Monday, August 11, 2008

Roy's Hawaiian Fusion

Julie working the line.

While eating seasoned crustaceans on the Magothy Crab Deck, Kate and I got into a discussion about Hawaiian fresh fish. Specifically, that I should take Roy D's boat, go fishing and bring the fish back home with me. A nice idea but a logistical nightmare - especially when it's relatively easy me to order fish shipped overnight from Hawaii. Just a few phone calls and that ahi tuna will be here tomorrow, but it won't be cheap.

As our discussion progressed to types of fishes available in Hawaii, one of them pushed to the front of the line: the butterfish. What does it taste like? Well, that's an easy fix. We'll just go over to Roy's later.

Which is how we found ourselves at Roy's on a Sunday night after lunch at Magothy Seafood and early evening cheesesteak at Jeno's. As expected at 8pm, the house was bustling. Both the Chef Rey, and his sous Mike are friends of mine. In fact, I've known Mike for over fifteen years. He's a recent addition to the lineup here at Roy's but neither of them are anywhere in sight.

Maryland Crab & Smoked Salmon Roll - smoked salmon wrapped around blue crab with dill creme fraiche.

I called Mike to ask where he was. Of course, the one night I do come in to eat, both of them are off. Happily, Kate spots Julie working the line so we at least know one person here as we take a couple of seats at the bar fronting the theatre-style kitchen.

Kate's in the mood for "bubbles" and we start off with a round of Domaine Chandon Rose. Since we've been eating non-stop for the past six hours, our intention is to order a couple of dishes to share and sample the flavors. I don't know if Mike called the house or not but within minutes, a couple of appetizers "courtesy of the chef" arrive, along with a bowl of edamame.

The sushi roll of Maryland Crab and smoked salmon was good. A nice balance between the two, along with some sort of crunchiness that we couldn't identify. The steamed pork dumplings were wrapped in a green wrapper that I thought about pondering more but didn't. They were pretty good too.

Steamed Pork & Seafood Dumplings - firecracker dipping sauce.

Had this been another occasion where we hadn't been eating for hours on end, we would have torn through the apps with reckless abandon. But since we had been eating non-stop, we needed to properly pace ourselves for this chapter of our journey.

Next up was the Ahi Poketini, a melange of minced yellowfin tuna, caviar and avocado. To be honest, I'm a poke hog. I love poke. I can't get enough. Give me a big tub of ahi poke and a bowl of steamed rice and I'm very, very happy. For me, my favorite poke is fresh chopped tuna, sliced white onion, a little garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil all mixed together. Roy's version is much more upscale with caviar for saltiness and truffle oil in place of sesame, with the avocado and creme fraiche adding some body and creaminess. It's nice, it's fancy but, as I told Kate, it is in need of a liberal application of soy sauce.

Drizzle a bit of soy sauce and, ah, much better. While the truffle oil is cool and all that, at heart I'm still a Hawaiian food traditionalist.


For our main course, we went with the misoyaki butterfish. Years ago, when Roy's first opened, I used to dine there a lot. If not bi-weekly, then at least once a month. I got to know much of the management and staff back in 2001 and 2002. Then I had an experience there with an assistant manager that just confounded me when he told a dining companion that she should not come to a seafood restaurant expecting to eat steak. Granted, this girl was a difficult, demanding Southern Belle Mess who tried our patience all the time, but I couldn't oblige a manager who stood there insulting a customer and insulting his own establishments' food at the same time. I didn't go back for several years.

Throughout that time, the butterfish was one of our favorite dishes. It's rich, creamy and buttery texture is just beautiful and it's covered in a miso slash teriyaki glaze that just compliments it perfectly. The butterfish is definitely the highlight of Roy's menu and this one didn't disappoint. True, the glaze was thinner and drier than I remember, but the texture of the fish was still there. And layered on steamed white rice satisfies my most basic carnal desires (okay, well maybe not exactly carnal).

Big Island Ahi Poketini - wasabi sour cream, avocado & tobiko caviar.

While the butterfish was good, I couldn't help but think that it wasn't as good as I remembered it. Something was missing, I thought. But couldn't it just be that I've hyped the memory in my mind so much that the reality couldn't possibly be the same? Without a doubt.

Sitting there with someone like Kate makes for interesting conversation. Most of my friends think it's cool to watch a kitchen in action, but a pro like Kate can actually appreciate the activity. We could watch and figure out their flow, fascinated by how different and equipped their kitchen is from the one in which she toils. Is that the same rainbow trout special that was sitting there thirty minutes ago? Nah, the imperial crab filling is shaped differently than the one we saw on order earlier. Not that it would have bothered either of us.

Hawaiian Style Misoyaki Butterfish - chinese sizzling soy vinaigrette.

Of all the menu items, the chocolate souffle is my brother's favorite. It's on his "must have" list whenever he eats here. Kate's a chocolate lover, so it was on our list as well. The souffle takes twenty minutes to cook and we told our server at the outset that we were going to order that. Why he wanted to wait until after tbe butterfish to ask our order and fire it was beyond my understanding.

Service wasn't bad. In fact, it was pretty good - with the exception of the very scripted sounding approach describing the menu and the specials that pushed us towards the most expensive items, not to mention the rather brusque manner in which our plates were cleared.

Roy's Melting Hot Chocolate Souffle - flourless chocolate cake with a molten hot center served a la mode.

Finally the souffle came and it was pretty good. Wish I could say it Rocked Our World because these guys are my friends, but it was good. Nicely executed but it wasn't one of those dishes I couldn't help myself from eating. Of course, it could be that we had been eating non-stop all day...

720 B Aliceanna Street
Baltimore MD 21202

Jeno's Steaks

Kate and the Steak.

A simple, lazy Sunday afternoon late lunch at Magothy Seafood just wasn't enough. Well, under normal circumstances it would probably have been enough, but for two people discussing food and in search of flavors more had to be in store.

Not too far from Magothy Seafood is a cheesesteak place in Severna Park owned by some friends of mine. Writing about a place owned by people you know is always kinda odd. What if I don't like their offerings? How will that strain our relationship? But it's too fake to write happy-happy, joy-joy things about these kinds of places, so I won't and I'll suffer whatever consequences may come.

Jeno's has been owned by the same family for a generation. But I've never eaten there. Sure, I've had reheated cheesesteaks at their house before, but it's not going to be the same as eating there in person. And while I've been meaning to eat there for quite some time now, it's just way out of the way for me. Until today.

To the Philadephian, or hardcore Philly Cheesesteak connoisseur, the name Jeno's is a corny take on the famous Geno's Steaks in South Philly, but at least it speaks directly of their pursuit to emulate the authentic Philadelphia Cheesesteak. Even the plethora of pictures and memorabilia on the walls echoes that of Geno's in South Philly.

Going to Town on my steak.

Jeno's is a small place with a galley style kitchen and on this beautiful day, it's sweltering inside. Those cooks are troopers working in that heat. There's a menu of stuff available but there's really no need to pay attention to it, we're here for one reason and one reason only - and that's to try their cheesesteak.

Like a Geno's or Pat's, Jeno's offers a variety of cheeses for your steak. Unlike Geno's or Pat's, they also asked if we wanted lettuce, tomatoes and a host of other toppings. It's a Baltimore sub tradition to layer on the toppings but it sounds like Philly sacrilege to me. No to the toppings and just Whiz, please.

Cheese Whiz. That ubiquitous processed cheese topping. If we really sit down to think about it, cheddar cheese should never be runny. It should never be pourable. It should never be pumped out of a number ten can. If we think about it critically, the notion of Cheese Whiz is disgusting, so let's not think too much about it, shall we? Just lather it on and let's eat.

Pat's uses sliced ribeye for their steaks that are piled high on their griddles to handle the crushing flow of customers coming up to their windows 24 hours a day. Jeno's customer stream isn't that crushing so our steaks are made to order. The flavor of the beef is good, but through the prism of memory it seems different than Pat's or Geno's. Close, but different - and I can't put my finger on exactly why. One thing I do notice is the amount of chop in Jeno's meat. It's more chopped than either Geno's or Pat's. Whether that's good or bad depends on your preference. For me, I prefer the larger pieces in a Pat's Steak.

Now while the cheese and beef are important components in a steak, it's the bread that's the cornerstone. It's crucial and critically essential to have the right bread. Cheesesteak aficionados literally fight in the streets of Philly over which bakery bakes the best bread: Amoroso or Conshohocken. Me? I choose not to get into those kinds of fights. I might lose. But the bread at Jeno's is quite good. Soft and supple on the interior while giving a nice, crusty chew on the outside. It brings the steak together and makes it happen. There's a spring in your mouth from the texture of the bread and it's oh so comforting.

Pundits will want to know if I think Jeno's is as good as those places in Philly. And I'll have to say that it's close. About as close as you're going to get without driving the two hours to Philadelphia (considering it's 45 minutes to Severna Park from my house, I could have been halfway to Pat's). The flavors are good. The bread is solid, but what's lacking is the actual experience of going to either Pat's or Geno's. Going there is the magic.

Now, that's sexy...

Standing in line outside of either in the blistering winter cold, while watching the cooks slash their way through a mountain of ribeye is just amazing. Then there's the intimidation of ordering incorrectly where the cashier will mercilessly berate you in front of throngs of hungry steak lovers. Dawdle too long and those South Philly Boys will kick you out to the back of the line so you can practice your ordering skills.

That's the real magic that makes the Philly Cheesesteak experience, not the actual steak itself. And while Jeno's steak is quite good, it's missing the South Philly experience that makes Geno's or Pat's the great cheesesteak.

Jeno's Steaks
552 Baltimore-Annapolis Blvd.
Severna Park, MD 21146

Magothy Seafood Crab Deck & Tiki Bar

Freshly steamed blue crabs on the Crab Deck.

After months of on again, off again planning, Kate and I finally hit the road in search of our destiny together. What started as an idea for guinea pig back in December culminated in a crab outing in August.

The weather couldn't have been better for a trip to my favorite place to eat crabs. Magothy Seafood is set right on the banks of the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County. It's not a quick trip from home, but it certainly is worth it. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but I stumbled upon Magothy Seafood several years ago and I've been going ever since.

The setting is decidedly maritime and decidedly lowbrow. Nonetheless, it's a fun scene where boaters pull up along the dock, have some crabs and knock back some beers before heading back out onto the open waterways.

Steamed shrimp with hot and sour sauce and crab seasoning.

It's been a tough year for Maryland crabbing. Because of industrial and agricultural runoff, the Chesapeake Bay is nearly a barren mistress no longer capable of supplying the region from its' once-rich bosom. Most of the crabs that Marylanders eat today come from The Gulf of Mexico or Asia. It's a sad testament to the postwar industrial power that is the United States. Crabs that actually come from the Chesapeake Bay and its' tributaries won't start coming in until September and October when they've had some time to eat and fatten.

Today's crabs are from the Gulf coast. Probably Louisiana. They're decently sized "large" crabs (though these would have barely qualified as "medium" crabs when I was in high school) that are weighty with sweet meat.

Happily, Kate is an eaters kind of woman. Decidedly hip. Decidedly fashionable. She's not afraid to throw down with the boys in drinking or eating, willing to eat just about anything and can cook her ass off on the hot line of a commercial kitchen. Yep, decidedly sexy too.

There's no "I'll just have a salad" with this girl. Not even the "I don't like seafood" that I've been hearing from other girls lately. Remember, this is the girl who wanted to eat Peruvian guinea pig. If there's something interesting to eat, she's ready for it. And in an era where most girls barely know how to microwave a Slim Fast meal in pursuit of the emaciated look hyped by America's Next Top Model, this is a refreshing change of pace.

Fried oysters and battered fries.

The game is on. It's a dozen steamed crabs, one pound of steamed jumbo shrimp, two corn on the cobs, order of hush puppies and a basket of fried oysters and french fries, all washed down with a steady stream of Diet Pepsi (for me) and Budweisers (for Kate).

The food is good. We're hacking, pounding and prying our way through the meal. Everything is cooked just right. The shrimps are steamed right to the point where they're cooked so the shell peels easily away. The hush puppies have that crunchy snap you knew when you were a kid. Even the frozen oysters are fried to a golden crisp. The only problem is the abomination against humanity that is the seasoned and battered french fry. Why anyone would ever deign to blight a potato (even a frozen one) with that grotesque seasoned batter is beyond me. Someday I'm gonna find the food scientist who developed this frozen monstrosity and hunt him down.

The crabs themselves are meaty and sweet. Since I grew up around these parts, the idea of ripping apart and eating a steamed crustacean is second nature. I can dream about it and do it in my sleep. Of course, the uninitiated this seems like barbarianism defined. And perhaps it is - especially for those who prefer not to know where their food came from nor what it looked like. If you're the kind of person who prefers your food shrink wrapped in plastic then perhaps eating crabs will not be for you.

Hush Puppies

As you glance around the room, you'll notice different people ripping apart their crabs in different ways. Some like to start by tearing the top shell off. Some will rip the legs off first. Others, like me, will start with the underplate, then the top shell, tear off the lungs, split the crab in half and then go to town.

Properly steamed crabs are covered in an Old Bay-style of seasoning. Magothy Seafood makes their own and it's pretty good. Salty, peppery and perfect for both the crabs and shrimp. Hardcore enthusiasts insist on steaming their crabs over beer. Strange, coffee-centric guys are experimenting with steaming their crabs over coffee, but I won't say whom...

Sweet corn on the cob

There's something missing if you spend your summer in Maryland and don't spend part of it leisurely sprawled out on a deck eating crabs all day. Eating crabs is not for the famished. You should be hungry, but not starving. Ripping, tearing and beating your crabs takes time. It's not a smorgasbord of eating. That's why you order a bunch of side dishes. A little ripping and tearing, a hush puppy. More tearing and digging, a bit of corn. Still more tearing and just pop a fried oyster in the mouth. It's a great way to enjoy a diversity of what was once the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay.

Considering this method of eating, it's not surprising that it literally takes hours to complete a meal. At first, one is tempted to think that a mere dozen crabs is not enough. But as you slowly graze through the meal and the side dishes, you realize that yes, it is just enough and maybe it's one crab too many for two people - especially when your agenda doesn't stop there.

Magothy Seafood Crab Deck & Tiki Bar
700 Mill Creek Rd
Arnold, MD 21012-1128