Monday, April 28, 2008

Krispy Kreme Konsomme

Just over a kilo of sweet goodness.

With the USBC fast approaching and my competition slot racing towards me, I guess it's time to start thinking about a signature drink. For the Mid-Atlantic regional, I used a drink called "Breakfast In Bed." For the USBC I'll probably end up using the same drink but with some potential variations.

We've been experimenting with a variety of stuff over the past couple of months, some with a focus on the signature drink, others just for our own use. Lately, we've been playing around with making consomme.

With the right technique, you can make consomme out of just about anything. The sky really is the limit. Dr. Pepper consomme is what Alex and Aki have been playing with at Ideas In Food. For our purposes, we've got four consommes running at the moment: a parmesan cheese, two different types of french toast and the piece de la resistance, the Krispy Kreme Konsomme.

So just what is this foolishness with donuts? Simple. Take two dozen Krispy Kreme donuts, puree them in water, add some gelatin, freeze and then thaw. What you're left with is a clear consomme that's richly flavored with the taste of donuts. Nice.

Unfortunately, this method isn't fast. It's excruciatingly slow. 24 hours to freeze and then at least 36 hours to thaw. It's starting to drive me batty. But I'm bolstered with the belief that the results will be spectacular.

To be quite honest, I don't know what we're going to do with the parmesan or Krispy Kreme consommes. Maybe heat the parmesan and float some gnocchi? Or take the Krispy Kreme Konsomme, pour it in a bowl and drop a couple of milk spheres to eat as a soup. But who knows at this point - the finished product is still 36 hours away.

For the french toast consomme, I'm thinking that we'll keep it room temp and make americanos with the liquid. Float a shot of espresso on top and serve with a bacon stirrer. But who knows how that's going to taste. Guess we'll find out in about twelve hours...

You'll just have to come down to the USBC on Saturday afternoon to find out which version I decide to use.

Egg Custard Sorbet

Not quite ready for prime time.

For the past several weeks, Isaiah has been after me for some Egg Custard flavoring. For those of you unfamiliar with Egg Custard, it's the number one shave ice / snowball syrup in Baltimore. It's so popular, it outsells the next most popular flavor (cherry) three to one.

I've still got some of the Egg Custard flavoring lying around so I brought him a bottle. When it comes to flavorings, a little goes a long way and after working up a sorbet formulation, it was time to give it a whirl. The notion of adults tasting a sorbet from their childhood, now that's the kind of stuff we're interested in.

The results were decent. Sweet, rich and with that comforting flavor of vanilla and caramel, but with the slightly disconcerting bright orange color. The flavor was correct but it lay a bit flat on the tongue. It needed something. It needed just a bit of citric acid to make it pop.

But the problem with this iteration of the Egg Custard Sorbet isn't the lack of acidity, it was its' origins: It's completely artificial. This fact alone makes it ineligible for the dessert menu at Woodberry Kitchen and The Spro. But I think we'll revisit the formulation of the sorbet with natural ingredients in the near future because, afterall, summer is just around the corner.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Finding Happiness at the USBC

This week all of the coffee industry converges on Minneapolis (that's in Minnesota) for the annual Specialty Coffee Association of America Conference and Exhibition. It's the largest love-fest, coffee free-for-all in the world and everyone and their mother is expected to attend. Being held at the show is the annual United States Barista Championship where baristas from around the nation are going to compete to see who's "best" in the country and represent the red white and blue in Copenhagen this June.

And I'm missing a trip to Lake Como, Italy for a weekend by the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

There's poetry in there somewhere, but I'm not going to try to find it.

For American baristas, this weekend is "it". The big show. Hopes and dreams have been piled on anticipating the literal fifteen minutes of barista superstardom as you take to the stage to strut your stuff. Many individuals (and the teams backing them) have spent months, perhaps years, preparing for this moment. Late nights, tears, blood, sweat, pain, anguish and God knows what else they've endured to get to this moment. For many, it's a dream come true.

But for me, I'm disconnected.

Like many others, I've thought about what it must be like to win the national championship. To feel the warm glow as camera flashbulbs warm my face and the tingling sensation on my skin as groupies rip the clothes from my body. How fun it must be to travel the country spreading the good word of quality coffee. Appearances on national television and guest spots on Food Network, not to mention magazine articles, quotes in newspapers and my face on a bottle of syrup. How cool it must be.

But the more I think about it, the hollower it becomes for me. For years I've been told by judges that I don't take the competition seriously enough and I don't disagree with them. There's always been a part of me that just didn't "get it." Is this how I want to get my name known and build a reputation: by winning a competition?

The answer has always been: No.

When I think about those individuals whom I admire in any field, I realize that they didn't build their reputation on competition. They built their reputation on their work. They built it on the line, day in and day out by serving their customers. By providing their customers with exquisite cuisine and a wonderful experience.

They didn't build their reputation through competition.

But it wasn't until I was re-reading Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef this week that it hit me:

"I'd come to know three outstanding American chefs, each one of whom had been cooking his entire adult life and had made people happy doing it. In fact all three of those chefs stated that a main reason, if not the reason, they cooked was that simple: to make people happy."

He would continue:

"...happiness was anathema to the CMC (Certified Master Chef) exam. It wasn't the point and had no place there. Skill, technique, knowledge, those things did have a place, absolutely; they were the craft elements of cooking that the test aimed to measure. Bu you did not cook to make people happy at the CMC exam..."

And there it was, the exact reason why I had always felt so hollow about competition: it wasn't about making people happy, it was about something else entirely. Barista competition judges wanted you to talk about the coffee, its' origins and other weird, odd and obscure facts. They wanted you to tell them about the flavors - and then you had to nail them or suffer the consequences. Judges were instructed to show no emotion, betray no feeling so as not to give the impression of impartiality. They wanted to see if you tamped exactly the same way each and every time. Did every step of your technique meet standardized criteria?

Judging under these conditions is harsh on both sides of the table. As a judge I was instructed to "reward the barista" - meaning that we were perhaps judging too harshly, looking for a reason to score a zero instead of a four (or maybe a five). As a competitor, you're facing what is essentially a hostile table of "guests" looking for any and every mistake you could make.

But it's not about "right" or "wrong". It is what it is and I'm not interested in changing the competition format. I just know it's not the arena I want to build a reputation upon. So many positive things have arisen from the competition format. Those standards actually can impact a barista and a store, helping them to improve their quality and that's a wonderful thing.

If, on the other hand, cooking for people was how you had always connected to the work of cooking, if pleasing people in a visceral way had always been your ultimate aim, then you were going to have trouble with the CMC exam because your main connection to the work didn't exist in this environment and you were therefore a different cook here."

As a competitor, I think this may be my last barista competition. The disconnect this time is too strong to ignore. I've been so preoccupied with everything else that I haven't dedicated time to the competition. I've spent the past months focusing on business and our customers, trying to work out new recipes and enhance the customer experience. I've been re-thinking our approach and our methods. Even the drink we developed in February for competition has gone under multiple changes and revisions. Nothing has been sacred lately.

That said, I'm not hating on competitions. I love the environment. The camaraderie amongst passionate baristas is worth the price of admission alone. It is the one saving grace of the competition. It is the part I enjoy the most. Perhaps it's because the times spent with friends old and new are about happiness than anything else.

Name Game 3

Here are more submissions to The Name Game for your perusal.


- Tropho
- cyanocitta cristata
- cyanocitta stelleri
- Seedbed
- Orion
- 10,000 Maniacs
- Pakwan
- Buko
- Hina
- Ipo
- Lono
- Adriana
- Fuse
- Weld
- Crema
- The Other Place
- Pegasus

Monday, April 21, 2008

Los Portales

Chiles Rellenos

It's been said that I can go for Mexican food just about anytime. Sometimes, I just can't get enough.

The food critic for the Baltimore Sun, Elizabeth Large, writes a blog called Dining@Large that I read from time to time. I don't usually agree with her assessments or that of the readership, but it's important to remain open-minded about places that people recommend because you might find that gem in the rough - like Three Chefs carry-out.

In recent threads about Mexican food, several people recommended Los Portales on Aviation Blvd. right by the airport. I'm not usually in that area but since I was coming up from a late meeting in Washington DC, I thought I would swing by and check it out.

If this had been April 2007, I think I would be writing a very different entry. Funny how time changes things.

For those of you who recommended Los Portales as a truly "authentic" place, I have to wonder just what reference point you're relying on? Taco Bell, maybe?

Don't get me wrong, Los Portales isn't "bad" but it certainly isn't "good" and definitely isn't "authentic" - at least if I compare it to the food I've eaten in Mexico City.

Taco de Pollo

I really started off hopeful when I pulled up and realized that this wasn't some simple joint (like many of the Latin eateries). It's quite nice inside with festive decorations and carved wooden chairs. Of course, the Cerveza Corona Countdown to Cinco de Mayo digital clock should have clued me in that Los Portales was more Chi-Chi's than El Bajio.

The staff is all Mexican and really only spoke to me in Spanish - of course, they kept speaking in Spanish even when I answered in English and I got the feeling that it was one of those "you must be Latin so we're going to speak to you in Spanish because you need to remember your roots" moments. I didn't bother to tell them that I'm not Latino and tried to do my best en Espanol because it helps me to learn more.

Of course, I'm still struggling with basic terms such as: listo?

Los Portales offers a large selection of items, with combination platters and full dinners. I decided to go with a couple of small items, like: taco de pollo and chile relleno to start and an order of their enchiladas poblano as the main dish.

Okay, so I'm in a "traditional" Mexican restaurant. The first two courses should be small items just right for a pre-meal snack, right? Wrong. There are two chiles in the relleno and they're stuffed with cheese and are bathing in salsa rojo. The flavor is decent enough but there's no punch. Good thing there's cheese 'cause it's the only saving grace for the dish.

Next up is this large plate with a half-moon of aluminum foil wrapped around something that suspiciously looks like folded tortillas. For a moment I think it might be a side order of tortillas then I realize that it's the taco. As I pull the foil apart, I'm shocked and appalled. Inside is a large, flour tortilla stuffed with shredded chicken, shredded lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese. Jesus, Maria y Jose. It's about as good as it sounds and I eat only a couple of bites just to be sure.

Enchiladas Poblanos

Finally, it's time to check out the enchiladas. Holy Cow, there's a mother-honkin' large mountain of sour cream on top of my enchiladas, along with suspicious-looking tomato red rice and what tastes like canned refried beans topped with more shredded cheese. The enchiladas are rolled and the poblano sauce is looking a bit dry in spots on top of the rolls. Ay, carajo, I bet they've been microwaved.

Unlike the deliciously rich and complex mole negro that I'm used to, this one tastes flat and lifeless. In fact, I can't really taste the sauce since it's overwhelmed by the copious amount of sour cream - and I scooped most of it off.

What I had been expecting to be a pilgrimage has turned into a disaster.

But I hate to beat up on restaurants that are serving food that people enjoy, so I try to look at it from a different perspective. A perspective that's never eaten tacos off the streets of La Zona Roja in Tijuana for fifty cents, or nearly spasm'd from the boiling hot quesadillas in front of a Mexico City supermarket, or have the benefit of Mexican friends who cook truly authentic cuisine. I think of those whose reference for Mexican food is Taco Bell and Chipotle and for them, I bet that Los Portales really seems "authentic."

So, if you're someone (white) who loves celebrating Cinco de Mayo while chugging Corona and gorging on Nachos and crispy corn tacos with lots of lettuce and cheese, I think you'll find Los Portales to your liking.

But if you're someone who dreams of mole Poblano and understands the nuances of stewing your chilaquiles or using fried tortillas for that crunchy juxtaposition, then you'll probably find Los Portales to be a bit too gringo-fied.

Los Portales
6938 Aviation Boulevard
Glen Burnie MD 21061

Monday, April 14, 2008

Momofuku Noodle Bar

Seasonal Pickles

Pork Steamed Buns

Grilled Octopus Salad with Konbu, Menma and Pickled Chili

Cousin Leroy & Arlo's Soft Serve Ice Cream Cannoli Cream Pistachio Twist

Back at Momofuku. Gotta love the name. Service was decent. The octopus rocked the house. The steamed buns were good. I didn't find the texture of the ice cream to be to my liking but the cannoli flavor was pretty decent. I would pass on the pistachio next time. Give me more menma!

Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Rai Rai Ken


It's got to be one of my all-time favorite things to eat. The problem is that I live in Baltimore and there are not ramen joints at all in the city or surrounding area. Sure, you can sometimes find ramen at a local sushi place but it's typically outrageously priced ($13 up) and since it's not what they do, it's always an afterthought.

I dream of the day when I can finally go (on a regular basis) to a ramen joint for my fix of chicken katsu ramen (a Hawaii off-shoot of a Japanese tradition), but I made a promise to myself years ago that I would stop building businesses just because I was hungry!

We're back in New York City and trying to figure out a place to eat seems to be such a monumental decision. So many choices in the city and so little time. Fatty Crab? Ipanema? per se? Aki Kamozawa recommended Rai Rai Ken and so we were off.

Located on tree-lined 10th Street, Rai Rai Ken is nestled in the middle of the block and is pretty much how a Japanese ramen joint should be like: small, tight and confined. There's a long bar with counter seats only and just barely enough room to pass behind those seated. We make our way to the seats and the menu is wonderfully short. Just a few ramen selections and several side dishes.
We start off with an order of gyoza, little stuffed wontons that are quickly boiled and then pan fried. Tasty. They're pretty traditional so just a bit of soy sauce and you're good to go.

What we're really here for is the ramen. Shoyu Ramen. It comes in a bowl brimming with fish cake, nori and sliced pork, with half a hard-boiled egg for good measure. There are some sprouts in the bowl but not too much - some places like to heap it on. The broth is smooth and rich. Just right for this hungry traveler.

Fans of the movie Tampopo will know to start off by watching your ramen at eye-level and giving thanks while tapping the sliced pork twice before eating. Of course, you also know to move the fish cake to the side. The noodles themselves are chewy and tasty. They're not the best noodles I've ever had but they're good enough and I'm slurping away.

If you haven't seen Tampopo I strongly suggest that you go and find it. It's one of the best food movies ever made and the bit with the live prawns is certainly more sensual than the kitchen scene in 9 1/2 Weeks. Once you've seen it, you'll have a healthy respect and appetite for ramen.

To go along with the ramen, I ordered a can of UCC Kona Coffee. It's famous in Hawaii and Japan and very unusual to find on the East Coast. Not that the coffee was really good. It was more a drink of nostalgia than anything else.

While it's not the best ramen in the world, it's pretty decent and worth checking out in New York City if you need a fix.

Rai Rai Ken
214 East 10th Street
New York, NY 10003


The move has received very little fanfare or gossip in the industry grapevine, but on March 24th Ninth Street Espresso switched from their long-time roaster (Counter Culture Coffee of North Carolina) to Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Portland, Oregon.

While it may sound like benign news to the casual reader of this blog, the arrival of Stumptown on the East Coast signals the changing tide in the area of specialty coffee. Stumptown has been a long-time stalwart of never bringing on wholesale accounts outside a 45 minute radius of their roastery in southeast Portland. Sure, they toyed for awhile in San Francisco and last year opened operations in Seattle, but shipping coffee across the continent? That's something different indeed.

Since we were in New York City, we decided to hike it over to Ninth Street's Chelsea location to have a taste for ourselves.

I've been a long-time fan of Stumptown since September 2003 when I had my first "real" coffee experience tasting that years' Ethiopian Harrar. A powerhouse of depth, complexity and the fabled "blueberry". It was a real eye-opener for me regarding the possibilities for coffee. Not to mention that we've modeled our french press coffee service on the Stumptown example, and their hardcore approach to quality.

Happily, former Washington DC barista Ryan Goodrow was working the bar and we were presented with some of the most exquisite coffees I've ever had from Ninth Street and a shot of Hairbender that I'll say was better than from Stumptown's own coffeeshops. That strong acidity was there with some nice fruity and chocolate notes. It was delicious.

Of course, a lot of that lies with the barista and I've come to realize that Ryan has got to be one of America's best. Humble, passionate and committed. There's no egotism or pretense, just focus. Then to taste what's in the cup and you can only be seriously impressed, or rather: blown away. In chatting with him, I realize we have similar ethos. Unlike other baristas who desire to be on the national stage performing at a competition, that is lost on Goodrow. He's focusing on the cup and customer in front of him and delivering a national-level performance for that jaded New Yorker or that tourist from Biloxi with the same passion and commitment. It's fantastic.

If you're in New York City, swing by and order a cup from Ryan.

Ninth Street Espresso
Chelsea Market
79 9th Avenue
New York, NY

gimme! Mott Street

Swung by the new Mott Street location of gimme! coffee right before closing and the baristas were still quite happy to prepare us a macchiato. Nice stuff.

gimme! coffee
228 Mott Street
New York, NY

Eleven Madison Park

It's been awhile since I read Danny Meyers' book Setting The Table but I found his take on hospitality thoroughly enjoyable and in tune with my own sensibilities. So I was more than happy with our choice of Eleven Madison Park for dinner tonight. Earlier in the week, I had been thinking that another visit to per se was in order but Spike was uncomfortable about arriving at the restaurant without a reservation, based solely on my firm belief that "if you show up, you will eat."

The one thing about Eleven Madison Park is that it's polished. Everything is thought out and just right. From the time you call and speak with someone on the phone (try doing that for a per se or French Laundry reservation) through the end of the meal, everyone is so cordial - so filled with hospitality.

Even the reservationist was suitably apologetic and told me that they were "already committed" to a full dining room on a Saturday night but there was availability at 10pm, with a tinge in her voice that led me to think that she didn't think we would be interested. "I'll take it," I told her. Of course we'll take it. We're just the kind of weirdos that don't have a problem eating dinner until two or three in the morning, if necessary.

Hors d'oeuvres

In spite of my incessant desire to put things off until the last minute (like travel arrangements), I hate to be late for appointments. I want to be on time and we were at the restaurant at 10 pm sharp. Of course, it's a Saturday night and the place is packed, meaning that our table wasn't ready yet. Even the way the receptionist/hostess phrased that conversation struck me as well thought out and perfectly approached. She invited us to relax by the bar while the table finished and was reset.

I decided to avail myself of the mens room where I was greeted by little terry cloth towels to wipe my hands after washing. Nice.

At the bar, we were greeted by a cocktail server who brought us a round of drinks, inquired if we were eating at the bar or waiting, asked for the reservation name and proceeded to bring us a round of hors d'oeuvres, which would end up being the first round in the tasting menu (that we hadn't chosen yet). While Spike continued his quest to find the proper pastis (this wasn't it), I decided to sample one of their house concoctions of champagne, vodka, passion and orange bitters. Nice drink but the champagne overwhelmed the other flavors.

No less than three times in the ten to fifteen minutes we sat in the bar area did one of the hostesses stop by our table to update us on the progress of our table. That was really nice. No more worrying if they forgot about us, or getting irritated about it taking such a long time. The updates were frequent and properly timed. And when the time came for us to move to our table, our hostess swept up our beverages onto a silver tray, just in case our arms might have been too fatigued for the journey across the restaurant.

Royal Sterling Caviar - Soft Poached Knoll Crest Farm Egg and Tapioca

Once settled in and greeted by our server, we were presented with the menus.

To be honest, I hate reading menus. Especially when a tasting menu is being offered. I'm not a vegetarian. I have no aversion to seafood. I'm not allergic to anything. Just bring it on and let me have it. I don't want to think. I want to eat. Eat and be cared for.

Spike, on the other hand, has scrutinized the menu and decided that the order as presented would be better with a slight modification to accommodate the wine selections. Truth be told, in spite of the years I pretended to know wine and the years I spent making wine, I really know nothing about wine. I'm forever derided for allowing them to serve me Louis Jadot at L'Arpege. I think I'm scarred.

Happily, the kitchen, our server and our sommelier are more than willing to accommodate our request and the champagne flows.

With a tasting menu this large, it's really quite difficult to cover everything, so I'll just hit you with short blurbs on my thoughts with each course.

The sterling caviar was just a wonderful way to begin the meal. Beautifully poached egg whose yolk added that luxurious mouthfeel with every bite. And the tapioca must have been cooked in a fish stock of some sort because the flavor just permeated each luscious and chewy pearl.

Heirloom Beets - Liquid Sphere with Lynnhaven "Chevre Frais"

First you eat the Chevre and then you eat the beets. Definitely one of the most exciting courses of the meal. The beets exploded in your mouth with such intensity that just surprises.

Cape Cod Bay Crab - Roulade with Avocado, Lime and Yogurt

2004 Mersault Desiree - Domaine des Comtes Lafon

Wild Atlantic Halibut - Seared with Cauliflower, Green Almonds and Crayfish

It was the description that caught our ears: "Wild Atlantic Halibut" Aren't they a bit overfished in the Atlantic and in danger? Perhaps not the best description (or sourcing) for a sustainably-minded chef and barista. But it was tasty and I did like the little pieces of crawfish on top.

Nova Scotia Lobster - Poached with Wild Nettles and Oregon Morels

Definitely one of the most exciting courses of the meal. Just an explosion of flavor. Chewy morels, chunks of lobster and a green sauce that I wanted to guzzle down. Spoonful after spoonful, it was chock full of stuff and I loved every bite.

Foie Gras - Terrine with Rhubarb, Celery and Pickled Ramps

The bread accompanying the Foie Gras.

2004 Volnay Santenots-Du-Milieu 1er - Domaine Des Comtes Lafon

Since I'm perpetually single and a decided bachelor, I'm usually party to some sort of tomfoolery or debauchery that gets my friends into some sort of trouble with their significant others. But this was the first time wine has led to infidelity.

The Volnay Santenots-Du-Milieu 1er is, evidently, Amy's favorite wine in the world. Her and Spike have been to the vineyard and drank the wine straight from the barrels with Mr. Lafon himself. Even Spike commented that this is her favorite. It wasn't until later when he told her about the wine that she told him that drinking the Lafon without her was akin to cheating.

Note to self: never tell your S.O. about the time you drank her favorite wine without her...

Nieman Ranch Port Belly - Sous-Vide with Peas a la Francaise

Black Angus Beef - Herb Roasted with Asparagus, Parmesan and Sauce Bordelaise

Our Man Works The Cheese Cart

Fromage - Selection of Artisanal Cheeses

"Vacherin" - Strawberries, Basil and Black Pepper

Chocolate-Peanut Butter - Palette with Popcorn Ice Cream

Cappuccino - Latte Art Rosetta


All combined, it was a great experience. The food was solid. Excellent even. But the service was top-notch. It seemed as though everything had been thought through and we were never wanting. Combined, it was brilliant. Had it been one or the other and the experience would have been flat.

I don't know if I'll be clamoring to rush back anytime soon but it was a wonderful and delicious meal.

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Beef Tapa Salad.

I've been wanting to visit Cendrillon in SoHo for probably ten years or so now. But the idea of dressing up to eat at a fancy Filipino restaurant was always a hard sell. The notion that jackets and ties were necessary for Chicken Adobo just didn't compute in my mind.

It's a shame I had been so obtuse.

We stopped into Cendrillon for a couple of snacks to carry us through the evening and found a warm, comfortable and, most importantly, casual kind of place. Not casual in the sense of how most Filipino eateries are casual with their florescent lighting, formica tables, metal chairs and turo turo style of ordering. Cendrillon was nicely done with wooden chairs, warm tones and an open kitchen. And, unlike many Filipino eateries, there were mostly white people dining.

Which, in some ways, is both good and bad. A yin and yang kind of thing. One cannot beget the other.

For a place that I had always known as "the fancy Filipino place in New York", I was slightly put off by the restaurants' pan-Asian menu. For me, there's something about "Pan-Asian" that just says "mediocrity." We're going to give you a "taste of Asia" but do none of them really well.

It makes me wonder if we (as Filipinos) are just not confident in our cuisine enough to only offer the flavors of our land. If I go to a French brasserie, I don't expect to see Pan-European items like Fish And Chips or Lutefisk amongst the offerings of Blanquette du Veau and Tartare. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it.

All that aside, Cendrillon offers a nice variety of Filipino dishes that read like "must try" items: Grilled Oxtail Kare-Kare and Chicken Inasal, being two of those dishes. Then there's the odd (to me) Pan-Asian items like: Goat Curry and Malaysian Laksa. Of course, being a Filipino restaurant, I have to wonder where crowd-pleasers such as: Pancit Bihon, Pancit Malabon and Daing na Bangus have gone?

Oh well, enough bitching about what's missing, they've got cold bottles of San Miguel Beer and that has to count for something.

And I'm thankful they didn't have chopsticks on the table.

Which leads me to another little bitch session: why do many of these Asian restaurants insist on placing chopsticks on the table? Worse yet are the people who come into an "Asian" restaurant and expect (and ask for) chopsticks. I want to tell them: Hey, DickHead: they don't use chopsticks in Thailand!!! Or the Philippines, for that matter.

Amy's Spring Roll with Achara.

We ordered a couple of plates. I wanted to order the Kare Kare (pronounced: kah-reh kah-reh but Spike reminded me we still had a dinner at Eleven Madison Park coming up, so we stuck to the Beef Tapa Salad and Amy's Spring Rolls.

When I ordered it, I just didn't notice (or pay attention) to the "Salad" part of the dish. It was the "Beef Tapa" that caught my eye and was wondering: what's up with all these veggies? when it arrived. Turns out, the salad was a nice accompaniment. Beef Tapa: dried beef strips, pan fried into delicious goodness. It was good. It was tasty and it was just right as a pulutan to go with my beer (pulutan meaning "beer-drinking food").

Amy's Spring Rolls were traditional fare. Bean sprouts, carrots, tofu, pork and shrimp wrapped in lumpia wrapper and deep-fried. I thought briefly about ordering the healthy Fresh Lumpia but decided that a proper beer needed a proper accompaniment that's deep-fried, crispy and greasy. Yum.

Service was a bit uneven. The girls in black didn't seem to know the menu very well but it was reassuring to see the owner running around, making sure things were rolling along on a Saturday night.

Overall, it was a good stop and if we didn't have a reservation in an hour at Eleven, I would have liked to try a wider variety of their dishes.

Guess that means another visit is necessary...

45 Mercer Street
New York, NY 10013

The Oyster Bar

Ancho tequila oyster shooter.

A simple trip to New York City with Spike is typically fraught with tough decisions on where to eat. In this city of millions, there are hundreds of thousands of places to eat - and a man can only eat so much.

Grotesque physics aside, we're hell-bent on sampling as many places as possible and our first stop this afternoon is the Oyster Bar in the basement of Grand Central Station. The place is a classic. You've undoubtedly heard of it before and I've heard of it for years and never got the chance to go. It's old and the tile-covered vaulted ceilings make for spectacular environs.

There's table seating and counter seating that resembles an old-school diner, but our seat of choice was right by the windows at the oyster bar itself where a crew of half a dozen prepared the oysters and panroasts.

Starting off with the ancho tequila oyster shooter, we were off to the races. The shooter was just okay. Nothing spectacular. Just tequila, oyster and some spice that tickled the back of the throat.

Oyster Panroast.

Up next was the Oyster Panroast. They make these dishes in custom-designed mini steam kettles that look straight from the 1930s. It's basically a light bisque with a brothy cream sauce that's light and refreshing. Inside are several very large oysters and it's really a wonderful dish served with oyster crackers. I wanted to power through the broth but the day was still young and there was more eating in store.

Along with that came two more dishes, fried whole ipswich clams that were breaded and fried to a deep brown crisp and served with tartar sauce. Nice. Again, nothing mind-blowing. Just solid seafood cookery. Add to that a plate of shoestring french fries and you've got a meal worthy of eating dockside somewhere.

French Fries.

But it's the oysters that lure you to the Oyster Bar and they do not disappoint. There are 27 different varieties of oysters for you to choose from - all served on the half-shell. All served extremely fresh. Depending on the day, they will serve between 2,000 to 5,000 oysters per day. That's upwards of 1.8 million oysters per year, which by any account is a lot of bloody oysters.

For our sampling, we ordered two dozen raw oysters. Six each of the Mattitock, Pebble Beach, Totten and Wianno. Now, when it comes to oysters, I'm no connoisseur. I just like to eat them. Give me good quality oysters, a shucking knife, some lemon and Tabasco and I'm pretty happy. For our rounds of Christmas Parties this past December, I lugged around with me a tub filled with 100 of some of the Chesapeake's best oysters and happiness ensued all around.

I learned recently that oysters on the East Coast are all from the same species Cassostrea Virginica and while you can buy oysters from many different parts of the East Coast, they are essentially the same. The difference in flavor and appearance comes from their environment. Their terroir, if you will.

Mattitock and Pebble Beach Oysters.

Of course, I'm not the only one that likes oysters. So do many, many other people. So much so that only about one percent of the oyster population two hundred years ago remains today. The Chesapeake Bay has been so besieged by fishermen that the population was nearly wiped out and now the oyster lives on in cultivated farms and some natural fisheries.

While I sometimes ponder what the oyster tasted like a hundred years ago before pollution and decimation arrived, I'm just happy that the oyster still tastes good today and that I'm now able to try varieties from across the nation.

With an eye towards a proper tasting of oysters, we sampled (ate) them in this order: Mattitock, Pebble Beach, Totten and Wianno. As one progressed through the oysters, the flavors changed an intensified. The early two were light and tasty, but the Totten and Wianno were just jam-packed with intense flavor - especially the Wianno. For those not well-acquainted with oysters, perhaps the Wianno will be "too much", but I found them delicious with just a squirt of lemon and a touch of Tabasco.

Totten Virginica and Wianno Oysters.

Oyster Bar
Grand Central Station
New York, NY 10017
Subway Lines: 4 5 6 S 7

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Testing One, Two, Three...

Pondering bacon.

It's finally happened. After years of participation and relative enthusiasm, the desire to compete in the United States Barista Championship has reached an all-time low. I hate to say it, but my enthusiasm as a competitor is practically nil.

I was on the phone with Eileen from Ritual Coffee in San Francisco the other day when it really became clear to me. Winning a competition just isn't that important to me. Sure, the egotistical side would love to dominate, but the soul side of me knows that the competitions mean very little - I'm interested in the customer and how we perform on the front line on a day to day basis. That's were it matters and that's where I want our reputation to be built.

People like Keller and Ripert didn't build their reputations on winning competitions, they built them through the experiences of their customers, and it's that approach that appeals to me most.

That said, I thought I would share some of our latest forays in our journey of finding some ground between coffee and cuisine. As with any journey, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Lately, we've been experiencing a lot of the latter, but it's all been in good fun, which makes it worthwhile.

Corn flakes.

First up, after receiving great feedback from the judges at the Mid-Atlantic Barista Competition and selling out at Woodberry Kitchen to rave customer reviews, I've been re-thinking "Breakfast In Bed" and wanted to see if we could encapsulate the french toast infusion. Isaiah suggested a corn starch based technique he had been reading about.

Essentially, you take lots of corn starch, bake it dry, poke holes in the starch and pour your liquid into the holes and bake again. The corn starch reacts with the liquid and encapsulates it. We tried it with some maple syrup and the infusion and baked it overnight.

Which was several hours too long it seems. The next morning, we ended up with these crystallized pieces that were just plain disaster. Although a couple of them formed a spherical shape and had some moisture within, leading us to conclude that it might be possible with a shorter bake time - and larger holes in the corn starch.

Don't touch my bacon.

If you remember the first image, we've also been pondering bacon. How to deliver a better bacon flavor without being too obvious. Of course, this paper-thin, nearly translucent slice of bacon is rather obvious but I'm in love with the idea of creating a paper-thin strip of bacon that's stiff enough to stand on end but delicate enough that it breaks up in the mouth. Even better yet would be a method of it breaking and dispersing across the palate once placed in the mouth. Kinda like what foams do but without the foamy texture.

This one worked out decently enough and we ran one night of the "Breakfast in Bed" special at Woodberry with a light toffee glaze on the bacon and it propped up in a toffee-topped chantilly.

It looks quite nasty and feels weird too.

The idea of a consomme has always appealed to me. Especially consommes of things that should never be made into consomme. This is gelatinous residue from an attempt at a donut consomme. It just didn't work out. The finished liquid was a golden umber and crystal clear but the bread-y-ness of the donut was missing and dominated by sugar. Somewhere in the background was a faint taste of the donut. Just simply not strong or compelling enough.

I'm thinking the key is in the donut and we're just going to have to experiment with different donut recipes as well as different sources for donuts.

Meanwhile, we're starting up tests on a French Toast Consomme tomorrow.

The lonely sphere, er, gnocchi.

Continuing on our journey of encapsulating the french toast infusion, we turned to the obvious contender: sodium alginate and calcium chloride. We portioned it out and created the proper bath but the dairy in the infusion seemed to have a gelling reaction to the sodium alginate. We countered by lowering the concentration of the alginate to .03% and we still were not able to achieve the desired results. It resembled a french toast gnocchi rather than the desired spherification.

More testing will need to be done before we achieve the desired result.

Oh well, at least I had a nice lunch at Central Michel Richard yesterday.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Sunday Steak and Potatoes

As you can see from this image, I don't always have access to grass-fed cattle and, every once in a while, must resort to commercial meats. It's the nature of our industrial economy.

At the risk of Wegman's-bashing again, I just have to vent a little. Yes, the meats are nicely arranged and look rather tasty in the cold case. And I'm glad I can choose the cut I want and have it wrapped in butchers' paper. But it would be even better if the butcher knew the provenance of his meats. When I asked him if it was "commercial", he said it came from "Colorado" but didn't know where. Corn fed, maybe? His reply was "the last two weeks." Well, what does that mean? Are you being purposefully vague because you don't want to admit that the meat comes from feedlot cattle in Colorado? And that by answering ambiguously I'll think that the cow has been eating something other than corn feed?

Oh, the sacrifices one must make in pursuit of his craft...

I've had the idea of sous vide steak in my mind for some time now and finally decided to give it a try and borrow some cues from Heston Blumenthal's "In Search of Perfection" television show.

I'm certain that you can use practically any cut of steak out there but the goals are to cook a steak that's got the caramelized characteristics of being cooked in a pan or on a grill while maintaining an even and consistent interior throughout. If you ever noticed on your steaks that it's pink on the inside and gradually greying towards the exterior, I wanted to eliminate that and have an interior that's like a center cut of prime rib and wonderfully soft and meaty inside.

To start off, sprinkle salt and fresh ground pepper and let the steak sit out at room temperature for about half an hour. Next, take a blow torch and use it to quickly caramelize the exterior of the steak. Char it as much as you desire, but do it quickly. You want to char the exterior without warming up the interior and causing it to grey. Be sure that your torch and nozzle are clean - better to have one for the kitchen rather than pulling the one off your metalwork bench.

From there, take the steak and seal it in a vacuum bag. You'll need a vacuum sealer for this. A nice chamber vacuum sealer is ideal, but if you're not into spending $3,000 on a lovely Minipack-Torre or Bosch, a simple FoodSaver ($175 at Costco with extra bags) will suffice. In fact, it's what I use at home.

From there, it's pretty simple. Bust out the PolyScience Immersion Circulator - what? You don't have one at home? Sucks to be you... But seriously, doing this sous vide thing seems terribly difficult unless you've got some sort of device that can accurately regulate and maintain temperature. Admittedly, the PolyScience model is on the pricey side, but it's top-quality and well worth the money. Though you can find similar models at laboratory supply houses and on eBay.

For this test, I decided to cook the steak for 12 hours at 55 degrees Celcius (that's 131 degrees Fahrenheit).

Twelve hours is a long time for something to cook. But at least it gave me time to drive to Hanover, Pennsylvania, have brunch, attend my nephew's First Communion, meeting the aunt of another first communion-er and getting her phone number , eat lunch, drive back, hang out, make chicken stock and finish the potatoes. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.

The potatoes were relatively simple. Take the potatoes, peel them, cut them into chunks and run under cold water to remove excess starch. Cook in boiling salted water for 20 minutes - until the potatoes start to become craggly. I like to include the skins with the boil for extra flavor. And be careful when you reach the 20 minute mark. Cook it too long and the potatoes will break down and make potato soup (keep some leeks on hand).

Drain in a colander or china cap and set aside for about ten minutes to let the potatoes cool and the moisture to evaporate. Heat some olive oil in a pan and add the potatoes. They should sizzle because of the heat. Make sure the potatoes are coated in the hot oil and toss the whole thing into a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for one hour. A nice, brown crust will form. Add some salt and rosemary during the last ten minutes of the roast.

After twelve hours, pull the bag out of the water and rip it open. There will be lots of jus that you can reserve and use or just discard - but what a shame that would be. The steak looked marvelous and had cooked in it's own juices the entire time. A strong beefy aroma filled my nostrils. Luxurious. Intoxicating.

Looking at the image above, the meat was just right. Wonderfully pink throughout and very even in tone. Caramelized exterior and the texture was soft, moist and just like a slow-roasted prime rib. The flavor was also very beefy and rich. It was so rich tasting that I couldn't believe it was commercial. I'm not excited to see how our usual grass-fed beef will turn out with this process.

One thing to note, there is some question in my mind asking just how long should the cook time be? How long is enough to cook the meat all the way through and break down the fibers for the desired texture? Five hours? Ten? Twelve? More? If five hours will work, then all the better. Would a higher temperature work better? For the restaurant operator, this method produces very little heat shrinkage, increasing yield.

What I would like to improve is the caramelization. It was a bit soft. I wanted a little more of that caramelized flavor to come through. Next time I'll give it a harder application of the blowtorch to get a little more charring.

But the real question is how applicable is this for the small operator? Meaning, could this be a viable route for a joint without a traditional cooking line? Does this now allow us to offer steak at places like The Spro? Can we viably start a hot menu with only an immersion circulator and an Alto Shaam? Compelling questions indeed.

NOTE: One thing I want to note for those of you who are going to try this on your own. Remember that 131F is within the Food Safety "Danger Zone" where bacterial contamination is very possible. Proper handling of the meat and cleanliness all the way around is extremely important. Heston Blumenthal says that the blowtorch helps to kill any surface bacteria that may be present, but use extreme care. For a production environment, I would prefer to use a temperature above the "Danger Zone" (40-140F), somewhere above 60C to reduce the possibility of contamination.

And if you're eating it yourself, you're still on your own. Don't blame me if you handle your food improperly and are killed because of it.

A great resource for sous vide cooking is "Sous Vide Cuisine" by Joan Roca and Salvador Brugues. It's an excellent reference that costs a pretty penny but if you're serious, then it's a 'must have' tome. I used it for some reference points for this test.

See? I even had time to whip up six quarts of chicken stock using ten pounds of free-range chicken backs from Springfield Farm, onions, carrots, celery, black peppercorns and bay leaves.