet's French Macaroons

I don't think I've ranted about my oven before. Since I moved in this past September, I hung a thermometer in there because it always seemed unreliable. We learned it was usually anywhere from 25 to 50 degrees off. And when the stars line up just right, as it turns out, the temperature can get up to 75 degrees hotter in practically no time at all. This was particularly infuriating when I was making these beautiful, delicate Raspberry Chocolate French Macaroons.

Before I go into the annoying details about the oven malfunctions, I want to start off by mentioning the difficulties I had making a meringue when I had never made one before. Interpreting the instructions was vexing. "Soft peaks" ok. I can deal with that, but "stiff" "glossy peaks" is much more subjective. How stiff is stiff? How glossy is the perfect gloss? Will it get glossier if I beat it for a little longer, or will it turn to butter. It didn't turn to butter, but I think I was a bit conservative on the whipping times.

The recipe also recommended cutting the corner of an unpleated plastic bag to create a makeshift pastry bag. I'd seen them, I'd read about the best way use them, but I had never actually used a pastry bag before. And I cut the corner a little too large (it was probably about 1/2-inch rather than 1/4).

Filling the buggers was no easy task either. The first time, I spooned it right in and got the batter everywhere. I'm not a fan of sticky things, and let me tell you, it was glue city. Learning from my mistake, I placed the empty paper bag in an empty cup and proceeded to spoon in the filling. Much cleaner. It made the whole thing a lot less stressful.

The meringue was ungainly, possibly because it was under-whipped, but had accepted that I would likely have malformed cookies. Combining the mildly-runny patter with my inexperience with pastry bags and wax paper. There was quite a bit of swearing andmore than a few ugly cookies (see photo), but I still had hope for the final product. The taste was all I cared about.

While I squeezed the future macaroons out, the oven warmed. The temperature was compensated for, so it was about 300 degrees when I put the first sheets in. I walked away for two minutes. Two. And I come back to find smoke billowing out the back of the oven. Open the door. Burnt cookies. 400 degrees. The dial still said 280 (ish). I was pissed. They weren't completely ruined, but they were close.

To make matters worse, since I used wax paper instead of the requested parchment, the burnt macaroons had fused to it. My wont of parchment wasn't for lack of trying, though. I went to four grocery stores, including Fairway, and hardly any of them even had wax paper. Leave it to me to start making cookies during the one time of year everybody makes them. I ate one or two with the paper still on them, just to see if people could notice. They would. Instead of throwing out the bunch, I called my baking-est aunt to see if she had any recommendations for loosing the meringues. She said exposing the sheets to extremes, either hot or cold, might help improve their situation.

Putting them in the freezer didn't help, so I put them on a wire cooling rack above a pot of simmering water. The wax paper (and the burnt bottoms) got full of steam and they came right off, leaving the inedible parts behind, still stuck to the paper. I was pleased.

As the cookies cooled, I made the ganache. Being a equipment-impared cook, I do not have a double boiler. To get around this, I would have sat a pot in a pot of simmering water, but the recipe clearly warned against this, so I tried to work on an alternative. My trusty cooling rack came to the rescue again, when I used it to put distance between the scorching water and the smooth, delicate chocolate. Worked like a charm.

The cookies were a hit. The raspberry-chocolate ganache was a brilliant foil to the mostly-bland cookie. For the second batch, I thought it might work well to make regular chocolate ganache and pair it with raspberry preserves. It wasn't bad but the added sugar from the preserves brought the sweetness level to nearly aching.

And I got to experience the joy of making 4 dozen cookies and eating four. At least everybody liked them (and I actually got to say, "Here's a cookie; but if you're going to rave, please rave quietly because there aren't enough for everyone." And that was worth it).

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Special thanks to my old camera for the photos.

January 8, 2007

What I have to deal with when I'm in Williamsburg

Who would eat this? Really. Herring in cream sauce is supposed to bring you luck if you eat it on New Year's Eve, so says my stepfather. Well shit, that must be why I've had such bad luck for the last few years. Mmm herring snacks.

In other news, I got a new camera. Tres exciting. I love it. More close-up innards shots will follow.