Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Empire Goes Kaput

In his book, Who's Your Caddy? Rick Reilly chronicles his adventures caddying for various characters both famous and nefarious, including a stint with Donald Trump. He joins The Donald on a Tuesday golf outing at Trump's New Jersey country club where Trump notes that he doesn't like taking off during the week to play golf or generally goof around.

Why? Because if he takes Tuesdays off to play golf, he might enjoy it. In turn, this might become a regular outing that erupts into more weekdays off, more leisure and his entire empire going kaput.

And kaput is something undesireable for The Donald and His Empire.

I've spent the last three days enjoying a brief weekday vacation with Lindsay and Matt on a segment of their East Coast Coffee Crawl, a two to three week odyssey that will take them across the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and a quick jaunt to Chicago. It's been a fun and intoxicating (definitely non-alcoholic intoxication) adventure with The Intrepid Two from Canada. Happily, it hasn't been only about the coffee.

Monday started out with an evening at Murky Coffee in Arlington, Virginia with The Cho, Coffee Wonderkind Peter Giuliano, El Salvadorean coffee producer Aida Batlle, a bunch of coffee fanatics, The Intrepid Two, sizzling platters of beef, a Korean style restaurant reconstruction project, as well as visits to Abe's Place, Korea, Vietnam, The Hill, Exorcist Stairs, Cho's Rice Rocket and being surveilled by Uniformed Secret Service and White House snipers.

Tuesday brought fatty beef brisket, mystery coffee, cupping notes, runny water, the Star Spangled Banner, Eat Bertha's Mussels, totalitarianism, snowboarding down Federal Hill, $2600 love seats, Irish Pubs in Greektown, duckpin bowling and big, fat crab cakes at G&M with Beto and Anna.

Wednesday morning found headaches, triple-toasted jalapeno bagels with fried eggs, sausage and cheese, Mazzer Major Mods, latte art demonstrations, Sidamo tastings from David George, returning old lingerie to Old Flames, Twix, the Bad Ass interior design of Chesnut Hill Coffee, finding great makeout spots behind dodgy warehouses, waking a bewildered John Hornall from his slumber, Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, Virgo-isms, truly innovative inner-city parking methods, "It's just Philly," 57% like sex, Tacos in Little Italy, 8/9-Ball Tournament, and the Jim's-Geno's-Pat's Cheesesteak (Whiz with) Trifecta.

It's now another Thursday afternoon at Spro Coffee, the Intrepid Two are probably gorging themselves on Hershey bars while I'm conniving and bullying my staff into working next week so I can take another weekday vacation for their New York City segment where there's been promises of Les Halles, Carnegie Deli, Ninth Street Espresso, twin Clovers, hanging with the Murky Crew, Chinese food, podcasting from MTV, and who knows - there might even be tour extensions to Miami, Atlantic City, South of the Border, Disney World, Terry Davis' couch and an opening of the new Key West Espresso Bar.

Looks like my empire might be going kaput.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Oh My God, They're Turkeys!

With the unofficial holiday of Black Friday upon us, I thought it would be a good time to remember the meaning of Thanksgiving with this quote from WKRP radio's Les Nessman:

What a sight, ladies and gentlemen. What a sight. The copter seems to be circling the parking area now, I guess it's looking for a place to land. No, something just came out of the back of the helicopter. It's a dark object. Perhaps a skydiver plummeting to the earth from only two thousand feet in the air. A second and a third. There's no parachutes yet. Those can't be skydivers. I can't tell just yet what they are but - OH MY GOD THEY'RE TURKEYS!!!!

Oh my God, Johnny did you get this? Oh, they're crashing to the earth right in front of my eyes. One just went through the windshield of a parked car! This is terrible. The crowd is running around pushing each other. Oh my goodness. Oh the humanity! Oh, people are running about. The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement. I don't know how much longer - the crowd is running for their lives. I think I'm going to step inside. I can't stay out here and watch this any longer. No, I can't go in there.

Children are searching for their mothers, and - Oh, not since the Hindenberg tragedy has there been anything like this. I don't know how much longer I can hold my position here Johnny. The crowd...

Hope your T-Day was a good one and you can see the actual video below.

To fast forward to the transcript above, go to 07:30.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Gobble Gobble

It must be some sort of male fantasy.

After a long night's slumber, one awakens to find a smoker filled with delicious meats ready for the eating. Some, like the ribs, are ready for morning chow. Others, like the turkeys, are almost ready. And yet more meats, such as the Kalua Pig and Monster Brisket, will be ready in several hours.

There's so much effort put into starting up the smoker that it seemed a darn shame to only smoke a couple of birds. The Fast Eddy FEC 100 smoker has so much more room available that it seems very un-Christian to smoke it almost empty. This prompted an evening trip to the local supermarket to pick up the aforementioned ribs and pork shoulder picnic.

Perhaps it's due to my desire for simplicity, or perhaps I'm just being unimaginative and lazy, but I chose some very simple preparations for last night's meat load. The turkeys received a rubbing of sea salt, ground black pepper, ground thyme and rosemary. Both the Monster Brisket and ribs received the Ono Grill's Hines Spro Rub and Pig Powder, respectively. And the pork shoulder picnic received a serious lomi lomi of Ala'e Salt, garlic, one ti leaf and wrapped in banana leaves that will transform it into that Hawaiian staple known as Kalua Pig.

All this meat, along with a good helping of steamed white rice, promises to make for a delicious Turkey Day meal.

But the best part of waking up today were the ribs that I stashed in the smoker strictly for today's breakfast...

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Night Before Thanksgiving

It's just past midnight the night before Thanksgiving.

Outside in the cold rain sits my trusty Fast Eddie smoker running at 230 degrees Fahrenheit. It's filled to the brim with three fifteen pound turkeys, four racks of ribs, a pork shoulder for Kalua Pig, and a twenty pound beef brisket. All being slowly smoked to perfection for Thanksgiving feasts around Baltimore and New Jersey.

In the refrigerator is a honey baked ham and in the oven bakes both a pumpkin and sweet potato pie. My house is packed with food being prepped and cooked for tomorrows feast.

But there isn't a damn thing in this house that I can eat now.

And I'm bloody starving...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Ongbat? Ong-what???

Was at K's place last weekend for a mini-feast and thought I would share my recipe for onglet aka Hanger Steak.

First off, there is only one onglet per steer. That's right, only one. The more onglet you order, the more steers need to die to satisfy your cravings, but it's so worth it. The hanger steak sits on the bottom of the animal and kinda, well, "hangs" there from the diapraghm of the steer. It's a stringy cut of meat that's V-shaped, marbled and oh so delicious. Most importantly, it's not well-known in America so you can seem very continental to your friends.

The problem with this exclusivity is that it's difficult to find in most supermarkets. Don't confuse this with a plain, old flank steak. This steak takes commitment. Chances are you will need to order it from your butcher.

Which brings me to another point: go find yourself a good butcher. One who knows what he's talking about and can order what you need. Need onlget for a special dinner? No problem. Need fifty pounds of veal bones for stock? He'll get it. It's a love affair in the truest sense of the word. Just say the word and in a couple days there is your meat, cut and trimmed specially for you (to your specifications), wrapped elegantly in butchers paper and ready for your culinary expertise.

Like I said, the onglet is v-shaped with an inedible center seam that must be removed (or at least left uneaten). My personal recommendation is to have your butcher cut out the center seam, leaving two long halves that can then be butterflied to even out the thickness and prepared for grilling.

Grill or pan sear, the choice is yours. Either way, the hanger steak is meant for medium and nothing more. If you're a well-done kinda steak eater then please click off my blog and get away.

For K's party, I chose a simple preparation of freshly ground pepper and Hawaiian Ala'e Red Salt. I like to use both liberally. Meanwhile, make sure you are preheating your oven to 375 degrees Farhenheit. In a saute pan, heat up a little oil and add a couple pats of butter once the oil is hot. Wait for the fizziness to subside and then sear the steaks on both sides for two mintues.

Once seared, transfer steaks to a roasting pan and into the oven for 8 to 10 minutes. This should result in nicely medium steaks. Once finished, put aside and let them rest for about five minutes before serving.

If you're interested in making a sauce for the steak, reheat the pan and deglaze with a bit of white wine, reduce by half, add some butter, add a little dark chicken stock, reduce by half, pull from the heat and whisk in a little dijon mustard. If you've allowed the steaks to sit, there should be some au jus - whisk that into the sauce and you're good to go.

While hot steamed rice is preferred and frites are a nice accompaniment, R's corn casserole did the trick just nicely...

Friday, November 10, 2006

I Know Jay

A curious thing happened to me this morning...

I'm manning the bar at Spro Coffee Towson when a customer inquires if Spro is related to Jay's Shave Ice in Timonium. Why yes, I tell her and she continues on how she enjoys Jay's Shave Ice because she's from Honolulu and that she's talked to Jay before...


Of course, there's not a glimmer of recognition in her eyes that I look anywhere remotely familiar to her. Without skipping a beat, I continue on the conversation as though I'm just another staffer working behind the bar at Spro Coffee.

I didn't have the heart to say anything to her.

But I could've sworn when I looked in the mirror this morning that I am Jay!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Riedel Riddle

It's not quite 10:30 in the morning and already I'm feeling happy.

You know, that happiness that numbs you in the face and in most areas because you've been drinking before you've eaten. Maybe it's a sickness or maybe it's just a Sunday Morning Indulgence but I'm feeling quite relaxed already.

Outside of this early morning drinking, I've succombed to one of my Ultimate Temptations - I've bought a pair of Riedel Vinum wine glasses.

It's true, I've been secretly lusting after these glasses for years. Wondering if it's true: does the unique shape of the Vinum really enhance the wine experience? Yesterday evening, while shopping at Beltway Fine Wines, I decided "Fuck it, I'm buying them." Six glasses for one hundred and twenty dollars. Okay, that's a bit rich for me so I settled on the two-pack for forty bucks.

So far, I've only unwrapped one of them since I was a lonely man last night and no one go out with. Lady G was busy at a party, K was still on her whirlwind China Adventure, and things with Ms. V are kaput, I was just left at home with my sexy new glasses, a bottle of wine and a flavorless roasted chicken from Wegman's.

But do the glasses work?

One thing I like about Beltway is that they've got some serious wine guys working there. What started out as a simple question: "What red will knock my socks off for under forty bucks?" turned into a dizzying tour of wines from California, France and Spain. I appreciate the enthusiasm and knowledge, but I only want to buy one bottle. Finally, after a bit more coaching, we settled on a bottle of Chateau Bellefont-Belcier Bordeaux 2000.

I drank a couple glasses last night and a couple this morning (hence my current state of numbness) and I really don't know. The aromas are deep and astringent with black cherries and maybe apricot. Lots of body and mouthfeel with strong spice notes. There's an acidity that dances on my tongue as well.

I'm comparing the wine in a simple wine glass that I keep in my cellars. It's the standard Libbery foodservice wine glass you see at most wineries. Cheap and affordable by the case. To me, the flavor is bolder in the Libbey, not subtle and refined as in the Riedel. While the wine is very good in both glasses, I have to admit that there is a difference. The Bordeaux seems less refined in the Libbey.

So there it is, there is something to this whole Riedel Riddle. Fantasies of cabinets full of Vinum glasses dance in my mind. All it would take is a moment of reckless finance with the credit card and the fantasy could be mine. But I shall exercise restraint, for I could purchase a 36 count case of the Libbey glasses for the price of the two-pack. So dear friends, I apologize that you'll have to enjoy the wines at my house in the Libbey instead of the Riedel.

Unless, of course, you feel so inclined as to remember me on your holiday gift-giving....hint, hint.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Smell of Oranges

A clean and fresh-smelling rest room is a wonderful thing. It's even better when you don't have to do the cleaning.

Each morning I'm greeted with a clean and sparkling restroom. The soap and towel dispensers are full, the urinal basin has that familiar blue cleaning agent. The floors are freshly mopped and all is well in the world.

It's a small respite from the usual day's work and I know in about 40 minutes the building will be open and the throngs will pound this restroom non-stop for thirteen hours. By noon that citrus-y smell will be gone. The toilets will not have been flushed. Paper towels wil be strewn across the floor and, horror of horrors, there will be suspicious "drips" nearby. Good thing the floor sports colored tile to hide any yellow hues that may be inherent in the "drips."

Cleaning toilets is crappy work (pun intended) and I have deep admiration for those who choose this life. That vida brings a whole new meaning to dans la merde. It's too easy for us to disregard these people as those who don't take pride in their work, but that would be acutely inaccurate. There is pride to their work and I see it every morning from the vacuumed floors, to the clean tabletops, to my morning restroom ritual (that does not include a seated session). However, this pride is framed in the one place where no one would ever see for themselves: the custodial closet.

In my building there are two closets. One for waste and the other a mop closet with sink. The waste closet is always in proper order but it's in the sink closet where one can see their pride. White cotton mops perfectly cleaned and hung to dry after a morning of endless cleaning demonstrate to me that these are true professionals who take pride in what they do and treat the tools of their trade with respect. That's something I can admire.

Regardless of the mountain of used paper towels that grows right next to the 33gallon trash can and regardless of the "drips" that have now coalesced into a small stream, the intrepid team of custodial engineers returns each morning to make my morning respite civilized once again, and to them I am eternally grateful.

So thank you to those of you who work so hard in the early morning hours in obscurity to make our lives a bit more civilized, no matter how uncivilized our society acts in your work area. My morning is better because of you. I hope you remain in your profession for many years to come.

Until then, the smell of oranges will always be a comforting scent.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Les Halles

What is it about those places where you just feel at home?

You know, the kind of place that's "comfortable." That feels like you belong. Thomas Keller once wrote:

I felt as if I'd been there already, knew the place in my bones, as if the bistro were already a part of me before I was conscious of it, and that by stepping into one, I simply engaged a part of myself that had always been there but until that moment was dormant.

I couldn't have said it any better.

Because that's how I felt the first time I arrived at Washington D.C.'s Brasserie Les Halles.

Maybe it's the tin ceilings, the dark wood, the tobacco patina on the walls. Maybe it's the ice cubes in the urinals, or the humidor of Paul Garmirian cigars. Maybe it's the denim shirts on the waitstaff or the al fresco dining area. Maybe it's all those things combined with some very tasty food.

Les Halles may sound familiar to some of you, the New York restaurant is the home of now celebrity chef Tony Bourdain and one of the focal points in his bestseller Kitchen Confidential. But that's neither here nor there.

My first experience with Les Halles was back in 2002, just after Peter Gunn had opened the eponymous Adam Leaf & Bean tobacco shop. We were invited to attend a cigar dinner at Les Halles hosted by Paul Garmirian. I had heard about Les Halles and their reputation for pommes frites so when they called with the invitation, it was a no brainer. Dinner and cigars and the same time with steak and french fries? I was in and I didn't need to hear anymore about it.

I don't remember too much about that evening other than the cigars were excellent, the wines were flowing and it was steak frites and then more frites on top of the frites, and a very sharp waitress named Aicha.

Since that time, I've been to Les Halles on a somewhat regular basis. Usually monthly, sometimes weekly and, occasionally, more than once a week. In the beginning it was Steak Frites and some Macaroni and Cheese, then I discovered the Onglet a L'echalote, then the moules, then the cassoulet, then the onion soup, then the merguez, then the steak tartare, then the chocroute, then the steak aux poive, then the escargot, then the pate de campagne - in all, we've probably tried just about every item on Les Halles menu.

The question comes up - is it the "best" food available? Probably not. It's not expensive to eat there. The food is standard French workman's food. There's very little of the haute cuisine you'd find in those fancy French restaurants. The plating isn't wild, just relatively simple food prepared in a simple manner. But gosh is it good.

Sad to say that while I've tried most everything on the menu, I had never tried the Confit de Canard.

By now, I've been to a few other French bistros. Places like the old Aud Pied du Cochon, La Madeleine, Marche, La Chaumiere, Petit Louis and Bouchon, but there's no place like home. There's no place like Les Halles.

Food and Bloating in Las Vegas

Vegas. I used to think it was a weird place that I would never like. It was that odd pit stop on the way to Edmondton after being taken down in the California desert by the BATF and DEA. It was the place I saw Wayne Newton in concert. It was never a place I thought I would find interesting.

My how times change. For the past year I've been exploring Vegas and some of the things it has to offer. I've come up with a triumvirate of must eat places for my trips out there and now I'm sharing them with you.

First off, there's KJ Kitchen on Spring Mountain Road. At first, most people think it's in the megaplex that looks like China's Forbidden City but it's not. It's down the street a ways and it's got to be one of the best damn Chinese seafood joints I've been to in the United States. The patrons are mostly Chinese (and in-the-know Filipinos), the menus are in Chinese and the staff is Chinese. There's a big fish tank filled with live seafood for your choosing. The "don't miss this" dish is the wok fried dungeness crab - don't know what it's really called, we just find a way to communicate with the staff for what we want.

The crab is chopped up and dredged in what must be corn starch with salt pepper, garlic, onion and jalapeno peppers. Whatever it is, it's fucking insanely good. It's the best goddamned crab I've ever had. The flavor pops. It's so good, I DREAM about it.

I've tried a bunch of other dishes and they're always excellent, but it's the crab that does it for me. Set me up with the crab and a bowl of steamed rice and I'm good to go.

The Cho took us to his favorite seafood restaurant in Boston's Chinatown where we ordered the fried crab and it was lifeless in comparison.

Holy crap, there's only one dish that you must have at Firefly on Paradise and it's the Stuffed Dates. Bacon-wrapped with smoked almond, red wine reduction and bleu cheese - oh my God, it's The Bomb. Order four, just in case.

The rest of the menu is top-notch tapas fare but it's the dates that you kill for.

Nestled in a predominantly Korean stip mall shopping center on Sahara not too far from Maryland Parkway is the very non-descript Lotus of Siam. It's a cheap looking place with cheap looking chairs and cheap-looking tables. And while you can dine at The Venetian's Bouchon with expensive surroundings and expensive food, here you get cheap surroundings, Thai servers and some of the most rockin' Thai food I've had outside of Thailand.

I've had nothing less than stellar at Lotus but the one thing you must order is the Plar Laad Prik. Imagine a whole pomplano fish that's been scored, rubbed with seasoning and deep fried until the outside is crispy and the insides are moist and tender. Jesus, it's fucking unbelievable. Now serve that with fresh chilis and a garlic sauce and it's beyond description.

I took my brother Al, his wife Polly, Nessa and The Rod the last time we were in Vegas and we tore that fish up. Nothing was left. It's suck the head and eyeballs good. So good, I'm shaking as I write this, wishing that there was a Thai place in Baltimore that measured up to this.

Other Places
Of course, these aren't the only places to eat in Vegas. In Vegas, you could easily spend over $700 on a meal for two at the posh and famous eateries run by celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller, Guy Savoy, Emeril Lagasse, Alain Ducasse and a host of others. But you needn't go further than the places I mentioned above for some truly soul-enriching meals.

Outside of those, there are a couple of other places in Vegas close to my heart, like the late-night eating at Roberto's Tacos, or the local Hawaiian food at L&L Hawaiian BBQ or Ohana Hawaiian BBQ. Then there's the strange 24/7 old school style Becker's Steakhouse where you can order big rib eyes, mashed potatoes and cabernets at 8am. And of course, there's the cheap eats at Main Street Station and the California Hotel, with their Hawaiian-style Oxtail Soup and 20x Odds craps tables.

Next time you're planning to go to Vegas, call me and get ready for that fried pomplano fish.

Getting Schooled

Every once in a while, each of us succumbs to our own personal desires. To be the Mack Daddy. To be the pimp. To be the hustler. To be the gourmand.

I've spent the last couple of years reading, reviewing and testing recipes from the tomes of Thomas Keller (The French Laundry Cookbook, Bouchon), Anthony Bourdain (The Les Halles Cookbook) and have successfully completed a number of their recipes, as well as lots of meals on my own, cooked with chef friends and brief stints at institutional size cooking. My delusion doesn't include my knifework (which is atrociously poor) or a depth of knowledge equal to Keller. Just a decent ability to cook just about anything.

To keep myself growing, I've been buying books to read and help expand my knowledge base. After waiting several weeks, the bible of the cooking world finally arrived today: Escoffier's Le Guide de Culinaire in the English translation by Cracknell and Kaufmann. It's what I've been waiting for. The herald to a new level of culinary excellence and understanding. I was excited to pour through the book and get cracking.

I got schooled.

If you're like me, nothing prepares you for this book. Escoffier presumes the reader has a certain level of understanding and experience in order to tackle the thousands of recipes he has to offer. This is serious. This is old school. Things like Poulard Parame, Ecrevisses a la Bordelaise and Merlans en Lorgnette au Gratin. Jesus, I don't know if I'm up for this but I'm gonna try.

Reading The Guide is like swimming - without a firm grasp of swimmings' fundamentals. I'll give it a go but I'll probably end up flailing about and producing results like my first attempt at Pancit Bihon in 1988 (not a pretty picture and a story for another day).

Looks like I'm going swimming tonight...